The Trump administration says it is withdrawing from a treaty that has been a centrepiece of superpower arms control since the Cold War, in a move some analysts claim could fuel a new arms race.
President Donald Trump said in a statement that Russia, “for far too long”, 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”.
Mr Trump said the US “has fully adhered” to the pact for more than 30 years, “but we will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions. We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other”.
Nato said that if Moscow failed to destroy all new missile systems that Washington insists violate the treaty, “Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the treaty”.
A US withdrawal had been expected for months, after years of unresolved dispute over Russian compliance with the pact.
It was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 310 and 3,400 miles. Russia denies being in violation.
US officials have also expressed worry that China, which is not party to the 1987 treaty, is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty’s limit.
Leaving the INF treaty would allow the Trump administration to counter the Chinese, but it is unclear how it would do that.
US 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 the actual pullout taking place six months later.
Technically, a US withdrawal would take effect six months after this week’s notification, leaving a small window for saving the treaty, but 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.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by the Russian state news agency Tass as saying after the Beijing talks: “Unfortunately, there is no progress. The position of the American side is very tough and like an ultimatum.”
He said he expected Washington to suspend its obligations under the treaty, although he added that Moscow remained ready to “search for solutions” that could keep the treaty in force.
Nuclear weapons experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a statement this week that while Russia’s violation of the INF treaty is a serious problem, US withdrawal under current circumstances would be counter-productive.
“Leaving the INF treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia,” they said.
In Moscow, Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said: “I ‘congratulate’ the whole world; the United States has taken another step toward its destruction today.”
Senator Igor Morozov said: “This step carries a threat to the entire system of international security, but first of all for Russia because after leaving the INF the Americans will deploy these missiles in European countries.”
Before the withdrawal announcement, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on both sides to stick to the treaty.
“What we definitely don’t want to see is our continent going back to being a battlefield or a place where other superpowers confront themselves. This belongs to a faraway history,” she said.