Why the Trump Administration Just Gave Russia an Ultimatum on Nuclear Weapons

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Two months after threatening to rip up a 31-year-old nuclear arms agreement with Russia, the Trump Administration publicly set a two-month timeline for formal withdrawal.

State Secretary Mike Pompeo said Tuesday the United States intends to walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because Russia is in violation of the agreement.

“The United States declares today it has found Russia in material breach of the treaty and will suspend our obligations as a remedy effective in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance,” Pompeo said at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministerial meeting in Belgium.

The announcement marks the latest development in a years-long saga in which successive administrations in Washington have failed to salvage the agreement: First through diplomacy with Moscow, then by coercion.

The treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, was the first and only nuclear arms control agreement that ever eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapon delivery systems. The treaty forced the superpowers to scrap more than 2,600 land-based missiles with ranges 310 to 3,420 miles — weapons considered destabilizing to the European continent because of their capability to launch a nuclear strike from anywhere without early warning.

U.S. intelligence first recognized Russia’s potential violation of the agreement several years ago when the missile, the Novator 9M729, was still in its test phase, as the Director of National Intelligence publicly detailed for the first time on Friday.

Russia has denied any violation and has demanded proof from the United States to back up the claims. That information is secret, the U.S. says in response, and revealing it would compromise America’s spies capability to gather intelligence inside Russia.

According to the U.S. State Department, Russia has “repeatedly changed its cover story” regarding the alleged violating missile. Beginning in 2013, the Obama Administration worked unsuccessfully to persuade the Kremlin to stand down the program through closed-door diplomatic talks.

The Trump Administration, in contrast, directly confronted the violation by identifying the name of the missile as the Novator 9M729 and developing its own missile with INF-busting range. (The research is allowed under the INF, and only breaches the deal if that missile is ever tested or deployed.)

The disclosure of the 9M729 later prompted Russia to admit for the first time that it did, indeed, possess a new type of ground-launched missile, but that it was incapable of INF ranges and, therefore, treaty-compliant. The State Department says the U.S. has convened five meetings of technical experts to discuss Russia’s INF Treaty violation since 2014.

“At each of these meetings, the United States pressed Russia on its violating missile, urged it to come back into compliance, and highlighted the critical nature of our concerns,” the department said in a statement. “These actions were met with denials, obfuscation, and falsehoods.”

For the past year, top U.S. Administration officials have tried to build an international coalition against Russia by laying out the intelligence case to allies, explaining how and when Russia violated the INF treaty. European allies, while deeply troubled by the prospect of having mid-range missiles on the continent, acknowledge that Russia is in violation and has been for years.

Foreign ministers representing each of the 29 NATO members issued a unanimous 10-point statement Tuesday that said they “strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty.” It called on Moscow to “return urgently to full and verifiable compliance” and declared “it is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.”

President Donald Trump revealed in October his intention to withdraw from the agreement. His national security advisor, John Bolton, was later dispatched to Moscow to personally inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of the United States’ intention to leave the INF.

Still, the possibility of a world without the treaty stokes deep fears over a whether there will be a subsequent weapons build-up in Europe. When the treaty was initially signed, it forced the superpowers to scrap more than 2,600 missiles that were considered destabilizing to continent because they could deliver a nuclear strike in less than 10 minutes.

It’s also problematic because if the U.S. and Russia can’t fix the INF, they’re likely not going to be willing to engage on future arms agreements. That concern looms large because New START, a linchpin arms-control agreement, is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021. The 2010 deal limits each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads. If it sunsets, it will be the first time the effort to limit the strategic stockpiles in the U.S. and Russia has lapsed since height of the Cold War.

“We don’t want a new arms race. We don’t want a new Cold War. So Allies will continue to work for a better relationship with Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “So Russia now has a last chance to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty but we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com