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Diplomatic Give-and-Take Is Not a Sign of Weakness

Washington and Moscow are heading toward crisis.
Russian Missile

Recently Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva accused Russia of violating a nuclear agreement. Russia had made operational a new intermediate-range nuclear-capable cruise missile, he said, and this was prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

The news spawned anger and outrage on Capitol Hill, and many demanded a firm and robust response. Last Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis signaled that the administration would decide on a course of action “very soon.”

Russian officials, of course, see things differently. Following General Selva’s comments, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin “disagree[s] with and reject[s] any such accusations” and claimed that “Russia has adhered to and will adhere to all its international obligations, including those under the INF Treaty.”

But whatever the truth is about the missile, the Russians have indeed taken a number of provocative actions in recent months. A few of the more troubling:

  • “In 2016, allied aircraft scrambled around 800 times in response to Russian aircraft,” a NATO official wrote in a statement to CNN earlier this year.
  • In one instance, American and Russian planes nearly collided over Syria.
  • Russia accidentally bombed American allies in Syria while U.S. troops were just three miles away.
  • A Russian spy ship was spotted near a Navy submarine base.

What should the United States do in response to these provocations, not to mention the alleged violation of the INF Treaty?

Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation calling for the U.S. to, among a host of actions, establish “a program of record for a dual-capable road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system with a maximum range of 5,500 kilometers.” In other words, build a new treaty-violating missile of our own. The bill also says the U.S. should aggressively seek “additional missile defense assets in the European theater to protect United States and NATO forces.”

Both sides claim they are only responding to the provocative actions of the other, and they are taking progressively stronger steps with each move. There are many defense hawks in both the White House and the Kremlin who believe only strength will show the other side the error of their ways. It doesn’t take much thinking, however, to realize how unrealistic such beliefs are.

The idea that Vladimir Putin is going to be cowed into submission by shows of U.S. military strength or abandon defending what he believes are Russian security interests is naïve. Likewise, if anyone in Moscow thinks President Trump is going to back down because of militarily provocative “messages,” they are dangerously ill-informed about our new commander-in-chief.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitudes of both countries, even among diplomatic officials, are such that any “giving in” to the other side would be viewed as weakness to be exploited. Such attitudes have often helped spawn wars.

Where interests intersect, we should cooperate. Where there are genuine areas of dispute, we should hold firm on defending our national-security interests. To buttress these ideals, it is necessary to maintain a strong national defense that leaves no doubt in any potential adversary’s mind that if the American sword must come unsheathed, it will be devastating in its application.

But as the most secure, dominant nation in the world, only Washington can lower tensions with Moscow. Diplomatic give-and-take is not a sign of weakness. It is evidence of power and wisdom. Both Washington and Moscow must dial back the harsh rhetoric aimed at one another, lower military tensions, and discover a new willingness to cooperate for the common good. If such attitudes are put into effect, the people of America, Europe, and Russia will all reap the benefits of increased trade and a stable security environment.

Maintain the current course, and in the worst-case scenario, a major war could erupt. In that event, all parties would suffer egregiously and the citizens of all nations would lose.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.