Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Kremlin in Moscow, Feb. 2, 2019. Putin said Russia would abandon the 1987 Intermediate-range Nucl
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Kremlin in Moscow, Feb. 2, 2019. Putin said Russia would abandon the 1987 Intermediate-range Nucl

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday suspended the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in response to a similar move by the United States on Friday.

"The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal. We suspend it as well," Putin announced during a televised meeting with foreign ministers and military brass.

The U.S. on Friday vowed to withdraw from the INF Treaty in six months unless Moscow ended what it called violations of the landmark 1987 arms control pact.

FILE - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a
FILE - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 1, 2019. Pompeo announced that the U.S. would pull out of the INF Treaty with Russia.

Putin said Russia would start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic weapons, and told ministers not to initiate disarmament talks with Washington.

During the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States of violating the INF and other arms deals, joining a chorus of Russian defense officials and legislators who condemned Washington for gambling with global security. Yury Baluyevsky, former chief of the General Staff, even said Russia was prepared to respond "militarily."
 
Impact assessments vary

Numerous Moscow-based arms control experts, however, offered a more measured assessment of the standoff.

"U.S. withdrawal from #INF doesn't presage nuclear crisis on the model of the early 60s or early 80s, but it ushers in a new strategic environment where stability is no longer regulated by arms control agreements," tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow-based Carnegie Center and a former Soviet army official who was directly involved in U.S.-Russia nuclear talks in Geneva.

"In that [environment], survival requires deterrence [plus communication and] restraint," he wrote. "Cool heads, above all."

Independent Russian military analyst Aleksandr Goltz, however, offered a much bleaker view.

"My assessment is that for the next three, four or maybe five years, we're reasonably safe, as it will take the United States years to design, test and deploy medium-range missiles," said Goltz. "But make no mistake, we are now witnessing the total destruction of all systems of nuclear arms control.

"The problem is that the INF Treaty is very deeply interconnected with the New START Treaty," he said, referring to a separate arms pact that limits both countries to fewer than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads. "If START does not survive, in 2021 we'll find ourselves in a situation shaping up for the next Cuban Missile Crisis."

WATCH: What's the INF Treaty Dispute About?

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Asked whether there's a chance the INF treaty could still be saved, Goltz was unequivocal.

"No, absolutely no chance. Trump has said he would continue with the INF Treaty only if China joins, and this is completely impossible," he said, explaining that 90 percent of China's arsenal is deployed for medium range, implying that Beijing INF compliance would be tantamount to eradicating its arsenal.

Blaming both countries for the mutual suspension, he said Russia, in his opinion, stood to lose far more in a new arms race.

"This is an absolute strategic catastrophe for the Kremlin," he said. "We are returning to the situation of the 1970s or early 1980s, where the U.S. can deploy warheads that reach Moscow or St. Petersburg in six or seven minutes, which is just a strategic disaster. I mean, within minutes you can do nothing."

Arms control expert Alexei Arbatov, a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, however, called himself a "hopeless optimist" who called six months "a very long" time to resolve differences.

"U.S. and Russian officials are centimeters apart on key differences," he said, describing technical discrepancies that violate INF strike range guidelines.

According to the Washington-based Arms Control Association, the treaty requires the United States and Russia "to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers."

Arbatov said the treaty could be resuscitated immediately if Russia can prove its missiles are technically INF-range compliant, and the U.S. can prove that anti-ballistic launch systems in Poland and Romania aren't designed to defend against a Russian nuclear assault on Europe. 

"This has been at the surface for quite a long time ... but only political hostilities, intransigence and total distrust" between the countries is impeding a swift resolution. 

Neither side liked treaty

"And I blame both sides," he added. "Americans have never much cared for the treaty, because it doesn't really concern their security," he said, alluding to the fact that the INF strike range includes Russia's European neighbors, but not U.S. soil.

FILE - U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Pre
FILE - U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House, Dec. 8 1987.

"And Russians never cared for it because many argued that it required Russia to destroy too many missiles and left the country unable to target American missile defenses," he said. "Neither side was really interested in saving the treaty -- but for the wrong reasons, and both sides were mistaken.

"I only hope that during the next six months, the position on both sides will change."

Asked whether he anticipated any kind of nuclear standoff reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arbatov was dismissive.

"Unless Russia positions nuclear warheads in Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, then, no, we're not even close," he said.

Accusations on both sides

The U.S. and NATO accuse Russia of violating the INF restrictions by developing land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting European cities on short notice, but the Kremlin, which last week displayed its missiles to foreign military attaches in Moscow, says the missiles' short range puts them outside the INF Treaty.

U.S. officials said there was no way of verifying that information because the missiles have been shown publicly only in a "static display" that gives no indication of their flying distance.

On Saturday, Russia's Lavrov told Putin that the U.S. has been in breach of INF provisions since 1999, a charge the U.S. denies.

"According to our information, the United States started violating that undated treaty in 1999 when it began trials of combat unmanned flying vehicles with specifications similar to those of ground-launched cruise missiles banned by the treaty," he told Russia's state-run TASS news outlet.

Lavrov also castigated the U.S. for a Romania-based anti-ballistic missile system capable of firing Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles. The United States says that system is designed to defend against "rogue" states such as Iran and provides no protection against Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The INF has largely deepened Russia's international isolation, and Russia accuses the United States of inventing a false pretext to abandon the treaty in order to develop new missiles. 

Some information for this report came from AP and Reuters. Pete Cobus is VOA's acting Moscow correspondent.