US expected to announce suspension of INF arms control treaty

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce Friday that the US will suspend participation in an arms control treaty with Russia that has been a centerpiece of European security since the Cold War, according to two US officials and multiple diplomatic sources familiar with the matter.

President Donald Trump and his senior officials have been signaling for months that they are ready to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the US and Europe accuses Moscow of violating since 2014.

The suspension raises concerns about a renewed arms race with Moscow and has put European allies on edge.

It starts a 180-day clock to complete withdrawal unless Russia returns to compliance with the 1987 agreement.

The ground-based nuclear tipped cruise missiles covered by the bilateral treaty can fly between 310 to 3,100 miles, making them a threat to Europe, where officials are urging the US and Russia to continue talks, even as they consider their next steps and admit having little to no optimism that the treaty can be saved.

Earlier this month Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson said Russia had until Feb. 2 to comply, and if they’re not in compliance, the US will suspend its obligations to the treaty.

On Thursday, Thompson met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in Beijing and Ryabkov said “there was no progress” in the talks on the issue, according to Russian state media outlet TASS.

“Unfortunately, there is no progress. The US position remains rather tough and ultimatum-like,” Ryabkov said, according to TASS.

“We told the US side that it is impossible to hold dialogue in the conditions of attempted blackmailing of Russia,” he added.

‘Everything more dangerous’

Washington’s departure from the agreement will make “everything more dangerous,” former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told CNN.

Nunn and other analysts point to the possibility that the US will move to put missile systems in Europe to defend against Russia, raising the possibility of direct confrontation or even tragic accidents. Russia is likely to use the US withdrawal as an excuse to deploy systems elsewhere, many analysts said, possibly unleashing an arms race of previously prohibited weapons systems.

Europe is “worried about US withdrawal in particular because it takes the pressure off of Russia and would probably allow Russia to develop and deploy even more of these types of weapons, which threaten, fundamentally, Europeans rather than Americans,” noted Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

The prospect of the INF Treaty’s dissolution was one factor in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists January 24 decision to keep its iconic Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, as close to the symbolic point of annihilation as it has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War.

“We are heading into a direction we have not been in in 40 years: no arms control limits or rules that we are both following and that is very dangerous,” said Lynn Rusten, a senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council during the Obama administration who is now a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

US officials and lawmakers have expressed concern that the treaty is allowing China to gain a military advantage, as Beijing is not bound by the INF Treaty’s limits on intermediate range missiles that currently constrain the US.

“The history of the arms race has been one side trying to get advantage over the other and it never works,” Rusten said. “Neither we nor the allies are more secure as a result. One use would be devastating. And it is a huge amount of money on top of it.”

For now, both Washington and Moscow have dug in their heels.

Thompson, who has been leading talks with the Russians, left her counterparts a letter when the final round of talks ended earlier this month.

She told reporters that it detailed what the Russians have to do to return to compliance: scrap the entire missile system they are developing.

‘Destroy the system’

“The only way you can get the system back into compliance is to destroy the system,” Thompson told reporters last week. “Destroy the missile. There is no way to alter it, there is no way to change it, there is no way to adjust the fuel cycle.”

The US had set a February 2 deadline for Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. Last week, Thompson said she would only come back to the table if Russians indicated they were ready to take action.

“I have told the ambassador here, I have told the deputy foreign minister, if and when it is appropriate and they have tangible next steps that … I am willing to talk,” Thompson explained to reporters.

“But to come to the table and hear the same storyline from the last five years isn’t productive use of our time,” Thompson said, referring to what the US calls Russia’s violations of the treaty since 2014.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov insisted to CNN’s Fred Pleitgen on January 25 that “the ball is on the US’ side, not on our side.”

Ryabkov said that Russia fully expects the US to suspend its involvement in the treaty on the February 2 deadline, at which point, he said the treaty “will be null and void from a judicial point of view and the point of international law.”

The prospects are quite worrying for Europe governments, where officials emphasized their unified support of the US position that Russia has been violating the treaty. That said, they expressed deep concern about what the US decision will mean.

“The bigger picture is what kind of sign you’re sending out, what message you’re sending,” said one European official. “For us, this treaty was extremely important for our security. What are we looking at instead” if it is scrapped, the official asked.

Referring to US concerns that China is not bound by the treaty, this official said Europeans don’t understand why that means dismantling the controls that are in place.

“They say you have to include others and other systems, but still, we don’t really want to lose what we have,” this official said. “We should work on addressing these other issues while maintaining what we have.”

Girding for the fallout

This official and others in Europe said they’ve been trying to encourage the US and Russia to engage directly as much as possible.

In the meantime, they’re girding themselves for the fallout.

“If this kind of treaty gets scrapped it could have effects on the other areas as well,” said a second European official, who, like others in Europe pointed to a possible increase in Russian cyber activities, including its influence campaigns, the possibility of an arms build-up and the certainty of finger-pointing, as Moscow works to assign blame.

“Russia will feel more legitimized to continue what it’s doing now, but also increasing some of its efforts on missile technology and deploying them,” said this second official.

A third European official said that “they will threaten, they will try to divide NATO, they’ll do anything but stay quiet.” The Russians will likely argue that “this is about the US and the US trying to destabilize the international order,” this official said, stressing that Europe has been united in its stance, alongside the US, that Russia has been violating the treaty.

‘War by blunder’

“The message sent to Russia is that allies care, not just the US and we have a willingness to coordinate our path forward,” the third official said. “There will be a cost.”

Europe is grappling now with any number of questions. “We have to think about whether adaption is needed and that will take time,” the third European official said.

“Europe will certainly be looking to make clear that we believe it’s important to strengthen other arms control treaties like New Start,” this official said. “We’ll be looking for other conversations about stability in Europe and will look for ways to engage with Russia” through NATO and bilateral channels. “A central question will be how you mitigate risks,” this official said.

A major question will be how to deal with whatever the US does going forward, particularly if it decides it would like to deploy weapons in Europe.

“We don’t have a clear vision on this,” said the second European official.

That prospect could be quite dangerous, warned Nunn. “When you deploy these intermediate systems in Europe, it is going to cut back on decision times,” Nunn explained. “When you have short flight time, you have a short decision time. If you react to a false warning all of a sudden you could be in a war by blunder.”