Donald Trump says he will pull the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, claiming that Moscow is violating the deal.
The president said he wanted a new agreement with Russia and China, although he offered no details of how Moscow had violated the 1987 treaty. However, the US has previously accused Russia of breaking the pact in developing a cruise missile.
“We are going to terminate the agreement and then we are going to develop the weapons,” Mr Trump said – unless a new agreement was forthcoming.
The pact helps protect the US and its allies in Europe and the Far East. It prohibits the United States and Russia from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.
Mr Trump made the announcement on Saturday after a campaign stop in Elko, Nevada. Meanwhile, National Security Adviser John Bolton was headed to Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Mr Bolton is said to have been pushing hard to have Washington pull out of the treaty given Moscow’s development of the new cruise missile, which US officials said broke the treaty. Moscow has denied the charge and alleges that a US missile defence system deployed in eastern Europe against a potential Iranian threat can be adapted to fire medium-range offensive missiles at Russia.
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released earlier this year, called for research into new US ground-launched medium-range missiles as a way of pressuring Moscow back into compliance.
Earlier this month, the US ambassador to Nato, Kay Bailey Hutchison, warned Russia to stop development of the missile during a briefing to reporters, saying that US counter measures to the weapon – known as 9M729 – would be to “take it out”.
“The counter-measures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty,” the ambassador said. “Getting them to withdraw would be our choice, of course. But I think the question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering. And at that point we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska.”
Ms Hutchison suggested during that briefing that the US did not want to withdraw from the INF treaty, saying that the goal was for Russia to comply with it.
However, Mr Bolton, who has become increasingly influential in the White House, is looking to push through something he has opposed his whole career. He has previously called such treaties “unilateral disarmament”.
Any move to pull the US out the treaty will likely still face stiff opposition from some in the White House and the Pentagon.
The INF treaty faces a Congress-imposed deadline of early next year over US involvement. An amendment in the 2019 defence spending bill calls on the president to inform Senate by 15 January whether Russia is in “material breach” of the treaty, and therefore if the INF remains legally binding.
Mr Bolton is said to be using his Russia trip to inform Moscow of the administration’s plans to exit the INF agreement, according to The New York Times. Under the terms of the treaty, withdrawal would take six months.
Mr Trump’s national security advisor is also said to want to stop an extension to the 2010 New Start treaty with Russia – a deal that limits deployed strategic nuclear warheads and the delivery systems they use. That is due to expire in 2021.