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 Rreaty
“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 Russia, as well as the former Soviet states that, by being part of the USSR when the treaty was signed in 1987, are required to be alerted to an American withdrawal.
Once that note is delivered, the clock is running for six months: While it is possible that Russia could meet America’s demands for compliance during that time and the U.S. could choose to re-enter 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 Treaty’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 along partisan lines. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper, both Democrats, called the withdrawal, instead of bringing Russia into compliance or punishing it for its treaty violations, was a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The administration’s ideological aversion to arms control as a tool for advancing national security is endangering our safety, as well as that of our allies and partners. The risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding is already higher than at any point since the end of the Cold War, and this decision only makes it worse,” the statement reads.
“President Trump withdrawing from this treaty reopens a field of competition with yet another class of nuclear weapons and, perhaps ironically, reverses one of President Reagan’s most important historical achievements in a way that benefits Moscow. We must not allow Russia to receive a free pass for violating the INF Treaty, which is exactly what the Trump administration is handing President Putin.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, expressed strong support for the U.S. withdrawal from what she said was “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,” Fischer said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was pleased with the decision, and that NATO allies support it.
New Pentagon weapons
In a call shortly after Trump’s announcement, a pair of senior administration officials reiterated the president’s stance that Russia is to blame for the treaty falling apart, by Moscow’s disregard for the requirements of the INF Treaty 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,” the second official added. “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 noncompliant 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 some time 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 second official added.
The first official said the U.S. is not currently looking at nuclear-capable ground-based cruise missiles, like those of Russia.
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 this treaty.”
At the same time, the officials acknowledged a U.S. assessment that China has roughly 1,000 missiles that would be considered noncompliant with the INF Treaty.
Associated Press reporters Deb Riechmann, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Lynn Berry contributed to this report.
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.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.