The U.S. ambassador to NATO just threatened Russia with preemptive war—apparently by mistake.
The evident gaffe could deepen the growing mistrust between Russia and the United States and its allies over a controversial Russian missile deployment that Washington claims violates the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison was talking to reporters at a NATO meeting in Brussels on Tuesday when she seemed to misspeak.
"We have been trying to send a message to Russia for several years that we know they are violating the treaty," Hutchison said, according to an official transcript. The ambassador was referring, specifically, to Russia's alleged deployment of nuclear-capable 9M729 cruise missiles to an undisclosed base, presumably along Russia's western frontier.
The INF treaty bans such missiles.
"Getting them to withdraw would be our choice, of course," Hutchison added. "But I think the question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering. And at that point we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska."
To many observers, "take out" sounds like a threat of preemptive war. Which is probably not the message Hutchison meant to send.
"Kay fucked up big time," says Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the author of the novel The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
"She was trying to say that the U.S. would develop countervailing capabilities –something that started under the Obama administration and that almost no one disagrees with," Lewis told The Daily Beast. "But she's more used to riling up redneck votes in Republican primaries in Texas than international diplomacy, so she laid it on thick with the ol' 'take 'em out’ tough talk."
A few hours after her gaffe, Hutchison had yet to walk back her remarks. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Kremlin, for its part, appeared to take the statement in stride. The Russian government "prefers not to pay extra attention to statements by ambassadors while we have too many uncertainties with the messages on the higher level," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN.
But when it comes to negotiations over nuclear weapons, sloppy wording can make a big difference. "Rhetoric like this is a dangerous step backwards," Geoffrey Wilson, a nuclear expert with the California-based peace advocacy group Ploughshares Fund, told The Daily Beast. "It weakens our deterrent posture and makes it more likely that in a crisis miscalculations or misunderstanding could lead to a military engagement with the Russians."
It doesn't help that Hutchison seemed to be confused about the type of missile she implied – again, likely by mistake – could warrant a preemptive U.S. strike. In her comments, Hutchison mentioned "medium-range ballistic missiles," but the 9M729 missiles Russia has begun deploying – in violation of the INF treaty – are low-flying cruise missiles, not high-flying ballistic models.
"The review of the transcript makes clear that Ambassador Hutchison made a real mess of her points and was not sure what she was talking about," Jon Wolfsthal, an independent nuclear expert, told The Daily Beast. "But this is part of the problem – the statement and the headline can be read by Russia and our allies as something other than what we intended and can at best set back an effective response and at worse spark a crisis."
Hutchison's erroneous comments "play to a very specific Russian fear," Lewis said. Many Russians believe the United States has planned for years to secretly arm its missile-defense installations in Poland and Romania with nuclear weapons, transforming defensive weapons into what Lewis describes as "covert INF forces."
In the context of that baseless but popular conspiracy theory, Russia's initial deployment of 9M729 cruise missiles is actually a response to America's own plan to position medium-range nuclear weapons for a possible first strike. "It's insane but I swear they 100-percent believe this," Lewis said of the Russians.
Hutchison's misstatements could confirm Russian paranoia, Lewis explained. "She's gone and said precisely that – that we would go ahead and rapidly deploy our own capability and use it to take out their missiles. And she's even given the Russians a specific timeframe to be paranoid about."
"So when [Russian missile] deployment starts in earnest,” Lewis continued, “you can bet that the Russian general staff is going to be looking for any sign of an American attack. Of course, we won't know when that is. Let's hope Trump doesn't tweet anything stupid that week."
Finally, hours after her statement, and shortly after this story initially was published, Hutchison tweeted a clarification that was slightly less bellicose, but still a harbinger of perilous times to come.