Wyoming’s most vocal presences in U.S. foreign policy have found themselves at the center of increasing tensions between the United States and Russia this week.
Last week, Sen. John Barrasso placed his name on a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations bill, condemning Russia for its actions in the Kerch Strait, joining seven other members of the committee.
The Kerch Strait is a waterway separating Russia and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014 after several decades of affiliation with the Ukraine. The waterway is the only access point into the Black Sea for the port of Mariupol, located in the Ukraine, and a key strategic waterway for both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.
The bipartisan resolution, according to the text, “stresses that the behavior of the Government of the Russian Federation is destabilizing for the entire region and invites further escalations,” going on to refuse acknowledgement of Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and renewing support for the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian border.
The denunciation comes days after the Russian navy fired on Ukrainian ships in the contested waterway and seized 24 crewmen, in what Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has described as an “act of aggression,” sparking tensions of a land-based invasion of the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the claims, saying the attack was staged to help boost Poroshenko’s ratings ahead of the 2019 elections, a charge the Ukrainian leader denied.
In Congress, Rep. Liz Cheney — a member of the House Armed Services Committee — joined Sen. Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in introducing bills of their own based on recent allegations that Russia had violated a current arms treaty with the United States.
On Tuesday, both introduced bills in their respective committees addressing conditions of the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a 1991 agreement between the United States and Russia intended to reduce the number of nuclear weapons maintained by the two nations.
The bill would limit the availability of funds to extend the implementation of the New START Treaty — unless extending the treaty was deemed to be in the national security interest of the United States and if Russia agreed to adhere to the restrictions on nuclear weapons outlined in the treaty.
“Under no circumstances should the United States agree to extend the New START Treaty beyond the current expiration in 2021 without drastic improvements to the deeply flawed deal negotiated by the Obama Administration,” Cheney said in a statement. “Over the past few years, we have seen Russia tout several new nuclear weapons delivery systems and it is unclear whether those systems will be bound by the limits of the treaty. Russia’s large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons and belief that these weapons can be used as a part of an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy is also extremely concerning. When these concerns are then viewed through the lens of Russia’s long-term violation of the INF Treaty, it is clear that extending the New START Treaty is not currently in the national security interest of the United States.”
“That is why I introduced the Stopping Russian Nuclear Aggression Act,” she continued. “This bill prevents funding to extend the New START Treaty until the President certifies to Congress that Russia has agreed to verifiably reduce its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons and include its new systems under the limits of the New START Treaty.”
On Thursday morning, Sen. Barrasso and Wyoming’s senior senator, Mike Enzi, released a letter the pair had co-signed with 22 other senators urging the president to consider several facets of the United States’ role in the treaty, including “a sustained and vigorous U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program, strict compliance by Russia with its arms control obligations and a true balance of nuclear capabilities between the parties to the treaty,” according to a news release.
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Despite putting his name on the letter, which does note in plain terms Russia violated the terms of the New START Treaty, Barrasso did not take a specific stance on Cheney’s bill.
“Senator Barrasso looks forward to reviewing Rep. Cheney’s legislation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune.
Background on the denuclearization efforts
That first iteration of the treaty was largely negotiated by former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then-president Ronald Reagan and, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, negotiations were continued by George H.W. Bush. It was replaced by a new version in 2010 that remains active today.
The current treaty — known as New START — has itself been in a precarious position since President Donald Trump took office. Describing the treaty as a “one-sided deal,” the president has maintained the position the United States should have more nuclear weapons than any other nation. Trump has said the United States should be “top of the pack” in nuclear weapons capability until the world “comes to its senses” on nukes, despite the agreement’s ample limits of 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 delivery systems per nation in the treaty, as well as limits both on intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Both nations met the goal of implementation by Feb. 5, 2018, according to a report from the Congressional Service Office.
New START has been considered to have fragile bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and several experts have called for the extension of the treaty, which expires in February 2021 unless both parties agree to extend it for a period of up to five years.
“Any effort to undo the agreement or suggest the administration is not interested in an extension or negotiating a new agreement to replace New START when it expires in 2021 would negatively impact U.S. security and negatively impact an already shaky global nuclear order,” Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Defense News in early 2017.
The White House, as well as the Netherlands, accused Russia of violating the treaty on Tuesday, saying it had been working to develop missiles that violate the treaty — which some have said has constrained the United States from developing more sophisticated weaponry of its own. According to The Associated Press, the treaty’s future would have been a likely topic of discussion between Trump and Putin later this week at the G20 Summit in Argentina. However, Russia’s recent actions in the Kerch Strait cast doubt on the discussions and, on Thursday, President Trump announced he was canceling the meeting between the two nations in a tweet.
Russia has denied violating the treaty, saying the missiles it has tested were within the permitted range under New START and, on Wednesday, accused the United States of evading conversations on the treaty.
“Washington’s evasive position on the extension of the New START Treaty expiring in 2021 causes concern,” Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, told the Russian News Service on Wednesday.