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U.S. Sets New Economic, Military Measures Against Russia For INF Missile Dispute

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert

WASHINGTON -- The United States said it was taking military and economic measures against Moscow in response to a festering, and increasingly tense, dispute over a Russian missile that Washington says violates an important Cold War treaty.

The December 8 announcement by the State Department signals a more deliberate approach to the dispute over the Intermediate Nuclear-Forces Treaty, known as the INF, which was signed 30 years ago.

Earlier this week, a White House official for the first time confirmed long-standing suspicions about the type of missile Washington alleges has already been deployed in at least two Russian regions.

Moscow has denied the U.S. allegations, demanded more information from Washington, and imposed its own accusations about U.S. missile defense systems in Europe.

In its statement, the State Department repeated earlier remarks that the INF treaty was under threat, and said Washington would pursue diplomatic, economic, and military steps to push Moscow back into compliance.

Though no specifics were given, the announcement is the first concrete step taken by President Donald Trump's administration on the issue.

"This step will not violate our INF Treaty obligations," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the statement.

"We are also prepared to cease such research and development activities if the Russian Federation returns to full and verifiable compliance with its INF Treaty obligations," she said.

Landmark Deal

The treaty is considered a landmark deal between the United States and the Soviet Union, eliminating for the first time an entire class of cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe. It also established a verification framework to ensure compliance.

The United States first formally accused Russia of developing a missile in violation of the INF back in 2014, though intelligence experts said the system had been under development for several years prior to that.

Earlier this year, Washington said the missile was operational and had been deployed.

The repeated U.S. accusations and the Russian denials have all but led to an impasse on the issue, leaving U.S. officials struggling to find a way to resolve the dispute.

The U.S. announcement came just hours after the release of a statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, saying Moscow remained in "firm" compliance and criticized what it called "the language of ultimatums" by Washington.

The ministry also said it was prepared to hold talks over the treaty dispute.

Concerns Over Missile Identification

Next week, U.S. and Russian technical experts and officials are scheduled to meet as part of the Special Verification Commission process. Past meetings have been seen as accomplishing little.

On November 29, Christopher Ford, a White House National Security Council official involved in arms control, for the first time identified the missile designation -- 9M729 -- which outside arms-control experts have been focusing on for some time now.

That has led to concerns that the new missile could be indistinguishable from an existing system that is not covered by the INF treaty: the highly sophisticated Iskander-M. That would pose a challenge for inspecting and verifying the weapon is in compliance.

Arms-control expert Steven Pifer (file photo)
Arms-control expert Steven Pifer (file photo)

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador who is a longtime arms-control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the danger if the INF collapses is that it could lead to the collapse of another important Russian-U.S. arms-control treaty, New START, which expires in 2021.

“The [INF] treaty is in trouble,” Pifer said at a December 8 event marking the anniversary of the treaty.

Some Republicans in Congress have called for a stronger response and have appropriated money to develop a new ground-launched cruise missile to be deployed if Russia persists.

Pifer argued against that, saying instead that the United States should consider basing B-1 long-range bombers at British airfields and sending more ballistic-missile submarines and surface ships armed with cruise missiles on patrols of Russia’s coast. That would not violate the INF, he said, and it would demonstrate U.S. resolve to Moscow.