Germany pronounces INF missile treaty dead

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks during a joint press conference at the end of the first day of the Informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers - Gymnich, at the Romanian National Bank Headquarters, in Bucharest, Romania, 31 January 2019. [Robert Ghement/EPA/EFE]

Germany said Friday that Russia had “de facto invalidated” a landmark Cold War missile reduction treaty which the US is poised to abandon, with Europe anxious at the prospect of a new arms race.

A US deadline for Russia to come back into compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty expires on Saturday (2 February) but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will reportedly announce the pullout as early as Friday.

US to announce ‘reversible’ INF treaty suspension

The United States will soon announce plans to suspend compliance with a landmark nuclear missile pact with Russia, responding to an alleged violation of the treaty by Moscow, US officials said on Thursday (31 January).

Western capitals say a new Russian medium-range missile system breaches the terms of the 1987 treaty and puts European cities at risk.

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister who has shuttled between Moscow and Washington in recent weeks trying to save the INF treaty, said Russia was still in breach.

‘Clear lesson’

“We must note that the INF treaty has been violated by the Russian side and that the appeals of the last 60 days for more transparency and more information have come to nothing,” Maas said as he arrived for talks with fellow EU foreign ministers in Bucharest.

“A treaty to which two contracting states belong and which has been violated by one side has de facto been invalidated”.

Lithuania and Latvia — Baltic states keenly aware of the threat from their giant neighbour Russia — backed Washington’s expected withdrawal.

“Treaties are important if parties are complying to the treaties. If there are breaches, the value of the treaty is questioned,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said, adding there was “clear evidence” of Russia breaching the treaty.

The INF accord, signed by then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, banned ground-launched missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres and ended a dangerous build-up of warheads in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of a new arms race if the treaty collapses — a prospect that has alarmed some European nations.

Russia on Friday said it regretted Washington’s planned exit from the treaty and expected to receive formal notice from the United States shortly.

“We all regret that in the coming days this decision will most likely be implemented,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

“A decision to move to break the treaty was made in Washington a long time ago.”

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjárto said history had taught his country “a very clear lesson”.

“This clear lesson is whenever there was a conflict between east and west, we central Europeans always lost,” he said.

“We as Hungary I don’t think we have too much leverage in this issue. We can just cross fingers for a more pragmatic cooperation between east and west.”

Pompeo announced in December that the US would start the six-month process to quit the INF if Russia did not withdraw its 9M729 missile system by 2 February, using the period to start work on new missiles.

While all 29 NATO allies have endorsed the US view that Russia is in breach of the treaty, differences have emerged over how to respond.

‘More complicated’

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said withdrawing was “not the right response”, arguing that leaving the treaty would not “succeed in putting more pressure” on Moscow.

Asked if Russia was to blame for the INF being in jeopardy, Karin Kneissl, the Austrian foreign minister, who is close to Putin, said it was “a bit more complicated” than that, pointing to Moscow’s concerns about China, which is not bound by the treaty.

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NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said military commanders will begin preparing for “a world without an INF treaty” but insisted the alliance was still committed to arms reduction.

Russia insists the missile system complies with the treaty, and displayed it to foreign military officials and media last week in a bid to allay concerns.

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Russia on Wednesday (23 January) unveiled a missile system that Washington claims is in violation of a key arms control treaty, in a last-minute bid to counter US criticism and save the Soviet-era agreement.

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