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Following U.S., Russia's Putin suspends nuclear pact and promises new weapons

Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday said his country would follow the United States in suspending its participation in a treaty banning midrange nuclear weapons, the latest step toward the demise of a pact that had been a pillar of international arms control since the close of the Cold War.

Putin ordered his military to start developing land-based missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads in the range prohibited by the treaty, including a hypersonic version. He also directed his diplomats to stop initiating any arms control talks with the West, claiming that Washington hadn't negotiated in good faith.

Putin's move came a day after the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of the agreement and underscored analysts' fears that a budding arms race between Russia and the United States is about to intensify.

"Our answer will be symmetrical," Putin said in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers. "Our American partners declared that they will suspend their participation in the treaty, so we will suspend ours as well. They said they would start research and development, and we will do the same."

The United States and its allies have said for years that Russia is violating the 1987 pact between Washington and Moscow, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, by developing and fielding a banned missile. Russia denies the allegation.

Critics of American withdrawal from the treaty say that, despite Russia's violation, the best way to keep Russian arms in check would be to negotiate while keeping the treaty intact. Trump administration officials say that the treaty threatens U.S. national security by preventing the country from responding to missile threats, not just from Russia but also from China, which isn't a signatory to the INF Treaty.

Putin's directive on Saturday to start new development referred to missiles that would be different from the prohibited one that the United States accuses Russia of already having deployed. He approved a request from Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to create a land-based version of existing sea-launched missiles and to start developing a new, hypersonic medium-range ballistic missile.

Both of those missiles would be capable of a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or 311 and 3,418 miles, which is banned by the INF Treaty. The pact, signed near the close of the Cold War by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated more than 2,600 missiles and ended a yearslong standoff with nuclear missiles in Europe.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that, effective Saturday, the United States will suspend participation in the agreement, starting a six-month countdown to a final U.S. withdrawal. Pompeo said that Russia could salvage the treaty by ending its banned missile programs, but Putin's remarks Saturday underlined the very low likelihood that Russia will make such a move.

In the televised meeting, the Russian president directed officials to stop initiating any talks related to arms control. Putin had previously been eager to negotiate with the United States on the matter - in part because, analysts say, discussion of nuclear arsenals is one of the only issues on which Moscow can engage on near-equal diplomatic footing with Washington.

"I'm asking both ministries to no longer initiate any negotiations on this issue," Putin said, referring to his foreign and defense ministries. "Let's wait until our partners are ready to hold an equal, meaningful dialogue on this extremely important topic."

But Russia's defense budget is far smaller than that of the United States - another incentive for Moscow to avoid a full-fledged arms race, especially as polls show growing domestic discontent. Putin on Saturday said Russia would not let itself "be drawn into an expensive arms race" and, as the cameras rolled, made sure that his defense minister could carry out the new missile development without increasing the defense budget.

With the demise of INF, the key remaining arms-control agreement between the United States and Russia is the New START treaty, which limits long-range deployed nuclear weapons and expires in two years. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Putin Saturday that the United States had failed to engage in Russian efforts to negotiate the treaty's renewal.

"All they say is that a decision about the fate of the New START treaty has not been made," Lavrov said. "All in all, the situation is worrying."

First published in The Washington Post

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