The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
February 2, 2019
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS ON THE INTERMEDIATE-RANGE NUCLEAR FORCES (INF) TREATY
9:15 A.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning. Thank you for adjusting to our slight delay this morning. It was a typical Washington reaction to snow.
By now, you will have all seen the Secretary of State’s announcement from the podium at the State Department, as well as the President’s statement, as well as, hopefully, the statement from the North Atlantic Alliance — the North Atlantic Council issued earlier today in support of the decision by the United States — the decision that we will take tomorrow — to follow through on the decision that the President made in December and that Secretary Pompeo announced on December 4th: that Russia would be provided 60 days to return to full and verifiable compliance with the INF Treaty, and that failure to do so within those 60 days would lead the United States to have no other option but to suspend its obligations with the treaty and to invoke Article 15, with respect to withdrawal from the treaty.
The invocation of Article 15 will trigger a six-month period before the U.S. withdrawal is realized. This, in reality — it is a matter of international law — Russia’s final chance. Since the United States began engaging with the Russian Federation in May of 2013 to attempt to induce Russia, attempt to convey to Russia that it would be in Russia’s best interests to return to full and verifiable compliance with this treaty, we have tried any number of efforts: More than 35 diplomatic engagements at the highest levels of our government. We have imposed economic sanctions. We have shown remarkable unity in our alliances to compel Russia to return to compliance. And we have, unfortunately, very little to show for it. Russia continues to deny its violation.
And so the President has taken the decision, as announced in his statement, and by the Secretary of State, to give Russia one final chance. As the Secretary of State announced, it is not in the interest of our alliance, it is not in the interest of the United States to be the only party bound to this or any other treaty. And so Russia will have this chance. If they are truly interested in preserving the treaty, this is their final chance.
And so, with that, I will defer to my colleague at the State Department to speak a little bit about the statement put out by the Alliance. And then we’re happy to take your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I appreciate the handover. Yeah, I think — just a couple comments on how this issue — and how we have been completely and fully unified with our Allies on this.
We have successfully worked, over a number of years, with our Allies to work with them to come to the shared conclusion, back in December, that Russia is in violation of its treaty obligations under the INF Treaty. And then, most recently, just a matter of minutes ago, the Alliance released a statement that we have been working with them on that fully supports the decision that has been made and announced today, as my colleague went through.
And also, I think it’s important to highlight that the Alliance has worked together in a unified manner to compel — to make the case to Russia that the onus is on them to fix their violation of the treaty. Allies have talked about — have engaged the Russians bilaterally on their own for years. And most recently, the NATO-Russia Council has discussed this issue with Russia there, and Allies were 100 percent, completely unified in our approach.
And the expectation that Russia alone bears responsibility for saving the treaty — I think it’s really important to understand that five years — over five years of engagement has produced little effect from the Russian Federation. We’ve made clear what it is that they need to do. The Russians understand that, and the Russians are simply refusing to do that. And so we have really gone through, from political and technical levels, everything that needs to be done, and we unfortunately are at an impasse.
And as the Secretary said, it is just not acceptable where one party remains compliant with the treaty and the other doesn’t, and that Russia is the one that has created the threat that exists that we successfully ended just about 30 years ago.
And so, with that, I will turn it over to folks to lead the question-and-answer period. Thank you.
Q Thank you. Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose. Are you concerned that, by withdrawing from this treaty, the United States is opening the door to a new arms race for short-range and medium-range missiles between the U.S., Russia, and eventually China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Before we answer the question, I just want to reiterate the ground rules, which are: This is provided on background, attribution is to senior administration officials, and the contents are embargoed until the end of the call. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So let me take that question. The short answer is, no. The United States has tried everything it could, since May of 2013, to make Russia understand that its interests were best served in the treaty. But let’s be clear, if there’s an arms race, it is Russia that is starting it. It is Russia that has illegally fielded multiple battalions of this treaty-violating cruise missile.
And let’s also be clear that Russia — excuse me, that China, Iran for that matter, are not bound by the treaty. And each of those countries has over 1,000 of these missiles. So it is not the United States that started the arms race. It is the United States that has tried for almost six years to preserve this treaty. But we cannot be the only country bound by a treaty. What purpose does it serve for the United States to be unilaterally bound, unilaterally required to adhere to this treaty?
But, no, I think we reject the assertion that it is the United States opening the door to an arms race. If there is to be an arms race, it is Russia’s actions that have undermined the security of — the global security architecture and has undermined this particular arms control agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just to kind of add sort of the other side of that coin, I refer you to Paragraph 6 of the NATO statement, and also, Secretary Pompeo — his second question after his remarks touched on this: Is that the United States is committed to effective arms control, but arms control is not just an end itself; it’s a means to an end. And we have made clear that arms control agreements that are effective and where all parties are adhereing to it are in our national interests. And both the NATO statement and Secretary Pompeo’s comments, I think, state that view explicitly and clearly.
Q Hi. Aaron Mehta with Defense News. I wanted to know — if you could just kind of walk us through the six months — you know, kind of what happens now. What’s the actual process? Why is it six months? Is that just legal requirement to wait six months? Are there notifications you have to do? Kind of, what are the steps going forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so the six months is quite simply because that’s what was negotiated in the treaty in 1987. It’s Article 15 of the treaty. It’s not unusual for treaties to have this sort of notice and wait requirements.
I think the thought — and I hesitate to speak for people who drafted the treaty — but I think the thought to these kinds of notice and wait requirements is it gives another party time to react. It gives another party time to contemplate whether or not — for example, in this case, does Russia want to return to compliance with the treaty? We are not optimistic, having tried everything possible, since May of 2013. But they do have a final chance, if their conduct — if they want to full and verifiably eliminate these missiles, their launchers, and their associated equipment, they have time to do that.
What will happen tomorrow is we will deliver a written document — a “dip note,” as we call it — to the Russians to inform them of our invocation of Article 15. And then we have six months.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the diplomatic notices will be — have to be handed over to all the states’ parties. So it’s Russia and the other successor states to the Soviet Union. So we’ll be doing that tomorrow.
Q Hi, it’s Margaret Talev with Bloomberg. I appreciate the briefing. Could you talk to us a little bit about some more specifics of how this could affect the U.S. approach toward China and what China currently has?
And I guess, even more broadly, I’m just trying to understand: If the six-month period goes as everyone thinks it will and this treaty ends, is the U.S. suddenly going to start producing these missiles — positioning these missiles? Where would that happen? What happens next? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So let me talk about that. So there’s a lot of discussion about China. It is a reality that China is unconstrained. It is a reality that they have more than 1,000 of these missiles; we can say that at an unclassified level.
But, for the United States, this really doesn’t have anything to do with China. This is solely about Russia’s violation of this treaty. It is strictly about the threat that that poses to the arms control architecture. We simply cannot tolerate this kind of abuse of arms control and expect for arms control to continue to be viable as a national security tool.
And we cannot permit a scenario where we are unilaterally bound to a treaty. We are denied the ability to have a military capability to deter attacks on the Alliance, to defend against attacks on the Alliance while Russia is able to covertly deploy multiple battalions of this missile. That is an intolerable situation. It makes no sense militarily.
And so, while this is very much about China for Putin — I’ll just quickly pull out a set of remarks from Putin. This was the famous Wehrkunde speech — the Munich Security Conference speech — from 2007, where Putin said the following:
“In connection with this, I would like to recall that in the 1980s, the USSR and the United States signed an agreement on destroying a whole range of small- and medium-range missiles, but these documents do not have a universal character. Today, many other countries have these missiles, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Israel. Many countries are working on these systems and plan to incorporate them as a part of their weapons arsenals. And only the United States and Russia bear the responsibility to not create such weapons systems. It is obvious that, in these conditions, we must think about ensuring our security.”
And I might have read that a little quickly, but, again, just go look at Putin’s prepared remarks at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy from February of 2007.
For Putin, this is very much about his neighbors — China being one of them. And while China has significant numbers of missiles that would be bound by the INF treaty, as Putin noted, they’re not in the treaty. And so, while this is very much about China and other countries for Putin, for the United States this is strictly about the threat this poses to arms control and the threat this poses to European security.
With respect to your second question, no, the United States has been adhering to this treaty scrupulously for more than 31 years. It will take us time to make decisions about what kind of capability would we deploy — what kind of capability would we test.
What we do know is that we are some time away from a flight test. We are certainly a time away from an acquisition decision and from an eventual deployment decision.
What we do know is that we are only looking at conventional options at this time, so the propaganda that Russia puts out to try to scare our allies about a nuclear arms race — nothing the United States is currently looking at is nuclear in character, so that is just another Russian lie.
But, no, we are not going to be in a position to immediately go deploying missiles after the withdrawal takes effect around August, largely as a result of our choice to adhere to this treaty completely and totally for 31 years.
Q Hey there, it’s Steve Holland with Reuters. Secretary Pompeo said that Russia needs to verifiably destroy its INF-violating missiles. Will you accept anything less than outright destruction of the missiles, launchers, et cetera?
And I could secondly ask, what has been the Russian response when you have brought these concerns to their attention? Do they just deny violating the treaty? Or what, exactly?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So with regard to the first question, the treaty requires the full and verifiable elimination of these systems. So, you know, anything less than that would mean they’re not returning to compliance with the treaty. So, no, that is not something we can accept.
We have communicated this to them on multiple occasions. In fact, recently, Under-Secretary Thompson provided yet another paper to the Russians outlining exactly what they have to do to eliminate these missiles and return to full and verifiable compliance.
And, you know, let’s be honest, the Russians know — they’ve been party to this treaty for 31 years. They know what they have to do. They know what they’re doing is a violation.
With respect to their claims, still again, we’ve started this process with the Russians in May of 2013. But we know the Russians have been chafing at this treaty since 2004 — the first time they came to the United States and asked whether we would be interested in mutually withdrawing from the treaty. And we said, at that time, “No.” We said it again in 2007. We said, “No.”
At every opportunity, they have sought to get out of this treaty, and we have said, “No, we don’t think that’s in the interest of us or our allies.” So they decided to go ahead and try to covertly deploy these missiles anyway.
So that’s sort of the framing from where they started here. But, for years, they denied they even had the missile — the 9M729. They subsequently admitted they had the missile, but they chose to deny that they flight-tested to the prohibited range.
We provided them additional information, giving them some basis for why we think on specific dates they tested this missile, and they have just ignored it at every turn and hurled specious counteraccusations at us that our Aegis Ashore systems are a violation or our ballistic missile target vehicles are a violation, our UAV’s are a violation.
Again, this is part of the reason why, having tried to induce them to stay in the treaty since May of 2013, we’ve been forced to come to the only conclusion left: They are simply not interested in sustaining this treaty.
Q Hi. For those of us who don’t cover this closely, can you give us some specifics on Russian violations? Are there particular things we should be highlighting today? I’m sorry, it’s Heather —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can you identify yourself and what organization you’re with?
Q Hi. It’s Heather Timmons with Quartz. Could you give us some specifics on Russia’s violations and specific geographic areas?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, no, I can’t give you information about specific geographic areas. What I would point you to is, if you go to the DNI website, you will find prepared remarks from the Director of National Intelligence, Director Coats, in December. It might have been late November or maybe November 29th. I don’t have them in front of me, regrettably.
But what I would tell you is that it goes into some detail about what we know and have said publicly about the nature of the violation. But let’s remember that the Treaty itself provides that it is prohibited to flight-test, produce, or possess ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles — whether nuclear or conventional, it doesn’t matter — of a range between 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
And we know — and again, the DNI goes into some detail on this — we know that Russia has violated all three of those premises of the treaty.
And I would just, again, at the risk of — a quote — I just think it’s an important digression — this is Rose Gottemoeller, from 2015, when she was the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control in the prior administration. She’s now the Deputy Secretary General of NATO. Rose said, and I quote:
“Russia has tested, starting in 2008, a ground-launched cruise missile that flies to ranges banned by the treaty. The banned ranges are between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. We are quite sure that they have tested a capable missile that flies through those ranges, and they tried to get away with it. And we called them on it, starting in May of 2013, and we’ve been butting heads ever since.”
This was in the — I think it’s the Denver City Post, November 6th, 2015. It’s an interview with Rose Gottemoeller. It’s titled, “The Enduring Nuclear Threat.” And so that’s probably the most I’m comfortable saying.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And also, in the State — every year, the State Department’s annual compliance report, since 2013, has unclassified information about the violation; has unclassified information about our engagements with Russia; and also the State Department’s Arms Control website has an entire page — has a page dedicated to the INF treaty to provide the very basic facts and explanations for the violation — what we’ve done to try to solve the problem, diplomatic history and engagement on the issue — to help inform and explain what it is that we’ve been doing to help folks out there.
Q Hi there. It’s Paul Sonne, from The Washington Post. Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask you guys about future arms control agreements. Obviously, there’s a lot of discussion about New START. Are you committed to as much as you possibly can to extending New START so that there isn’t a full and total breakdown of arms control agreements with Russia stemming from the Cold War?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, thank you. We are in the middle of an interagency process to evaluate our options. I think it’s important to note that the New START Treaty, approximately a year ago, February of 2018, was fully implemented. It doesn’t expire until February of 2021, so that gives us two years.
I think the Secretary of State’s comments this morning spoke to the fact that, I think, we feel very strongly that it’s important to make sure that we can enter into agreements with countries and they will fully adhere to them, they will fully implement them.
We are presently dealing with the Russians on this. We have ongoing discussions in the Bilateral Consultative Commission, and we are working through some implementation challenges with them.
It was fairly alarming recently that the Deputy Foreign Minister said that we were actually violating the New START Treaty, and so we will continue to work through these issues. We are committed to the implementation of the New START Treaty, but we have not made any decisions about its extension given where we are vis-à-vis the full implementation only last February and the fact that this treaty remains in force through February of 2021.
Q Hi, this is Dmitry Kirsanov. Thank you so much for doing the call, and for giving me an opportunity to ask a question. I just wanted to know how a way forward, from your point of view, is going to look like if there even is going to be a strategic security dialogue between the two countries now.
As you might know, the Guardian reported in October that Ambassador Bolton was blocking a new round of strategic stability talks when Secretary Thompson suggested that she meets Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov. So what do you think about that? How do you see a way forward? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I’m not going to talk about speculations from uninformed outsiders that have no idea what’s going on within the U.S. government. But we have had a series of discussions at the highest levels. Ambassador Bolton has twice met with his counterpart, Mr. Patrushev, in August of last year, in Geneva; in October of last year, in Moscow. There was even an effort to arrange a discussion at the highest level — President Putin and President Trump — that President Trump made the decision to cancel because of Russia’s absolutely unlawful and flagrant violation of international law, with respect to the seizing of 24 Ukrainian sailors.
So I think the President’s statement this morning is very clear. The President is interested in trying to have an improved relationship with Russia, but, as the saying goes in this country, it takes two to tango. And so, in some respects, the ball in Russia’s court. If it is interested in a positive relationship with the west, it needs to stop some of its hostile actions against the west.
Q Thank you very much. It’s Nick Schifrin over at PBS NewsHour. I just wanted to go back to your answer — I think it was to Margaret’s question — about deploying, testing, acquiring. Are you suggesting or are you saying that that there is discussion about testing, deploying, acquiring some kind of intermediate-range missile in Europe? And then, secondly, there is an offer out there that would give Russia access to make a deal — basically, a trade — to give Russia more access to the missile defense sites in Poland and Romania in exchange for the destruction of the system. Is that something that you’d consider? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, with respect to the first question. We are — again, we have been scrupulously adhering to this treaty for 31 years. We are some time away from being in a position to know what we might want to deploy, where we might want to deploy it — a conversation that would be completely taken in consultation with our allies. Some of those discussions have already been taken in terms of how does the Alliance want to begin to think about the deterrence and defense architecture in a post-INF world thanks to the Russian demise of the treaty.
And so — but we are some time away because we have been adhering to the treaty for so long. It was a part of our integrated strategy to begin treaty-compliant research on non-compliant systems though. The Congress funded this last year. They funded the President’s request for $48 million in research and development funding, and we will see what is in the President’s budget request when it comes out in the near term for fiscal year 2020.
But let me jump to your second question. There has been discussion about, for example, what Russia calls “transparency measures.” Russia hosted — and, thankfully, very few Allies showed up because it was not a serious offer — an exhibition of their 9M729 to attempt to show, in a controlled briefing, that the missile was not a violation — a static display of a missile to attempt to show that it had not flown in ranges in excess of 500 kilometers.
Again, this is not a serious — a serious transparency measure. Similarly, there is no seriousness to the charge that the U.S. Aegis Ashore systems that NATO has deployed in Romania and Poland are a violation. We have been very clear about this. The Alliance has been very clear about this.
Allowing Russia to walk around those sites would not prove or disprove anything about their treaty compliance. It is not a serious request and it does nothing to address what the U.S. and NATO has unanimously concluded that Russia’s missile is a violation and that they must fully and verifiably eliminate the missiles, the launchers, and the associated equipment to return to compliance. When Russia is interested in a serious discussion about how they will do that, the United States has shown, since May of 2013, we are interested in that discussion.
But these kinds of things they are talking about are not serious. They are merely intended to try to confuse people about who is responsible for the violation. And NATO has now twice spoken, very clearly and unanimously: It is Russia, and only Russia.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just add that that — the transparency thing is a stark contrast. So when the Russians first started raising concerns about Aegis Ashore, UADs, and ballistic missile targets, we provided, on multiple occasions, very detailed explanations about why those systems are not violations of the treaty.
So while Russia’s claims were groundless and not accurate, it still reflected the responsibility that — and the seriousness that we place on trying to save the treaty to respond to them in a professional and serious manner. In contrast, the Russians just simply denied that the missile had existed for all those years.
So it really shows, you know — it’s another useful data point to show how the United States has acted in a serious manner to try to save this, in stark contrast to the Russians just denying, making false counteraccusations, and then just saying that it’s not a violation, and here’s a farce of a transparency measure.
Q Hi, this is Morgan Chalfant from The Hill. Just wanted to follow up on some earlier comments or questions about what the U.S. plans to do in this time. Has the Pentagon been given any instructions on this in terms of R&D or anything? Are we taking steps to — I mean, you mentioned that your time away from making decisions on any missiles or anything, but is the Pentagon receiving any sort of direction on this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, the answer is yes. The Integrated Strategy the President signed in 2017 directed the Pentagon to begin, for example, treaty-compliant research on non-compliant systems in an effort to attempt to provide the Russians with additional reasons to reconsider their apparent focus on causing the demise of this treaty. That led to a budget request that Congress funded last year to the tune of $48 million.
So where the Pentagon is, is they are looking at potential options for what a U.S. capability will be, when and if the treaty is terminated as a result of what is unfortunately a likely decision by Russia to not return to full and verifiable compliance.
But again, we are some time away from having a system that we would produce, that we would train soldiers, or airmen, or Marines to deploy — and then, certainly, before we would be in a position to talk about basing, potentially, in Allied countries. And, of course, all of that will be preceded by intensive consultations with Allies so that we can have a mutual understanding of what the security environment — what the defense and deterrence environment will be in a post-INF world, if, in fact, Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance, and causes the demise of this treaty.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That was the last question. I just want to reiterate the ground rules. This information has been given on background, attribution to “senior administration officials.” And now that we’re at the end of the call, the embargo is lifted.
END 9:49 A.M. EST
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