The United States is expected to announce Friday it is suspending its participation in an arms control treaty with Russia, several U.S. officials said Thursday, speaking to reporters anonymously about the sensitive matter. President Donald Trump and senior officials of his administration have been signaling for months their displeasure with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF)Treaty, accusing Russia of violating it since 2014.
The announcement, which would likely be made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will come a day ahead of the U.S.-set deadline of Feb. 2 for Russia to meet Washington's demands under the 1987 pact, which was a key weapons treaty from the Cold War era. Pompeo was scheduled to hold a briefing Feb. 1 at 2:30 p.m. in Prague (8:30 a.m. EST), and while the agenda of the briefing was not disclosed, that is where he was expected to make the withdrawal announcement.
The treaty, which was signed between former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, resolved a crisis of the 1980s when the Soviet Union deployed a missile in Europe called the SS-20. This missile was capable of carrying three nuclear warheads. The INF treaty was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons, including ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 310 miles and 3,100 miles. In the immediate aftermath of the treaty being signed, almost 3,000 existing weapons were destroyed in the U.S., with the Soviet Union getting rid of double the number, as stipulated in the treaty.
It was the Obama administration that first accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014. Washington began stepping up its rhetoric in late 2017, identifying the missile in question — the Russian 9M729 missile system — which, according to Washington, violates the treaty's provisions. The U.S. also said Russia had moved beyond testing the missile and had begun deploying the system.
However, Russia denied the claims, and accused the U.S. for its defense systems in Europe that are capable of firing cruise missiles at ranges banned by the INF Treaty.
On Dec. 4, Pompeo gave Russia 60 days to "return to compliance" with the INF Treaty, failing which the U.S. would suspend its obligations to the treaty.
On Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reaffirmed Moscow's intention to continue working toward a settlement on the disputed INF Treaty. Moscow held a briefing to present the missile which has caused great concern in the U.S. and revealed the specifications of 9M729. Russia said the missile has a minimum firing range of 31 miles, the same as its predecessor — the 9М728 — and a maximum range of 298 miles, which does not violate the INF Treaty.
Ryabkov also said Thursday there was "no reaction whatsoever to our demands on US MK-41 universal launching systems already deployed in Romania and set to be deployed in Poland as part of Aegis Ashore complexes," which, Russia believes, contradict the treaty.
If U.S. withdraws from the treaty, it could raise the prospect of further deterioration in Washington-Moscow relations, and lead to a new arms race. It would also increase chances of a debate among U.S. allies in Europe over whether Russia's alleged violations warrant a countermeasure such as deployment of an equivalent American missile in Europe. Washington does not have any nuclear-capable missiles based in the region since the time the treaty was signed.
The American ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, blamed Russia for the demise of the INF treaty in a tweet Wednesday.
"Russia consistently refuses to acknowledge its violation and continues to push disinformation and false narratives regarding its illegal missile," she said. "When only one party respects an arms control treaty while the other side flaunts it, it leaves one side vulnerable, no one is safer, and (it) discredits the very idea of arms control."
Nuclear weapons experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a statement this week to USA Today that despite Russia's violation, Washington's decision to withdraw from the treaty under current circumstances would be counterproductive.
"Leaving the INF treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia," they said.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, also told CNN that Washington's departure will make "everything more dangerous."
Lynn Rusten, vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said: "We are heading into a direction we have not been in in 40 years: no arms control limits or rules that we are both following and that is very dangerous."