Russia has offered to stop deployment of a controversial missile system in an attempt to restart talks on arms control in Europe following the collapse of a cold war moratorium, in the latest outreach by the Kremlin that could de-escalate military tensions.
Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year citing Russian violations, ending the US-Russia pact that banned land-based missiles with ranges of between 500km and 5,500km that was drawn up to end an arms race in Europe.
The Kremlin said in a statement on Monday that it was prepared to end deployment of the 9M729 missile in its western regions. Washington justified its withdrawal from the INF Treaty on claims that the missile was in breach.
The proposal comes just a few days after Russian president Vladimir Putin used an annual foreign policy speech to both warn against the threat of a new arms race and signal his hope that Washington and Moscow will restart talks on arms control and other issues after the US election next month.
Nato has rejected previous proposals from Moscow to freeze deployment of the missiles, demanding that Russia instead destroy them. Some missiles are already deployed in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders Poland and Lithuania.
Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the plan seemed similar to the proposal floated by Russia last year — and rejected by Nato as “not a credible offer”, because Moscow had already deployed the missile system.
“Russia has the missile, and has fielded it, in breach of the INF treaty,” said Ms Major. “Nato countries don’t have them in Europe.”
Nato has been approached for comment. The US State department did not immediately make a public response to the Russian offer.
The Kremlin said in a statement: “While remaining committed to our consistent position on the 9M729 missile’s full compliance with the former INF Treaty, the Russian Federation stands ready, as a gesture of goodwill, not to deploy 9M729 missiles in the European part of the country, but only provided that Nato countries take reciprocal steps.”
Alongside that, it suggested opening talks on potential bilateral inspections of the US Aegis Ashore missile system in Europe, and 9M729 missiles in Kaliningrad.
“We propose all interested sides to consider concrete options for mutual verification measures to remove existing concerns,” it added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters it was a “new initiative” aimed at “multipronged de-escalation”.
The proposal is the latest offer by Moscow to western capitals aimed at halting a steady erosion in arms control agreements.
Mr Putin this month offered the US a one-year extension to New Start, another bilateral treaty governing the number of nuclear warheads held by both countries, which expires in February. That offer was rejected by the US, but a subsequent re-offer from Moscow last week to freeze all atomic warhead numbers prompted Washington to restart talks.
New Start and INF were the two foundations of the post cold war arms control architecture between Russia and the US, and together were viewed as critically important for European security and to reduce the threat of a renewed arms race.
“We consider the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty . . . a serious mistake, which increases the risks of unleashing a missile arms race, an increase in confrontational potential and a slide into uncontrolled escalation,” the Kremlin said in its statement. “Given the unrelenting tension along the Russia-Nato line, new threats to European security are evident.”
The US first accused Russia of breaching the INF Treaty seven years ago and withdrew from the pact in August last year after Russia refused to destroy the 9M729 system.
Moscow denies that the missile is in breach of the INF’s terms and that it could hit European capitals from western Russia.
In addition to the alleged Russian violations, the Trump administration has also said that the pacts were outdated without the participation of China, whose missile potential has grown significantly in recent decades.
Two weeks after formally withdrawing from the INF Treaty the US tested a ground-based cruise missile with a range over 500km.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels