US-Russia Tensions Put Nuclear Arms Curbs At Risk, Moscow Warns

Breakdown in relations could see crucial treaties lapse, says Kremlin deputy foreign minister

Critical elements of the arms-control regime intended to prevent nuclear war between Russia and the US risk falling apart because of poor relations between the two countries, Moscow has warned.

As US and Russian officials begin talks in Geneva on Wednesday to try to shore up a largely cold war-era system for limiting nuclear weapons, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said a “complete malfunction of the American system” meant key treaties could lapse and leave the world’s biggest nuclear powers without constraint in the event of a conflict.

“We could lose several elements on arms control infrastructure,” Mr Ryabkov said in an interview. “The building is shaky.”

Each side has accused the other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an agreement signed by the US and Soviet Union in 1987 that banned land-fired missiles with a range of 500km-5,500km. If launched from Russia, such missiles could reach Europe or Alaska. Nato officials said last week that Russia had developed a new missile system that was capable of carrying nuclear warheads and whose potential range breaks the treaty.

The US argues Russia has contravened the arms control treaty for years, and is struggling to find ways to bring Moscow back into compliance. Last week, Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, said such “blatant violation” was “untenable” just two days after Kay Bailey Hutchison, America’s ambassador to Nato, said the US was prepared to “take out” the missiles if Russia did not remove them.

“Russia must return to compliance with the INF treaty or the US will need to respond to its cavalier disregard to the treaty’s specific limits,” Mr Mattis told Nato defence ministers last week. Ms Hutchison later said she was not advocating a pre-emptive military strike but said the US would match any Russian capability.

The Trump administration earlier this year announced it would develop its own so-called tactical, lower yield submarine-launched nuclear weapons to counter Russian threats. Sea-launched missiles would not be in technical breach of the INF, which covers only ground-based missiles. Moscow also claims that US land-based missile defence systems deployed in Europe could target Russia.

Tensions between Russia and the west have sunk to a new low following the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK, allegedly by Russian military intelligence operatives using banned nerve agent novichok, and US allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election.

Mr Ryabkov said Moscow would not be swayed by Dutch, British and US claims that its agents had also sought to hack into the computer network of The Hague-based Office for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons as it investigated the attack on Mr Skripal.

“If some believe that this makes an impression on Russia and somehow causes Russia to hesitate, then that is a very wrong conclusion. On the contrary, a consolidated effort to pressurise Russia only diminishes chances of any real engagement towards resolution,” he said.

Donald Trump, US president, previously hailed a “deeply productive dialogue” with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at their bilateral summit in Helsinki in July and appeared to take at face value Mr Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But any signs of an opening with the Trump administration following the meeting quickly evaporated, Mr Ryabkov said. The administration imposed additional sanctions on Russia in August for breaching the international chemical weapons convention and the US Congress is considering further penalties over election interference.

“Even the very initial, even rudimentary sign of prospects of continuous dialogue were immediately torpedoed by those who don’t believe in any future of the American-Russian relationship,” said Mr Ryabkov. “We have a situation that is much, much worse than even during the most heated moments, or rather the coldest moments, of the past.”

The breakdown of the relationship posed a real threat to progress on buttressing nuclear arms controls treaties, since the Trump administration had refused to engage in substantive talks, he said.

Security experts say the mutual mistrust has left the two nuclear superpowers at risk of an unmanageable escalation in the event of a crisis, while a new generation of weapons and cyber warfare capabilities could leave existing arms-control treaties in tatters.

The two sides have also not yet started substantive discussions on what to do when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), under which they cut their nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads as of February this year, expires in early 2021.

“If there is no progress, then the risk of a real backfire grows,” Mr Ryabkov said. “I don’t think we can easily say that the future of New START . . . is a bright one. We truly do not see any desire on the US side at this point to engage in discussions on an extension of the treaty, which we have proposed.”

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, agreed in 1996 but still not ratified by the US Senate, was “already lost”, he said.

Mr Ryabkov brushed aside suggestions that Russia’s reputation had taken a damaging hit in the west over the Skripal affair.

“We do not believe that the broader west . . . are friends with us. Rather, we see the west as an adversary that acts to undermine Russia’s positions and Russia's perspective for normal development,” he said. “So why should we care so much about our standing among adversaries?”

Source: Financial Times