A prominent nuclear weapons expert says White House threats to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty are diplomatically shortsighted, potentially dangerous and politically risky for President Donald Trump ahead of midterm elections.
Calling the landmark 1987 missile treaty a key part of European and international security for over 30 years, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said while there have been concerns about Russia’s compliance with the agreement, U.S. withdrawal would shift blame for the collapse of the treaty from Moscow, “where it belongs,” to Washington.
His comments came shortly after U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin officials in Moscow.
“The other reason why this is problematic is that the United States and Russia have not exhausted the diplomatic options to resolve this conflict,” Kimball said, pointing out that Bolton’s Moscow visit is only the third U.S.-Russia meeting under the current administration.
“One of the available options that should be tried is mutual transparency visits by Russian experts to U.S. missile interceptor sites in Romania, and U.S. technical expert inspections of the 9M729 missiles that the U.S. is concerned about in Russia,” Kimball said.
U.S. officials, including Trump, accuse Russia of ground-launching an 9M729 cruise missile in violation of the treaty in 2014, a charge long denied by Russia, which says U.S. missile defense systems in Europe violate the agreement.
“Both sides are going to have to try harder to work out a diplomatic solution,” Kimball added. “I think if the two sides have the necessary political will, it’s possible, and the INF treaties can be preserved.”
Bolton, who said he was in Moscow as part of Trump’s commitment to improve security cooperation with Russia, had earlier hinted the arms control pact with Russia is outdated.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the INF accord in 1987, which bans the United States and Russia from building, testing and stockpiling ground-launched nuclear missiles with a range from 500 to 5,000 kilometers (310-3,100 miles).
“Because intermediate-range missiles have a very short flight time to their targets, they’re especially destabilizing,” Kimball told VOA’s Russian Service. “Because there’s very little warning time, it can lead to instability in a crisis, which is why Reagan and Gorbachev eliminated them in the 1980s.”
Addressing reporters in Moscow, Bolton said he believes Cold War-era bilateral treaties are no longer relevant because now other countries are also building missiles.
At recent political campaign rally in Nevada, Trump said the United States would have to start developing new weapons if Russia and China, which is not part of the INF treaty, do. He then proposed having China join the treaty, an idea that Kimball calls highly unlikely.
The U.S. and Russia, said Kimball, “would love to have China in this INF agreement.”
“Why? Because about two-thirds of China’s nuclear arsenal is deployed on short, medium, or intermediate-range missiles,” Kimball said. “That’s because of geography, because of the way China deploys its relatively small nuclear arsenal. So, that would be a win for the U.S. and Russia, and a loss for China.”
Asked if he expects the administration to withdraw formally, Kimball was skeptical.
“The past few weeks, the United States government has been discussing what to do with respect to the treaty. I think that Bolton, if he’s smart, he would have gone to Moscow to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to let this problem linger for too much longer. We may withdraw from this treaty if you, Russia, don’t take the following steps,'” Kimball said. “But I think Donald Trump — with his penchant for tough rhetoric — may have jumped the gun a little bit when he said on Saturday that we will terminate the INF treaty.”
In Russia, state media such as RIA Novosti cited anonymous sources offering similar interpretations of Trump’s rhetoric, which they dismissed as midterm election rally grandstanding, where politicians can score political points for appearing tough on Russia.
Although European leaders have supported U.S. efforts to bring Russia into compliance with the treaty and called on the Russian government for greater technical transparency with its arsenal, they have largely resisted U.S. withdrawal.
“The INF contributed to the end of the Cold War and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture since it entered into force 30 years ago,” said a spokesperson for the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, in a prepared statement issued Monday.
“Thanks to the INF treaty, almost 3,000 missiles with nuclear and conventional warheads have been removed and verifiably destroyed,” the statement said. “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.”
French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue with Trump by phone the morning after the Nevada rally to “underline the importance of this treaty, especially with regards to European security,” according to a statement by the French ministry that called “on all the parties to avoid any hasty unilateral decisions, which would be regrettable.”
Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, hailed Trump’s proposed withdrawal as “the right move.”
“Russia has been cheating on this treaty for years, and there was no hope of getting Moscow to return to compliance,” he said in an Atlantic Council blog post. “It doesn’t make sense for the United States to be unilaterally constrained by limits that don’t affect any other country.”
A Putin spokesman said a U.S. pullout from the INF treaty would make the world a more dangerous place, and that Russia would have to take security countermeasures to “restore balance.”
Addressing reporters in Moscow, Bolton said he discussed Russian meddling in U.S. elections with Putin, calling it counterproductive for Russia. He also said Trump looked forward to meeting Putin in Paris on Nov. 11.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.