The United States on Friday fired a diplomatic warning shot at Russia, making good on threats to begin its withdrawal from a key arms control agreement and thus taking the next step toward what some politicians and analysts see as a burgeoning arms race.
In a statement, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. was suspending its compliance with the decades-old Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, accusing the Kremlin of willfully breaking the deal.
“For far too long, Russia has violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad,” Trump said.
“We will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions,” he added.
But later Friday, speaking to reporters, Trump left open the possibility of a deal.
“I hope that we are able to get everybody in a very big and beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better,” he said. “Certainly, I would like to see that. But you have to have everybody adhere to it.”
The INF treaty, signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1987, was the world’s first arms control pact to prohibit an entire class of weapons, banning ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles).
Yet the U.S. has been become increasingly vocal about what it says are blatant Russian violations.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials charge those violations date to at least 2014, when Russia began deploying its 9M729 missile following years of tests designed to skirt the treaty’s constraints.
Now, officials say, Russia is fielding multiple military battalions that are equipped with the missile in question.
WATCH: US Backs Away From Key Arms Treaty
“We must respond,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Friday. “We can no longer be restricted by the treaty, while Russia shamelessly violates it.
“We provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its ways and for Russia to honor its commitment. Tomorrow that time runs out,” he said.
Saturday, the U.S. will provide the Kremlin and other former Soviet states with formal notice of its intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty, triggering a six-month window.
Officials say if Moscow refuses to verifiably destroy the missiles, as is expected, the treaty will terminate, and the U.S. will be free to pursue its own intermediate range, ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles.
Russian officials reacted quickly to the announcement, denying any treaty violations, while alleging it is Washington that wants to expand its missile arsenal.
The U.S. withdrawal deals “a serious blow to the international arms control system and the system of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which exist for now,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.
Ryabkov also suggested other arms control agreements, like the New START Treaty, which limits both countries to fewer than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, could be in jeopardy.
“What will come next is a huge question,” the deputy foreign minister told Russian television. “I fear that the New START may share the fate of the INF Treaty. It may just expire on February 5, 2021, without an extension.”
New arms race?
But U.S. officials held firm, insisting the onus is on the Kremlin to ease tensions.
“Let’s be clear: If there’s an arms race, it is Russia that is starting it,” a senior administration official said Friday.
“We simply cannot tolerate this kind of abuse of arms control and expect for arms control to continue to be viable,” the official said. “We cannot permit a scenario where we are unilaterally bound to a treaty, we are denied the ability to have a military capability to deter attacks.”
Concern, support for US action
In a statement issued shortly after the U.S. announced its plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty, NATO said its members “fully support this action.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter:
At the United Nations, officials expressed concern.
"For the secretary-general, his hope [is] that the parties will use the next six months to resolve their differences through dialogue," spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. "The INF is a very important part of the international arms control architecture."
Trump's decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty also garnered a mixed response from U.S. lawmakers.
"Russia's repeated violations over the years demonstrate that the INF is no longer in the best interest of the United States," Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
But the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, was wary.
"The Trump administration is risking an arms race and undermining international security and stability," Pelosi said in a statement.
"Russia's brazen noncompliance with this treaty is deeply concerning," she said. "But discarding a key pillar of our nonproliferation security framework creates unacceptable risks."
Few good choices Still, some analysts caution that Russian President Vladimir Putin has given the U.S. and its European allies few good options.
"Putin's decision to build weapons that violate this important arms control treaty is another of his attacks on the peace in Europe," according to Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a global affairs research group in Washington.
"Russia is an aggressive military," he said. "Europe needs to strengthen deterrence to further dangerous behavior from Moscow." The U.S. has already started spending on such deterrence — $48 million on research to develop its own intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles. And officials say there have already been some initial discussions with allies.
"We are some time away from having a system that we would produce, that we would train soldiers or airmen or Marines to deploy," the senior administration official said, adding that for now, nuclear-armed missiles were not under consideration.
"We are only looking at conventional options at this time," the official said. "Nothing the United States is currently looking at is nuclear in character."
The pursuit of the new missiles, though, could also give the U.S. additional options in countering growing threats from China and Iran.
Neither Beijing nor Tehran was subject to the INF Treaty, and U.S. officials believe each country has more than 1,000 intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles in its arsenal.
But some experts warn any increase in the number of such missiles, by the U.S. or Russia, will only escalate missile production and tensions in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer and VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this report.