Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the U.S. plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was "ill-considered" and warned that Moscow will follow suit if the United States arms itself with weapons banned by the pact.
Putin spoke on December 5, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington would abandon the INF treaty unless Moscow returns to compliance with the accord within 60 days.
His remarks came shortly after the Russian Foreign Ministry said it received official notification that the United States intends to withdraw from the INF unless Russia remedies what Washington says is a serious violation of the treaty.
Putin claimed that the United States was seeking to use Russia as a scapegoat for the demise of the INF by accusing it of a violation.
"They are looking for someone to blame for this...ill-considered step," Putin told journalists in Moscow, adding that "no evidence of violations on our part has been provided."
It is "simplest" for the United States to say, 'Russia is to blame,'" Putin said. "This is not so. We are against the destruction of this treaty."
President Donald Trump announced in October that the United States would abandon the INF, citing the alleged Russian violation and concerns that the bilateral treaty binds Washington to restrictions while leaving nuclear-armed countries that are not signatories, such as China, free to develop and deploy the missiles.
Putin said he understands the second argument.
"Many other countries -- there are probably more than 10 -- produce these weapons, but Russia and the United States have restricted themselves in a bilateral fashion," he said. "Now, evidently, our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that the United States should also have these weapons."
"What will be the response from our side? Very simple: We will also do this," he said, indicating that Russia will develop and deploy weapons banned by the treaty if the United States does so.
The United States says that Russia has already done that by deploying the 9M729, or Novator, which Washington says breaches the ban on ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 km.
In a joint statement on December 4, NATO foreign ministers said that Russia has "developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security."
The NATO ministers called on Russia to "return urgently to full and verifiable compliance," saying it is now “up to Russia to preserve the INF treaty."
Russian officials have repeatedly dismissed such demands and Putin gave no indication that Russia plans to abandon the 9M729, which it claims does not violate the treaty.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on December 5 that the official notice from the United States cites unspecified evidence of alleged Russian violations.
“The Russian side has repeatedly declared that this is, to say the least, speculation," Zakharova said of the U.S. allegation. “No evidence to support this American position has ever been presented to us."
Zakharova claimed that Russia has always respected the treaty and considers it “one of the key pillars of strategic stability and international security."
Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, told foreign defense attaches in Moscow on December 5 that a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would be a “dangerous step that can negatively affect not only European security, but also strategic stability as a whole.”
At the NATO ministerial meeting on December 4, Pompeo said that Washington would abandon the INF in 60 days unless Moscow dismantles the missiles, which he said were a “material breach” of the accord.
"During this 60 days, we will still not test or produce or deploy any systems, and we'll see what happens during this 60-day period," Pompeo told journalists in Brussels.
"We've talked to the Russians a great deal," he said. "We're hopeful they'll change course, but there's been no indication to date that they have any intention of doing so."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that although Moscow has a last chance to comply with the INF, "we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty."
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the U.S. ultimatum was an "escalation of the situation."
Peskov accused Washington of "manipulating the facts...to camouflage the true aim of the United States in withdrawing from the treaty."
In a tweet on December 3, Trump expressed certainty that "at some time in the future" he, Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping "will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race."