US threatens to leave ‘watershed’ nuclear missile treaty amid Nato-backed reports of Russian violations
The US has announced that it will withdraw from a landmark Cold War nuclear weapons agreement if Russia does not come into compliance with the treaty within 60 days.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Russia of “cheating at its arms control obligations” and issued the two-month deadline during a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Pompeo claimed that Moscow has violated the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, described by Sky News as a “historic pact that kept such deadly missiles out of Europe”. Moscow is alleged to be developing cruise missiles that can be launched from land – which US intelligence claims could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice.
“Russia’s actions gravely undermine American national security and that of our allies and partners. It makes no sense for the United States to remain in a treaty that constrains our ability to respond to Russia’s violations,” Pomeo said.
His comments have prompted fears of “a major new arms race” developing between the US and Russia, which would have “serious implications for Europe”, says The Guardian.
However, The Washington Post notes that Pompeo’s ultimatum appears to be a “softening” of the US position on the issue, after President Donald Trump abruptly announced in October that he had decided to “terminate the agreement”.
So what does the pact specify and are we heading for a new nuclear arms race?
What is the INF Treaty?
The INF is a bilateral treaty between the US and the then Soviet Union, signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on 8 December 1987 and ratified by both countries the following year.
The treaty required destruction of the two states’ ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500km (310 miles) and 5,500km (3,420 miles), as well as their launchers and associated support structures and equipment, within three years of the treaty coming into force.
In effect, the pact protects Europe from the nuclear threat posed by Russia and the US by banning missiles that would be able to strike European nations easily from within Russian territory, and prohibiting the US from stationing missiles in Europe in order to target Russia. The US Department of State describes the treaty as having had “a qualitative and quantitative change in the European security situation”.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that within three years of the ratification of the treaty, more than 2,600 missiles had been destroyed.
The Washington Post describes it as a “watershed moment in Cold War arms control”.
What are the US accusations against Russia?
Pompeo told Nato leaders on Tuesday that Russia has developed “multiple battalions of the SSC-8 missiles”, a move that would violate the treaty. SSC-8, also known as the 9M729 system, are nuclear-tipped missiles that have a range of up to 5,500km – directly in the prohibited range.
This is by no means the first such claim by the US. The South China Morning Post reports that over the past five years, the US has “raised its concerns over the SSC-8 at least 30 times” with Russia, “only to be met with denials, obfuscation and spurious counterclaims”.
The US has received the backing of Nato over the issue, reports CNBC.
Foreign ministers at this week’s meeting issued a joint statement that said: “Russia’s violation of the INF treaty erodes the foundations of effective arms control and undermines Allied security. This is part of Russia’s broader pattern of behaviour that is intended to weaken the overall Euro-Atlantic security architecture.
“We call on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance. It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF treaty.”
What happens next?
Following President Trump’s announcement in October that the US would exit the treaty over Russia’s alleged activities, his national security adviser John Bolton last week signed and distributed a memo conveying a directive for Pompeo to “make all necessary arrangements” to implement the withdrawal by “no later than December 4, 2018”.
However, following a last-ditch intervention by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Pompeo is abiding by the terms of the INF treaty, which stipulates that signatories have to give six months’ notice of withdrawal. He says this would begin 60 days from now if Russia refuses to comply.
Despite this apparent climbdown, Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, told The Guardian that Trump and Bolton are “hell-bent on withdrawal”, and have already ordered Pompeo to “develop and deploy ground-launched missiles at the earliest possible date”.
As a result, this saga will probably spell the end of the accord, says The Washington Post, which notes that the move will “raise fears of a return to Cold War tensions when nuclear-tipped missiles across the Continent threatened to strike targets within minutes”.
In an opinion piece published earlier this week, Nato General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg writes: “A treaty that is respected by only one side cannot be effective and will not keep us safe. If a treaty no longer affects the reality on the ground, then it is nothing more than a piece of paper.
“I regret that we now most likely will see the end of the INF Treaty. We really felt that the world was moving forward when the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 agreed.”