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Lawmakers support, with some caveats, Trump’s withdrawal from Russian nuclear weapons treaty

President Trump announced on Friday the U.S. would withdraw — but he left the door open to salvaging the pact

President Donald Trump arrives to the Capitol to attend the Senate Republican policy luncheons on Jan. 9, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump arrives to the Capitol to attend the Senate Republican policy luncheons on Jan. 9, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers from both parties and U.S. military officials are expressing support — with some caveats — for President Donald Trump’s Friday decision to withdraw from a nuclear weapons treaty with Moscow.

Trump announced on Friday the U.S. would withdraw — but he left the door open to salvaging the pact. 

There long has been bipartisan frustration with the Putin government.  In recent years, U.S. military and intelligence officials confirmed that Russia deployed a type of cruise missile in violation with the longstanding arms control accord. Lawmakers indicated that action should be taken to call out Russia, but expressed concern that withdrawing from the treaty without a new plan to control Russian aggression could have negative consequences.

The United States and Russia signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as INF,  in 1987. It bans ground-launched cruise missiles with capabilities of traveling between 500 and 5500 kilometers.

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“Tomorrow, the United States will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty and begin the process of withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which will be completed in 6 months unless Russia comes back into compliance by destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment,” Trump said Friday in a statement.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement Friday saying the transatlantic organization “fully supports the U.S. suspension and notification of withdrawal from the treaty” because “Russia is in material breach.”

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., agreed in a statement that Moscow has “brazenly violated the INF treaty and has been unwilling to take the steps necessary to come back into compliance.”

“Through its actions, the Kremlin bears responsibility for the degradation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Menendez said. “Throughout this process, however, I have had serious concerns that the Trump administration lacks a coherent strategy to address the threat new Russian cruise missiles pose to the interests of the United States and those of our allies. President Trump clearly lacks an appreciation or understating of the importance of arms control treaties and today’s withdrawal is yet another geostrategic gift to Vladimir Putin.”

On a briefing call with reporters, a senior Trump administration official offered a warning: “This is Russia’s last chance.”

“We have showed remarkable unity in our alliances to try to return Russia to compliance,” the senior official said, acknowledging “we have little to show for it.”

“Russia will have this chance, if they are interested in preserving the treaty,” the senior official told reporters.

The senior official said Trump wants warmer relations with Russia, but “it takes two to Tango,” saying Putin’s actions suggest he is not interested in the same.

“We are only pursuing conventional options right now,” the senior administration official said, calling the notion the administration wants to start producing new nuclear arms a “Russian lie.”

Two senior administration officials who briefed reporters used the same word to describe Russia’s attitude about getting in compliance: “refusal.”

Senior administration officials also pushed back on the notion that withdrawing from the treaty would set off a new arms race with Moscow.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office released a statement saying withdrawal from the treaty could risk negative consequences. 

“Russia’s brazen noncompliance with this treaty is deeply concerning, but discarding a key pillar of our nonproliferation security framework creates unacceptable risks,” Pelosi said. “The Administration should exhaust every diplomatic effort and work closely with NATO allies over the next six months to avoid thrusting the United States into a dangerous arms competition.” 

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., cheered the president’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, saying out that the Russians have violated the treaty for years and China has stockpiled “thousands of missiles.”

“Withdrawing from the INF Treaty is a good start; now this action must be backed by American firepower,” Cotton said in a statement posted to Twitter.

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