Russia has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the reasons behind Moscow's threat.
The INF treaty was signed in December 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It entered into force in June 1988.
Steve Andreasen, former arms control expert on the National Security Council (1993-2001), says the treaty did away with a whole class of missiles.
"The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty basically eliminated for the United States and then Soviet Union, now Russia, all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles in an intermediate-range band - that is 500 to 5500 kilometers," he noted. "And in fact, Washington and Moscow no longer deploy those missiles."
By May 1991, all intermediate-range missiles were destroyed. Those included on the American side, the Pershing-2, and on the Soviet side, the SS-20. The treaty also prohibited the production of such missiles.
But now Russian officials, including president Vladimir Putin, have questioned whether abiding by the INF treaty is in Moscow's security interest. Russian military officials have gone so far as threatening to withdraw from the pact.
Wade Boese from the Arms Control Association, an independent research firm, says Moscow is reassessing its commitment to the 1987 treaty, because a number of countries in Russia's neighborhood have INF-range systems.
"The Russians are concerned that it only applies to the United States and Russia - so its neighbors, such as China and others even further south such as Iran, develop ballistic missiles that Russia is forbidden from developing," he explained. "So it says that is unfair, we should reevaluate this treaty and we may have to get out of it if other countries don't also forswear these missiles."
Boese says the United States and Russia have agreed to work to get more countries to join the INF treaty.
"Now whether that means that they will seek to invite other countries to join the treaty, to make legally binding commitments or whether they will just seek pledges from other countries to forswear these missiles remains unclear," he added. "I think Russia would be happier with something that is more concrete, more legally binding. The U.S. side prefers something a little bit less formal. So it remains to be seen how this will actually play out. But Russia hasn't set a specific date for when it might withdraw from the INF treaty if its concerns are not met."
Russia's threat to withdraw from the INF treaty follows its decision to suspend its participation in another key arms control accord, the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limited heavy weapons deployed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the now defunct Warsaw Pact.
Many experts, including Marshall Goldman from Harvard University, say these moves by Moscow and recent strong anti-western rhetoric by senior Russian officials, indicate Moscow is becoming much more forceful in its foreign policy.
"It's amazing, because if you go back and read some of the statements that have been made just recently including senior [Russian] officials, [they say] now we don't have to take nonsense from people. We can hold our heads high. We don't have to be told what to do. And so now it's kind of reversing things, we're going to tell people, other people what to do after having been told all these years how we should behave," he explained.
Many experts believe Moscow's assertiveness and criticism of the West will continue in the months ahead as Russia enters a presidential campaign leading to elections on March 2, and strong anti-western rhetoric is always a popular theme among many Russian politicians.