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Russia Follows U.S. Move To Withdraw From Nuclear Arms Control Treaty


We're going to stay on the subject of international affairs, but we're going to take a step back in time to 1987. That's the year that saw a milestone on the road to ending the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came together at the White House to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF Treaty. The agreement banned an entire class of nuclear weapons. And, within a few years, the U.S. and the USSR eliminated thousands of missiles and warheads. At the signing ceremony, Reagan got to the heart of what would make the treaty work.


RONALD REAGAN: We have listened to the wisdom of an old Russian maxim, and I'm sure you're familiar with it. Mr. General Secretary, though my pronunciation may give you difficulty, the maxim is doveryai no proveryai. Trust but verify.

MARTIN: More than three decades later, the trust apparently is gone.


MIKE POMPEO: Russia has jeopardized the United States' security interests, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.

MARTIN: That was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, yesterday, announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the INF Treaty within six months unless Russia returns to compliance. Russia replied by saying that it, too, is withdrawing from the treaty. So that would seem to invite the question - is this the start of a new arms race? We called arms control expert Jon Wolfsthal to talk about this. He served as senior director for nonproliferation and arms control in President Obama's National Security Council. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for coming in.

JON WOLFSTHAL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first, the Trump administration says Russia has violated the INF Treaty. Is this true? And if so, how has Russia done so?

WOLFSTHAL: Unfortunately, it is true. It's not just the Trump administration that says Russia has cheated on this agreement. The Obama administration, publicly, in 2013, came out with that same information. Under the treaty, neither side can test or possess missiles launched from the ground that can go between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Russia has tested such weapons and now has about a hundred of those missiles deployed in the field, something that is absolute violation of the treaty that's been called out by the United States.

MARTIN: So where does this go next? I mean, the White House said it will, quote, "suspend its obligations under the treaty and will move forward to develop new military options." Those were their words. Does this mean the administration wants to be able to deploy new kinds of weapons? I mean, is this - are we back to the Cold War?

WOLFSTHAL: Well, I don't think we're back to the Cold War, but we're clearly in a very dangerous action-reaction cycle with Russia and, increasingly, with China. What's really frustrating for people that supported arms control and wanted to see the U.S. save this treaty is we don't have a military requirement for these missiles. Russia is building them because they don't have weapons of this grade, and they are at a conventional inferiority to the United States.

But even the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said we don't need missiles to counter Russia's deployment. What we are seeing is this mindset that - well, the Russians have it, so we have to have them, too. And that's what fueled the Cold War. That's what led us to have 35,000 nuclear weapons each and live in a very, very dangerous world that looks, increasingly, like the world of tomorrow.

MARTIN: What would be the alternatives to this if you think this was not necessary from a standpoint of U.S. defense strategy? As briefly and as simply as you can, could you just give us a sense of what are some of the U.S. alternatives that are not being explored here?

WOLFSTHAL: So I actually give high marks to the Trump administration. They got the NATO allies to support the idea that Russia was violating this treaty - something the Obama administration was unable to do - and got alliance unity in confronting Russia. Over the last three months, we've seen a series of Russian proposals to display the violating missile, to have joint transparency so that they could reassure us these missiles weren't in violation.

And the U.S., instead of pursuing them, said nope, doesn't matter. We're out of the treaty because you're cheaters unless they're all destroyed immediately. And so we're going to squander that unity. And what Russia really wants more than a military capability is a divided NATO. They want to see the United States separated from our European allies.

And, with our withdrawal, there are a lot of Europeans saying, well, wait a second. We backed you in the hopes that you could save this agreement, but you don't really seem to be trying to save it. And we're going to see these fractures in Europe come back.

MARTIN: And that would seem in alignment with other U.S. moves to sow division, both, domestically, within the United States through their now well-known operations and also dividing the U.S. from NATO. I mean, this is in alignment with a lot of the things that Russia has been doing, both sort of overtly and kind of covertly.

I think the other thing that's confusing, though, I think for many Americans is that President Trump seems to continue to have an affinity for President Putin. I mean, yesterday, the - President Trump said he hopes to get - I'm quoting here again - "get everyone in a big beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better." How do you understand that?

WOLFSTHAL: It is confusing. It's unsettling to have an American president that likes autocrats and strongmen and dictators. President Trump is going to play this as if he's being tough on Russia. They cheated. And so we're going to get out of this agreement. We're going to show them when, in fact, what we've done is let Russia off the hook.

If we stayed in this agreement, if we used it to try to sanction them or get our allies to support us in getting tough on Russia, then I think we could say we were actually imposing a price on Moscow for their cheating. What we're seeing now is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card. Russia already has these missiles. They're going to build more. They have a hot production line. And because the U.S. doesn't really need these - because our European allies don't want to have them on their territory, we're going to end up in a worse position.

MARTIN: That's Jon Wolfsthal. He was a special assistant to President Obama. He's now a senior adviser at Global Zero. That's a nonpartisan group that's dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons. He was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

WOLFSTHAL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.