U.S. national security advisor John Bolton arrived in Moscow on Monday to begin two days of talks on a spectrum of issues testing U.S.-Russia relations. But one in particular has come to dominate Moscow’s attention: President Trump’s intention — announced at a campaign rally Saturday — to withdraw from a landmark Cold War nuclear arms treaty.
Bolton met with his counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday and is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. These meetings are expected to explore the fate of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a cornerstone of Cold War disarmament.
“The treaty itself has a procedure outlined within it that provides for the possible withdrawal from this treaty,” Lavrov said at an unrelated news conference in Moscow, “but this procedure has not yet been activated.” Lavrov added that it is possible Trump and Bolton are simply threatening withdrawal in an effort to alter the terms of the treaty.
Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty bans an entire class of ground-launched short- and medium-range missiles. Trump accused Russia of violating the treaty. He pledged to withdraw and develop similar weapons. The announcement roiled American allies in Europe, where such weapons were heavily deployed during the Cold War nuclear standoff.
Bolton’s meeting with Patrushev lasted five hours and covered a range of issues that have divided the countries — nuclear arms control, Ukraine and Syria, according to a statement from Russia’s Security Council, published in the Russian state media. The statement said that Patrushev reiterated Russian support for the treaty and warned that withdrawal would harm global security.
The two national security advisors also discussed the fate of another U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control agreement, the Obama-era New START treaty, which places limitations on intercontinental strategic nuclear weapons. That treaty will expire in 2021, and the two sides discussed the possibility of extending it to 2026, the statement said.
In Europe, reaction to Trump’s threat was somber.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a statement Monday recognized concerns about Russian adherence to the nuclear arms treaty, but said that the U.S. announcement was “regrettable” and “poses difficult questions for us and for Europe.” The treaty has been a fundamental pillar of European security for 30 years, and is regarded as a critical safeguard.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Trump on Sunday and “underlined the importance of this treaty, especially with regards to European security and our strategic stability,” according to a statement released by his office. Similar concerns were voiced Monday by European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic, who credited the treaty with ending the Cold War.
“While we expect the Russian Federation to address serious concerns regarding its compliance with the INF Treaty in a substantial and transparent way,” Kocijancic said, “we also expect the U.S. to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world. The world doesn’t need a new arms race.”
Accusations that Moscow was violating the treaty were first raised in 2014 by the Obama administration. In 2017, an accusation of noncompliance was leveled with greater detail, focusing on the Russian 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Putin is eager to hear Bolton’s explanation for Washington’s current position.
Moscow has repeatedly denied that the missile operates in the ranges forbidden by the treaty and has accused the United States of its own violations. Moscow’s claim focuses on the U.S. Mk-41 launch system, which has been stationed in Eastern Europe and can fire a variety of weapons, including missile interceptors. Russia claims they can also launch intermediate-range missiles.
The Russian focus on U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe comes as no surprise. Russia has been looking for a way to pressure the United States into opening discussions on arms control since President George W. Bush announced his intention in 2001 to unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited such defenses.
Peskov said that Russia will take steps to restore the military balance in the region if the United States moves forward with scrapping the nuclear arms treaty. Stuck in the middle, Germany, France and the European Union have all called on the two sides to engage in serious discussions on resolving their disputes and salvage the treaty. China, too, warned that ending the treaty would undermine global security.
But the two sides are unlikely to find a compromise, says Michael Kofman, an expert in the Russian military at the CNA think tank in Virginia. “The treaty always favored the U.S.,” Kofman says, “which was able to stockpile large quantities of intermediate-range cruise missiles at sea or in the air, while denying Russia the ability to base similar systems on land.”
The world doesn’t need a new arms race.
Moscow likely had this disparity in mind when it began to test the missile that spooked Washington, and it is unlikely to give it up. If the two sides cannot come to some kind of agreement on how to save the treaty, then Russia will be free to deploy the banned missile systems as it pleases while the United States takes a hit to its global reputation for abandoning the treaty.
Moreover, Russia has a head start in this potential arms race. It would take years, if not decades, for the United States to develop similar weapons, assuming Congress even chooses to fund them. And even then, the United States would need permission from European allies — who for 30 years have rejoiced in their absence — to deploy them in range of Russia.
“The reality is that the U.S. has little need of such a capability,” Kofman says, “and there is much greater value in constraining Russia than in seeking to deploy similar weapons to counter Moscow’s capabilities. However, the treaty is dead and there was no choice of getting Moscow back into compliance, so the U.S. is faced only with unenviable courses of action.”
Bodner is a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.