President Trump’s announcement on October 20, that the US has decided to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia (as the successor state to the Soviet Union), had been expected for some time, but nevertheless provoked negative reactions from Russia (as also Europe, China and Japan). The US has insisted, with increasing intensity since 2014, that Russia’s deployment of a cruise missile (which the Russians call 9M729) violates the treaty. The Russians, while denying this charge, have in turn alleged that the US deployment of missile defence systems in central Europe violate the treaty, since they could be transformed into offensive weapons at short notice.
President Putin said in a public statement that the US decision would lead to a new arms race and issued a stark warning that any European country that hosts intermediate-range missiles would face the threat of a possible counterstrike from Russia. At the same time, Russia indicated that it is still prepared to discuss elimination of “mutual grievances” in the implementation of the treaty.
The European reaction was predictably negative, since it is the principal theatre of INF confrontation. It was strong European pressure that nudged the US into concluding the treaty in 1987: it addressed the nightmare scenario of missiles from launchers deep within Soviet territory hitting European targets within minutes. A European Union statement called for a reconsideration of the US decision, in view of its consequences for its own security and that of its allies. The exception to this European reaction was Poland: its President and Foreign Minister welcomed President Trump’s decision and offered to host US intermediate-range missiles on Polish territory.
President Tump added China to his justification for withdrawal from the treaty, asserting that its large-scale deployment of missiles targeting East Asia, requires a US response unhampered by the restrictions of the INF Treaty. Military experts point out that US air and sea-launched cruise missiles, which are outside the purview of the INF treaty, already enable an adequate response to the Chinese missile threat in the east. However, this China threat narrative is in keeping with an increasing US government effort to project China over Russia as a strategic challenge to US interests – and not only for its trade practices. This new emphasis was signalled by a speech of US Vice-President Pence on October 4, in which he denounced China’s predatory economic practices, extensive theft of US technology and military aggression, even accusing it of working assiduously to prevent the re-election of President Trump. A few days later, in an interview to the TV channel CBS, President Trump responded to queries about Russian interference in US elections by asserting that China also interfered in the elections and that it was a “bigger problem”. The strongest assertion of this sentiment was by US NSA John Bolton in a press conference on Russian soil on October 23, where he said, “… looking at everything China was doing, a very, very senior U.S. intelligence official said it made Russia look like the junior varsity” (sic).
Meanwhile, US criticism of Russia’s actions and motives continued, as did Russian accusations of the US, ranging from the plausible to the highly improbable: blocking political progress and humanitarian assistance in Syria; US creation of a “quasi-state” east of the Euphrates in Syria; promoting schism between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches; moving ISIS cadres to Iraq and Afghanistan; and funding biological weapons programmes in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Amidst all this, there was also some dialogue: consultations on North Korea and discussions on the new START.
The most significant bilateral dialogue was during the two-day visit to Moscow (October 22-23) by US NSA John Bolton, when he had extensive discussions with his Russian counterpart Patrushev, Foreign Minister Lavrov, Defence Minister Shoigu and Presidential Foreign Policy Adviser Ushakov, before calling on President Putin. It was announced that President Trump and President Putin would meet on November 11 in Paris, where they would both be joining the international commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the post-World War I Armistice.
At a press conference in Moscow on October 23, NSA Bolton said his discussions included US-Russia cooperation on international developments, including coordination of policies on Syria and resuming dialogue on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and human trafficking issues. He announced that the first meeting of a Joint U.S.-Russian Business Council (which the two Presidents had decided upon at their meeting in Helsinki in July) would take place in the first quarter of 2019. The question of what this Council can achieve, in the existing reality of extensive Western economic sanctions against Russia (with more on the way), remains unanswered.
NSA Bolton said Russian interference in the 2016 US elections was discussed, but said (in response to a query) that the FBI had not detected “anything like” that level of involvement in the forthcoming mid-term Congressional elections. His subsequent comment on Chinese interference (quoted above) deflected attention from this theme.
There has clearly been much more intensive preparation for the forthcoming Trump-Putin meeting than for their earlier Helsinki meeting in July. Indications also are that hostility to dialogue with Russia within the US political establishment may have diminished somewhat, with China being projected as the greater strategic threat. However, given recent history and their significant divergences, there remains uncertainty about progress achievable at the Paris meeting. Another imponderable is how the composition of the Congress after the November 6 elections will impact on the President’s room for manoeuvre vis a vis Russia.
October 30, 2018