National security adviser John Bolton remains firm that the United States will withdraw from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty with Russia, he told reporters shortly after a 90-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 23.
Washington has not filed a formal notice to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, but will do so “in due course,” Bolton said in Moscow.
President Donald Trump announced on Oct. 20, shortly before Bolton arrived in Moscow, that the United States will be withdrawing from the treaty. President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in 1987, agreeing to destroy all ground-launched short- and mid-range ballistic missiles and banning these weapons’ use and possession. Washington has repeatedly accused Moscow of violating the treaty since 2013; Kremlin denies those claims.
In addition to Russian violations, the United States is concerned about the substantial strides in the development of intermediate-range missiles made by China, Iran, and North Korea, Bolton noted. One-third to one-half of China’s ballistic missile arsenal would violate the INF if Beijing was bound by the treaty, according to a U.S. assessment.
“There’s a new strategic reality out there. This is a Cold War, bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world,” Bolton said. “This is something that concerns the Russians very substantially and we talked about that.”
Trump also brought up China in his comments about withdrawal from the INF, hinting that the United States may seek an expanded treaty that included three or more nations. According to Bolton, Washington’s attempts to bring other parties into the INF date back to 2003.
“They all failed,” Bolton said.
The State Department faulted Russia for violating the INF in six of its annual compliance reports. The United States, with NATO’s backing, asserts that Moscow’s deployment of the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise-missile system violated the treaty. Russia remained silent on the issue for years, only to acknowledge the existence of the missile system, while demanding that the United States produce evidence it violates the pact.
“It is the American position that Russia is in violation,” Bolton said. “It is Russia’s position they’re not in violation. So one has to ask: How do you ask the Russians to come back into compliance with obligations they don’t think they’re violating?”
Bolton cautioned about taking for granted the media narrative that withdrawal from the INF would trigger an arms race, referencing Washington’s previous exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Moscow. Bolton said media around the world seemed to have a button on their keyboard qualifying the ABM treaty as “the cornerstone of international stability” every time it was mentioned.
“It was not true then. It will not be true now, with the withdrawal from this treaty,” Bolton said.
Washington’s current position, given Russia’s violation of the INF, is that the United States is the only nation restricted by the treaty. Asked what practical actions the withdrawal will lead to, Bolton said the focus is on addressing Russia’s violation.
“It’s a position Russia doesn’t agree with, which we feel very strongly about and was a major factor in our decision to withdraw,” he said.
Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, speaking to reporters following the talks, sounded a conciliatory note, saying that Moscow views Bolton’s visit as a sign Washington wants to continue the dialogue on the issue. He said Moscow wants the same thing.
Bolton and Putin came to a preliminary agreement that the U.S. and Russian leaders will have a bilateral meeting in Paris on Nov. 11, on the sidelines of events to commemorate the end of World War One.
Prior to Bolton’s meeting with Putin, China issued a statement calling on the United States to stay in the treaty.
“If I were living in Beijing I’d probably think the same thing, but I’m not,” Bolton said.
Beijing has developed eight unique operational nuclear-capable missile systems with effective ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles, which are prohibited under the INF treaty, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The national security adviser didn’t provide an official timeline for the withdrawal, but referenced the process for pulling out of ABM as a rough guideline. Bolton informed Russia of the withdrawal in September 2001; President George Bush filed a formal notice in December 2001; and the United States officially exited the treaty six months later, in June 2002.
Trump is exiting the INF at a time of increased tensions with Russia. In response to Moscow’s malign activity around the world and in the United States, the White House has issued several rounds of sanctions, closed a Russian consulate, and expelled dozens of Russian intelligence officers.
In opening remarks at his meeting with Bolton, Putin referred to the U.S. coat of arms to describe, from his perspective, the state of affairs between the Kremlin and the White House.
“We barely respond to any of your steps but they keep on coming,” Putin told Bolton.
“On the coat of the arms of the United States, there’s an eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. My question is whether your eagle has gobbled up all the olives, leaving only the arrows,” Putin said, drawing a laugh from Bolton.
Bolton, who told Putin he hoped to be able to address some of Putin’s concerns about the troubled state of U.S.–Russia relations, said that he had not brought any olives.
Reuters contributed to this report.