Trump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE's ultimatum to Russia over a landmark arms control treaty could potentially kill the pact and set the stage for more land-based cruise missiles and nuclear warheads in Europe, experts and Democratic lawmakers warn.

The Trump administration on Tuesday said it would suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days if Russia did not get back in line with the pact. The decades-old nuclear arms agreement has kept Russia and the U.S. from developing and testing certain intermediate-range missiles.

Russia denies it is in violation of the treaty. And with chances slim that Moscow will meet U.S. the demands, some experts are sounding the alarm.

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“We’re going to increase the risk that a crisis could go nuclear,” said Jon Wolfsthal, the National Security Council senior director for arms control and nonproliferation under former President Obama.

“It’s almost certain the Trump administration will pull out of the treaty,” added Wolfsthal, now senior adviser to Global Zero, an international nuclear-reduction initiative.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game 2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference Pompeo says it's 'possible' God planned Trump to save Jewish people MORE announced the INF suspension on Tuesday following meetings with NATO foreign ministers, describing Russia’s violations of the INF as part of a broader pattern of “lawlessness” by Moscow on the global stage. 

The move was expected. Trump signaled in October that he planned to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the pact.

NATO ministers also released a statement agreeing unanimously that Moscow was in violation of the treaty.

“Allies have concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security. We strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty,” the NATO foreign ministers said in a statement. 

Experts as well as current and former officials mostly agree that Moscow is in violation of the accord — which bans all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 310 and 3,410 miles. But some worry the decision to withdraw from the treaty could spur an arms race.

In response to the ultimatum, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would begin to develop the disputed nuclear weapons if the U.S. withdraws.

An end to INF would allow Russia to keep the missiles it has been building and deploying, while the United States — possessing no similar missile that could be deployed in Europe — would be “letting the Russians off almost scot-free,” Wolfsthal said.

“In the long run, as we develop more missiles, as we either deploy them in Asia or as we try to respond to Russian deployments," he said. "We’re going to add new rungs on the nuclear ladder of escalation.”

Some U.S. lawmakers have criticized Trump for not properly consulting Congress or NATO in the decision.

“The Trump administration is unilaterally taking action on the INF Treaty without meaningful consultation and coordination with our NATO allies,” Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam Smith737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths Acting Pentagon chief says he hasn't 'walked through' Space Force proposal with skeptical Dem chairman MORE (D-Wash.), who will be the House Armed Services Chairman in the next Congress, said in a statement.

Smith also took aim at national security adviser John Bolton, who has long opposed the treaty.

“It is no secret that some of President Trump’s advisers are more focused on promoting U.S. withdrawal from its international commitments than prioritizing the collective security of America and its partners and allies,” he said.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have lauded the administration’s decision as a necessary step to rein in “Russian deception,” according to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems look to rebuild 'blue wall' Funding caps, border wall set stage for defense budget battle Trump's claims of defeating ISIS roil Congress MORE (R-Okla.).

“For too long, Vladimir Putin has openly flaunted the INF treaty and President Trump is right to put him on notice. The United States will no longer tolerate Russian deception at the expense of national security and the security of our allies,” Inhofe said in a statement.

“A treaty with only one side complying is unsustainable. Can Putin be trusted to uphold Russia’s international commitments? I won’t hold my breath.”  

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate rejects border declaration in major rebuke of Trump Hillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction Senate votes to confirm Neomi Rao to appeals court MORE (R-Ark.), meanwhile, asserted that Washington needs to “change old policies to ward off new threats” and “must not allow our authoritarian rivals to build and deploy dangerous, destabilizing weapons while we keep one hand tied behind our back.” 

Wolfsthal, though, worried that the administration has provided no way to ease tensions. He criticized Trump officials for not giving the Russians any sort of off-ramp.

“Nobody really thinks that the Russians, even it good times, are going to back down, but not giving them a face-saving way out really seals the fate of the treaty,” Wolfsthal said.

Conservative experts have taken a different view.

James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that the “chances of Russians coming back into compliance in the next 60 days are likely zero.” But he called the pressure simply “the first step in a series of chess moves” by the United States.

“I don’t think the risks are very high,” he said of Trump abandoning the treaty.

Should the administration decide to withdraw from the agreement, language of the treaty stipulates that there is a six-month notice period to officially exit the pact.

Both sides acknowledge the high-stakes involved in Trump's gambit.

“I think the gains are we have put additional strategic pressure on the Russians, that this is now something that they have to take into account. It has, I think, enhanced the U.S. negotiating position,” Carafano added. "It definitely has helped strengthen broad European resolve that Russia is a destabilizing and threatening force."

Wolfsthal, though, sees Trump looking to walk from the pact.

“The Trump administration really doesn’t want a deal," he said. "They want to get out.”