Russia and the United States have both abandoned a key nuclear arms treaty, fomenting fears of a renewed arms race between the two major powers.
On Friday, the Trump administration accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with “impunity” by developing banned missiles capable of targeting western Europe.
Russia has denied breaching the treaty, and accused the US of making false accusations to justify its own pullout.
“For almost six years, the United States has gone to tremendous lengths to preserve this agreement,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“Russia has jeopardised the United States’ security interests, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
Mr Pompeo said the US would start a six-month withdrawal process, giving Russia time to cease its alleged violations. In the meantime, America would develop “military response options”.
Russia’s response was to announce its own withdrawal overnight.
“We will respond quid pro quo,” President Vladimir Putin said.
“Our American partners have announced they were suspending their participation in the treaty, and we will do the same. They have announced they will conduct research and development, and we will act accordingly.”
Mr Putin said he would not deploy new missiles unless the US did so first.
“Russia will not station intermediate-range weapons in Europe or other regions until similar US weapons appear in those regions,” he said.
The sudden collapse of the INF Treaty has raised fears of a repeat of a Cold War-like showdown. In the 1980s, the US and Soviet Union both deployed intermediate-range missiles on the European continent.
Such weapons were seen as particularly destabilising, and still are, as they only take a few minutes to reach their targets, leaving no time for decision-makers and raising the likelihood of a global nuclear conflict over a false launch warning.
The US has accused Russia of developing and deploying a cruise missile that violates provisions of the INF Treaty that ban production, testing and deploymentof land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5500 kilometres.
“Russia has not taken the necessary steps to return to compliance over the last 60 days,” Mr Pompeo said on Friday.
“It remains in material breach of its obligations.”
By withdrawing from the treaty, the US will not only send Russia a message but free itself to counter China, which is not bound by the agreement.
Russia says the cruise missile in question has a maximum range of 480 kilometres.
Yesterday the Russian Defense Ministry released a satellite image of what it described as new production facilities at the US missile maker Raytheon’s plant in Tucson, Arizona, noting that their expansion began in 2017 as the Congress authorised spending for the development of intermediate-range missiles.
“The character and the timing of the works provide an irrefutable proof that the US administration had decided to pull out of the INF treaty years before making unfounded claims of Russian violations,” it said.
Mr Putin has argued it makes no sense for Russia to deploy a ground-based cruise missile violating the treaty because it has such weapons on ships and aircraft, which aren’t banned by the pact.
The Russian leader said Moscow remained open to talks with Washington, but added it would be up to the US to take the first step.
“Let’s wait until our partners are mature enough to conduct an equal and substantive dialogue on those issues,” he said.
However, Mr Putin also told his ministers that he would like to review the progress on building other prospective weapons that don’t fall under the INF treaty, including the intercontinental Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the Poseidon underwater nuclear-powered drone.
The drone is designed to carry a heavy nuclear weapon that could cause a devastating tsunami wave.
Last year Russia unveiled an array of new nuclear weapons, including the Avangard and the Poseidon, saying they could not be intercepted.
Mr Putin also said he would like Russia’s military to prepare a response to the possible deployment of weapons in space.
The Pentagon’s new strategy unveiled last month calls for a new array of space-based sensors and other hi-tech systems to more quickly detect and shoot down incoming missiles.
Experts have warned this week’s developments could lead Russia to be more brazen.
“This really changes the dynamic where Russia could deploy systems that are much more offensive, and that upsets the security balance in Europe, because it can hold at risk a lot of the countries who are NATO allies and partners,” Rachel Ellehuus from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told USA Today.
NATO strongly backed the Trump administration’s decision on Friday.
“The United States is taking this action in response to the significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security posed by Russia’s covert testing, production and fielding of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile systems,” NATO said.
“Allies fully support this action.”