- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2018

National Security Adviser John R. Bolton took President Trump’s threat to kill a key 30-year-old nuclear pact right to the source, telling Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Kremlin aides Mr. Trump would push ahead despite concerns from U.S. allies in Europe and Asia who say America’s withdrawal could trigger a new Cold War-style arms race.

Saying it was Russian violations of the pact that caused Mr. Trump to act, Mr. Bolton said at the end of a two-day trip to Moscow that the U.S. seeks a more inclusive international pact to replace the treaty.

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, negotiated by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, covers only U.S. and Russian arsenals, Mr. Bolton said, leaving emerging rivals such as China and Iran free to develop their own mid-range tactical ballistic missile arsenals.

“We estimate, for example in the case of China, that somewhere between one-third and one-half of all of their ballistic missile capability would violate the INF — if they were party to it,” Mr. Bolton told reporters in Moscow, noting it was the Obama administration which first publicly accused Russia of cheating on the INF treaty.

It was clear much of the world was watching Mr. Trump’s decision and Mr. Bolton’s trip with keep interest.

Many in Europe fear the death of the INF treaty would revive painful battles over whether and where to deploy mid-range nuclear weapons on their territory, while exposing them to Russian tactical missiles. Many in Asia fear the move could exacerbate U.S. tensions with China, with hard-to-predict consequences for others in the region.

China has so far dodged questions of whether it would be willing to join a treaty like the INF and Mr. Putin dismissed the notion Tuesday.

Facing the hawkish Mr. Bolton, the Russian leader used some dark humor Tuesday to hint that Washington’s real goal in withdrawing from the INF pact was to pursue more weapons development of its own.

Joking about the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, Mr. Putin noted the olive laurel of peace and the collection of arrows for war the eagle clutches in its talons.

“I have a question,” Mr. Putin said with grin. “Has your eagle picked all the olives and only has arrows left?”

Supporters say the INF treaty, which prevents the U.S. and Russia from building or deploying missiles and launch systems with an “intermediate” range of 300 to 3,400 miles, cooled fears that a “limited” nuclear war short of an all-out exchange could erupt in Europe. Both sides dismantled huge caches of missiles and the accord held up even after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Clashing claims

While Russia denies violating the INF, the Obama and Trump administrations have accused Moscow of breaking it, most notably through the deployment of a so-called “9M729 Cruise Missile System.”

U.S. intelligence assessments of the 9M729 are classified. But a State Department “fact sheet” last year said it is essentially the same as an earlier Russian cruise missile system — the SSC-8 — whose range clearly violated the INF and that Russian officials have simply renamed the SSC-8 to confuse U.S. officials.

An analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations this week described the 9M729 as an “extended-range version” of Russia’s Iskander K, a shorter-range cruise missile that is compliant with the INF Treaty.

The analysis noted that Russia has countered by accusing the U.S. of itself violating the INF by deploying a “component” of the so-called Mark 41 Vertical Launch System, using other “banned missiles” in military tests, and asserting that American armed drones are effectively banned cruise missiles — all allegations that Washington denies.

Mr. Bolton, a longtime critic of the deal even before joining the Trump administration, said Tuesday that the “question of Russian violations is long and deep and something that both the Trump and Obama administrations have been very concerned about.”

He went on to lament China’s ballistic missile activities, saying the INF lacks the reach to contain them.

“This is a Cold War bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world,” Mr. Bolton said, adding that Washington has been weighing “the conceptual possibility of universalizing the treaty” — getting Beijing and others to sign — for more than a decade.

Russia’s alleged violations loom large within the Trump administration’s reasoning on the INF, but the China factor is something Mr. Bolton has personally been pushing for a while. In 2011, he argued in The Wall Street Journal that China “has been rapidly increasing its cruise and ballistic arsenals.

“These arsenals imperil not only Taiwan but U.S. bases and naval forces in the Western Pacific, especially as China becomes increasingly belligerent and politically assertive, as in the South China Sea,” Mr. Bolton wrote at the time.

Officials in Beijing angrily rejected the idea that China’s missile programs should factor into Mr. Trump’s INF decision, calling the U.S. position “blackmail.”

“Making an issue out of China on withdrawing from the treaty is totally wrong,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters this week.

“It is the U.S. that wants to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, but it makes an issue out of other countries,” she said. “Shifting blames to others does not make any sense.”

Others in Asia are also watching closely.

“It is a shame that the U.S. is in a position where it must withdraw from the treaty,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. While he resisted any direct comment on the Trump administration’s plan, Mr. Suga added that Tokyo hopes the withdrawal “can be avoided.”

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that threat of U.S. withdrawal “adds to worries about a heated arms race in the Asia-Pacific region amid the rapid rise of China’s military might.” But it quoted South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk as reminding reporters on Tuesday that “procedures to abolish the INF” have so far “not made official.”

Reactions have been even more pointed in Europe, where the European Union asserted in a statement Monday that “the world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary, would bring even more instability.”

But Mr. Bolton said Tuesday said the “threat” is not from a potential “American withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the threat is the Russian missiles already deployed.”

There were, however, signs on Tuesday that the two powers will continue to try to minimize the clash. Mr. Putin emphasized the need to maintain a dialogue, saying he would be ready to meet with Mr. Trump in Paris during centenary commemorations next month to mark the end of World War I.

The Russian president also said his last meeting with Mr. Trump in Helsinki in July was useful despite their tough discussions, adding that he would be open to meet with Trump in France “if the U.S. side is interested in such contacts.”

Mr. Bolton responded that Mr. Trump would look forward to seeing Mr. Putin in Paris.

“Despite our differences, which exist because of our different national interests, it’s still important to work in areas where there is a possibility of mutual cooperation,” he said.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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