Five takeaways on Trump decision to suspend nuclear treaty with Russia

The Trump administration on Friday announced long-anticipated plans to stop complying with a Soviet-era arms control pact with Russia, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE pinned his decision on Moscow’s years of violating the agreement. Officials from successive administrations have raised the issue in failed diplomatic talks with Russia for more than half a decade, but Moscow has long denied breaching the agreement.

The treaty, signed by then-President Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, was widely credited with helping bring the Cold War to an end. It bans nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The Trump administration’s move has triggered questions about the potential impact on European security and the global strategic environment at a time when U.S.-Russia relations are at a low point. Here are five takeaways from Trump’s decision.

To Trump, this is Russia’s ‘final chance’

The Trump administration is vacating its obligations under the treaty starting Saturday, meaning the United States will no longer be subject to its constraints.

However, Friday’s announcement does not mean the immediate demise of the agreement.

The administration will formally notify Russia on Saturday that the U.S. is pulling out, kick-starting a six-month withdrawal period.

This gives Russia a final chance to begin complying with the treaty by destroying the missiles that violate it, as well as their launchers and associated equipment, in the six-month window.

The administration plans to continue diplomatic talks with Moscow about the treaty, though officials are not optimistic Moscow will ultimately comply. The Obama administration first officially accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing a new cruise missile in 2014.

Moscow at first didn’t acknowledge the existence of the violating missile, the 9M729. Now, Russia says that the missile has a range of 480 kilometers, or 20 kilometers less than the lower limit of the treaty.

“We are not optimistic, having tried everything possible since May 2013,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday.

“But, they do have a final chance.”

Door is open for new U.S. missiles

Suspending its obligations under the treaty means the Trump administration is now free to develop and deploy intermediate-range ground-launched missiles.

The Trump administration has already started research and development on such missiles after Congress in 2017 authorized $58 million to begin responding to Russia’s INF violations. But the work has so far stayed within the bounds of the treaty.

It’s unclear what work, if any, the U.S. military will now undertake without the treaty’s constraints.

On a background call with reporters Friday, a senior administration official said it would be “some time” before a decision is made.

“It will take us time to make decisions about what kind of capability would we deploy, what kind of capability would we test. What we do know is that we are some time away from a flight test,” the official said. “We are certainly time away from an acquisition decision and from an eventual deployment decision.”

“We are only looking at conventional options at this time,” the official added.

The official stressed that any decision would be made in consultation with U.S. allies in Europe. Any European country the United States would want to deploy the missiles to would need to agree to host them.

Congress would also have to allocate more funding for new weapons. That could provide a potential avenue for recourse for Democrats who warned Friday’s action could lead to a dangerous arms race by freeing Russia to legally pursue even more nuclear weapons.

“We don’t repeal laws against theft or murder when criminals violate those laws, and we similarly have little to gain, and tons to lose, by throwing out this arms control agreement,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

Allies back U.S. move, but worry about future

A missile buildup would put the United States’ NATO allies in Europe in the crosshairs, leaving European officials jittery at what comes next.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted Friday that “there will be less security” without the treaty. Still, he has placed the onus on Russia, saying on Thursday that “we need to take under consideration that the INF Treaty was violated by the Russian side.”

For now, though, NATO is backing the Trump administration’s play. The alliance’s political decision-making body said in a statement Friday that allies “fully support” the U.S. decision to suspend its obligations under the treaty.

“Unless Russia honours its INF Treaty obligations through the verifiable destruction of all of its 9M729 systems, thereby returning to full and verifiable compliance before the U.S. withdrawal takes effect in six months, Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the treaty,” the North Atlantic Council statement said.

Still, indicating anxiety about life without the treaty, allies added that they “urge Russia to use the remaining six months to return to full and verifiable compliance to preserve the INF Treaty.”

Those who oppose withdrawal remain worried it will drive a wedge between the United States and NATO. Trump did not consult allies before his initial announcement in October, and critics worry further rifts will be exposed if and when European countries refuse to host any new U.S. missiles.

“The Trump administration is needlessly ignoring the concerns of our allies and partners on an issue that should unify NATO, not divide it,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One House panel approves 3B defense policy bill House panel approves 3B defense policy bill MORE (D-Wash.) said in a statement. “By withdrawing from the INF Treaty instead of making an honest, good-faith effort to collectively punish Russia for its treaty violations and bring it back into compliance, we are playing into President Putin’s hands.”

Questions swirl on separate pact

The suspension of the INF Treaty has led to questions about the fate of a separate arms control agreement with Russia.

That pact is known as New START. Signed in 2010, New START caps the number of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can deploy at 1,550 each, among other limits.

The treaty expires in February 2021, but there is an option to extend it for another five years after that.

The latest data each side shared with the other in September is within the limits of the treaty: 1,398 warheads for the United States and 1,420 for Russia. Russia’s foreign ministry, though, alleged in October it cannot verify U.S. compliance with the limits on intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles launchers and heavy bombers.

Trump has previously said New START is “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration. And critics of the agreement say Russia cannot be trusted to comply with it if Moscow has already violated the INF Treaty.

While announcing the INF suspension Friday, Pompeo said the administration is prepared to negotiate “the renewal of other arms control agreements as we move forward.” But, he added, Trump’s mission is to make sure agreements are in “America’s best interest,” including having the ability to enforce and verify them.

“Absent that, it’s just sitting around a table talking,” Pompeo said.

A senior administration official later said that “we are committed to the implementation of the New START Treaty,” but added that “we haven’t made any decisions on extension.”

If INF and New START both die, it would be the first time in five decades there is no treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

“With the INF Treaty possibly disappearing later this year, it is not too soon to consider how to head off a dangerous and costly new missile race in Europe, and it’s more important than ever to extend the New START agreement by five years,” Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said in a statement.

China casts shadow over decision

Plenty of the discussion around the administration’s plans to withdraw from the treaty have centered on how China may have factored into the decision.

Administration officials, including Trump, have noted China and other nations, like Iran, are not bound by the treaty, leaving them open to field short- and medium-range missiles that are banned under the INF.

In October, Trump threatened to “build” up U.S. capabilities in response to efforts by other nations to pursue new missiles, saying China should be part of the arms control agreement.

“Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game.”

Abandoning the treaty will allow the Trump administration to counter Chinese capabilities if it so chooses, but it is unclear what that might look like. The U.S. would need to convince allies in Asia to host any ground-based missiles it wished to deploy there. There are also doubts about advantages to sending these types of missiles to a region where the U.S. already has sea and air-based systems that can counter threats from China.

Officials insisted Beijing’s missile development did not trigger the decision to suspend the INF announced Friday. It was strictly about threats to arms control and security in Europe, they said.

“It is a reality that China is unconstrained. It is a reality that they have more than 1,000 of these missiles,” a senior administration official said. “But for the United States, this doesn’t really have anything to do with China.”