WASHINGTON, U.S. - The U.S. President Donald Trump, who has proactively pursued better ties with Russia ever since assuming office, dealt a deadly blow to the already frail relationship between the two countries with his latest announcement.
On Saturday, Trump decided to act on Washington's long-standing concern over Russia's violation of a Cold War-era nuclear weapons treaty and announced that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
Trump's decision to scrap the nuclear arms control framework that emerged from the Cold War drew not just domestic and international criticism, but managed to provoke Russia and even sparked concerns over global stability in the absence of a strong disarmament agreement.
What does Trump want
Trump accused Russia of violating the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that was negotiated in December 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The INF treaty, which bans nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles, has caused friction between the two powerful nations for years - with both the U.S. and Russia accusing each other of violating the terms of the pact.
Most recently, in 2014, Trump's predecessor Barack Obama accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty, citing ground-launched cruise missile tests that dated back to 2008.
It was revealed at the time that the U.S. informed its NATO allies of Russia’s suspected breach, however, the military alliance officially declared Russia’s activity as a likely violation only recently.
Even though Obama was resolutely in favour of exiting the pact in 2014, he decided against the move after European allies raised concerns over the move triggering an arms race.
In announcing his decision, America's new Commander-in-Chief pointed out that the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement unless Russia and China comply.
U.S. authorities believe that Moscow has already deployed a ground-launched system in violation of the INF treaty and could launch a nuclear strike on Europe at short notice.
Trump pointed out, "Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years."
He then raised the prospect of developing a new set of weapons and argued, "If Russia's doing it and if China's doing it and we're adhering to the agreement – that's unacceptable."
Trump also said, "And I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to. We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement. But Russia has not, unfortunately, honoured the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out."
However, Russia has repeatedly denied U.S. allegations that it has produced and tested a missile in violation of the treaty.
What does Russia want
Russia reacted with anger over Trump's threat on Sunday, denouncing the U.S. President's statement as an attempt to “blackmail the Kremlin, putting global security at risk."
The country also accused Washington of "flagrant violations" of the INF treaty and blamed Trump for dragging Russia into a "new cycle of the arms race."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov slammed Washington's bid to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, pointing out that the move would be “very dangerous.”
He said, "We will, of course, accept no ultimatums or blackmail methods."
Ryabkov told RIA Novosti news agency, "If the U.S. continues to act clumsily and crudely and unilaterally back out of international agreements then we will have no choice but to undertake retaliatory measures including involving military technology."
However, he pointed out, “but we would rather things did not get that far."
Ryabkov added, “At first glance, I can say that apparently the INF Treaty creates problems for pursuing the line towards the U.S. total domination in military sphere…This would be a very dangerous step, which, I’m sure, won’t be just understood by the international community, but arouse serious condemnation of all members of the world community.”
Ryabkov also added that leaving the treaty would "cause the most serious condemnation from all members of the international community who are committed to security and stability."
Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Affairs Committee head in the upper house of parliament, Konstatin Kosachev responded to Trump's announcement in a statement released on Facebook.
Warning that “the consequences (of America's withdrawal from the pact) would be truly catastrophic," adding that it would mean "mankind is facing full chaos in the nuclear weapons sphere."
However, the Senior Russian lawmaker also noted, “It’s still possible to consider Trump’s statement as continuous blackmail rather than a completed legal act.”
In a separate response, Russian senator Alexey Pushkov took to Twitter to label Trump’s decision a “massive blow to the entire system of strategic stability in the world.”
Pushkov said that the “United States is bringing the world back to the Cold War.”
‘Not the Work of a Great Mind’
The U.S. President's decision to exit a pact that has been designed specifically to protect its own security and that of its allies in Europe and the Far East, even boggled the man who was one of the signatories of the Treaty.
Over three decades ago, the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the pact with Reagan that not only resolved a crisis that begun in the 1980s, but has resulted in Moscow and Washington destroying about 2,692 missiles.
Gorbachev, who has been credited with introducing domestic reforms and nuclear disarmament deals that helped end the Cold War, called Trump's decision a “mistake.”
The 87-year-old former Soviet President said that the decision was not the work of “a great mind," and explained that Washington's withdrawal from the deal would undermine the efforts he and his U.S. counterparts made to end the arms race.
Gorbachev warned, “Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements. ... Do they really not understand in Washington what this could lead to?"
He added, "Washington's desire to turn back politics cannot be supported. Not only Russia, but also all who cherish the world, especially a world without nuclear weapons, must declare this."
In the line of fire
The nations set to be impacted by America's exit from the 31-year-old agreement too weighed in on Trump's decision on Sunday.
Trump's announcement drew an immediate response from Germany, with the country's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas calling the move "regrettable.”
In a statement, Maas pointed out that Trump’s announcement “raises difficult questions for us and Europe" since the INF Treaty is “an important pillar of our European security architecture.”
He added that Germany has repeatedly urged Moscow to “clear up the serious allegations of breaching the INF treaty, which Russia has so far not done.”
Mass also pointed out that Germany is urging Washington to “consider the possible consequences” of its decision.
However, Trump's decision was backed by Britain, one of America's oldest allies.
Responding to the U.S. decision, U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said that his country stands “absolutely resolute” with the U.S. over the move.
Claiming that Russia has made a “mockery” of the IRN Treaty, Williamson called on Kremlin to “get its house in order.”
Williamson said in a statement, “Our close and long-term ally of course is the United States and we will be absolutely resolute with the United States in hammering home a clear message that Russia needs to respect the treaty obligation that it signed."
He added, "We of course want to see this treaty continue to stand but it does require two parties to be committed to it and at the moment you have one party that is ignoring it.”
Meanwhile, addressing a Defense Ministers’ meeting earlier this month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concerns over Russia's actions.
Stoltenberg pointed out that the military alliance remained “concerned about Russia’s lack of respect for its international commitments, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the INF Treaty.”
He added, “This treaty abolishes a whole category of weapons and is a crucial element of our security. Now this treaty is in danger because of Russia’s actions.”
Stoltenberg noted, “After years of denials, Russia recently acknowledged the existence of a new missile system, called 9M729. Russia has not provided any credible answers on this new missile. All allies agree that the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the treaty. It is therefore urgent that Russia addresses these concerns in a substantial and transparent manner.”
'Think thrice Mr President'
Trump, whose policy towards its biggest global economy competitor, has grown increasingly hostile over the last 12 months, referenced Beijing in his announcement.
Trump's decision to pull up China while discussing a Treaty that the Asian country is not even party to raised some questions.
However, U.S. officials revealed that even though the U.S. President referenced China in passing, America's concerns were based on critical findings revealed by the U.S. Pacific Command last year.
In a 2017 testimony, the U.S. Pacific Command head, Adm. Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "approximately 95 percent of China’s missile force would violate the INF Treaty if they were part of the agreement."
Harris told the Congress, “This fact is significant because the U.S. has no comparable capability due to our adherence to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia."
In his statement on Saturday, Trump pointed out, “Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’ But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable."
This is not the first time that the U.S. has raised concerns over China's absence from the INF.
Previously, U.S. officials have explained that the INF Treaty puts America at a disadvantage since the country cannot develop and test ground-launched cruise missiles, while China continues to develop and stockpile intermediate-range nuclear missiles undeterred and unchecked.
Responding to Trump's decision on INF on Sunday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared that China was opposed to the withdrawal.
Chunying said that the move would have a negative impact on many sides and urged the U.S. to “prudently” handle the issue and to “think thrice before acting."
A tried and tested strategy?
Within the country, Trump's announcement was met with a mixed reaction, with several lawmakers, including some top Republicans, calling it a bad idea.
Republican Senator Rand Paul said, "I think it's a big, big mistake to flippantly get out of this historic agreement which Reagan and Gorbachev signed."
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Bob Corker suggested that Trump's announcement could be a negotiating tactic.
Corker, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explained, "Maybe this is just a move to say look, 'If you don't straighten up we're moving out of this' – and I hope that's the case."
He compared Trump's announcement to the strategy the President used to renegotiate NAFTA.
Corker said, “This could be somewhat like the fact that they were going to end NAFTA, and then ended up negotiating some small changes. So this could be something - just a precursor - to try to get Russia to come into compliance.”