Bolton faces Moscow grilling over Trump’s weapons treaty threat

US National Security Adviser John Bolton is facing two days of tense talks with Russia following criticism from Moscow over US President Donald Trump‘s threat to unilaterally withdraw from a decades-old nuclear arms-control deal between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin will seek clarification about Trump’s plans at respective meetings with Bolton on Monday and Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday.

Peskov’s comments came as Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned Trump’s pledge to “terminate” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty would be a “very dangerous” move.

“[Withdrawal] won’t be understood by the international community, but [instead] arouse serious condemnation of all members of the world community, who are committed to security and stability and are ready to work on strengthening the current regimes in arms control,” Ryabkov said on Sunday, according to Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency.

Historic pact

The INF, which banned all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500km, was signed in 1987 at a Cold War-era Washington summit between then-US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Washington and Moscow have traded barbs over the accord since, accusing one another on several occasions of breaching the terms of the landmark treaty.

US officials believe Moscow is developing and has deployed a ground-launched system in breach of the INF treaty that could allow it to launch a nuclear attack on Europe at short notice.

Russia, meanwhile, has claimed that parts of the US’ missile defence shield, specifically equipment hosted by its NATO allies in Europe, contravene the agreement.

On Saturday, Trump said Russia had violated the INF for “many years” and vowed to pull the US out of the pact. Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that it has contravened the treaty.

“We’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons [while] we’re not allowed to,” he said.

Gorbachev, who, as the last president of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution in 1991, introduced a series of reforms which helped bring about the end of the Cold War, said Trump’s move was “not the work of a great mind”, however.

“Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements,” Gorbachev said, according to the Russia-based Interfax news agency.

Gorbachev’s comments were echoed by a number of Russian legislators, with the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament Konstantin Kosachev warning Washington’s withdrawal would mean “mankind is facing full chaos in the nuclear weapons sphere”.

International concern

Several international powers also expressed concern over Trump’s comments.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Beijing was opposed to a US withdrawal from the pact.

“Unilateral withdrawal will have a multitude of negative effects,” Chunying told reporters at a press conference.

Chunying’s comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron urged Trump not to quit the deal during a phone call with the US leader on Sunday.

“The President of the Republic underlined the importance of this treaty, especially with regards to European security and our strategic stability,” Macron’s office said in a statement on Monday.

Germany’s chief diplomat, meanwhile, said Washington’s move was “regrettable”,

“The treaty … has for 30 years been an important pillar of our European security architecture,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement on Sunday.

We have often urged Russia to address serious allegations that it is violating the agreement. We now urge the US to consider the possible consequences,” Maas added.

US ally Britain, however, said it would stand “absolutely resolute” alongside Washington over the issue.

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told UK newspaper the Financial Times that Russia was to blame for endangering the INF treaty and called on the Kremlin to “get its house in order”.

“We, of course, want to see this treaty continue to stand but it does require two parties to be committed to it and at the moment, you have one party that is ignoring it. It is Russia that is in breach,” Williamson said.

Domestic response

Trump’s announcement drew mixed opinion among his Republican Party legislators in Washington. 

Senator Rand Paul said withdrawing from the pact would be a “big, big mistake”, while Senate colleague Lindsey Graham praised the US president for taking “absolutely the right move”, adding “the Russians have been cheating.”

The US last withdrew from a major arms treaty with Russia was in 2002, when then-President George W Bush abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

The ABM pact banned Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide anti-ballistic missile defence systems.

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