Epochal US-Russia Nuclear Arms Treaty Dies

WASHINGTON (CN) – The United States withdrew Friday from a milestone arms-control agreement reached between Russia and the United States over three decades ago, freeing up the U.S. to test new missiles that would have been previously banned under the treaty.

“Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement early this morning.

A Russian Iskander-K missile launches at a training ground at the Luzhsky Range, near St. Petersburg, Russia, in an undated photo provided in September 2017 by the Russian Defense Ministry. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP/File)

The withdrawal has been expected since February when President Donald Trump announced the administration’s intent to step away from the agreement. At the time, Trump said Russia had violated treaty terms for too long and acted with “impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad.”

The six-month deadline set for Russia to come into compliance with the treaty finally ran out Friday because, according to the State Department, Russia has failed to destroy a host of ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missiles, weapons that the U.S. has alleged have the ability to strike targets far outside the range agreed upon in the 1987 treaty. Russia denies the allegations.

Known as the INF, short for Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, the treaty barred America and Moscow from erecting bases in Europe where land-based missiles with the reach capacity of 310 to 3,400 miles could be fired. The underlying aim of the treaty, orchestrated by former President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, was to reduce the ability of each nation from launching a nuclear strike with little to no warning.

“The United States first raised its concerns with Russia in 2013. Russia subsequently and systematically rebuffed six years of U.S. efforts seeking Russia’s return to compliance,” Pompeo said Friday. “With the full support of our NATO allies, the U.S. has determined Russia to be in material breach of the treaty and has subsequently suspended our obligations under the treaty.”

A day earlier, Trump signed an executive order placing new sanctions on Russia for its role in a 2018 chemical-weapons attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skirpal and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom.

Though both Skirpals survived, several bystanders became ill from exposure to the toxins. One of those affected, a British woman named Dawn Sturgess, died. Russia has denied any involvement.

According to the executive order, international banks will now be prohibited from issuing loans or offering financial assistance to Russia. This is the second time sanctions have been prompted by the Skirpal poisoning.

The U.S. Treasury first slapped Moscow with sanctions last August under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act after the U.S. intelligence community confirmed Russia was behind the assassination attempt.

Those sanctions targeted American exports to Russia that featured products with dual-use technology, meaning they can be used to bolster military technology.

Typically, those goods are reviewed on a case-by-case basis but last year’s sanctions stopped the flow of those exports altogether.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported that the end of INF deal Friday spurred am offer from Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

“We have proposed to the United States and other NATO countries that they weigh the possibility of declaring the same kind of moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate range missiles as ours,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg waved the offer away during a Friday press conference in Brussels.

“This is not a credible offer because Russia has deployed missiles for years,” Stoltenberg said. “There is zero credibility in offering a moratorium on missiles they are already developing. There are no new U.S. missiles, no new NATO missiles in Europe. But there are more and new Russian missiles.”

Stoltenberg added that the U.S. was not interested in sparking an arms race and would make ‘no rash moves’ on behalf of the U.S. or its allies.

President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after they signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. Both countries let the treaty die Friday. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

Citing a senior administration official willing to speak on the condition of anonymity meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Friday that the U.S. does plan on testing new missiles in coming weeks. The test flights are not meant to be a provocation, the senior official said.

President Trump signaled in February he may want to retool a new treaty altogether. He’s also regularly expressed interest in modernizing America’s missile systems.

“I hope we’re able to get everybody in a big beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better,” Trump said in a February press conference.

A representative from the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The decision to withdraw the U.S. from the treaty sparked anxiety among groups like the Nuclear Crisis Group, an organization made up of former nuclear commanders, senior military officials and diplomats.

“The risk of nuclear weapons use is already unacceptably and unnecessarily high,” said Jon Wolfsthal, the group’s director. “The death of the INF Treaty, without any plan in evidence to compensate for the deterioration of arms control, will only accelerate our downward spiral into nuclear chaos and potential catastrophe.”

With the aid of Trump’s national-security adviser John Bolton, Wolfsthal said in a statement Thursday, the president has “killed” the tool preserving safety and global security.

“Worse, it is increasingly clear that under President Trump, the U.S. has no intention of extending the last remaining nuclear control agreement with Russia, namely, New START,” Wolfsthal said.

The New START deal caps both the U.S. and Russia’s development of strategic nuclear weapons to 1,500 each. The treaty expires in February 2021.

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