(CNSNews.com) – Accusing Russia of deploying missiles threatening Europe in violation of a Cold War-era arms control treaty, the Trump administration on Tuesday gave Russia 60 days to return to compliance, failing which the United States will itself withdraw.
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came after he secured strong support in Brussels from NATO counterparts, many of whose countries are directly threatened by the ground-launched cruise missiles in question.
Pompeo characterized Moscow’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as part of a “larger pattern of Russian lawlessness on the world stage.”
He cited its military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine, election meddling, the attempted assassination on British soil of former spy Sergei Skripal, and last week’s seizure of Ukrainian navy vessels in the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait.
The administration says the U.S. has been challenging Russia since 2013 over its development of a cruise missile named SSC-8 (Russian designation 9M729), which Pompeo said has been flight-tested and is now deployed in “multiple battalions.”
After years of Russian denials and obfuscation, he said, only when the U.S. last November made public the name of the missile did Moscow for the first time even admit its existence.
And at that point, Pompeo added, “Russia changed its cover story from the missile that does not exist to the missile that exists but is treaty-compliant.”
The U.S.-Soviet treaty, which entered into force in mid-1988, outlawed all ground-launched cruise or ballistic missile with ranges between roughly 300 and 3,400 miles. Under it, the U.S. and Soviet Union destroyed some 2,700 missiles including Pershing IIs and SS-20s.
A new INF-class missile wielded by the Russians would not directly threaten the U.S., but could target allies and partners in Europe with nuclear or conventional warheads, with little to no early warning.
NATO foreign ministers threw their support behind the U.S. stance on Tuesday, urging Moscow to return to verifiable compliance and so “preserve the INF Treaty.”
The ministers underscored that for its part, the U.S. has to date “remained in full compliance with its obligations.”
“There is no question that the United States fully complies with the treaty,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. “There are no new U.S. missiles in Europe. But there are new Russian missiles in Europe.”
“Arms control agreements are only effective if they are respected by all sides,” he said. “A situation where the U.S. abides by the treaty and Russia does not, is simply not sustainable.
Absent a reversal by the Russians, the 60-day warning period announced by Pompeo will be followed by a six-month formal notice period for U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.
As for U.S. plans to subsequently start deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe again, Pompeo stressed it would work closely with allies, seeking their help and input in developing an effective security architecture.
A return to ‘the glorious 1970s’
In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a teleconference that at recent meetings in Sochi with President Vladimir Putin and top military brass, measures were discussed to reinforce the capabilities of the armed forces in the light of U.S. plans to exit the INF Treaty.
The TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying Putin had been “informed about the process of building and developing the armed forces, their capacity to ensure the state’s military security and counter a technologically advanced enemy.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday Putin had planned to discuss the dispute with President Trump at their scheduled meeting in Argentina at the weekend, “but regrettably, as you know, the meeting never took place.” (Trump canceled because of the Kerch Strait incident.)
Peskov warned that if the U.S. deploys new missiles in Europe after exiting the treaty, “Russia will be forced to take steps to ensure parity.”
“European territories will be in crosshairs of our missiles,” he said, describing the scenario as a return to “the glorious 1970s.”
While the U.S. blames Russia for putting the INF Treaty in jeopardy, Pompeo also pointed to another serious concern the U.S. has about the treaty.
“Many other states – including China, North Korea and Iran – are not parties to the INF Treaty,’ he said. “This leaves them free to build all the intermediate range missiles that they would like.”
“There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China, in particular when these weapons are being used to threaten and coerce the United States and its allies in Asia.”
Pompeo said three previous attempts to broaden the INF Treaty to include countries like China have failed.
(Beijing, most of whose nuclear and conventional missiles fall within the range prohibited by the INF Treaty, has shown little interest in joining the treaty.)
The Obama administration first began accusing Russia of breaching the INF Treaty – although without making the details public – in a 2014 report, but while urging Moscow to return to compliance it chose not to withdraw or threaten to withdraw.
Trump said in October the Russians had been violating the treaty “for many years, and I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out.”
A provision in the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last August, gives the administration a January 15, 2019 deadline to inform the Senate if Russia is in “material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty,” and whether the treaty’s prohibitions remain binding on the U.S.