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US withdrawal from Cold War-era missile treaty would be a ‘dangerous’ step, Russia says

President Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation hold a working lunch | July 16, 2018 (Shealah Craighead/White House)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia has warned the United States not to go ahead with its planned withdrawal from a key Cold War-era arms-control treaty with Moscow, saying it could trigger retaliatory measures.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on October 21 that unilateral U.S. withdrawal would be “very dangerous” and lead to a “military-technical” retaliation.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the original document back in 1987, said the move showed Washington’s “lack of wisdom.”

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) prohibits the United States and Russia from possessing, producing, or deploying medium-range, ground-launched cruise missiles, with a range of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers.

Russia, for its part, has repeatedly denied the U.S. accusations and also alleged that some elements of the U.S. missile-defense systems in Europe were in violation of the agreement.

The treaty was the first arms-control agreement to eliminate an entire class of missiles.

“We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out,” Trump told reporters on October 20 during a campaign stop in Nevada, adding that Washington will not let Russia “go out and do weapons [while] we’re not allowed to.”

“We’ll have to develop those weapons, unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons,” the U.S. president added.

China, which is not a signatory to the treaty, has faced no limits on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

Bolton To Moscow

Trump made the declaration as his national security adviser, John Bolton, flew to Moscow for talks with Russian officials about the INF and other issues.

Withdrawing from the treaty “would be a very dangerous step that, I’m sure, not only will not be comprehended by the international community but will provoke serious condemnation,” TASS news agency cited Ryabkov as saying on October 21.

He accused the U.S. administration of using the treaty in an attempt to blackmail the Kremlin, putting global security at risk.

Ryabkov also said that if the United States continues to act “clumsily and crudely” and unilaterally back out of international agreements, then Russia will have no choice but to undertake unspecified measures of a “military-technical nature,” according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

“But we would rather things did not get that far,” he added.

Gorbachev, now 87 years old, said it would be a mistake for Washington to quit the treaty.

“Getting rid of the treaty is a mistake,” he told Russia’s Interfax news agency, stressing that officials “absolutely must not tear up old agreements on disarmament.”

“All the agreements aimed at nuclear disarmament and limitation of nuclear arms must be preserved to save life on Earth,” he said.

Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, said that a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from INF would cancel out all attempts at disarmament.

“Humanity is threatened by total chaos in the field of nuclear weapons,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Washington should consider the consequences of pulling out of the international treaty, which he described as “an important pillar of our European security architecture.”

“We have often urged Russia to address serious allegations that it is violating the agreement. We now urge the U.S. to consider the possible consequences,” Maas said in an October 21 statement.

Asked about the U.S. decision, a senior U.S. administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told RFE/RL that: “Across two administrations, the United States and our allies have attempted to bring Russia back into full and verifiable compliance with INF.”

“Despite our objections, Russia continues to produce and field prohibited cruise misses and has ignored calls for transparency,” he added.

The Guardian and The New York Times reported on October 19 that U.S. officials had begun notifying European allies of the U.S. decision to withdraw. The Times said also that no final decision had been made.

Trump’s declaration came just days after Putin said Russia would only use its nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on the country, in what some arms control experts said appeared to be an important clarification of Russian doctrine.

Putin’s comments appeared in part to be a response to the new U.S. “nuclear posture review,” a Defense Department planning document that lays out the criteria for when Washington would use nuclear weapons.

The review, released in February, calls for revamping the U.S. arsenal and developing new low-yield atomic weapons.

The document also highlighted a Russian doctrine that experts say has been around since the Cold War but has gained new attention amid the tensions between Moscow and Washington.

Under that doctrine, known as “escalate to de-escalate,” Moscow stipulates it would use or threaten to use smaller-yield nuclear weapons in a limited conventional conflict in Europe to compel the United States and NATO to back down.

That was seen by many Western officials as lowering the threshold for when such weapons would be used.