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Bolton pushes Trump administration to withdraw from landmark arms treaty

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan shake hands after signing the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan shake hands after signing the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

The Trump administration has told U.S. allies that it wants to withdraw from the landmark Reagan-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, and plans to inform Russian leaders of its position in the coming days, said foreign diplomats and other people familiar with the deliberations.

The planning is the brainchild of Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who has told U.S. allies he believes the INF puts Washington in an “excessively weak position” against Russia “and more importantly China,” said a diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

For years, the United States has expressed concern that Russia is violating the INF with a ground-launch cruise missile known as the SSC-8. Russia, in turn, has accused the United States of violating the treaty with missile-defense installations in Europe — an accusation that U.S. officials deny.

Officials say that Washington has made no final decision to withdraw from the treaty, which would require a formal six-month notification, but that U.S. officials plan to signal the administration’s intent as Bolton heads to Moscow for talks with Russian officials. 

 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking at NATO headquarters earlier this month, signaled that the United States would not put up with the status quo for long. 

“Russia must return to compliance with the INF Treaty or the U.S. will need to respond to its cavalier disregard for the treaty’s specific limits,” Mattis said. “The current situation with Russia in blatant violation of this treaty is untenable.”

The INF Treaty was seen as a high point in Cold War arms-control negotiations. Over the strong objections of many Europeans, the United States installed Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in Europe in the 1980s. The deployment put pressure on the Soviets that ultimately led Moscow to agree to eliminate all missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, including the Pershings.

At the end of the Obama administration, officials sought to use the dispute-resolution mechanism within the treaty to resolve the disagreement, but to no avail.

The Trump administration has taken a more muscular approach. In an effort to step up pressure on Moscow, the Pentagon has begun research and development into a missile banned under the INF that the United States could test, produce and deploy upon the collapse of the treaty. Research and development is not prohibited by the pact.

Bolton’s plans signal that his National Security Council intends to unravel international accords it views as a constraint on American power, particularly if others are violating them.

“Across two administrations, the United States and our allies have attempted to bring Russia back into full and verifiable compliance with INF,” a senior administration official said in a statement, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the live nature of the talks. “Despite our objections, Russia continues to produce and field prohibited cruise misses and has ignored calls for transparency.”

Critics, while acknowledging Russian violations, say the Trump administration should first work to preserve the Cold War treaty instead of scrapping it after only a short number of meetings with Russian counterparts.

“The Russian violation of the treaty is dangerous, but it is still possible to get Moscow back into compliance with the agreement,” said Alexandra Bell, a senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “One formal strategic stability dialogue in 22 months does not represent an earnest attempt at diplomacy. The State Department needs to be leading technical conversations with the Russians about how to resolve this violation.”

The Trump administration’s patience now seems to be running out as Bolton heads to Moscow on Saturday to discuss a range of strategic and arms-control issues with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. On Friday, the New York Times first reported that Bolton would inform Moscow that the United States plans to withdraw from the treaty.

An administration official said President Trump may meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin when both attend the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina next month, and that “President Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit Washington, D.C. still stands.”

Bolton planned to meet Russian officials including the defense and foreign ministers in Moscow.

The U.S. military has long complained that the treaty unnecessarily constrains its ability to develop and deploy intermediate-range missiles to counter China in the Asia-Pacific theater.

Before his retirement, Adm. Harry Harris, former head of the Pacific Command, warned earlier this year that the United States has no ground-based missile capability to threaten China because of the INF Treaty, arguing that over 90 percent of China’s missiles, meanwhile, would violate the pact. Unlike Russia and the United States, China is not a party to the treaty.

The decision to inform the Russians is part of a broader game of chess the Trump administration is looking to play with Moscow over arms-control agreements, dating to the Cold War era, that have begun to fray in recent years.

The Pentagon is planning to reintroduce submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles to the U.S. fleet in response to Russia’s violation of the INF, Mattis said earlier this year in congressional testimony.  

“I want to make sure that our negotiators have something to negotiate with,” Mattis said. “We want Russia back in compliance. We do not want to forgo the INF. At the same time, we have options if Russia continues to go down this path.”

The move is expected to anger Russia and complicate the narrative projected by Democrats that the Trump administration is insufficiently tough on Moscow. On Friday, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee criticized the decision as overly reckless.

“Withdrawing from the INF Treaty before adequately consulting with our allies and exploring all diplomatic avenues to resolve Russia’s violations jeopardizes American and European security,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “President Reagan concluded this treaty to reduce the risk of war in Europe. We owe it to our allies and to the American people to do everything we can to bring Russia back into compliance and preserve peace.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cheered the move, saying that despite the treaty’s intentions, “the Russians are openly cheating, and the Chinese are stockpiling missiles because they are not bound by it at all.” 

“I’ve long called for the U.S. to consider whether this treaty still serves our national interest,” Cotton said. “If these reports are true, I applaud the administration for recognizing that it’s time to move on.”

Bolton’s push to withdraw from the treaty was first reported by the Guardian.

Carol Morello and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.