(CNSNews.com) – President Trump’s plan to withdraw from a key Cold War-era arms-control treaty drew sharp criticism from Moscow and handwringing from Berlin Sunday, but Washington and NATO have been urging Russia to comply with its obligations since the Obama administration first accused it of a breach in 2014.
As National Security Advisor John Bolton was heading to Russia for talks with top officials, Trump on Saturday confirmed his plans to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, saying the U.S. does not intend to be the only one to adhere to it.
The Russians, he told reporters in Nevada, “have been violating it for many years, and I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out.”
“We’ve honored the agreement, but Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement,” Trump said. “So we’re going to terminate the agreement.”
Trump also said that the U.S. would, post-pullout, develop the weapons prohibited under the treaty, unless the Russians – as well as the Chinese, who are not party to or bound by the INF – “come to us and they say, let’s really get smart, and let’s none of us develop those weapons.”
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told the TASS news agency a U.S. withdrawal “would be a very dangerous step” and one certain to drew serious condemnation.
Prominent lawmakers in Moscow weighed in, with Alexei Pushkov warning on Twitter the move would return the world to the Cold War and make America not “great again” but “more vulnerable again.”
Pushkov, who chairs a commission for information policy in the upper Federation Council, told TASS the U.S. was risking “pushing the world to another Cuban missile crisis.”
The chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, told state television that if the U.S. begins to produce the currently banned missiles, Russia’s “reaction will be rapid.”
Although the information he was alluding to remains classified, he added, “I know what I am talking about,” and “I am sure the Americans are fully aware of that as well.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a statement called Trump’s announcement “regrettable,” even as he acknowledged that “we have repeatedly called on Russia in the past to address the serious allegations of violation of the INF Treaty.”
Maas called the treaty “an important pillar of our European security architecture for 30 years. Especially for us in Europe, it is of paramount importance.”
British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, however, accused Russia of making a “mockery” of the INF, telling the Financial Times the U.K. “will be absolutely resolute with the United States in hammering home a clear message that Russia needs to respect the treaty obligation that it signed.”
The U.S.-Soviet treaty outlawed an entire class of intermediate-range missiles – ground-launched cruise or ballistic missile with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (roughly 300-3,400 miles). Its entry into force in June 1988 saw the Cold War foes destroy almost 2,700 projectiles, including Soviet SS-20s and American Pershing IIs.
A Russian INF-class missile would pose no direct threat to the U.S., but could deliver a short-warning nuclear or conventional strike against NATO allies closer to Russian territory.
In recent years, the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty – initially without disclosing the details. Instead, the Obama administration in annual compliance reports since 2014 accused Moscow of violating the INF, without elaboration. And NATO, citing the U.S. allegations, has since 2014 been urging Russia to return to compliance.
Shortly after Trump took office last year, the New York Times identified the breach as the deployment of a cruise missile named SSC-8 (Russian designation 9M729).
The report did not identify the location of the “operational base” where its administration sources said the Russians had deployed the SSC-8, but Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), wrote last week that it may be a “missile battalion in the Ekaterinburg region.”
Although that lies deep within Russian territory, with a reported range of around 2,000 km., an SSC-8 missile deployed there could pose a potential threat to NATO allies in the Baltics.
Deployed further westward, for instance in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad tucked between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, the missile could likely threaten every European NATO partner with the exception of Portugal and possibly Spain.
‘Years of denials and obfuscation’
After the Times reported on the alleged Russian violation in February last year, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at compelling Russia to return to compliance.
A provision in the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last August, gives the administration a deadline of January 15, 2019 to inform the U.S. Senate if Russia is in “material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty,” and whether the relevant prohibitions remain binding on the U.S.
When NATO leaders met in Brussels in July, the allies rallied round the U.S. position, saying in a declaration that the 9M729 or SSC-8 “raises serious concerns.”
“After years of denials and obfuscation, and despite Allies repeatedly raising their concerns, the Russian Federation only recently acknowledged the existence of the missile system without providing the necessary transparency or explanation,” the leaders’ statement said.
“A pattern of behavior and information over many years has led to widespread doubts about Russian compliance. Allies believe that, in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile, the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the [INF] Treaty.”
Russia has repeatedly denied that the SSC-8 violates the INF, and its foreign ministry at the time branded the Times report “fake news.”
President Vladimir Putin suggested last October that Russia has no need for land-based missiles with that range as it has very effective sea- and air-based ones.
“Recently we have been hearing many accusations about Russia violating this treaty by cooking up something,” he said during a high-level public dialogue forum. “Maybe we would be tempted to do just that if we had no airborne and sea-based missiles. Now we have them.”
Putin pointed to the Kalibr, a cruise missile with an operational range of 1,400 km., which Russian has launched on several occasions since late 2014, from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean and Caspian seas, at purported terrorist targets in Syria.
Noting that Russia also has “very powerful” airborne missile systems with a range of 4,500 km., Putin warned then that if the U.S. withdraws from the INF, “our response would be immediate – I would like to repeat this warning – immediate and reciprocal.”