Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — US President Donald Trump is pulling the US out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty , a 1987 pact with the former Soviet Union that became a pillar of international arms control.

“The US will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty and begin the process of withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which will be completed in six months unless Russia comes back into compliance by destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment,” Trump said in a statement on Friday.

US secretary of state Michael Pompeo told reporters at the state department that “countries must be held accountable when they break the rules, and Russia has violated the accord for years “without remorse.”

The announcement came before a Saturday deadline for Russia to destroy all of its ground-launched cruise missiles known as 9M729s, associated equipment and launchers. The suspension represents another flashpoint in US-Russia relations and another repudiation by Trump and his aides of international agreements, from the nuclear deal with Iran to the international climate-change accord.

“The onus is on Russia to change course from a pattern of destabilising activity,” Pompeo said. “We’ll continue to have conversations with them. We hope they’ll come back into compliance.”

While Europeans and many US law makers had hoped to preserve the treaty to stem proliferation of ground-launched, intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Trump administration argued that Russia has been in violation for years anyway.

White House national security adviser John Bolton has called the treaty outdated and one that doesn’t address the rising threat from China, which isn’t a signatory.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg had warned nations to prepare for the treaty’s likely collapse.

The US argues that Russia has jeopardised the INF treaty for years by deploying ground-launched missiles that fall within the banned range of 500km to 5,500km. Russia has denied violating the INF treaty, accused the US of violations, and said withdrawal from the Cold War accord would trigger an arms race.

“On February 2, the US will stop fulfilling its obligations under the treaty,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with state TV broadcast on Friday. “This is a serious step.” Russia is now waiting to see whether Washington will “inform us they are actually withdrawing” from the INF Treaty, he added.

Trump has been threatening to suspend the treaty for months, although American officials had left open whether the US would simultaneously announce a full withdrawal, triggering a process that would take six months to complete.

Nato support

Trump indicated in October that he wanted to pull out, but after consulting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allies decided to delay the suspension. Pompeo said in early December that the US was giving Russia two more months to get back in compliance with the treaty.

“Our Nato allies fully support us, because they understand the threat posed by Russia’s violation and the risks to arms control posed by ignoring treaty violations,” Trump said in the statement Friday.

Stoltenberg said in a tweet following the announcement that Nato fully supports the US action. “Russia is in material breach of the #INFTreaty & must use next 6 months to return to full & verifiable compliance or bear sole responsibility for its demise,” he tweeted.

But comments from some European nations suggest allies aren’t fully in agreement with the decision. “Without the INF Treaty, there will be less security,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas told reporters on Friday in Bucharest. “But we have to take note that the INF Treaty is being violated by the Russian side.”

In the US Senate, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and other Democrats have drafted a measure that seeks to put new restrictions on the types of weapons the INF Treaty was designed to control. 

He said in a statement on Thursday, “Blowing up the treaty risks the proliferation of nuclear-capable systems by Russia, threatening Europe and jeopardising decades of bipartisan efforts to reduce nuclear dangers with Russia.”