WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States plans to test a new missile in coming weeks that would have been prohibited under a landmark, 32-year-old arms control treaty that the U.S. and Russia ripped up on Friday.
Washington and Moscow walked out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty that President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987, raising fears of a new arms race. The U.S. blamed Moscow for the death of the treaty. It said that for years Moscow has been developing and fielding weapons that violate the treaty and threaten the United States and its allies, particularly in Europe.
“Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement released on Friday.
But the US also sees an upside to exiting the treaty. Washington has complained for years that the arms control playing field was unfair. U.S. officials argued that not only was Russia violating the treaty and developing prohibited weapons, but that China also was making similar non-compliant weapons, leaving the U.S. alone in complying with the aging arms control pact.
Now, the US is free to develop weapons systems that were previously banned. The US is planning a test flight of such a weapon in coming weeks, according to a senior administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the weapons development and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The current Pentagon budget includes $48 million for research on potential military responses to the Russian violations of the INF treaty, but the options do not include a nuclear missile.
The official downplayed the test and said it was not meant as a provocation against Russia. Because the United States adhered to the treaty for 32 years, the United States is “years away” from effectively deploying weapons previously banned under the agreement, the official said Thursday.
Arms control advocates still worry that America’s exit from the INF treaty will lead the two nations to also scrap the larger New START treaty, which expires in early 2021.
“Pulling out of this treaty leaves New START as the only bilateral nuclear arms agreement between the US and Russia,” said physicist David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. If President Donald “Trump pulls out of that treaty as well or allows it to lapse, it will be the first time since 1972 that the two countries will be operating without any mutual constraints on their nuclear forces.”
President Donald Trump hasn’t committed to extending or replacing New START, which imposed limits starting in 2018 on the number of US and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and launchers. Trump has called New START “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration, and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in June that it’s unlikely the administration will agree to extend the treaty for five years, which could be done without legislative action in either capital.
The Trump administration thinks talks about extending New START are premature. The administration claims that with China’s growing arsenal of nuclear warheads, Beijing can no longer be excluded from nuclear arms control agreements. Trump has expressed a desire to negotiate a trilateral arms control deal signed by the US, Russia and China.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “I will say Russia would like to do something on a nuclear treaty and that’s OK with me. They’d like to do something and so would I.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov urged the United States to observe a moratorium in using intermediate-range weapons.
“We invited the US and other NATO countries to assess the possibility of declaring the same moratorium on deploying intermediate-range and shorter-range equipment as we have, the same moratorium Vladimir Putin declared, saying that Russia will refrain from deploying these systems when we acquire them unless the American equipment is deployed in certain regions,” he said in an interview with state news agency Tass.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said this week that the collapse of the treaty means a bit of security in Europe is being lost.
“We regret the fact that Russia has not done what was necessary to save the INF treaty. Now we call all the more on Russia and the US to preserve the New START treaty as a cornerstone of worldwide arms control,” Maas said. “Nuclear powers such as China must also face up to their responsibility on arms control — they have more weight in the world than at the time of the Cold War.”
Arms control advocates remain worried about the future.
Laura Kennedy, who formerly represented the US at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, warned Americans not to let their eyes glaze over when confronted with the complex diplomacy of arms control. She said they should raise the issue now with Congress and all candidates running for the White House in 2020.
“This isn’t ‘wonkiness.’ It’s our future and the future of the planet,” Kennedy said. “Nuclear issues are so consequential that we simply cannot abandon a serious arms control effort. Nor can the US afford to cite its concerns over INF or other issues as an excuse to let the New START treaty lapse.”
Over its lifetime, the 1987 so-called INF treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 US and Soviet Union nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. Until its demise, the treaty banned land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,410 miles).
Wright said withdrawing from the treaty was “shortsighted.” He said it will trigger a competition in conventionally armed missiles that will undermine stability.
Wright also noted Russia has complained about US missile systems in Poland and Romania. Wright said they are intended to launch interceptor missiles in defense, but appear to be capable of launching offensive cruise missiles as well.
“To claim the United States is justified in pulling out of the treaty because of Russian violations does not take the full picture into account,” said Wright, who accuses the Trump administration of being averse to any negotiated agreements that constrain US weapons systems.
Former national intelligence director Dan Coats, however, told Congress late last year that intelligence officials believed it was Russia that no longer wanted to be constrained by the INF treaty as it modernized its military with precision-strike missiles ostensibly designed to target critical military and economic sites in Europe. He said the US thought Russia’s objective all along was to keep the U.S. tethered to the deal while it quietly built and deployed missiles that violated the treaty and threatened Europe.
US officials first raised its concerns that Russia was violating the treaty during the Obama administration and said Moscow spent six years rebuffing US efforts to prod it back into compliance.
In February, Trump determined that Moscow was in material breach of the treaty and the US suspended its own obligations under the treaty. That started a six-month clock to get Russia back into compliance — time that ran out on Friday.
“As it has for many years, Russia chose to keep its non-compliant missile rather than going back into compliance with its treaty obligations,” Pompeo said. “The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia.”
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.