The Trump administration is expected to announce on Friday that it is withdrawing from a Cold War-era arms control agreement that has kept nuclear missiles out of Europe for more than three decades.
An American withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty has been expected for months and follows repeated accusations by Washington that Moscow is violating the treaty – a charge the Kremlin denies.
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The treaty, signed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, banned an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500km and 5,000km.
Such weapons were seen as particularly dangerous since they take only a few minutes to reach their targets, leaving little time for political leaders to ponder a response and raising the threat of a nuclear war in case of a false attack warning.
US officials have also expressed concerns that China, which is not party to the treaty, is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty’s limit.
The announcement would not mean an immediate pullout but would start a six-month countdown that could lead to a permanent US withdrawal from the accord.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in early December that Washington would give Moscow 60 days to return to compliance before it gave formal notice of withdrawal, with actual withdrawal taking place six months later.
The 60-day deadline expires on Saturday and the administration is expected to say as early as Friday that efforts to work out a compliance deal have failed and that it will suspend its own compliance with the treaty’s terms.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that he was expecting to receive official notification in the coming days, then accused Washington of being “unwilling to hold any substantial talks” with Moscow to save the treaty.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, said one of the major problems with a US withdrawal is that there is no alternative in place.
“There have been various critics, across the spectrum, saying the INF treaty was out of date because it was something the US and Soviet Union had agreed to, but countries such as China hadn’t. They were allowed to forge ahead with missile development as they wished,” he said.
“The problem is that right now, there is no replacement … and there doesn’t seem to be any work in progress to develop one”.
‘Prepare for a world without the Treaty’
In a tweet on Thursday, chief Spokeswoman for NATO Oana Lungescu, said there are no signs of getting a compliance deal with Russia.
“So we must prepare for a world without the Treaty,” she wrote.
Technically, a US withdrawal would take effect six months after this week’s notification, leaving a small window for saving the treaty. However, in talks this week in Beijing, the US and Russia reported no breakthrough in their dispute, leaving little reason to think either side would change its stance on whether a Russian cruise missile violates the pact.
A Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by the Russian state news agency Tass as saying after the Beijing talks on Thursday: “Unfortunately, there is no progress. The position of the American side is very tough and like an ultimatum.”
Ryabkov said he expected Washington to suspend its obligations under the treaty, although he added that Moscow remains ready to “search for solutions” that could keep the treaty in force.
US withdrawal raises the prospect of further deterioration in US-Russian relations, which are arguably at the lowest point in decades, and debate among US allies in Europe over whether Russia’s alleged violations warrant a countermeasure such as the deployment of an equivalent American missile in Europe.
The US has no nuclear-capable missiles based in Europe; the last of that type and range were withdrawn in line with the INF treaty.
The prospect of US withdrawal from the INF pact has stirred concern globally.
Nuclear weapons experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a statement this week that while Russia’s alleged violation of the INF treaty was a serious problem, US withdrawal under current circumstances would be counterproductive.
“Leaving the INF treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia,” they said.
Laura Rockwood, executive director at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, called the treaty “extraordinarily successful” and said it “needed saving”.
“It would be best to keep the INF in place,” she told Al Jazeera. “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s been an extraordinarily successful arms control treaty. There have been concerns over competition by China but perhaps the best way of addressing that is instead of scrapping the INF altogether, you try to engage China either on a trilateral basis or on a separate bilateral basis.
“There is a view that they [Russia] are violating the treaty but there is also the mechanism of the special verification commission which could be invoked, but it hasn’t, and perhaps if the two parties were willing they could sit together and find a way together to mutual verification,” she said.