The U.S. plans to suspend its obligations under a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty with Russia after a deadline passes this weekend and the Trump administration inches closer to full withdrawal from a pillar of Cold War diplomacy, a White House official said Monday.
Unless Russia destroys all its ground-launched cruise missiles known as 9M729s, associated equipment and launchers by Feb. 2, the U.S. will suspend its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because a decision hasn’t been announced.
The official did not say whether the U.S. will simultaneously announce a full withdrawal from the INF treaty, triggering a process that would take six months to complete. North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have been preparing for a collapse of the accord for months.
President Donald Trump indicated in October he would pull the U.S. out of the treaty, but after consulting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allies decided to delay the suspension. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in early December said the U.S. was giving Russia two more months to get back in compliance with the treaty.
“We must confront Russian cheating on their nuclear obligations,” Pompeo said at the conclusion of the NATO meeting in early December. “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 express terms of the INF Treaty.”
The U.S. argues that Russia has jeopardized the INF treaty for years by deploying ground-launched missiles that fall within the banned range of 500 kilometers (311 miles) to 5,500 kilometers. NATO partners have called on Russia to show compliance. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton has called the INF outdated and said it doesn’t address China’s rising threat.
The INF issue is another flashpoint in U.S.-Russia relations that have been strained by Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, its alleged poisoning of a former spy living in the U.K. and its aggression toward Ukraine. Trump canceled a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin late last year at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires and it’s not clear when the two leaders will next meet.
Russia has denied violating the INF treaty and has accused the U.S. instead with breaking the deal, adding that a withdrawal from the Cold War accord would trigger an arms race. While the Trump administration has some support for pulling out among military hawks in Congress, other lawmakers have argued that such a move would be a gift to Russia by giving it a free pass to expand missile production and deployment.
Europeans largely favor hanging onto the treaty, crediting it with the proliferation of ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg predicted in December that the accord will collapse and called the two-month window offered by the U.S. a “last chance” for Russia.
“But we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty,” he said at the time.