Global Economy

U.S.-Russia Nuclear Pact Moves Closer to Collapse

The U.S. and Russia failed to made headway in talks this week on a 1987 treaty banning ground-based intermediate-range missiles, leaving one of the last arms-control accords between the two countries on the brink of collapse.

The talks, held in Geneva, came after the U.S. warned that it would begin withdrawing from the treaty on Feb. 2 if Russia doesn’t destroy ground-launched cruise missiles that Washington maintains violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, along with their launchers.

Moscow denies being in breach of the terms of the pact, and President Vladimir Putin has said a U.S. withdrawal could precipitate an arms race.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow had offered to let the Americans inspect the missile, known as the 9M729, which Washington says violates the INF treaty.

But Andrea Thompson, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security who led the American team at the talks, said none of the Russians proposals would enable the U.S. to verify if Moscow was in compliance with the accord.

“A static display of the system can’t tell me how far that missile is going to go,” Ms. Thompson said in a telephone interview from Brussels, where she was briefing U.S. allies. The Russians’ “picking the system and the missile and controlling the environment of the test” would also preclude an accurate assessment, she said.

The 1987 treaty bans U.S. and Russian land-based missiles based that can fly between 300 and 3,400 miles. Signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the pact was hailed as a landmark treaty signaling the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of the treaty would eliminate one of the major remaining arms-control agreements in place between Russia and the U.S.

The talks, held on Tuesday, didn’t touch on the New Start treaty, a pact that covers long-range nuclear arms. That accord is due to expire in two years but can be extended for up to five years by mutual consent. The two sides have already signaled potential problems in the coming renewal of New Start.

The U.S. says that the 9M729 missile, a mobile system that can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, has been tested by Russia at a distance banned by the INF treaty and deployed.

Arms-control groups have suggested various comprises to salvage the accord.

Under a plan suggested by Thomas Countryman, who previously served as the State Department’s top arms control official, U.S. experts would examine the Russian missile. Should they determine it violates the pact, the Russians would then modify the system to reduce its range or eliminate it. In return, Russian experts would be allowed to inspect a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe that Moscow has long charged could be used to fire prohibited cruise missiles.

But Trump officials have dismissed that approach, saying it wouldn’t be feasible to verify whether all the Russian missiles have been modified.

“Only the destruction of the system and the destruction of the missiles would be able to be verified,” Ms. Thompson said.

The administration has also countered that the U.S. defense system isn’t in violation of the pact.

Both sides have been trying to persuade European nations that they support arms control. Mr. Lavrov said that by turning down the inspection the U.S. is threatening strategic stability between the two countries. Ms. Thompson said that the Russia delegation, which was led by deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, didn’t acknowledge that the 9M729 was a violation.

Meantime, Mr. Ryabkov has complained that U.S. procedures for reducing nuclear forces the New Start treaty, while the U.S. argues that Moscow is trying to divert attention from its violation of the INF treaty.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at and Thomas Grove at


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