MOSCOW — National security adviser John Bolton held firm Tuesday to President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from a landmark arms control treaty in place since the Soviet era.
He also echoed Trump’s assertions that Russia is violating the pact, suggesting that no progress was made to ease the impasse during Bolton’s two days of talks with top Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin.
Bolton’s comments seemed sure to disappoint Germany and other U.S. allies in Europe that have urged Washington to work to overcome disputes with Russia rather than walking away from the treaty entirely.
The Kremlin denies any violations and says scrapping the 31-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, would be a dangerous development that could spark a new arms race.
“The American position is that Russia is in violation,” Bolton said at a news conference. “Russia’s position is that they are not in violation. So one has to ask how to ask the Russians to come back into compliance with something they don’t think they’re violating.”
President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987, leading to the elimination of an entire category of nuclear missiles and the removal of more than 2,500 of them from installations across Europe.
Since the Obama administration, U.S. officials have said Russia’s development of a ground-launched missile is skirting INF rules.
In a bit of dark humor that underscored the moment, Putin referred to Washington’s announced withdrawal from the INF and then quipped about the balance between peace and force represented by the Great Seal of the United States.
“As far as I can remember, the U.S. seal depicts an eagle on one side holding 13 arrows and on the other side an olive branch with 13 olives,” Putin said, sitting across from Bolton at talks before the news conference. “Here’s the question: Did your eagle already eat all the olives and only the arrows are left?”
“Hopefully I’ll have some answers for you,” Bolton replied. “But I didn’t bring any more olives.”
“That’s what I thought,” Putin said, provoking laughter from Bolton.
Bolton’s mission waded deep into the frictions between Washington and Moscow, while leaving open the question of what, if any, arms-control architecture the Trump administration envisions for the future.
Bolton described the Cold War-era treaty as outdated because it does not include other nuclear powers, including China. But he suggested it was unrealistic to include other countries in a broader version of the INF Treaty, saying at the news conference that such efforts had failed in the past.
More dialogue is probably ahead. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said earlier Tuesday that Europe would leave “no stone unturned in the effort to bring Washington and Moscow back to the table one more time.”
Putin and Trump will meet in Paris in November on the sidelines of the 100th-anniversary celebration of the end of World War I, Bolton said.
Beyond arms control, he described a range of issues on which Washington was looking to engage with Russia, including the war in Syria, fighting terrorism and election interference. Bolton said he also briefed Putin on the U.S. response to the slaying of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Bolton deployed the symbolism of wreath-laying to both signal respect for Kremlin authority and to show criticism of repression of the political opposition in Moscow.
He laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin wall. He did the same at the unofficial memorial just outside the Kremlin wall marking the spot where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was killed in 2015.
Bolton’s visit to Moscow was his second in his role as Trump’s national security adviser, signaling the administration’s intention to maintain contact with Russia despite the uproar in Washington over its interference in the 2016 election.
“The fact was that the outcome would have been exactly the same” in 2016 had Russia not interfered, Bolton said. “Distrust and animosity toward the United States made it almost impossible for almost two years for the United States and Russia to make progress diplomatically. It’s a lesson, I think: Don’t mess with American elections.”