The Trump administration took a tough line with Russia today over violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Citing the support of NATO over Russian deployment of an offending missile system on the European frontier, Pompeo announced that the US would officially withdraw from the INF treaty, starting a six-month process that could touch off another arms race. Pompeo also made clear that the US and NATO aren’t satisfied with the scope of the treaty, either:
The United States is suspending one of the last major nuclear arms control treaties with Russia after heated conversations between the two powers recently failed to resolve a long-running accusation that Moscow is violating the Reagan-era treaty.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision on Friday as the Trump administration maintained that the Russian government has been unwilling to admit that a missile it has deployed near European borders violates the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. …
“Russia has jeopardized the United States’ security interests,” Mr. Pompeo said, “and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
The White House followed up with a statement from Donald Trump:
“For far too long, Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad,” a statement from President Trump said. “The United States will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty and begin the process of withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which will be completed in six months unless Russia comes back into compliance by destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment.”
“Our NATO Allies fully support us, because they understand the threat posed by Russia’s violation and the risks to arms control posed by ignoring treaty violations,” the president’s statement continued.
It’s been a long time coming. Mike Pompeo warned almost two months ago that the US would pull out today if Russia did not “come back into compliance.” He further noted that the INF treaty didn’t include China and other nuclear powers, which made this treaty less than effective in the first place:
The NYT also notes the issue with China and the limitations presented on the Pacific frontier:
Constrained by the treaty’s provisions, the United States has been prevented from deploying new weapons to counter China’s efforts to cement a dominant position in the Western Pacific and keep American aircraft carriers at bay. China was still a small and unsophisticated military power in the mid-1980s, and not a signatory to the treaty that was negotiated between the United States and a rapidly weakening Soviet Union.
By contrast, much of Beijing’s growing nuclear arsenal currently consists of missiles that fall into the distance ranges that are prohibited by the treaty that applies only to Russia and the United States.
Even apart from the issue in the Pacific, however, Russian ambitions in eastern Europe make their violations a very large concern for NATO. Russian forces aren’t exactly discreet with their missile systems; they shot down a civilian airliner while fighting in Ukraine. NATO made it clear that they stand with the US and warned Russia to use the six months to clean up its act:
Minutes after the U.S. announcement, NATO nations urged “Russia to use the remaining six months to return to full and verifiable compliance to preserve the INF Treaty.”
NATO members say the military alliance will continue to review the security implications of Russian missile development. They say NATO will take any “steps necessary to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the Alliance’s overall deterrence and defense posture.”
NATO says that if Moscow fails to destroy all new missile systems that Washington insists violate the treaty, “Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the treaty.”
That certainly seems to mark an end to Trump’s efforts to remake the relationship with Russia. In retrospect, that may have ended when Trump hired John Bolton to be his national-security adviser. Bolton has a much more clear-eyed view of Vladimir Putin and his imperial ambitions than Trump or his previous two predecessors had until they themselves got burned badly enough. This marks a new low in relations with Russia, a low the Russians have created on their own by following Putin’s attempts to recreate the Soviet Union without all that messy communism.
Russia is in a far weaker position economically than the US, however. They can’t afford another arms race, especially when American energy exports are holding down oil and gas prices. If Putin and Xi Jinping are drawing closer, they might want to settle this quickly before it gets out of hand — and before the US can change the status quo in the Pacific with a rapid deployment of nuclear systems, which we can afford and Putin, at least, can’t. The clock is ticking.