Washington today revealed it would quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) a day earlier than planned, once again raising the spectre of nuclear-tipped missiles deployed on European soil. The withdrawal comes just days after it emerged the US has begun developing low-yield, “tactical” nukes following concerns that its existing arsenal of warheads are too big to use. The 1987 INF was designed to avert nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union by banning the development, testing or deployment of certain types of short- and intermediate-range missiles.
Washington and NATO say Russia has been flouting the treaty with its new Novator 9M729 missile but Moscow insists the weapon is not covered by those banned under the accord.
Last-ditch talks in Beijing yesterday aimed at salvaging the INF failed to reach a breakthrough, with Russia accusing the US of using the 9M729 as a false pretext to quit the pact and develop new weapons of its own.
Announcing the US was suspending compliance with the deal and starting the clock on a 180-day exit notice, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Moscow destroy its 9M729 missiles.
He said: “If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty within this six-month period by verifiably destroying its INF-violating missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment, the treaty will terminate.”
INF TREATY: Trump has ripped up the agreement paving the way for a new Cold War
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced today America is pulling out of the INF Treaty
But despite not formally leaving the INF for six months, Washington’s suspension of the treaty means it is now free to start developing new missiles of its own, raising the prospect they could be deployed in Europe.
Following yesterday’s failed talks, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson said: “We are then also able to conduct the research and development and work on the systems we haven’t been able to use because we’ve been in compliance with the treaty.
“Come February 2, this weekend, if the Department of Defence chooses to do that, they’ll be able to do that.”
Meanwhile, it emerged this week that the US has begun making a new tactical nuclear warhead for its Trident missiles.
Washington fears its current arsenal of thermonuclear weapons are too destructive and therefore ineffective as a deterrent because rivals such as Russia and China may think the US would never dare use them.
Experts believe the new weapons could be reduced from the current 100 kilotons to just around five – approximately a third of the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima which instantly killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people.
President Trump has accused Russia of stationing banned Novator 9M729 missiles in Europe
While Mr Pompeo formally announced its intention to quit the INF today, another US official added the suspension allows the decision to be “reversible” if Russia complies with Washington’s demands.
The official said if that happens “then the US would unsuspend”.
Russia has hit back at America’s accusations over the Novator 9M729, dubbed the SSC-8 by NATO, insisting its range means it is not covered by the treaty.
Moscow has in turn accused President Trump of created a false pretext in order to carry out his personal desire to pull out of the accord.
Analysts have said the long-running dispute is aggravating the worst US-Russia tensions since the Cold War ended in 1991 and fear a collapse of the INF Treaty could undermine other agreements aimed at capping the spread of nuclear weapons.
Andrea Thompson, US under secretary of state for arms control and international security held last-ditch talks with Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov in Beijing yesterday ahead of America’s ultimatum expiring tomorrow.
However the talks, on the sidelines of a meeting of the US and Russia’s fellow UN Security Council’s five permanent members, Britain, France and China, who are all nuclear powers, broke down.
It significantly raises the likelihood of Europe becoming a nuclear-armed battleground between America and Russia.
In a Reuters interview, Mrs Thompson said she expected Washington to stop complying with the treaty as soon as this weekend, a move she said would allow the US military to immediately begin developing its own longer-range missiles in Europe.
Mrs Thompson said: “We’ll be able to suspend our treaty obligations on Feb 2.
“We’ll follow all the steps that need to be taken on the treaty to suspend our obligations with the intent to withdraw.”
“We are then also able to conduct the R&D and work on the systems we haven’t been able to use because we’ve been in compliance with the treaty.
“Come February 2, this weekend, if the Department of Defense chooses to do that, they’ll be able to do that.”
Andrea Thompson (centre) met with Russia officials yesterday but the talks fell through
The former Colonel added Washington remained open to further talks with Moscow about the treaty.
However Russia has made it clear its position is unchanged, with a Kremlin spokesman accusing Washington of being “unwilling to listen to any arguments and to hold substantive negotiations”.
Mr Rybakov said: “The United States imposed a 60-day period during which we had to fulfill their ultimatum.
“I conclude that the United States was not expecting any decision and all this was a game made to cover their domestic decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.”
America’s NATO allies have said they “fully support” America’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.
A statement from the alliance said: “The United States is taking this action in response to the significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security posed by Russia’s covert testing, production, and fielding of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile systems.
“Allies fully support this action.”
Additional reporting by Tom Nellist.