Briefing on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)

Special Briefing
Jon M. Huntsman
   U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Andrea L. Thompson
   Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Via Teleconference
December 6, 2018


MS NAUERT: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us, and welcome to the State Department on-the-record call about INF. This call will be embargoed until the end of the call. Again, this is on the record. We’re joined by our Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman – he’s joining us from Moscow today – and also our Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson. We’ll start with Ambassador Huntsman and then go to Under Secretary Thompson and then take a few questions.

Ambassador, good evening. Go right ahead.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Thank you, Heather, and warm greetings from a very cold Moscow. (Inaudible) matter of fact. I’m pleased to be able to join our Under Secretary Andrea Thompson, who you’ll hear from in just a moment.

Let me just start by saying this. We’ve discussed our concerns about Russia’s longstanding violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty for many years now. In fact, it’s been under two administration – a Democrat administration, a Republican administration. We’ve had probably 30 engagements over five years at a high level. We’ve had probably five engagements by expert-level groups, including two SVC – that’s our verification commission – at a request by the United States, both in 2016 and 2017.

So we have been at this for many years now. We in NATO have gone to great lengths to preserve this treaty. However, no one believes, nor is there any reason to believe, that Russia is going to resolve this problem – of its own creation, by the way – and come back into compliance even after the President’s October 20 announcement.

So we are now moving ahead with implementing the President’s October 20 decision because Russia’s violation poses a clear threat to U.S., European, and global security. The United States is declaring that Russia’s ongoing violation of the INF Treaty constitutes a material breach of the treaty. The United States will suspend its obligations under the treaty effective 60 days from December 4th, which is when Secretary Pompeo just a couple of days ago laid it out in very clear terms, unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.

Now Russia must return to full and verifiable compliance, or their failure to do so will result in the demise of the INF Treaty. But we should be clear: Russia has not shown any indication so far that it seeks to return to full compliance.

This also does not mean we are walking away from arms control. We are doing this to preserve the viability and integrity of arms control agreements more broadly. We remain committed to arms control, but we need a reliable partner and do not have one in Russia on INF, or for that matter on other treaties that it’s violating.

Thank you all very much.

MS NAUERT: Thank you, sir. Under Secretary Thompson.

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Yeah, thanks, Heather. And thanks to the team, and to Ambassador Huntsman, who covered a great overview of what work we’ve done here at the State Department, specifically in the T family, and our partners, regional partners with arms control, and just would like to add upon the ambassador’s comments that with the Secretary and the United States formally declaring on Tuesday that Russia is in material breach of the INF, that the decision really demonstrates to all nations, both friend and foe, that this administration, the Trump administration, takes our arms control treaties seriously, and words need to mean something.

And just as a reminder, as Ambassador Huntsman raised, Moscow began cheating on the INF Treaty in 2008 when they began flight-testing of the SSC-8, the cruise missile that has the excess of ranges that the treaty permits. And as he mentioned, we’ve confronted Russia multiple times over the course of the five-plus years and the 30 detailed engagements and raised it with them. We confronted them with the evidence of the violation. They feigned ignorance. The Obama administration has raised is, as the ambassador raised it as well. November of last year our administration raised it. We named the missile in question, and Russia went from denying the missile’s existence and now claiming it is in compliance. And as the vice chairman, as Paul Selva testified to Congress and we’ve stated as well, that Moscow has filled in multiple battalions of the SSC-8, and all of them are positioned for offensive purposes.

We’ve exercised patience with this across two administrations; like the ambassador mentioned, over 30 occasions since 2013. We’ve raised it at the highest levels to the Putin regime that a failure to return to the status quo would have consequences, and they’ve – continue to violate the treaty. And this – President Trump has said repeatedly our first responsibility is to protect the safety and security of the American people, and that promise relies upon a credible military deterrent. With our INF Treaty that it doesn’t bind the likes of China or Iran or North Korea, and if we want credible arms control agreements we’ve got to demonstrate that our treaties are worth the paper they’re written on. It’s important to me as under secretary, to Secretary Pompeo and the President that our arms control agreements are adhered to.

We’ve engaged with partners and allies. I’m sure we’ll talk about that this afternoon. You saw the very strong statement from NATO and the remarks by the secretary-general. Again, we’ve engaged with partners and allies both before, during, and we’ll continue for next steps. But it’s very clear that President Putin broke the terms of the INF Treaty. He’s done other violations, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. And again, I look forward to your questions this afternoon, and thanks for making the time.

MS NAUERT: Okay, let’s take our first question. Our first question goes to – go right ahead.

OPERATOR: The first question comes from the line of Michele Keleman with NPR. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wonder if Ambassador Huntsman can talk a little bit about the contacts that he’s had with the Russians about this. Are you getting anywhere? Do you have any sense that they’re going to be ready to negotiate in these next 60 days on this?

And also on the issue of Ukraine – because it sounds like these appeals for getting these ships and sailors back to Ukraine has fallen on deaf ears.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Thanks, Michele. I’ll leave the U.S.-Ukraine for others to discuss, probably not appropriate for this particular venue.

The issue of INF compliance comes up in virtually every high-level meeting we have. It comes up at high-level meetings, it comes up at working-level meetings, and not only during the year-plus that I have been here but certainly for the previous almost five years as well. So there is a consistency with which this issue has been raised, a consistent messaging now over two administrations. Information has been presented that makes our case on the SSC-8.

Frankly, I heard somebody today say that we were somehow giving an “ultimatum,” I think was the word that they used. And I had to say no, this is exactly the opposite of an ultimatum. This has been very methodically worked now over two administrations, five years, dozens of engagements at the very, very senior level. When you have two signatories to the 30-year-old agreement taking us back to 1987, arguably one of the most important and successful launch control agreements in the history of arms control, and you find that today – indeed over the better part of the last five years – one of two of those signatories is abiding by the obligations, it becomes foolhardy to carry on.

So here we are. The decision has been made, and the 60-day clock has started. I think we’re two days into it. And Russia has the ability over the 60-day period to return to full, verifiable compliance, or the result will be the end of the INF as we know it today.

MS NAUERT: Okay, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Michael Gordon with Wall Street Journal, please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I have a very specific question on what it would mean for the Russians to return to full and verifiable compliance. There are some members of the arms control community who’ve suggested the following: The Russians could go visit Aegis ashore, take a look at that, and maybe the U.S. could modify it so it couldn’t fire Tomahawk missiles and assuage their concerns; in return, the U.S. could go visit the prohibited ground-launch cruise missile, they could dismantle it, show it to us, and maybe make modifications so that its range would be more limited. This is an idea that’s been discussed in track two context.

What do you make of that approach? Do you favor it, or do you – would you not want to go along with it? And if you don’t like that, what do the Russians actually need to do to comply? Do you want them to destroy all the missiles, to destroy the launchers? What concretely do they need to do?

MS NAUERT: Under Secretary Thompson, you want to start there?

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Sure, yeah. No, thanks, Michael, and thanks for raising those – some of those options that could be discussed, and would let you know that some of those have been discussed on ways that we could go forward, raised some of those issues in the – in SVC meetings which have occurred multiple times. And again, as mentioned earlier with – Russia with the first step, saying that we don’t have this system, then saying that, well, we do have this system but it’s not in violation – and so those haven’t moved forward. There’s been items discussed and, quite candidly, they’re just not in recognition that they’re violating the treaty.

As Ambassador Huntsman mentioned, that getting back in full and verifiable compliance means exactly that. The SSC-8 extends – has the range that’s not in compliance. So either you rid the system, rid the launcher, or change the system where it doesn’t exceed the range. And that and only that would go ahead and let them be – and verifiable, to have eyes on that once that occurs. But again, reiterate the ball’s in Russia’s court. We can’t do that for them. They have to take the initiative.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Joel Gehrke with Washington Examiner.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I was just wondering, ambassador, what advantage do you access that Russia is trying to secure by deploying these missiles and this offensive capability in violation of the treaty, given your likely responses? What’s their endgame?

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: One can only surmise that they’re trying to get ahead in the game, a little bit like violations we’re seeing with other treaties, whether it’s the Open Skies Treaty or whether it’s the Chemical Weapons Convention. It’s an ability to somehow seek an advantage, and that’s something that we’re not willing to put up with. It’s a straight-up violation of the agreement. We’ve been very, very clear about it. And now we’ve finally reached the point where we’re willing to do something about it.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Hi. Ambassador or Under Secretary Thompson, can you explain what leaving the INF will allow the U.S. to do that it was not able to do? Is there a plan underway, as the leaked Bolton memo from a couple days ago suggested that the U.S. wants to develop and deploy ground-launched missiles at the earliest possible date? Is that the intention here?

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Yeah, I can just – thanks, Nick. I can just say the legal effect of suspension for us means that we’re no longer obligated to implement the treaty’s provisions. So the treaty remains in force during this period of suspension, so for the 60-day period we remain in force. But again, if and when that next step is made, then we would not be obligated by that, so would be able to continue the efforts. But next steps on the funding, building, and deploying of those systems, I would refer to my DOD partners, but I have the utmost faith and confidence that they will do whatever it takes to defend our security and prosperity. But again, reiterate that we are still adhering to our treaty’s provisions under this time.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Shaun Tandon with AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I actually wanted to follow up on Nick’s question. In terms of what would actually happen if and when the U.S. would leave this, what do you anticipate would be the steps at that point, if that determination is made as the U.S. goes ahead with that?

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Well, there’s a series of next steps. We have – we’ve outlined that. But Russia knows what those are and we do as well. It’s part of the treaty provisions when we signed the INF. We’ve got the interagency process taking next steps. So again, it is pretty clearly laid out, the treaties, on what that means with material breach, what it means with suspensions, what it means with withdrawals. And we’ll go ahead and follow the legal parameters of the treaty.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Shaun, I think it’s important to note that we’ve never reached a point in time where we’ve actually said the clock (inaudible) given Russia’s --

MS NAUERT: Apologies, next question, please.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Oh, I’m sorry.

MS NAUERT: Oh, I’m sorry, Ambassador. Go right ahead.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Yeah, I was going to just mention to Shaun that we have never reached a point in time where we actually started a clock, a 60-day clock, that said Russia now has the following period of time to come into complete compliance, verifiable compliance, and after the 60 days elapses, then we’ll evaluate the actions of Russia. This is the first time, I think, that we’ve ever put Russia to the test, and I think it’s a very noteworthy and important moment that we’re witnessing here, because we really are sort of stress testing the trustworthiness of the relationship in a sense.

MS NAUERT: And final question.

OPERATOR: Robbie Gramer with Foreign Policy. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Can either of you give us more insights into what European allies are telling you and what you’re telling them to quell their concerns that this could spark a new arms race, as the German foreign minister has expressed fears of?

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely, Robbie. Again, with this process, this is not a standalone process. We’ve engaged with partners and allies early in the process, both, as said, at the presidential level, and the secretary’s level, and I can tell you at my level at every engagement with NATO partners and allies and other partners and allies on next steps.

You saw an extremely strong statement by our NATO foreign ministerial counterparts and the secretary general. I’ve raised it in engagements before that and, again, in getting feedback from our partners and allies, strong support recognizing that it is Russia that’s in violation, and we’re working with them, continued messaging on next steps. So again, very strong response from our NATO partners and allies and really across the globe. Thanks.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Robbie, if I could just add to what Andrea said, along with the very strong NATO statement and very strong alliance unity, we have 28 other countries that say we are in compliance; 29 countries agree that Russia is not in compliance. That tells us, I think, everything that we need to know about (a) the work that has been done with NATO and our allies over the last little while and, second of all, where we stand today as we begin the 60-day clock.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Thank you so much, Ambassador Huntsman and Under Secretary Thompson. Thank you so much for joining us today and to our reporters as well. The embargo has now been lifted. Have a great rest of your day.

AMBASSADOR HUNTSMAN: Thanks so much.

UNDER SECRETARY THOMPSON: Thank you.