The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

In Brussels Dec. 4, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying, "only [Russia] can save" it. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

BRUSSELS — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the United States would no longer adhere to a Cold War-era arms control agreement if Russia does not come into compliance with the accord within 60 days.

The ultimatum, issued during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, amounted to a softening of the U.S. position after President Trump abruptly announced in ­October that he had decided to “terminate the agreement.” 

Neither Pompeo nor other NATO officials held out much hope that Russia would destroy the missiles and launchers that the alliance said violate the landmark accord. But European leaders had sought a delay to pressure the Kremlin one last time.

“It makes no sense for the United States to remain in a treaty that constrains our ability to respond to Russia’s violations,” Pompeo said after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “We hope that they’ll change course, but there’s been absolutely no indication that they’ll do so.”

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

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987, banned nuclear and nonnuclear missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or about 310 to 3,400 miles. It has been a pillar of Europe’s security architecture for more than three decades, but the Trump administration has said it puts the United States at a military disadvantage against China, which is not bound by the treaty. 

For much of the West, the INF Treaty was a watershed moment in Cold War arms control, eliminating more than 2,600 missiles and ending a years-long standoff with nuclear missiles in Europe between East and West.

Trump’s announcement that the United States would exit the treaty raised fears of a return to Cold War tensions when nuclear-tipped missiles across the continent threatened to strike targets within minutes. 

Pompeo did not detail U.S. plans, but he suggested the Pentagon would quickly start to build its capability. Under the terms of the treaty, either party can give a six-month notice before withdrawing.

“There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China,” Pompeo said Tuesday.

European leaders have sought to preserve the arms control framework, even as NATO foreign ministers declared Tuesday that they believed Russia was in violation.

“I regret that we now most likely will see the end of the INF Treaty,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has spoken of how the Cold War arms buildup shaped his views of security as he grew up in Norway. “We really felt that the world was moving forward when the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 agreed.”

The termination plan was set to go into effect Tuesday, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders persuaded Trump to delay the move to allow for additional consultations, according to diplomats and officials familiar with the discussions.

Merkel’s last-ditch effort, which she advanced in a meeting with Trump in Buenos Aires on Saturday, came up against a determined drive by the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, to withdraw from the accord. 

U.S. officials braced for an immediate withdrawal last week after Bolton signed and distributed a memo conveying the president’s decision. A copy of the memo, obtained by The Washington Post, underscored a directive for the secretary of state to “make all necessary arrangements” to implement the withdrawal “no later than December 4, 2018.” The defense secretary was also ordered to “develop and deploy ground-launched missiles at the earliest possible date,” the memo said. 

But the Trump administration tabled the action after Merkel and other European officials told Trump that the rapid withdrawal schedule did not give them enough time to explain the policy change to domestic audiences.

“Merkel had a very good meeting with Trump and managed to convince the president to give more time before a pull out,” said one European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic conversations.

The decision to delay the withdrawal marked a rare victory for Merkel, whose frosty relationship with Trump has been marred by disappointment and frustration.

But although Trump’s gesture showed some amount of deference to the German leader, it was simply delaying the inevitable, diplomats and experts said. 

“Is this delay going to satisfy the allies? No, because nothing has changed except delaying the outcome, and the Europeans want a different outcome,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director for the Arms Control Association. 

Some NATO foreign ministers expressed skepticism that the treaty held value if Russia was violating it.

“If you have a treaty, you must comply with it,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. Russia is “not complying,” he said, “so what’s the value of the treaty?”

European leaders fear that their voters could be sympathetic to a Kremlin argument that the United States is tearing up one international agreement after another, after Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.

Their frustration may have been fueled by Pompeo’s decision to deliver a blistering foreign policy address in Brussels just before the NATO meeting, using a city that serves as a capital for the European Union to lash out at multinational organizations and “bureaucrats.”

Trump critics “claim America is acting unilaterally instead of multilaterally, as if every kind of multilateral action is by definition desirable,” Pompeo said.

“Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well,” he said to stony silence from the European audience as he excoriated a long list of multilateral organizations.

European officials and Democrats in Congress have complained that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw was done without due consultation and squandered an opportunity to focus the world’s attention on Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty, which center on its covert development of an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile designated 9M729.

The Kremlin says it continues to adhere to the treaty.

“The administration’s sudden decision to withdraw unilaterally is a political and geostrategic gift to Russia,” the top-ranking Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees said in a letter to Trump on Monday. “It takes the focus away from Russia's transgressions and malign behavior and instead feeds a narrative that the United States is willing to shred our commitments unilaterally without any strategic alternative.” 

U.S. diplomats say they do not expect Russia will ever return to compliance with the treaty, in part because they think the Kremlin has decided it needs the missile technology to protect itself against China, with which it shares a border.

Garrett Marquis, the spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said European leaders should hardly be surprised by the Trump move. 

“The U.S. has engaged in extensive consultation with our allies on Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, which has been ongoing for more than five years,” Marquis said in an emailed statment. 

He also cast the decision to withdrawal as a fait accompli instead of a move still under discussion. “On October 20th, the President made clear the U.S. will terminate the Treaty,” he said. 

Hudson reported from Washington. Carol Morello and Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.

Trump’s ambassador to NATO sets off diplomatic incident with a nuclear edge

Trump pulls United States out of Iran nuclear deal, calling the pact ‘an embarrassment’

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news