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U.S. to withdraw from nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, raising fears of a new arms race

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Feb. 1 the U.S. will suspend its participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. (Video: Reuters)

The Trump administration announced Friday that the United States will pull out of a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, ending a cornerstone Cold War agreement and raising fears of a new nuclear arms race in Europe and Asia.

President Trump said Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a charge Moscow denies, leaving the United States at a disadvantage because of its own compliance at a time when global threats have changed considerably in the more than 30 years since the pact was signed.

“We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other,” Trump said in a statement. “We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”

Trump administration gives Russia an ultimatum on Cold War-era arms treaty

The treaty has been a central element of Europe’s security strategy for more than three decades and its signing was considered a crucial moment in Cold War arms control, eliminating more than 2,600 missiles and ending a years-long standoff with nuclear missiles in Europe.

President Trump said Feb. 1 he wants a "new treaty" to replace the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, from which the U.S. plans to withdraw. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

But the Trump administration has argued that Russia has not been complying with the pact since 2014 and that it puts the United States at a military disadvantage against China, which is not bound by the treaty.

The collapse of the pact highlights the cost of poor relations between Washington and Moscow, which even during the Cold War managed to hammer out mutually agreeable arms control pacts.

The withdrawal also signals the increasing peril treaties face in a Trump administration that emphasizes national sovereignty over international cooperation. In addition to withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Trump has also left the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord and threatened to pull out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and World Trade Organization. His withdrawal from the INF Treaty has fueled concerns that he will decline to extend the main nuclear arms treaty with Russia and risk a return to the early days of the nuclear arms race.

The United States' plan to scrap this Cold War treaty raises fears of another nuclear arms buildup. (Video: William Neff/The Washington Post)

The demise of the INF Treaty opens the door to the deployment of American intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, potentially increasing the tension in a standoff with Russia and China. The United States so far has said none of the intermediate-range missiles it is considering deploying would carry nuclear weapons, an effort to tamp down fears that the treaty’s collapse will presage the proliferation of nuclear missiles across Europe and Asia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that, effective Saturday, the United States will suspend participation in the agreement, starting a six-month countdown to a final U.S. withdrawal. That leaves a slim chance that Russia could end missile programs widely seen as a violation, salvaging the treaty.

The United States did not announce plans for any new weapons or shifts in missile deployments, but Trump administration officials did not rule it out down the road.

Trump said he would like to see a “new treaty that would be much better” and apply to more nations, although chances of such an agreement are remote. Neither Russia nor China, whose military advances since the treaty was signed have changed the old Cold War calculus, would be likely to agree.

What the INF Treaty means for the U.S. and Europe

“The United States is hopeful that we can put our relationship with Russia back on a better footing, but the onus is on Russia to change course from a pattern of destabilizing activity, not just on this issue but on many others as well,” Pompeo said when announcing the decision Friday.

Russia is violating the treaty with the deployment of a banned missile, according to the administration, while China never faced its constraints, deploying what a senior U.S. official said was more than 1,000 intermediate-range missiles banned by the treaty.

Russia has in turn accused the United States of violating the INF Treaty through its missile defense systems in Europe, an allegation that the State Department has rebutted.

The Trump administration faced criticism among arms control experts for not doing enough to save the treaty and engaging in what critics described as a box-ticking exercise to negotiate with the Russians in recent months designed more to satisfy European allies than to save the pact.

“Withdrawing from INF . . . isn’t the best way to punish Russia for its non-compliance,” Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, wrote in a Twitter post. “Rather, sticking with it is still the best way to keep a lid on Russian threat.”

Some analysts have also faulted the Obama administration for not doing enough in its final years to induce Moscow into abiding by the treaty.

Russia has said it wants to remain in the INF, and it blames the United States for the breakdown of the treaty. But a senior Trump administration official told reporters that Russia has in fact sought to get out of the treaty for years and began violating it after Washington refused its request to end the pact.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is likely to continue seeking new arms control talks with Washington, in part because negotiating over nuclear arsenals puts Moscow on near-equal diplomatic footing with the much richer and better-armed United States, analysts say. Russia’s far more limited defense budget also incentivizes Moscow to avoid a full-fledged arms race.

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin, although Russian officials had earlier said they expected the U.S. announcement.

“I don’t think we need to take tough countermeasures right now,” Andrei Krasov, deputy head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, told the Interfax news agency after Pompeo’s announcement. “We have a huge military potential anyway that can counter any threat.”

The Trump administration has signaled for months that it wants to end the agreement covering both nuclear and conventional ground-launch missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (311 and 3,418 miles).

Many NATO diplomats have greeted the U.S. moves with resignation, saying they would prefer to preserve the arms control treaty but that they are now focused on limiting a new arms race.

Senior Trump administration officials tried to emphasize that Washington is on the same page as its European allies, even though the White House faced criticism for Trump’s decision to announce the U.S. withdrawal on the fly last fall, before European allies had formally agreed that Washington should pull out.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg offered alliance backing for the U.S. move, saying that it is Russia’s responsibility to start complying with the treaty again.

“Russia is in material breach of the #INFTreaty & must use next 6 months to return to full & verifiable compliance or bear sole responsibility for its demise. #NATO fully supports the US suspension & notification of withdrawal from the Treaty,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

The death of the INF Treaty raises questions about the future of other arms control agreements, including the New START pact, which limits Russian and American deployed strategic nuclear warheads and expires in two years.

Russian diplomats have said they are preparing for the potential end of that treaty, for which Moscow warns it would blame Washington.

“I truly fear that the New START treaty may have the same fate as the INF Treaty,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Russian television before Pompeo’s announcement. “It may just expire on February 5th, 2021, and not be prolonged.”

If the White House and the Kremlin do not agree to extend New START, the decision would turn the clock back to an era when Washington and Moscow possessed nuclear arms with practically no agreed restrictions and would risk the return of a full Cold War-style arms race.

The push by the Trump administration to withdraw from the INF Treaty coincided with the arrival of John Bolton as White House national security adviser. Bolton oversaw the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2002, paving the way for the erection of American missile defense systems that Russia long decried.

The INF Treaty has long been a bugbear for the former U.N. ambassador, who is a skeptic of international agreements and organizations he sees as constraining American power.

In a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, Bolton and ­co-author Paula DeSutter contended that the INF had outlived its usefulness. They cited a quote from the late French president Charles de Gaulle: “Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: They last while they last.”

Lawmakers broke along party lines over the withdrawal announcement, although both parties called the pact flawed.

“I completely support the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty due to Russian noncompliance,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “It’s a bad deal for America when Russia cheats and the United States complies.”

Democrats, however, warned that ripping up the treaty was the wrong way to steer Russia — or China — back into a treaty order more responsive to modern weapons and threats.

“The Trump Administration is risking an arms race and undermining international security and stability,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Russia’s brazen noncompliance with this treaty is deeply concerning, but discarding a key pillar of our nonproliferation security framework creates unacceptable risks.”

Trump scoffed at that argument.

“Honestly, I don’t think she has a clue; I really don’t,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I don’t think Nancy has a clue.”

Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.

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