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INF Treaty talks between Russia and the U.S. fail at summit

The pact was designed to keep ground-based nuclear weapons out of Europe. Washington has accused Moscow of violating it for years.
Image: Components of SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system are on display during a news briefing near Moscow
Components of a Russian cruise missile system are displayed near Moscow. The U.S. has for years accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty.Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The United States and Russia announced Thursday that they had failed to reconcile their differences over a Cold War-era nuclear pact, something some experts warn could spark a new arms race in Europe.

The U.S. accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty — or INF Treaty — which was signed in 1987 and bans all land-based missiles with a range of 310 to 3,400 miles.

Moscow denies this and accuses Washington of violating the treaty.

In December, the Trump administration warned Russia that it would walk away from the treaty if it did not comply by Feb. 2 — this Saturday.

Both sides have been meeting in Beijing, but Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday said the talks had failed.

"Unfortunately, there is no progress," he told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti according to a translation by Reuters. "As far as we understand, the next step is coming, the next phase begins, namely the phase of the United States stopping its obligations under the INF, which will evidently happen this coming weekend."

His U.S. counterpart, Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, said Washington will most likely announce the suspension of the INF Treaty in the coming days.

"The Russians still aren't in acknowledgment that they are in violation of the treaty," she told Reuters.

However, Thompson did add that "diplomacy is never done."

The INF Treaty was designed to keep ground-based nuclear weapons out of Europe. Russia says that the U.S. Aegis missile defense system deployed in Europe could be adapted to fit treaty-violating cruise missiles.

The U.S. has for years accused Russia of violating the treaty with its Novator 9M729 missile.

"These new missiles are hard to detect, they are mobile, they are nuclear capable," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week, referring to Russia's 9M729. "They can reach European cities and they reduce the warning time."

However, even those experts who agree with the U.S. allegations have cautioned that ripping up the agreement carries significant risks, both for the Trump administration and the security of Europe.

Image: Mikhail Gorbachev, Pavel Palazhchenko and Ronald Reagan
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, and President Ronald Reagan exchange pens during the INF Treaty signing ceremony at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. Gorbachev's translator, Pavel Palazhchenko, stands between the men.Bob Daugherty / AP

Even a hollow agreement, they say, goes some way to curtailing the development and deployment of weapons that could target European capitals and military targets. Without it, it would be a free-for-all.

"One concern is that in the medium-term there may be the temptation to return intermediate-range missiles, potentially including nuclear weapons, to Europe," Karl Dewey, an analyst at Jane's by IHS Markit, told NBC News when President Donald Trump announced his intentions in October.

All this comes at a time when Trump's mixed messages have caused alarm among NATO allies about whether the president would truly commit to the principle of mutual defense if Europe were attacked.

"Accompanying any return of nuclear weapons will be the lingering concerns ... whether the U.S. would be prepared to protect its European allies in a nuclear war in the European theater — i.e. trade Boston for Berlin, Wisconsin for Warsaw," Dewey added.

Some backed Trump's ultimatum last year, saying it might bring the Russians to the negotiating table rather than risk an arms race they could not afford.

Others wondered whether the treaty had more to do with the U.S. wanting to keep apace with China, whose weapons are not bound by the INF Treaty.

James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the London think tank Chatham House, said that although Russia is violating the agreement, it was a mistake for the U.S. to walk away rather than try to enforce it more effectively.

"Without wishing to pass off any moral equivalence here, both sides are being very stubborn," he said. "Nobody wants to make any concessions, nobody wants to admit they're wrong, nobody wants to seem to give an inch because it looks like weakness or inferiority."

He believes that the Trump administration should have opted for a middle ground.

"The answer isn't rolling over and letting it happen, and the answer is not walking away," Nixey said. "The answer is: If you don't comply on one aspect of the treaty we will do something about it."