Written by David E Sanger and William J Broad
The Trump administration said on Friday that it was suspending one of the last major nuclear arms control treaties with Russia, following five years of heated conversations over accusations by the United States that Moscow is violating the Reagan-era agreement.
The decision has the potential to incite a new arms race — not only with Russia but also with China, which was never a signatory to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, widely known as the INF.
It also comes as the United States has begun building its first long-range nuclear weapons since 1991, a move that other nations are citing to justify their own nuclear modernization efforts. Taken together, the two moves appear to signal the end of more than a half-century of traditional nuclear arms control, in which the key agreements were negotiated in Washington and Moscow.
It is unclear whether President Donald Trump plans to replace the INF or to renew another major treaty, called New START, which drove American and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in nearly 60 years. That accord expires in 2021, just weeks after the next presidential inauguration.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision to suspend the accord, declaring that “countries must be held accountable when they break the rules.”
“We can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it,” Pompeo said, adding that the United States would terminate the accord in six months unless Russia destroyed its growing arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and launchers.
Trump said later that “I hope we’re able to get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better.” He did not define what he meant by “everybody.”
The Russian government counter-accused the Trump administration of looking for any excuse to end the Cold War-era agreement. Dmitry S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said the United States failed to negotiate in good faith.
“On the whole, the reluctance of the Americans to listen to reason and to hold any kind of substantive talks with us shows that Washington decided to crush the treaty a long time ago,” Peskov told reporters.
In a series of public and private comments, the president and Trump administration officials have made clear they are seeking a new strategy that would revive the treaty — but only if all countries that now field such weapons are willing to curb or eliminate them. The current agreement applies only to Russia and the United States.
That would be an enormously ambitious task. It would require China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to sign on to the same agreement. That is much tougher than negotiating a bilateral treaty between Russia and the United States, which still possess, by far, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.
While the administration has not yet formally announced any such effort, a range of officials pointed to language used by Trump at the Pentagon last month to embrace a new missile-defense strategy. “For too long, we have been held back by self-imposed limits while foreign competitors grow and they advance more than we have over the years,” he said.
Some experts are skeptical. “Nobody in the administration has laid out what the action-reaction cycle looks like as the United States makes all these moves — building new warheads, withdrawing from treaties, pursuing new missiles,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear expert on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“The enemy gets a vote,” he added. “The idea that we’re going to do these things, and they’re going to stand still, is nonsensical. They’re going to respond for both political and military reasons.”
One thing is clear: If a new arms race begins, it will be expensive. While the makeover of America’s aging nuclear arsenal and laboratories began during the Obama administration, the ambitions to remake the United States’ nuclear capabilities have accelerated under Trump.
For the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office said in January, the cost of nuclear upgrades has increased to $494 billion, or 87 times the amount Trump is seeking for his border wall. Over the next 30 years, the estimate is $1.2 trillion.