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Why Trump Is Determined To Leave Arms Control Treaty With Russia


President Trump declared over the weekend that the U.S. is pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Arms Control Treaty. Now, President Ronald Reagan signed this treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House 31 years ago.


RONALD REAGAN: For the first time in history, the language of arms control was replaced by arms reduction - in this case, the complete elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles.

CORNISH: Here with me now to discuss why this treaty is no longer acceptable to another Republican president is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: OK, so the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Arms Control Treaty - or we can call the INF - what does this treaty actually do?

WELNA: Well, you know, this was signed in the 1980s when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had nuclear-tipped missiles deployed along the periphery of Eastern Europe. And they could reach their targets in only eight minutes, which left almost no time for any response. It was a very dangerous situation which neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union wanted to continue. And so the treaty required the destruction of all these intermediate-range, land-based nuclear missiles once and for all, and it really was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

CORNISH: Now President Trump says Russia has not been in compliance with the treaty. Do we know if this is true?

WELNA: Well, you know, U.S. officials beginning with President Obama four years ago have been saying that Russia has been cheating on this treaty, that Russia has been deploying some land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles that could strike targets in Eastern Europe in violation of the treaty. But Obama did not want to kill this arms control treaty, figuring that it still provided a means for talking with the Russians at least.

CORNISH: Of course Ronald Reagan, a Republican hero - right? - to the party - what is the difference in philosophy here, why we're seeing this president, President Trump, determined to pull out of the treaty?

WELNA: Well, you know, Trump does not like international agreements. He's already pulled out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. I think this really shows that the Russia hawks in the administration are getting their way. And it's not the State Department that's doing this even though that's traditionally where such policies are carried out. This bears the hallmarks of national security adviser John Bolton. He's never liked arms control deals. He wrote in 2011 that the U.S. should leave the treaty. And Bolton is in Moscow today and tomorrow delivering that message.

CORNISH: What's been the response from the Russian government?

WELNA: Not great. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted yesterday by the Russian news agency TASS as calling this move blackmail by the U.S. He also called it a very dangerous step.

CORNISH: Is there any chance that Russia can gain something from the U.S. bowing out?

WELNA: There is. It would allow them to more freely deploy weapons that they've apparently already developed while the U.S. only last year began doing research and development for intermediate-range weapons. Remember; thousands of weapons of this nature had to be destroyed, so it's not like the U.S. has a stockpile ready to deploy now.

CORNISH: Is it possible that the Trump administration might be, for lack of a better term, bluffing - right? - to get a better deal?

WELNA: That could be. This is a Soviet-era treaty, and it limits what the U.S. can do not just in Europe but across the entire planet. And Trump would like a deal to include China, which right now has no restrictions on deploying intermediate-range nuclear weapons. They might be pressured to join the INF if the U.S. started placing such weapons in the South Pacific.

CORNISH: David, in the meantime, the U.S. does have other arms control agreements with Russia. Are those in peril?

WELNA: I think this does mark a major shift in U.S. arms control policy. Since the 1970s, the thrust has been to limit nuclear weapons. And Under Trump, the momentum all seems to be toward ending these treaties and letting the stalled nuclear arms race get going again. After all this, administration has pushed for developing new nuclear weapons, and they've been approved by the new defense budget.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Welna. David, thank you for your reporting.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.