The US has given Russia 60 days to comply with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty or it will no longer abide by the agreement and could produce, test and deploy new missiles, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has warned.
The ultimatum could herald a major new arms race, with serious implications for Europe. The INF treaty has kept nuclear-armed missiles off European soil for nearly three decades. If it breaks down, missiles could be returned to Europe as early as February.
Speaking to journalists after a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels, Pompeo outlined longstanding US allegations of Russian violations of the cold war-era treaty with the development and deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile, which he said was part of a wider pattern of lawlessness by the Kremlin.
“In light of these facts, the United States today declares it has found Russia in material breach of the treaty and will suspend our obligations as a remedy effective in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance,” the secretary of state said.
Under the terms of the INF treaty, the US would have to give six months’ notice of withdrawal. That period would only start at the beginning of February, in 60 days’ time, Pompeo said. Meanwhile, the US would simply declare itself no longer bound by the treaty in view of Russia’s alleged material breach.
“The six-month period will begin to run 60 days from now,” Pompeo said. “During the 60 days, we will still not test or produce or deploy any systems, and we’ll see what happens during this 60-day period.”
According to a leaked memo published by the Washington Post, the national security adviser, John Bolton, has ordered the Pentagon to “develop and deploy ground-launched missiles at the earliest possible date”. While it would take a substantial length of time to develop an entirely new missile, existing medium-range weapons in the US arsenal, like sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, could be adapted for ground launch more quickly, arms expert said.
However, Nato allies would have to agree unanimously to have any new missile deployed in Europe.
If the US allegations, which Nato allies supported on Tuesday, are correct, Russia is already producing and deploying ground-launched cruise missiles within the banned range limits of 500km and 5,500km and could deploy them widely, in Europe and in the east along the Chinese border, at short notice.
Moscow has denied its new missile violates the INF but, after several years denying its existence, it has been vague on its capabilities. Meanwhile, it accuses the US of violating the INF by the deployment of the Aegis missile defence system in Romania and Poland, on the grounds that the launchers used in that system for defensive interceptors could be adapted to fire offensive cruise missiles. The US has so far dismissed these Russian concerns as groundless.
A state department spokesperson said: “The United States announced a suspension of its obligations, effective 60 days after December 4, unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance, as a remedy under customary international law for Russia’s material breach.”
That appeared to be a reference to the 1969 Vienna convention on treaties, which allows one party to an agreement to suspend its compliance if another side is in material breach. The US is not a signatory to that convention.
The former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former US secretary state, George Shultz, who helped negotiate the terms of the INF treaty at the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, warned of the dire consequences of ditching the treaty.
“Abandoning the INF Treaty would be a step toward a new arms race, undermining strategic stability and increasing the threat of miscalculation or technical failure leading to an immensely destructive war,” they wrote in the Washington Post in a commentary published minutes after Pompeo’s announcement.
The commentary was titled: “We participated in INF negotiations. Abandoning it threatens our very existence.”
Trump declared his intention to leave the INF treaty on 20 October but the administration did not deliver a formal notice of withdrawal. According to sources familiar with the debate within the administration, Bolton had been pushing for the administration to take that official step at this week’s Nato ministerial meeting.
European leaders are seeking to broker a last-ditch compromise between the US and Russia that would save the INF. According to some reports, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, convinced Trump at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires to delay formal withdrawal proceedings until the new year.
US arms advocates say the 60-day window announced by Pompeo provides a last chance for the US and Russia to negotiate a deal, possibly including mutual inspections of each sides weapons systems, but they doubt there is much political will in Washington or Moscow to do that.
“Donald Trump and John Bolton are hell-bent on withdrawal and the Russians are not going to admit their missile violates the treaty,” Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said. “This is going to need leadership from Europe.”