Trump administration ready to suspend Russian arms control pact

Trump administration ready to suspend Russian arms control pact
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The Trump administration is poised to suspend a landmark, Soviet-era arms control pact with Russia, a move likely to inflame already high tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Current and former officials and experts widely agree that Russia has been flouting the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

But the Trump administration’s decision to pull out has implications for U.S.-Russia relations and the broader global strategic environment.

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“As they get out of the treaty, can they do it in a way that maintains a level of stability in the U.S.-Russia strategic relationship? And secondly, how do they ensure that the alliance is talking with one voice?” said Frank Rose, who served as assistant secretary of state for arms control under former President Obama.

“It’s not just a bilateral treaty from the United States and Russia. It really goes to the heart of Eurasian security,” Rose added.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE announced in October he intended to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

In December, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight MORE gave Russia 60 days to come back into compliance before the United States would suspend its obligations under the treaty. That deadline comes Feb. 2.

The treaty, signed by then-President Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, bans nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The deal was credited with helping end the Cold War and eliminating an entire class of missiles that once threatened Europe.

But the Obama administration in 2014 publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty. Since then, U.S. officials have unsuccessfully worked to bring Moscow back into compliance.

The latest effort came earlier this month when Andrea Thompson, under secretary of State for arms control and international security, led a U.S. delegation in talks with the Russians in Geneva.

At the talks, Russia offered to let Washington see the disputed cruise missile at the heart of the dispute. The United States rejected the offer as inadequate.

“The only way you can get the system back into compliance is to destroy the missile,” Thompson told reporters in Washington this week. “There’s no way to alter it, there’s no way to change it, there’s no way to adjust the fuel cycle, and we’ve laid that out to them repeated times.”

At the breakfast roundtable, Thompson said she was “not particularly optimistic” Russia will come back into compliance, adding the United States has presented its evidence several times to no avail.

“Maybe the 50th time will be the charm,” she quipped.

The cruise missile at issue has been dubbed the 9M729. Stepping up its public relations campaign, Moscow showed the missile to a group of foreign military attaches and journalists this past week.

During the showcase, Russian Lt. Gen. Mikhail Matveyevsky claimed the missile has a range of 480 kilometers, or 20 kilometers less than the lower limit of the INF Treaty.

The 9M729 differs from the older 9M728 missile, Matveyevsky said, by having a more powerful warhead and a more precise guidance system. But, he said, the booster, cruise engine and fuel tank are unchanged from the older missile, rejecting a U.S. allegation it has a larger fuel tank that allows it to travel farther.

Rather than being able to travel farther than the old missile, he claimed, the new missile has a range of 10 kilometers less because of the heavier warhead and control systems.

Moscow has also accused the United States of violating the treaty with its Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Romania and Poland. The United States says its system is purely defensive, and so complies with the agreement.

A senior State Department official said Friday that Russia is engaging in a “mad dash” as the U.S. deadline approaches.

Moscow’s recent proposal to show U.S. officials the missile is “not serious,” the official said, because it would be a “static display” where Russia controls what data the United States is shown. The offer was also contingent on Washington letting Russia see the Aegis Ashore system, something the official said is unnecessary because the United States has already proven it doesn’t violate the treaty.

The Trump administration in late 2017 began research and development on a missile that would be banned by the treaty. So far, none of the research has fallen outside the bounds of the treaty.

Once the United State suspends its obligations, the administration would have the “option” to start work that doesn’t comply with the treaty, the official said, without definitely saying that such work will begin after Feb. 2. The official also would not discuss specific work that could be done after the suspension.

“We are not in an arms race,” the official said. “What we are doing is we’re addressing the security situation, so it’s not an arms race. We’re responding to defend American interests, national security interests, and defend our partners and allies.”

But an arms race is what arms control advocates are fearing.

Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction at the Arms Control Association, said that since Pompeo’s December announcement, both the United States and Russia appear “more interested in trying to shift the blame for the crisis facing the treaty rather than engage in serious and sustained diplomatic efforts.”

With a suspension and subsequent withdrawal likely, Reif said there are steps both sides could take to mitigate the fallout from the collapse of the INF Treaty.

For example, he suggested an agreement to keep any noncompliant missiles far enough away from Europe that the continent is not within range, or an agreement that any INF-range missiles cannot be nuclear.

“The risk is, even if it doesn’t happen immediately, that the United States moves forward with R&D, starts testing a system, the Russians field more of their current 9M729, look at other noncompliant missile options, which increases tensions, increases military competition, increases the risks of a missile race,” he said.

In another sign of the arms control community’s concern about the potential withdrawal from the treaty, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists cited the issue when it announced this year’s setting for its famed “Doomsday Clock.”

The clock, which is a metaphor for how close the earth is to destruction by nuclear weapons and climate change, was kept this year at two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953.

“Though bedeviled by reciprocal complaints about compliance, the INF agreement has been in force for more than 30 years and has contributed to stability in Europe. Its potential death foreshadows a new competition to deploy weapons long banned,” the Bulletin said. “For the first time since the 1980s, it appears the world is headed into an unregulated nuclear environment—an outcome that could reproduce the intense arms racing that was the hallmark of the early, unregulated decades of the nuclear age.”

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that the treaty’s end could spawn an arms race, noting that Russia has already fielded the capability the U.S. says is in violation of the INF.

“I don’t think you are going to see this vast deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles by Russia and the U.S. in Europe,” said Tom Callender, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The only thing you might see is the U.S. might now field some conventional capabilities.”

The newly minted Democratic chairmen of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees have expressed concerns about the demise of the INF Treaty.

But there appears to be little recourse for lawmakers to stop Trump. While the Constitution requires Senate approval to enter into treaties, it say nothing about withdrawing from treaties.

Congress would need to approve funding for any new missiles that fall outside the bounds of the INF Treaty, providing one potential avenue for action.

But asked about the possibility of blocking funding for treaty noncompliant missiles in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), House Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTrump’s state of emergency declaration imperils defense budget Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Papering over climate change impacts is indefensible MORE (D-Wash.) replied, “You mean the bill that the president has to sign?”

“I don’t think there’s a lot we can do,” he said. “It seems like the president does have the power to unilaterally withdraw.”

The NDAA also has to be negotiated with the Republican-controlled Senate, where leading senators agree with Trump’s decision.

“The Russians had blatant violations,” said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerWhy Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Neb.), who has oversight of nuclear weapons as chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. “And when you have a treaty with one other nation and that nation isn’t following the treaty, there’s no reason for it.”