NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump Administration Gives Russia Deadline To Comply With Missile Ban


Thirty-one years ago this month, Ronald Reagan turned to Mikhail Gorbachev and spoke these words.


RONALD REAGAN: Doveryai, no proveryai - trust, but verify.

KELLY: The occasion was the White House signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty - the INF, as it's known. The treaty bans both the U.S. and Russia from having land-launched missiles that can fly from 300 to 3,400 miles.

Washington says Russia has been cheating on the treaty. And now the U.S. is threatening to pull out. That could spell the end of what has been considered one of the most successful Cold War-era arms control treaties.

Well, we're going to take a few minutes here to lay out what is going on and why it matters. Here in the studio to help with that, our national security correspondent David Welna. Hi there.


KELLY: And our in-house nuclear expert, Geoff Brumfiel. Welcome to you.


KELLY: David, you start. What is the U.S. beef here? Why does the U.S. want to pull out?

WELNA: Well, the U.S. says that since the end of the last Bush administration, Russia has been out of compliance with this treaty, that Russia has been not only developing, but also fielding cruise missiles that are in violation of the treaty. And the Obama administration denounced this publicly for the first time four years ago.

KELLY: So this isn't just the Trump administration coming in and leveling these complaints, OK.

WELNA: No, this goes back. But President Trump, in October, said that the U.S. was going to pull out of the treaty. And then earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Brussels. And he said Russia would have 60 days to come back into compliance with the treaty or the U.S. would begin the formal six-month notification process for pulling out of the treaty. Here's what Pompeo said.


MIKE POMPEO: If Russia admits its violations and fully and verifiably comes back into compliance, we will, of course, welcome that course of action.

KELLY: And just to keep the clock straight here, David, Pompeo was talking, you said, earlier this month. He gives Russia 60 days to come back into compliance, so that means the U.S. is looking for something by - what? - February.

WELNA: By February for them to come back into compliance. And if they don't, by early August, the U.S. would no longer be a party to this treaty.

KELLY: And just briefly, what does Moscow say? Do they acknowledge that they're cheating on the treaty?

WELNA: Moscow, at first, denied that they even had these missiles. And now they say these missiles are not out of compliance. They say that the U.S. may be out of compliance because it has batteries of missile defense systems in Europe that they say could be used against Russia.

They say they want to negotiate with the U.S. The U.S. does not show any sign of wanting to go to the negotiating table with Moscow right now.

KELLY: All right. I want to get to the consequences of what all this means in a second. But, Geoff, let me bring you in just on some of the technicalities. I described this as a Cold War-era treaty. We're obviously not living in the Cold War anymore. Is this treaty still relevant? Is it written for the world we live in today?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, in some sense, the problems that this treaty addressed haven't really changed that much. I mean, back in the Cold War, Russia was deploying these missiles. They were mostly nuclear-tipped back then, and they could fly and hit anywhere in Europe with very short notice - you know, in a matter of minutes. And the U.S. had its own missiles that it could fire back at Russia. And so this was considered highly destabilizing. It could start a nuclear war very quickly.

Now, over time, the missiles have grown more accurate. They are not all nuclear-tipped. They have some conventional warheads now. In fact, the weapons Russia has deployed are believed to be dual-capable.

But the tensions in the region haven't changed. You know, you have NATO expanding eastward. You have Russia getting increasingly involved in places like the Ukraine. And so this threat, I think, is still very much there.

KELLY: Let me broaden this out because I gather one gripe that the U.S. has raised is, OK, the U.S. and Russia are supposed to be bound by this treaty, but other countries are not - China, for example, which can build missiles that would be in violation of this treaty, but they're not a party to it.

BRUMFIEL: Not only can they, they do. And, actually, Secretary Pompeo cited China as a major reason the U.S. had to rethink its participation in this treaty. Here's what he had to say.


POMPEO: There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China, in particular when these weapons are being used to threaten and coerce the United States and its allies in Asia.

BRUMFIEL: And China, as I said, they have a lot of these missiles. And it's thought that they would use them to target U.S. ships offshore to sort of expand China's reach, so it is a real issue.

KELLY: Is anybody talking about renegotiating this treaty so that it does apply to, maybe, all of the countries that have the potential to build these type of missiles?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the U.S. has said that if China were to become a party to the treaty, that would make it a much more viable thing to preserve. But China has absolutely no interest in doing that. That would limit its ability to make missiles.

KELLY: Yeah. Why would China sign up to limit its missiles when it doesn't have that agreement right now?

BRUMFIEL: Right. Well, and also, it is a way to limit the U.S. from making missiles like that that could counter China's.

KELLY: OK, that sounds like a non-starter. Let me put this to you, Geoff. This is a detail, but a crucial one. This treaty governs land-based missiles. So theoretically, Russia or the U.S. - they could put these missiles on a boat, sail it wherever they want, right?

BRUMFIEL: Absolutely. And people who are unhappy with the U.S. withdrawing point that out. You know, Pompeo says China has all these land-based missiles. Well, what's the U.S. going to do with land-based missiles in the Pacific theater, where most of its power is at sea?

In fact, the U.S. has plenty of intermediate-range missiles it can launch from submarines, from ships and aircraft. Even the Pentagon has said it can counter the Chinese forces as they are right now using the sea- and air-based missiles.

KELLY: So, David Welna, what are the implications if this treaty falls apart?

WELNA: It would send a very bad sign for arms control agreements in general. The U.S. and Russia have the vast, vast majority of nuclear weapons. And if an agreement like this fails, the next in line might be the new START treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads the two nations can have. They've reduced them under this treaty.

But that treaty runs out in February of 2021. It can be extended for another five years, but the Trump administration has given no sign that it has any intention of doing that. And if it pulls out of this treaty, it would auger very poorly for the continuation of that one remaining treaty, which currently allows 18 inspections a year to both Russia and the U.S. of nuclear sites and into those countries.

KELLY: Are those inspections actually happening right now?

WELNA: They are happening. They're the only ones that are happening. And since INF inspections have ended, this would be the only way that you could have U.S. officials on the ground looking at what Russia actually has.

KELLY: Geoff, what about just from the more technical point of view? What - the nuclear weapons experts who you speak to - what concerns do they raise if this INF treaty does not survive 2019?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, I think, again, it goes back to what we talked about earlier. It's this destabilizing element that these missiles add. I mean, Europe is already kind of a tense place at the moment. And so reintroducing these weapons systems that, historically, have been such a problem really is worrying, I think, arms control experts.

KELLY: NPR's David Welna and Geoff Brumfiel, thanks to you both.

WELNA: You're welcome.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.