WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will begin the process of leaving a key nuclear arms control treaty with Russia on Saturday, setting the potential for a new ground-based cruise missile arms race in Europe.
However, administration officials said it will be some time before the Pentagon is able to produce and deploy any new system that would violate the rules of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty
“For too long,” President Donald Trump said in a written statement issued by the White House, Russia has violated the treaty “with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad.”
Trump said that on Saturday, the U.S. will “suspend its obligations” under the treaty, meaning it will be freed from its constraints, including the testing and deployment of missiles banned by the pact.
At the same time, the U.S. will begin the process of withdrawing from the treaty, which involves delivering a diplomatic notice to the Russians, as well as the former Soviet nations that, by dint of being part of the USSR when the treaty was signed in 1987, are required to be alerted to American withdrawal. Once that note is delivered the clock is running for six months.
While it is possible that Russia could meet Americans demands for compliance during that time and the U.S. could choose to reenter the treaty, there seems to be no belief among any of the parties that will happen.
The INF Treaty bans all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. While the Obama administration had accused Moscow of violating the agreement by deploying such systems, most notably with the Novator 9M729 design, Pentagon officials, including former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have been more vocal under the Trump administration about their concerns.
In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. would set a 60-day timer for Russia to come back under compliance in the eyes of the Trump administration. If Russia did not do that, Pompeo pledged, the U.S. would begin the process of withdrawing fully from the treaty on Feb. 2.
The nonproliferation community has raised fears that leaving the agreement could spark a new arms race. Nuclear weapons experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a statement this week that while a Russian violation of the INF Treaty is a serious problem, U.S. withdrawal under current circumstances would be counterproductive.
“Leaving the INF Treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia,” they said.
In Europe, the move was met with support from NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who backed the U.S. position that Russia is to blame for the INF’s potential demise. In a statement, the NATO nations said that “Allies fully support this action” and “Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the Treaty.”
The announcement drew a mixed reaction from Capitol Hill, where Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Sen. Deb Fischer, expressed strong support for the U.S. withdrawal from what has been, “a one-sided agreement for far too long.”
“It is evident that Russia has no intention of returning to the Treaty, and I commend the Trump administration for recognizing this reality,” said Fischer, of Nebraska.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez, acknowledged Russia was in breach but said the Trump administration lacks both an understanding of arms control treaties and a coherent strategy to face the threat new Russian cruise missiles to U.S. interests and allies.
“With the renewal of the New START agreement coming up next year, I strongly urge the administration try a new approach and develop a coherent strategy to stabilize our arms control regime,” said Menendez, of New Jersey.
New Pentagon Weapons
In a call shortly after Trump’s announcement, a pair of senior administration officials reiterated the administration’s stance that Russia was to blame for the treaty falling apart, by their disregard for the requirements of the INF over the last five years.
“Over five years of engagement have produced little effect” to getting Russia in line with the agreement, the first official said. “We have really gone through from political and technical levels, everything that needs to be done, and we unfortunately are at an impasse.”
“We simply cannot tolerate this kind of abuse of arms control and expect arms control to continue to be viable as a national security tool,” added the second official. “Let’s be clear: if there is an arms race, it is Russia that is starting it.”
Don’t expect the Pentagon to roll out INF-busting weapons in the near-future, the officials said. While the U.S. did include money for low-level research into a non-compliant ground-based missile in last year’s budget, the Pentagon is still in the early stages of “looking at potential options,” the second official said.
“We are sometime away from having a system that we have produced, that we would train soldiers or airmen or Marines to deploy, and then certainly before we would be in a position to talk about basing, potentially in allied countries. and of course all that will be proceeded by intensive consultations with allies so that we can have a mutual understanding of what the security environment, what the defense and deterrence environment will be in a post INF world,” the official said.
The first official added that the U.S. is not currently looking at nuclear-capable ground-based cruise missiles, unlike the Russian systems.
U.S. officials previously have expressed worry that China, which is not party to the 1987 treaty, is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty’s limit. Leaving the INF Treaty would allow the Trump administration to counter China, but it’s unclear how it would do that.
However, the second senior administration official downplayed the China impact, saying “This really doesn’t have anything to with China. This is fully about Russia’s violation to his treaty.”
At the same time, the officials acknowledged a U.S. assessment that China has roughly 1,000 missiles that would be considered INF non-compliant.
Associated Press reporters Deb Riechmann, Robert Burns, and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.