The United States and Russia are making tit-for-tat moves with their participation in a nuclear treaty, something politicians and analysts see as a burgeoning arms race.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Saturday that Russia is suspending its participation in the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Russian move follows a similar action Friday by the U.S.
“The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal, we suspend it as well,” Putin said in a televised address Saturday.
Putin said that Russia will start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic ones. He told his foreign and defense ministers not to initiate disarmament talks with Washington.
?US suspends compliance, blames Russia
In a statement Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. is suspending its compliance with the decades-old treaty, accusing the Kremlin of willfully breaking the deal.
“For far too long, Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad,” Trump said.
“We will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions,” he added.
But later Friday, speaking to reporters, Trump left open the possibility of some sort of deal.
“I hope that we are able to get everybody in a very big and beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better,” he said. “Certainly, I would like to see that. But you have to have everybody adhere to it.”
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday in a statement, "The United States has concluded that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the treaty arising from Russia's continued noncompliance have jeopardized the United States' supreme interests, and the United States can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia openly violates it. If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty by eliminating all 9M729 missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment in this six-month period, the treaty will terminate."
China’s foreign ministry said Saturday that Beijing is opposed to the U.S. withdrawal action and urges the United States and Russia to handle their differences through constructive dialogue.
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The INF treaty, signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1987, was the world’s first arms control pact to prohibit an entire class of weapons, banning ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Yet the U.S. has been become increasingly vocal about what it says are Russia’s blatant violations.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials charge those violations date back to at least 2014, when Russia began deploying its 9M729 missile, following years of tests designed to skirt the treaty’s constraints.
Now, officials say, Russia is fielding multiple military battalions that are equipped with the missile in question.
“We must respond,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Friday. “We can no longer be restricted by the treaty, while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
“We provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its ways and for Russia to honor its commitment. Tomorrow that time runs out,” he said.
Saturday the U.S. will provide the Kremlin and other former Soviet States with formal notice of its intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty, triggering a six-month window.
Officials say if Moscow refuses to verifiably destroy the missiles, as is expected, the treaty will terminate, and the U.S. will be free to pursue its own intermediate range, ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles.
Russian officials reacted quickly Friday to the announcement, denying any treaty violations, while alleging it is Washington that wants to expand its missile arsenal.
The U.S. withdrawal deals “a serious blow to the international arms control system and the system of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which exist for now,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.
Ryabkov also suggested other arms control agreements, like the New START treaty, which limits both countries to fewer than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, could also be in jeopardy.
“What will come next is a huge question,” the deputy foreign minister told Russian television. “I fear that the New START may share the fate of the INF Treaty. It may just expire on Feb. 5, 2021, without an extension.”
New arms race?
But U.S. officials held firm, insisting the onus is on the Kremlin to ease tensions.
“Let’s be clear. If there’s an arms race, it is Russia that is starting it,” senior administration official said Friday.
“We simply cannot tolerate this kind of abuse of arms control and expect for arms control to continue to be viable,” the official said. “We cannot permit a scenario where we are unilaterally bound to a treaty, we are denied the ability to have a military capability to deter attacks.”
Concern, support for US action
In a statement issued shortly after the U.S. announced its plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty, NATO said its members “fully support this action.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter:
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: https://t.co/VOhUB0HoAd pic.twitter.com/28Rwicqr8o— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) February 1, 2019
At the United Nations, officials expressed concern.
“For the Secretary-General, his hope [is] that the parties will use the next six months to resolve their differences through dialogue,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. “The INF is a very important part of the international arms control architecture.”
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty also garnered a mixed response from U.S. lawmakers.
“Russia’s repeated violations over the years demonstrate that the INF is no longer in the best interest of the United States,” the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said in a statement.
But the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was wary.
“The Trump administration is risking an arms race and undermining international security and stability,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“Russia’s brazen noncompliance with this treaty is deeply concerning,” she said. “But discarding a key pillar of our nonproliferation security framework creates unacceptable risks.”
Few good choices
Still, some analysts caution that Russian President Putin has given the U.S. and its European allies few good options.
“Putin’s decision to build weapons that violate this important arms control treaty is another of his attacks on the peace in Europe,” according to Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Russia is an aggressive military,” he said. “Europe needs to strengthen deterrence to further dangerous behavior from Moscow.”
The U.S. has already started spending on such deterrence — $48 million on research to develop its own intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles. And officials say there have already been some initial discussions with allies.
“We are some time away from having a system that we would produce, that we would trains soldiers or airmen or Marines to deploy,” a senior administration official said, adding that for now nuclear-armed missiles were not under consideration.
“We are only looking at conventional options at this time,” the official said. “Nothing the United States is currently looking at is nuclear in character.”
The pursuit of the new missiles, though, could also give the U.S. additional options in countering growing threats from China and Iran.
Neither Beijing no Tehran were subject to the INF Treaty, and U.S. officials believe both countries have more than 1,000 intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles in their arsenals.
But some experts warn any increase in the number of such missiles, by the U.S. or Russia, will only escalate missile production and tensions in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific.
VOA United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer and VOA’s Wayne Lee contributed to this report.