WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Friday it is freeing itself from the constraints of a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia and will begin withdrawing from the pact on Saturday.
President Donald Trump blamed the Russians for the demise of the Cold War-era pact, known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
"For too long," Trump said in a written statement issued by the White House, Russia has violated the treaty "with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad."
The INF treaty, signed in 1987, has been a centerpiece of superpower arms control since the Cold War. Some analysts worry its demise could fuel a new arms race.
Trump said that on Saturday the U.S. will "suspend its obligations" under the treaty, meaning it will be freed from its constraints, including the testing and deployment of missiles banned by the pact. At the same time, the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the treaty, which will be effective in six months, he said.
He said the U.S. "has fully adhered" to the treaty for more than 30 years, "but we will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions. We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other."
NATO said that if Moscow failed to destroy all new missile systems that Washington insists violate the treaty, "Russia will bear sole responsibility for the end of the treaty."
Trump said his administration "will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct."
An American withdrawal had been expected for months, after years of unresolved dispute over Russian compliance with the pact. It was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 kilometers (310 miles) and 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). Russia denies that it has been in violation.
U.S. officials also have expressed worry that China, which is not party to the treaty, is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty's limit. Leaving the treaty would allow the Trump administration to counter the Chinese, but it's unclear how it would do that.
"The strategic rationale for leaving the INF seriously involves China," Behnam Ben Taleblu, a defense expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an interview.
He noted the quality and quantity of Chinese ground-based missiles and growing prospects for Chinese and American conflict in the Asia-Pacific.
"This is one medium by which China can contest American influence in the Asia-Pacific," he said. "And it's unfair for the U.S. to voluntarily restrict itself in a bilateral treaty when one side of that partnership (Russia) is failing to live by its obligations. The U.S. ... is voluntarily fighting with one hand tied behind its back."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in early December that Washington would give Moscow 60 days to return to compliance before it gave formal notice of withdrawal, with withdrawal taking place six months later. The 60-day deadline expires on Saturday.
Technically, a U.S. withdrawal would take effect six months after this week's notification, leaving a small window for saving the treaty. However, in talks this week in Beijing, the U.S. and Russia reported no breakthrough in their dispute, leaving little reason to think either side would change its stance on whether a Russian cruise missile violates the pact.
"We have raised Russia's noncompliance with Russian officials — including at the highest levels of government — more than 30 times," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. "We have provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its way. Tomorrow that time runs out."
A Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted by the Russian state news agency Tass as saying after the Beijing talks Thursday, "Unfortunately, there is no progress. The position of the American side is very tough and like an ultimatum." He said he expected Washington to suspend its obligations under the treaty, although he added that Moscow remains ready to "search for solutions" that could keep the treaty in force.
U.S. withdrawal raises the prospect of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations, which already are arguably at the lowest point in decades, and debate among U.S. allies in Europe over whether Russia's alleged violations warrant a countermeasure such as deployment of an equivalent American missile in Europe. The U.S. has no nuclear-capable missiles based in Europe; the last of that type and range were withdrawn in line with the INF treaty.
Nuclear weapons experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a statement this week that while Russia's violation of the INF treaty is a serious problem, U.S. withdrawal under current circumstances would be counterproductive.
"Leaving the INF treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia," they said.
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament at the Arms Control Association, said Thursday that the U.S. had failed to exhaust diplomatic options to save the treaty. Reif said the period between now and August, when the U.S. withdrawal would take effect, offers a last chance to save the treaty, but he sees little prospect of that happening.
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.