WASHINGTON -- The United States said it was taking military and economic measures against Moscow in response to a festering, and increasingly tense, dispute over a Russian missile that Washington says violates an important Cold War treaty.
The December 8 announcement by the State Department was the first of its sort by President Donald Trump's administration, signaling a more deliberate approach to the dispute over the 30-year-old Intermediate Nuclear-Forces Treaty.
Last week, a White House official for the first time confirmed long-standing suspicions about the type of missile Washington alleges has already been deployed in at least two Russian regions.
Moscow has denied the U.S. allegations, demanded more information from Washington, and imposed its own accusations about U.S. missile defense systems in Europe.
In its statement, the State Department repeated earlier remarks that treaty, known as the INF, was under threat, and said Washington would pursue diplomatic, economic, and military steps to push Moscow back into compliance.
Though no specifics were given, the announcement is the first concrete step taken by President Donald Trump's administration on the issue.
"This step will not violate our INF Treaty obligations," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the statement.
"We are also prepared to cease such research and development activities if the Russian Federation returns to full and verifiable compliance with its INF Treaty obligations," she said.
The treaty is considered a landmark deal between the United States and the Soviet Union, eliminating for the first time an entire class of cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe. It also established a verification framework to ensure compliance.
The United States first formally accused Russia of developing a missile in violation of the INF back in 2014, though intelligence experts said the system had been under development for several years prior to that.
Earlier this year, Washington said the missile was operational and had been deployed.
The repeated U.S. accusations and the Russian denials have all but led to an impasse on the issue, leaving U.S. officials struggling to find a way to resolve the dispute.
The U.S. announcement came just hours after the release of a statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, saying Moscow remained in "firm" compliance and criticized what it called "the language of ultimatums" by Washington.
The ministry also said it was prepared to hold talks over the treaty dispute.
Concerns Over Missile Identification
Next week, U.S. and Russian technical experts and officials are scheduled to meet as part of the Special Verification Commission process. Past meetings have been seen as accomplishing little.
On November 29, Christopher Ford, a White House National Security Council official involved in arms control, for the first time 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.
In his remarks at Washington's Wilson Center for International Scholars, Ford also criticized the administration of President Barack Obama, who had first leveled the accusations against Moscow.
"The United States is now determined, at long last, to give Russia concrete reasons to change course -- to finally come back into compliance -- and we hope that it will do so, because we remain committed to the INF Treaty," Ford said, according to prepared remarks.
"The Russians now need to choose whether they share our steadfast desire to preserve the treaty, or whether they will continue on their current path, which leads to the treaty’s collapse. They no longer have the option of having their cake and eating it, too," he said.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador who is a longtime arms-control expert at the Brookings Institution, said the danger if the INF collapses is that it could lead to the collapse of another important Russian-U.S. arms-control treaty, New START, which expires in 2021.
“The [INF] treaty is in trouble,” Pifer said at a December 8 event marking the anniversary of the treaty.
Some Republicans in Congress have called for a stronger response and have appropriated money to develop a new ground-launched cruise missile to be deployed if Russia persists.
Pifer argued against that, saying instead that the United States should consider basing B-1 long-range bombers at British airfields and sending more ballistic-missile submarines and surface ships armed with cruise missiles on patrols of Russia’s coast. That would not violate the INF, he said, and it would demonstrate U.S. resolve to Moscow.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington research group, also criticized the more aggressive stance by the United States, and the push to develop a new cruise missile.
"Rather than persuading Russia to return to compliance, this action is more likely to give Moscow an excuse to continue on its current course, " he said.