Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that Rusia is violating a Cold War-era arms control agreement and that the United States would begin the process of leaving the accord in 60 days if Moscow doesn't come into compliance.
The ultimatum, issued at a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, amounts to a softening of the Trump administration's position after President Donald Trump abruptly announced in October that he had decided to "terminate the agreement. But neither Pompeo nor other NATO officials held out much hope that Russia would destroy the missiles and launchers that the alliance said violate the landmark accord.
"It makes no sense for the United States to remain in a treaty that constrains our ability to respond to Russia's violations," Pompeo said after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. "We hope that they'll change course, but there's been absolutely no indication that they'll do so."
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987, banned nuclear and nonnuclear missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or about 310 to 3,400 miles. It has been a pillar of Europe's security architecture for more than three decades, but the Trump administration has said it puts the United States at a military disadvantage against China, which is not bound by the treaty.
For much of the West, the INF Treaty was a watershed moment in Cold War arms control, eliminating more than 2,600 missiles and ending a yearslong standoff with nuclear missiles in Europe between East and West.
Trump's announcement that the United States would exit the treaty raised fears of a return to Cold War tensions when nuclear-tipped missiles across the continent threatened to strike targets within minutes. Pompeo did not detail U.S. plans for the future, but he suggested the Pentagon would quickly start to build its capability.
"There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China," Pompeo said Tuesday.
The termination plan was set to go into effect Tuesday, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders persuaded the president to delay the move to allow for additional consultations with allies and to try to pressure the Kremlin one last time to comply with the treaty, according to diplomats and officials familiar with the discussions.
Merkel's last-ditch effort, which she advanced in a meeting with Trump in Buenos Aires on Saturday, came up against a determined drive by the president's national security adviser John Bolton, to withdraw from the landmark accord.
U.S. officials braced for an immediate withdrawal from the treaty last week after Bolton signed and distributed a memo conveying the president's decision to pull out. A copy of the memo, obtained by The Washington Post, underscored a directive for the secretary of state to "make all necessary arrangements" to implement the withdrawal "no later than December 4, 2018." The secretary of defense was also ordered to "develop and deploy ground-launched missiles at the earliest possible date," the memo said.
But the Trump administration tabled the action after Merkel and other European officials told Trump that the rapid withdrawal schedule did not give them enough time to explain the policy change to domestic audiences.
"Merkel had a very good meeting with Trump and managed to convince the president to give more time before a pullout," said one European diplomat familiar with the discussion.
The decision to delay the withdrawal marked a rare victory for Merkel, whose frosty relationship with Trump has been marred by disappointment and frustration. The move set off a lively scramble, with U.S. diplomats uncertain as late as Tuesday morning what the policy announced hours later would ultimately be.
Although Trump's gesture showed some amount of deference to the German leader, it was simply delaying the inevitable, diplomats and experts said.
"Is this delay going to satisfy the allies? No, because nothing has changed except delaying the outcome, and the Europeans want a different outcome," said Daryl Kimball, executive director for the Arms Control Association.
European leaders fear that their voters could be sympathetic to a Kremlin argument that the United States is tearing up one international agreement after another, following Trump's decision to leave the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Their anger may have been fueled by Pompeo's decision to deliver a blistering foreign policy address in Brussels just before the NATO meeting, using a city that serves as a capital for the European Union to lash out at multinational organizations and "bureaucrats."
Trump critics "claim America is acting unilaterally instead of multilaterally, as if every kind of multilateral action is by definition desirable," Pompeo said.
"Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well," he said to stony silence from the European audience, as he excoriated the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, the African Union, the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement.
The speech drew a quick rebuttal from the European Commission.
"Let me simplify as much as I can," said European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas, pushing back against Pompeo's suggestion that EU bureaucrats are unaccountable and launching into an explanation of how they answer to European voters. "For the people who come to Brussels and coin an opinion without knowing how our system works, that's how our system works," he said, gesticulating in apparent frustration.
Pompeo's warning about the INF pullout came as NATO foreign ministers declared Tuesday that Russia was in violation of the arms control agreement, a chance for them to lay the groundwork for the eventual American withdrawal.
"We all know that time is running out, that this is not tenable," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the meeting.
NATO foreign ministers said they wanted to preserve the treaty, but some expressed skepticism that it held value if Russia was violating it.
"If you have a treaty, you must comply with it," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. Russia is "not complying, so what's the value of the treaty?"
Europeans officials and Democrats in Congress have complained that the Trump administration's decision to withdraw was done without due consultation and squandered an opportunity to focus the world's attention on Russia's alleged violations of the INF Treaty, which focuses on its covert development of an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile designated 9M729.
The Obama administration announced in 2014 that it believed Russia had test-launched a missile in violation of the treaty, but it gave few details and sought to bring the Kremlin back into compliance. A year ago, the Trump administration for the first time identified the missile it believed was in violation, but much of the evidence remains classified. The Kremlin says it continues to adhere to the treaty.
"The administration's sudden decision to withdraw unilaterally is a political and geostrategic gift to Russia," the top-ranking Democrats on the Senate foreign relations, armed services and intelligence committees said in a letter to Trump on Monday. "It takes the focus away from Russia's transgressions and malign behavior and instead feeds a narrative that the United States is willing to shred our commitments unilaterally without any strategic alternative."
U.S. diplomats say they do not believe Russia will return to compliance with the treaty, in part because they think the Kremlin has decided it needs the missile technology to protect itself against China, with which it shares a border.
Garrett Marquis, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said European leaders should hardly be surprised by the Trump move.
"The U.S. has engaged in extensive consultation with our allies on Russia's violation of the INF Treaty, which has been ongoing for more than five years," Marquis said.
- - -
The Washington Post's Birnbaum reported from Brussels; Carol Morello and Paul Sonne contributed to this report.
This story was originally published by The Washington Post.