Trump and NATO Show Rare Unity in Confronting Russia’s Arms Treaty Violation

NATO backs U.S. assertion that Moscow is violating a key Cold War-era arms treaty.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Lara Seligman
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg talk during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg talk during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration and NATO, which have been antagonists more often than not, presented an unusual united front on Tuesday, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave Russia a 60-day ultimatum to come back into compliance with a Cold War-era arms treaty.

After a meeting of senior U.S., Canadian, and European diplomats at NATO in Brussels on Tuesday, Pompeo accused Russia of being in material breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, saying Washington would suspend obligation to the agreement in 60 days if Moscow doesn’t reverse course.

Almost immediately, NATO foreign ministers released a joint statement supporting America’s accusations and acknowledging that Russia was violating the treaty, which prohibits the use of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles).

In the case of some of the foreign ministers, the show of support for the U.S. position may reflect a desire to fix rather than ditch the INF Treaty altogether, as Trump has previously threatened to do.

In a statement that was uncharacteristically strong for the alliance, the ministers said the United States has remained in full compliance with its INF Treaty obligations, pinning the responsibility for preserving the arms control agreement squarely on Moscow’s shoulders.

“We strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty,” the statement read. “We call on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance. It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.”

The ministers pointed to Russia’s development of the Novator 9M729 ground-based cruise missile, which violates the terms of the treaty and poses “significant risks” to the security of the region.

Questions over the INF Treaty have been brewing for years, long predating the Trump administration. “On at least 30 occasions since 2013, extending to the highest levels of leadership, we have raised Russia’s noncompliance and stressed that a failure to return to compliance would have consequences,” Pompeo said in public remarks on Tuesday. “Russia’s reply has been consistent: deny any wrongdoing, demand more information, and issue baseless counter-accusations.”

The NATO statement signaled a rare showcase of solidarity between the United States and its allies under a president who has regularly spurned NATO and left out allied leaders from key deliberations on other issues. “It’s one thing for the U.S. to come out and say it, but for NATO to say ‘We 29 allies know Russia is in breach’ is a strong, supportive agreement from NATO,” said Jim Townsend, the former top NATO policy official at the U.S. Defense Department under former President Barack Obama. “It’s saying, ‘We’re now confronting this thing head-on together.’”

The prospect of a U.S. withdrawal has rattled some European allies, including Germany and France, who see a constellation of U.S. and Russian arms reduction treaties as critical to Europe’s security. It has also heightened the risk of an arms race between the United States and Russia, according to some arms control experts.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the 60-day ultimatum gives the United States and its allies little diplomatic breathing room to negotiate a solution with Russia. “Failure to do so risks the start of a new missile race in Europe that will undermine European security,” he said.

Kimball noted that Russia has expressed concern about the U.S. “Aegis Ashore” system in Romania, the land-based version of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system mounted on U.S. cruisers and destroyers, which Moscow says could be used for offensive missions.

“Giving a two-month deadline … puts allies in a tough spot,” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official. “Before issuing an announcement like this, you have to work out what the ‘or else’ is with allies. The Russians aren’t going to knuckle under in two months.”

U.K. Defense Minister Gavin Williamson indicated on Saturday that Britain and other European nations had been trying to buy time to bring Russia back into compliance. In a roundtable with a small group of reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, ahead of Pompeo’s announcement, Williamson said European nations need to pressure Moscow in “the next few weeks” to abide by its treaty obligations.

But Williamson was unwavering in his support of the Trump administration’s stance given Russia’s “flagrant disregard” for the agreement.

“I don’t think anyone would want to see the treaty end, but the treaty doesn’t exist when you have one nation ignoring its obligations,” Williamson said. “It isn’t reasonable to expect the United States to be the only nation that’s upholding a treaty.”

Others have praised the Trump administration for coordinating its ultimatum in lockstep with NATO. “There’s actually action in NATO on something everybody knew was true,” said Rachel Ellehuus, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The statement, Ellehuus said, undercuts the line coming out of Moscow that it is the United States, not Russia, that will kill the INF Treaty by announcing its withdrawal first.

The U.S. ultimatum on the INF Treaty follows a series of twists and turns in past weeks that has become emblematic of a chaotic policymaking process in the Trump administration. The president caught U.S. allies off guard when on Oct. 20 before a rally in Nevada he said he was going to “terminate” the agreement and pull out. Days later, National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared to try to walk back the statement, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the administration would instead consult with allies further before making a final decision.

In the weeks since Trump’s surprise announcement, the State Department and Pentagon worked behind the scenes to corral allies into issuing a joint NATO statement on the subject to showcase alliance unity on Russia’s violations of the treaty, even if they disagreed on the merits of the United States withdrawing from the agreement, according to four current and former U.S. and European officials. The State Department last week told at least some allies, including Germany, France, Norway, and Italy, that Pompeo would announce the ultimatum at the meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

Current and former officials say some European allies still extracted minor concessions from the Trump administration, reflected in the parts of the NATO statement that tout the importance of dialogue with Russia and clarification that allies are “firmly committed” to arms control measures.

Now, as NATO indicated, the onus is on Russia. “We would welcome a Russian change of heart,” said Pompeo. “And so over the next 60 days they have every chance to do so.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman