Trump administration accuses Russia of violating cold war-era pact
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo is expected to announce on Friday that the US will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty for 180 days, according to one person familiar with the move.
The suspension, which is expected to take effect from Saturday, comes after US and Russian officials failed to bridge their differences during months of negotiations and amid concerns that China is not a signatory.
The stand-off over one of the most important cold war arms control pacts has raised fresh worries about an arms race. Russian president Vladimir Putin sparked alarm in December when he said Russia would develop weapons banned under the INF if the US pulled out of the bilateral treaty.
Russian officials said on Friday they feared the US would seek to abandon other arms control deals, and could deploy cruise missiles aimed at Moscow in eastern Europe after the INF withdrawal.
“The reluctance of the Americans to listen to reason and to hold any kind of substantive talks with us shows that Washington decided to crush the treaty a long time ago,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “To everyone's regret, this decision might start to be realised within the next few days.”
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters in Bucharest on Friday Europe wanted to avoid “going back to being a battlefield” for superpower confrontations.
She urged that the treaty be preserved with “full compliance” by both the US and Russia, adding that Europe was “probably the one that has benefited the most” from the accord.
While the Obama administration first accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014 and the Trump administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Moscow by warning that it could withdraw from the INF, Washington has also had one eye on China.
“I am concerned that on the conventional side, both in terms of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, we are being taken to the cleaners by countries that are not signatories to the INF,” Admiral Harry Harris, then commander of the US Pacific Command, told Congress in April 2017. “Ninety five per cent of China’s land-based cruise and ballistic missiles [ . . .] would be precluded by the INF Treaty, if they were a signatory to that treaty.”
China has up to 30 intermediate range ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon’s 2018 annual report on Chinese military power. In addition, many of its other medium-range and short-range and intercontinental missiles, as well as ground-launched cruise missiles, would also be covered by the pact if it were a signatory.
“China is developing more sophisticated and diverse medium and intermediate-range nuclear launch platforms which — in the expectation that the United States would be deterred at the strategic level — could be wielded against regional targets such as US bases on foreign soil,” wrote Bates Gill and Adam Ni, two experts on the Chinese military at Macquarie University, in a recent report.
Chinese state media last month publicised a test of the Dongfeng-26, an intermediate-range ballistic missile nicknamed the “Guam killer” because the US base on the Pacific island lies within its range, and boasted that a version of it could hit a moving aircraft carrier.
The Trump administration’s expected withdrawal from the INF treaty comes two months after the US gave Moscow a 60-day deadline to start complying with it. Washington argues that a new Russian cruise missile, named the 9M729, violates the pact, which bans weapons with a range of 500km to 5,500km. Russia has rejected the claims, saying the range is less than 500km.
The US has called on Russia to destroy the missile, and has rejected an offer from Moscow to allow inspections of the weapon. Russia had demanded reciprocal access to US missile defence systems in Europe, which the Kremlin argues constitute a breach of the treaty.
Russia’s top INF negotiator said that a US withdrawal sought to hurt Moscow by dragging it into an expensive arms race and that the country was ready to respond to any dangers caused by US rearmament in Europe.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said he believed the US would deploy new cruise missiles with a range of 2,500km in eastern European states, threatening the country's biggest cities.
“If you draw a radius on the map using a pair of compasses, you will see which areas in the European part of the Russian Federation will find themselves within the missiles’ kill zone. We cannot ignore this threat,” he told state-run Russia-24 television channel.
“They’re probably starting a game aimed at our economic exhaustion through a new arms race,” said Mr Ryabkov, who held a last-ditch meeting with Andrea Thompson, US undersecretary of state, in Beijing on Wednesday. “They do not understand that we have learned our lesson. Our response to any potential challenges will be economically feasible. It won’t be cheap, but it will not be ruinous, either.”
China has refused to join the INF treaty but has also criticised Washington’s plans to abandon it.
In congressional testimony this week, the heads of the CIA and other US intelligence agencies singled out Russia, along with China, as the biggest threats facing the US.
Heather Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US’s expected suspension was the result of Russia introducing a banned missile and violating the treaty for five years.
“Should we formally withdraw from the treaty in six months, we have nothing to replace it with, which means we are at the dawn of an era where the use of tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons is becoming more possible, not less,” Ms Conley said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, added that a suspension would not bring Russia back into compliance and could spark missile competition between the powers.
Mr Ryabkov, who has held talks with US officials over the past few months in a bid to save the deal, said he feared the New Start treaty, a 2011 accord that caps the number of nuclear warheads possessed by both countries. The pact expires in 2021 but can be extended.
“The United States is not ready for a proper discussion of retooling or a discussion on the issue of prolongation,” he added. “I truly fear that the New Start Treaty may have the same fate as the INF Treaty.”
Mr Kimball said withdrawal from the INF would make it even more important that the US and Russia extended the New Start agreement by the five years permitted under the pact.
“Otherwise, there will be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972,” he said.