WASHINGTON -- NATO has accused Russia of developing a missile system in violation of a key Cold War arms treaty, the latest accusation from the West in a dispute that some fear will lead to the treaty’s demise.
The statement from the alliance, released on December 15, comes days after the United States signaled a tougher stance in its approach toward Moscow and the missile system, which a U.S. official identified publicly for the first time last month.
The statement wasn’t the first time the alliance's main political decision-making body -- the North Atlantic Council-- has weighed in on the dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). But it was the most forceful to date and followed a briefing that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave to allied defense ministers last month.
"Allies have identified a Russian missile system that raises serious concerns,” the December 15 statement said.
It urged Russia "to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way, and actively engage in a technical dialogue with the United States.”
“It's the first [North Atlantic Council] statement as such, but allies have been discussing these issues for some time," a NATO official who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity said.
Signed in 1987, the treaty eliminated an entire class of missiles from Europe and is considered a bedrock agreement for arms control between Washington and Moscow.
Three years ago, Washington publicly accused Moscow of developing a ground-launched cruise missile that fell within the treaty’s prohibitions. Russia has repeatedly rejected the accusations, demanded more information, and leveled its own accusations at U.S. missile-defense systems in Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 14 insisted again that Moscow was complying with the INF and accused Washington of trying to set up a way to withdraw from it altogether.
The United States’ European allies have in the past been frustrated that Washington hasn’t shared more technical evidence of Moscow’s violations.
The NATO statement was issued one day after a special technical commission, established under the treaty rules, met to discuss the dispute and other issues related to the INF treaty.
The State Department said in a statement late on December 14 that participants “expressed the view that the INF treaty continues to play an important role in the existing system of international security, nuclear disarmament, and nonproliferation, and that they will work to preserve and strengthen it.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on December 15 that was a word-for-word translation of the State Department's remarks.
The State Department on December 8 warned that Washington was taking military and economic measures against Moscow, the first announcement of its sort by President Donald Trump's administration, signaling a more determined approach to the treaty dispute.
Late last month, a top White House official for the first time confirmed long-standing suspicions about the type of missile Washington alleged Moscow had deployed.
Christopher Ford, a National Security Council official involved in arms control, identified the missile designation -- 9M729 -- which outside arms-control experts have been focusing on for some time now.
That has led to concerns that the new missile could be indistinguishable from an existing system that is not covered by the INF treaty: the highly sophisticated Iskander-M. That would pose a challenge for inspecting and verifying the weapon is in compliance.
Ford also made some eyebrow-raising comments about officials previously involved in U.S. arms control policy in the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
“Let me start with arms control with Russia, about which I am proud to say that we in the new team are proving ourselves tougher-minded and more rigorous than our predecessors,” Ford said, according to the written transcript.
“By contrast to our predecessors, the new administration decided that the INF status quo we inherited was unacceptable and that we must make unavailable to the Russians the option of continuing to see us constrained while they remain free to do as they wish,” he said.