The United States is set to pull out of a Cold War nuclear arms deal with Russia as soon as this weekend after accusing Moscow of producing illegal missiles.
The 1987 pact signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev bans either side from stationing short- and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles in Europe.
Washington believes Russia’s Novator 9M729 cruise missile violates the deal but Moscow insists the weapon is legitimate and has refused demands to destroy it.
The White House is expected to suspend the pact this weekend after setting a deadline of February 2 for Russia to comply.
The move by Donald Trump’s administration has been slammed by Democratic opponents who said it threatened a ‘nuclear arms race’ which would ‘endanger the entire world’.
Stumbling block: The Russian Novatar 9M729 ground-based cruise missile system is accused by the U.S. of breaching the INF treaty, which Russia denies
Pioneering moment: The INF was signed in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at the White House (pictured) and banned ground-based cruise missiles in Europe
Talks between the two countries in Beijing this week have brought them no closer to an agreement.
The treaty bans ground-launched weapons with ranges of up to 3,100 miles (5,500km).
The Russian missile at the centre of the row
The 1987 International Nuclear Forces Treaty signed the U.S. and the then-USSR up to a ban on mobile ground-based nuclear missiles with ranges from 310 to 3,415 miles.
The immediate effect was to eliminate the U.S.’s Pershing II missiles – which had a range of 1,100 miles – and the Soviet Union’s SS-20s, which had a range of 2,700 miles.
Both were deployed in Europe and their removal was a key part in ending the Cold War.
But the rise of Putin and his plan to re-arm Russia with advanced weapons has cast that in doubt.
Russian armed forces began covert work on a new missile system in the middle of the last decade.
It features a nuclear-tipped cruise missile launched from a mobile transport.
The U.S. says that the combination of the missile and the launcher breaks the INF’s ban.
The missile has a range of 1,550 miles, the Directorate of National Intelligence estimates – a breach of the ban.
It was one of a series of nuclear weapons treaties around the end of the Cold War which sought to limit the arms race between Moscow and Washington.
The Kremlin says its new cruise missile is within the permitted range, but the White House says it violates the agreement.
‘We’re going to announce suspension,’ a U.S. official said, as a 60-day deadline expires on Saturday.
Trump won backing from NATO, where a spokeswoman said there had been ‘no signs of a breakthrough’.
‘So we must prepare for a world without the Treaty,’ she said.
Russia has accused the United States of inventing a false pretext to exit a treaty Washington wants to leave anyway so it can develop new missiles.
The U.S. has also voiced fears that the current limitations allow China – which is not party to the agreement – to develop longer-range missiles.
However some European officials are concerned about the treaty’s possible collapse, fearful that Europe could again become an arena for nuclear-armed, intermediate-range missile buildups by the United States and Russia.
The United States has nuclear bombs at six military bases in five European countries which could be delivered by plane.
There are two bases in Italy, and one each in Belgium, Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands.
The U.S. military supplied nuclear warheads to Britain during the Cold War but they returned to America in 1992.
A former German MP said there would be a ‘wave of resistance’
Kay Bailey Hutchison, Washington’s ambassador to NATO, blamed Moscow for the downfall of the treaty.
A map showing the six bases in five countries where the U.S. currently keeps nuclear weapons in Europe. Short- and intermediate-range cruise missiles were banned under the 1987 treaty
She said: ‘For any arms control treaty to be effective, every party must abide by its terms.
‘Unfortunately, as we have seen all too often – whether in Crimea, Syria or elsewhere – the Russian government ignores international norms and agreements, resulting in death and destruction.
‘While we abided by [the treaty’s] terms, Russia developed and pursued a missile which cuts at the heart of the INF treaty.
‘Russia consistently refuses to acknowledge its violation and continues to push disinformation and false narratives regarding its illegal missile.
‘When only one party respects an arms control treaty while the other side flaunts it, it leaves one side vulnerable, no one is safer, and discredits the very idea of arms control.’
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson held last-ditch talks in Beijing on Thursday with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
But Thompson and Ryabkov said afterwards that the two countries had failed to bridge their differences.
A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said: ‘Great that Europe is interested in preserving the treaty.
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday. His administration is set to pull out of the nuclear arms treaty with Russia
‘Problem is no one in the US seems to be listening to the Europeans. As for Russia, we do everything possible to save INF Treaty.’
A group of Democratic Senators slammed the move, saying an ‘era of stability is being put at great risk by President Trump’s decision’.
They said: ‘There’s a reason that kids today don’t do duck-and-cover drills in schools and that nobody has bomb shelters in their backyards anymore.
‘That reason is because of key agreements like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
‘There is no doubt that that Russia is violating the INF Treaty, but the right path forward is to work to bring them back into compliance, not free them to produce more nuclear weapons.
‘A nuclear arms race would endanger the entire world and threaten every single person in our country, and Congress has a responsibility to ensure that President Trump does not start one.’
Nobel Peace Prize winner Beatrice Fihn, head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said it was the ‘worst idea’ to withdraw.
She said: ‘These missiles are build to be used on the cities of Europe.
‘Trump and Putin are playing a game where they’re threatening to wipe out whole towns and cities across this continent.
‘European governments cannot accept and legitimise threats of using nuclear weapons on their territory.’