World

U.S. plans to 'suspend' INF nuclear treaty with Russia, White House official says, in move that bodes ill for Japan

Bloomberg, Staff Report

The U.S. plans to suspend its obligations under a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty with Russia after a deadline passes this weekend and the Trump administration inches closer to full withdrawal from a pillar of Cold War diplomacy, a White House official said Monday, in a move that could have dire implications for Japan.

Unless Russia destroys all its ground-launched cruise missiles, known as 9M729s, as well as associated equipment and launchers by Feb. 2, the U.S. will suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because a decision hasn’t been announced.

The official did not say whether the U.S. would simultaneously announce a full withdrawal from the INF treaty, which would trigger a process that would take six months to complete. NATO officials have been preparing for a collapse of the accord for months.

President Donald Trump indicated in October that he would pull the U.S. out of the treaty, but decided to delay the suspension after consulting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allies. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in early December the U.S. was giving Russia two more months to get back into compliance with the treaty.

“We must confront Russian cheating on their nuclear obligations,” Pompeo said at the conclusion of the NATO meeting in early December. “Our nations have a choice: We either bury our head in the sand, or we take common-sense action in response to Russia’s flagrant disregard for the express terms of the INF Treaty.”

The U.S. argues that Russia has jeopardized the INF treaty for years by deploying ground-launched missiles that fall within the banned range of 500 kilometers (311 miles) to 5,500 kilometers. NATO partners have called on Russia to show compliance. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton has called the INF outdated and said it doesn’t address China’s rising threat.

While the U.S. has pinned much of the blame for its planned exit from the treaty on Russia, a closer look shows that China’s buildup of its missile forces — which as Bolton has suggested pose a grave threat to U.S. military bases in Japan and elsewhere in the region — may also play a large part in any decision to abrogate the 31-year-old arms-control deal. The historic bilateral pact has left China unconstrained to amass a missile arsenal that puts U.S. and Japanese forces at risk, according to observers.

According to the Pentagon’s annual report this year on Chinese military power, Beijing’s robust military modernization program has allowed it to now field an array of conventionally armed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as well as ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles as part of its so-called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy to prevent the U.S. and others militaries from intervening in its immediate areas of concern.

More importantly for Tokyo, “a growing number” of the Chinese missiles put U.S. bases in Japan in range, the Pentagon report said.

Amid this backdrop, and as the U.S. and China begin to enter what some have termed “a new Cold War,” the INF decision is likely to have a number of implications for Japan, including the possibility of the United States rebuilding its short- and intermediate-range missile arsenal and dispatching the weapons to the region.

The INF issue is another flash point in U.S.-Russia relations that have been strained by Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, its alleged poisoning of a former spy living in the U.K. and its aggression toward Ukraine. Trump canceled a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin late last year at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires and it’s not clear when the two leaders will next meet.

Russia has denied violating the INF treaty and has accused the U.S. instead of breaking the deal, adding that a withdrawal from the Cold War accord would trigger an arms race. While the Trump administration has some support among military hawks in Congress for pulling out, other lawmakers have argued that such a move would be a gift to Russia by giving it a free pass to expand missile production and deployment.

Europeans largely favor holding onto the treaty, crediting it with ending the proliferation of ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg predicted in December that the accord will collapse, and called the two-month window offered by the U.S. a “last chance” for Russia.

“But we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty,” he said at the time.