WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is pulling the plug on a decades-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia, lifting what it sees as unreasonable constraints on competing with a resurgent Russia and a more assertive China.
The move, announced Friday, sets the stage for delicate talks with U.S. allies over potential new American missile deployments.
In explaining his decision, which he had foreshadowed months ago, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with “impunity” by deploying banned missiles.
Moscow denies it is in violation and has accused Washington of resisting its efforts to resolve the dispute.
Democrats in Congress and some arms-control advocates criticized Trump’s decision as opening the door to an arms race.
“The U.S. threat to terminate the treaty will not bring Russia back into compliance and could unleash a dangerous and costly new missile competition between the United States and Russia in Europe and beyond,” the private Arms Control Association said. It argued that Washington has not exhausted options for drawing Russia back into compliance.
Trump said in a statement that the U.S. will “move forward” with developing its own military response options to Russia’s banned deployment of cruise missiles that could target Western Europe. “We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other,” Trump said.
Other officials said the treaty could still be saved if Russia reverses course and returns to compliance, but the window of opportunity will close in six months, when the American withdrawal takes effect.
The Trump decision reflects his administration’s view that the arms treaty was an unacceptable obstacle to more forcefully confronting not only Russia but also China. China’s military has grown mightily since the treaty was signed, and the pact has prevented the U.S. from deploying weapons to counter some of those being developed in Beijing.
“China has 1,600 of these weapons, so the U.S. isn’t starting an arms race it is responding to a shifting military balance that makes war more likely, not less,” Eric Sayers, who served as a consultant to former Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris and is now with the Center for a New American Security, wrote Saturday on Twitter. He was referring to China’s arsenal of missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (310 to 3,420 miles).
Analysts say many of these weapons put U.S. military bases in Japan within striking distance.
Leaving the INF pact risks aggravating relations with European allies, who share the administration’s view that Russia is violating the treaty but have not endorsed a U.S. withdrawal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters after Trump’s statement, said Russia was to be notified on Saturday that the U.S. is withdrawing from the treaty. In the meantime, starting Saturday, the U.S. will suspend its obligations under the treaty.
Pompeo said that if, in the coming six months, Russia accepts U.S. demands that it verifiably destroy the cruise missiles that Washington claims are a violation, then the treaty can be saved. If it does not, “the treaty terminates,” he said.
Administration officials have dismissed concerns that the treaty’s demise could trigger a race to develop and deploy more intermediate-range missiles. U.S. officials have emphasized their fear that China is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty’s limit. Whether the U.S. will now respond by deploying INF-noncompliant missiles in Asia is unclear.
Tokyo has opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling such a move “undesirable.” As for a possible deployment to Japan, it is unclear if such a deployment would be politically viable. Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan, has long been home to a fierce anti-base movement. Any decision to send the weapons there would likely face intense opposition. It would also put Sino-Japanese ties in danger as Abe continues his outreach to Beijing amid fraying U.S.-China ties.
It also seems unlikely Beijing would agree to any negotiated limits on its weaponry.
On Friday, Russia accused the U.S. of unilaterally seeking to neuter the treaty.
“I ‘congratulate’ the whole world; the United States has taken another step toward its destruction today,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
The INF was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 km. At the time, in the late stages of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies were mainly concerned by the perceived threat of Russian medium-range nuclear missiles that were targeted at Europe. The U.S. deployed similar missiles in response, in the 1980s, leading to negotiations that produced the INF treaty.
U.S. officials say they have little reason to think Moscow will change its stance in the next six months.
“We have raised Russia’s noncompliance with Russian officials — including at the highest levels of government — more than 30 times,” Pompeo said. “We have provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its way. Tomorrow that time runs out.”
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said in an interview Friday that Russia can still save the treaty by returning to compliance before the U.S. withdrawal takes effect. “But at the same time, we have started to assess the consequences, look into options,” Stoltenberg said. “We need to make sure that we respond as an alliance.”
Trump said his administration will move forward with developing military response options. But senior officials said they don’t expect any immediate testing or deployment of weapons that are banned under the treaty. The current Pentagon budget includes $48 million for research on potential military responses to the alleged Russian violations, but U.S. officials said the options do not include a nuclear missile.
The officials said the U.S. is not in position to flight-test, let alone deploy, INF-noncompliant missiles as a counter to Russia any time soon.
One said allies will be consulted before any decisions are made on responding to Russian missiles.
Leaving the treaty would allow the Trump administration to counter the Chinese, but it is unclear how it would do that. U.S. security concerns are complicated by what U.S. intelligence officials call efforts by China and Russia to expand their global influence.