The United States has issued a pointed ultimatum to Russia, in a move that could undermine the nuclear security of Europe.
On Tuesday, the US said it would give Russia 60 days to start complying with a landmark missile treaty or Washington could abandon the pact, creating doubts about the ongoing nuclear security on the continent.
At NATO talks in Brussels, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Russia of “cheating at its arms control obligations” under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, commonly known as the INF treaty.
The bilateral treaty between Washington and Moscow banned all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 kilometres. The problem is, Russia isn’t keeping up its end of the bargain.
At the centre of the diplomatic row is Russia’s new SSC-8 ground-fired cruise missile. According to the US intelligence shared with NATO, it could give Moscow the ability to launch a nuclear strike in Europe with little or no notice.
If Russia doesn’t meet its demands, the US is threatening to activate a six-month notice period for leaving the 1987 pact meaning it would no longer adhere to the Cold War arms control agreement.
“Russia must return to full and verifiable compliance; Russia’s failure to do so will result in the demise of the INF Treaty,” Mr Pompeo told reporters.
“Our nations have a choice. We either bury our head in the sand or we take common sense action in response to Russia’s flagrant disregard for the expressed terms of the INF Treaty,” he said.
The treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva more than three decades ago as the leaders declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Eliminating the class of missiles was a significant step towards meaningful nuclear arms control at the time. But relations between the US and Russia have deteriorated in recent years.
For the first time last month Russia publicly acknowledged the existence of the ground-launched cruise missile in question but claimed the weapon system didn’t violate the treaty and accused the US of fabricating the allegation to get a better technical insight into the country’s missiles. The Kremlin says the range of the new system does not exceed 500 kilometres.
On Tuesday, NATO said they “strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations.” They called on Russia “to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance.” While Pompeo did not announce the end of the pact, its demise seems all but certain.
“I regret that we now most likely will see the end of the INF Treaty,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, adding that “no arms control agreement will work if it is only respected by one party”.
Two men who participated heavily in the initial negotiations for the INF treaty, former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and former US secretary of state George P. Shultz have co-written an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the two countries not to walk away from the security pact.
“Abandoning the INF Treaty would be a step toward a new arms race, undermining strategic stability and increasing the threat of miscalculation or technical failure leading to an immensely destructive war,” they wrote.
“The answer to the problems that have come up is not to abandon the INF Treaty, but to preserve and fix it. Military and diplomatic officials from the United States and Russia should meet to address and resolve the issues of verification and compliance.
“Equally difficult problems have been solved in the past once the two sides put their minds to it. We are confident this can be done again.
“The alternative, which is unacceptable, is the continuing threat of those weapons to our very existence.”