Mattis: Talks with Europe on US withdrawal from arms pact yield no alternatives

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talks to reporters during a press conference with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, not shown, in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018.


By PAUL SONNE | The Washington Post | Published: October 28, 2018

PRAGUE — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said his talks with European allies so far have not resulted in any suggestions of how to deal with Russia's violation of a Cold War-era arms-control pact other than for the United States to withdraw.

Mattis said he asked European allies for ideas at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Belgium earlier this month, about two weeks before President Donald Trump announced that the United States planned to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or the INF Treaty.

During his consultations with allies, Mattis said he reiterated his position that the status quo — with Russia violating the treaty and the United States abiding by it — was unsustainable and wouldn't last. He asked the other 28 nations in the alliance to offer suggestions about what the United States could do other than pull out of the treaty.

"I said, 'We need to know if you have any ideas,'" Mattis recounted in comments on a trip from Bahrain to the Czech Republic. "So far we have not been able to find any."

Mattis consulted European allies for suggestions more than two weeks before Trump announced on Oct. 20 that he planned to withdraw the United States from the bilateral pact, which Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987, marking a breakthrough in Cold War arms control diplomacy.

Despite Mattis' consultation with NATO allies, it's unclear how many of them were aware in advance that Trump was going to announce a decision by the United States to withdraw from the pact. Speaking at a press conference with Mattis in Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš described Washington's decision to pull out of the treaty as "bad news" and expressed hope that relations between the United States and Russia would improve.

Trump has said that because Russia was violating the agreement and China wasn't a party to it, he saw no reason for the United States to continue abiding by the agreement on its own.

Shortly after Trump announced his intention to withdraw, White House national security adviser John Bolton informed Russian President Vladimir Putin of the administration's intent.

Russia has refused to acknowledge violating the pact with the deployment of a banned missile. Instead, Moscow has accused Washington of breaching the treaty with its missile defense installations in Europe, an allegation the State Department has refuted.

The Cold War-era agreement bars Moscow and Washington from testing, producing or deploying missiles on land with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, and applies to both nuclear and conventional variants. The agreement led the two superpowers to remove thousands of nuclear missiles they had pointed at each other in Europe.

Mattis did not rule out the possibility that the United States would once again deploy intermediate-range missiles on land in Europe, but wouldn't say that would happen either, citing his policy of not telegraphing such moves in advance.

"There are a number of ways for us to respond," Mattis said. "It does not have to be symmetric, and it will be in the closest consultation with allies."

A symmetric response means the U.S. military would deploy the same weapons as Russia, namely midrange ground-launched cruise missiles. An asymmetric response would see the United States deploy different types of weapons to account for Russia's moves, or take other measures.

The State Department hasn't formally announced that Russia is in material breach of the treaty. Nor has Washington issued Moscow with a document certifying its withdrawal from the bilateral pact.

Trump and Putin are due to meet in November during World War I centennial commemorations in Paris and will probably discuss the matter, as well as other arms-control issues under consideration between Washington and Moscow. Trump has said he will withdraw unless Russia and China agree to a modified treaty whereby all three nations agree to abstain from deploying the midrange missiles.

Mattis said he will continue consulting with European allies. He expected a more final decision on the matter by the time NATO ministers meet again in early December.

"At that point I'm certain we'll have some kind of culminating point," Mattis said.

The defense secretary said that could be a decision to announce that Russia is in material breach of the treaty. Or it could be an indication by the Russians that they have "woken up to the danger" they have put the treaty in and changed course, he said.

Mattis added, "We will have to see."

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