By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO’s top official on Wednesday blamed Russia for breaching a landmark nuclear arms pact that Washington is talking about quitting, but said he did not believe the Russian threat would lead to new deployments of U.S. missiles in Europe.
The NATO allies are due to meet on Thursday to hear Washington explain the thinking behind President Donald Trump’s move to quit the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which rid Europe of land-based nuclear missiles.
European allies see the INF treaty as a pillar of arms control and, while accepting that Moscow is violating it by developing new weapons, are concerned its collapse could lead to a new arms race with possibly a new generation of U.S. nuclear missiles stationed on the continent.
In his first remarks since Washington announced on Saturday that it planned to pull out of the INF Treaty, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg lay blame on Russia for violating the treaty by developing the SSC-8, a land-based, intermediate-range Cruise missile which also has the name of Novator 9M729.
But he said he did not think this would lead to reciprocal deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe as happened in the 1980s.
“We will assess the implications for NATO allies, for our security, of the new Russian missile … but I don’t foresee that allies will station more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
He spoke a day after senior U.S. official John Bolton informed Russian President Vladimir Putin of the plans in Moscow.
Trump has said that the United States will develop new intermediate-range missiles unless Russia and China agree to halt development of their own.
Military experts believe the United States would be better off modernising its long-range missile deterrent and ensuring that it could penetrate sophisticated Russian air defences, rather than developing a new class of medium-range rockets.
“It’s an extremely dangerous intention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of Trump’s comments when asked about them by reporters on a conference call. “It will make the world more dangerous.”
The INF treaty, negotiated by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and ratified by the U.S. Senate, eliminated the medium-range missile arsenals of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers and reduced their ability to launch a nuclear strike at short notice.
U.S. Cruise and Pershing missiles deployed in Britain and West Germany were removed as a result while the Soviet Union pulled back its SS-20s out of European range.
But since 2014, the United States accuses Russia of breaching the INF by developing the SSC-8 though Moscow denies it is in violation and says the planned U.S. withdrawal from the INF pact is dangerous.
“All allies agree that the United States is in full compliance … the problem, the threat, the challenge is Russian behaviour,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO is in favour of arms control but to be effective, arms control agreements have to be respected by all parties,” Stoltenberg added.
STRAIN ON NATO
A U.S. exit from the INF treaty would put another strain on NATO allies already shaken by Trump’s demands for higher defence spending by the Europeans.
“It is another headache for the secretary general because there is no agreement in NATO about what to do,” said Lukasz Kulesa, an arms control expert at the European Leadership Network think-tank. “European allies are not really sure where the U.S. strategy is going,” he said.
The treaty requires the United States and Russia “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km (310-3,420 miles), “or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
At a NATO summit in July all 29 allies, including the United States, said they were “fully committed to the preservation of this landmark arms control treaty.”
NATO envoys are due to be briefed by a U.S. arms control official on Thursday in Brussels. They are concerned about the fate of other arms control and safety pacts with Russia, including the 2010 New START nuclear treaty which can be extended beyond 2021 by mutual agreement.
Stoltenberg said he still hoped the United States and Russia could agree to extend the New START treaty, which also limits deployed land- and submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers, although Trump has described it as a bad deal.
(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; editing by Richard Balmforth)