Things haven’t been going so well between the United States and Russia, and it looks like a 30-year-old disarmament treaty between the two nations could be coming to an end.
In 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), a pact prohibiting the use of short- and medium-range missiles. On Tuesday, NATO formally accused Russia of breaking the treaty. “Allies have concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security,” read a statement issued by the foreign ministers of the alliance of Western nations. Following the statement’s release, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would give Russia 60 days to return to compliance. If that doesn’t happen, the U.S. will pull out of the deal, as well.
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) November 26, 2018
Putin didn’t appreciate any of this. “Now it seems our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that [they] must also have such a weapon,” the Russian leader said on television. “What’s our response? It’s simple. In that case we will also do this.”
But the U.S. has long suspected that Russia has already “done this,” and in October President Trump announced he would be removing America from the deal. “Russia has violated the agreement,” he told reporters after a rally in Nevada. “They’ve been violating it for many years. I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out. 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.”
President Obama first accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014 regarding a ground-launched cruise missile the country was testing. Officials said at the time they believed Russia may have begun testing the missile in 2008. Russia denied any wrongdoing then, and did so again following Trump’s accusation in October. “It’s likely that an explanation from the U.S. will be required following the latest scandalous statements,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Putin’s I-Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I retort to NATO’s decision to back the U.S. comes less than a week after Trump scrapped plans to meet with the Russian president while the two leaders were in Argentina for the G-20 summit. “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” Trump wrote hours after telling reporters it was still “a very good time” to have the meeting. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this issue is resolved!”
….in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2018
The previous weekend, Russia forcibly seized three Ukrainian ships and 23 sailors, dramatically escalating tension between the two nations. The recent naval conflict was the first armed incident between Russia and Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. President Trump has been hesitant to criticize Russia for seizing land from Ukraine, instead opting to blame Obama, who he says “allowed” it to happen. The president’s general indifference to Putin’s despotic behavior has led many, including Russia, to believe that the president’s decision to cancel the meeting in Argentina was actually in response to the revelation that Trump has been in discussion to build a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign. A few hours before Trump’s “ships and sailors” tweet, his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the nature of the discussions surrounding the potential real estate development, heightening speculation around what kind of leverage Putin may have had on the president.
Regardless of what prompted Trump to cancel the meeting, tensions are escalating. The U.S. on Wednesday morning maneuvered a warship near waters Russia has claimed in the Sea of Japan. The “[USS] McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant Rachel McMarr told CNN in a statement.
Those concerned can take solace in Trump’s determination to be friends — maybe best friends? — with the authoritarian leader.