WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday formally accused Russia of violating a major arms control treaty, taking the first step to leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — which could lead to the eventual placement of ground-based cruise missiles in Europe.
Speaking at NATO headquarters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United States today declares it has found Russia in material breach of the treaty and will suspend our obligations as a remedy, effective in 60 days, unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.”
The decision to “suspend” is key, signaling that the U.S. has not yet made the full decision to withdraw from the agreement. Regardless of this 60-day window, the Trump administration can announce it is withdrawing at any time, but must include a six-month notice period to officially exit the treaty, per the language of the agreement.
The Russian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations, with ministerial spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling reporters in Moscow on Tuesday that “Russia strictly complies with the provisions of the treaty, and the American side is aware of that.”
The move is not wholly unexpected, as news leaked that U.S. President Donald Trump planned to withdraw from the treaty in October. But the timing had been unclear until Pompeo’s speech.
The INF Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia in 1987, 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, Pentagon officials have been more vocal under the Trump administration about their concerns.
To the administration, Russia is violating the agreement while the U.S. is holding to its standards, harming America’s defensive posture. With those concerns in mind, since coming to office, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been publicly ambivalent about the value of the treaty.
Officials at the Dec. 1 Reagan National Defense Forum were clearly laying the groundwork for the administration’s argument. Speaking to Defense News, Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said Russia has been warned for five years now that the U.S. believes it is violating the treaty, and the country should not be surprised the White House has taken action.
“We’ve told Russia again and again, ‘The ball is in your court. We’ve shown you intelligence, we’ve shown you information, we’ve come to the table,’ and they have yet to come back into compliance,” she said.
“When it comes to arms control, it’s important to maintain the standards and discipline of that,” Thompson added. “Arms control regimes only work if you abide by them, which the United States has.”
The issue is trickier for allies in Europe, who have benefited most directly from the removal of ground-based cruise missiles.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters over the weekend that “we want the INF treaty to continue and to be a successful treaty,” while also repeating the U.S. line several times in response to questions.
“It isn’t reasonable to expect the United States to be the only nation that’s upholding a treaty that’s been signed by two people. The people who are in the wrong are the Russians, and that is why Russia needs to get back in line,” Williamson said.
“The next few weeks are so incredibly critical. It’s where as much pressure from every European nation needs to be placed on Russia, for Russia to abide by its treaty obligations,” he added. “Because I don’t think anyone would want to see the treaty end, but the treaty doesn’t exist when you have one nation ignoring its obligations as part of the treaty.”
The fate of the INF Treaty has been discussed among the nonproliferation and arms control community since the news leaked in October, with some raising concerns about what the withdrawal means for other arms control agreements, including the potential for negotiation around the New START nuclear reduction treaty.
And some experts who agree Russia has violated the treaty believe the Trump administration’s handling of the issue plays into the hands of Russian propaganda.
But in Congress, the idea of leaving the INF Treaty has largely been met along partisan lines in Congress, with Republicans backing the move as a sign of force against Russia, and Democrats raising the alarm that leaving the treaty represents a step toward a nuclear arms race — a divide summed up neatly by the two lead defense authorizers on Capitol Hill.
“For too long, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has openly flaunted the INF Treaty, and President Trump is right to put him on notice. The United States will no longer tolerate Russian deception at the expense of national security and the security of our allies,” said Sen Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Secretary Pompeo has put Putin on the clock — 60 days to change course and comply with the treaty, or else the United States will withdraw. A treaty with only one side complying is unsustainable. Can Putin be trusted to uphold Russia’s international commitments? I won’t hold my breath.”
His expected counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., hit a different tone, saying: “The Trump administration is unilaterally taking action on the INF Treaty without meaningful consultation and coordination with our NATO allies. Setting us on a precipitous course toward withdrawal from this treaty undermines the NATO alliance and trans-Atlantic security, while playing directly into President Putin’s plans to divide us.”
Thompson believes that at least one major arms control treaty — the Open Skies agreement, which allows certain overflights of U.S. and Russian military assets by each nation — will survive even if the INF Treaty goes down.
“Open Skies, this year, Russia was in violation of the Open Skies treaty as well. There [were] decisions made later, in the past couple of months, so we are now back on track with Open Skies,” Thompson said. “So expect 2019 to be more successful than 2018.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.