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Analyst: INF Treaty withdrawal presents 'crisis,' North Korea challenges

By Elizabeth Shim
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/41ee747c555c104ac6c96f3ed210a3b3/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. decision to end the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty over alleged Russian violations could have an indirect impact on North Korea negotiations, a U.S. analyst said Monday.

As fears mount over a potential new arms race between the United States and Russia, following decisions on both sides to suspend compliance with the INF Treaty, experts say the lack of dialogue between the two nuclear powers is creating a "crisis."

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Tom Countryman, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said during a call with reporters that the Trump administration's plan to withdraw from the INF Treaty, and other agreements, could shake confidence in any U.S. commitments.

"An attitude toward building American credibility, by keeping to our word, has unfortunately been missing in this administration," Countryman said. "It is hard for me to understand why the North Korean regime would be able to have confidence in a statement or agreement made by this administration."

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The Trump administration has been "handicapped" in its North Korea negotiations, Countryman said, by its demonstrated unwillingness to keep the United States bound to commitments like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. The withdrawal from the INF Treaty is yet another step back, the analyst said.

Countryman also said the Trump administration should be credited with trying a new approach with North Korea, and for attempting to redefine the terms of engagement.

"That's a positive thing," he said.

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Nuclear arms race?

The U.S. decision on Friday to withdraw from the treaty was quickly followed by a Russian response. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow will suspend the pact and that Russia will begin work on new missiles, including hypersonic projectiles. He also said Russia will not deploy new missiles in Europe, or other regions, unless the United States pursues a similar path.

Katarzyna Kubiak, policy fellow on nuclear and arms control policy at the European Leadership Network, said the reaction in Europe is expected to reflect a strategy of non-escalation.

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday intelligence collected in Europe supports U.S. claims of Russian violations. Kubiak said in the current environment NATO will "try to find a balance between credible deterrence and defense without escalating the situation."

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"Worryingly, NATO's Secretary General had stopped restating that NATO has no plans to deploy more nuclear missiles in Europe," Kubiak said Monday. "This implies that all options are on the table. However this is likely to be negotiating tactic rather than a signal of intent, especially because U.S. officials claim to have no current plans to deploy new missiles to Europe."

Countryman said the U.S. decision to withdraw is counterproductive and "disappointing," given the Trump administration did not explore all avenues of preserving the treaty through initiatives like mutual inspection and verification.

"It hands a public relations victory to Russia and makes the United States and European allies less secure," the analyst said.

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 to mitigate the risks of a nuclear war between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Scrapping the pact could "increase the sensitivity of the hair-trigger alert that is so dangerous in the nuclear field," Countryman said.

A nuclear arms reduction treaty between Washington and Moscow, known as New START, was signed in 2010 in Prague, but it could expire in 2021. Negotiations for subsequent Start II and later Start III treaties never concluded. Countryman said Monday if arms reduction treaties are not extended, the risk of an expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race could expand in the near future.

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Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the lack of meaningful dialogue is adding to the crisis.

"We've got to remember it has been over seven years since the United States and Russia were engaged in serious talks about nuclear arms limitations," Kimball said. "This crisis is a culmination of many of those events."

Countryman said troubles began when trends began to reverse in the arms control arena, with Russia talking tough about its nuclear arsenal and its weapons began to be touted as what makes the country great.

"Reversing the trend of the last 40 years destabilizes relations and trust between our two countries," the analyst said.

The INF Treaty bans the production or testing of ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. The treaty has kept nuclear missiles out of Europe for three decades.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the NATO secretary general said there are no plans to deploy nuclear-tipped missiles.

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