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WASHINGTON — The world's two greatest nuclear powers are set to pull out of a crucial nuclear weapons treaty beginning this weekend.
The United States and Russia announced Thursday that discussions this week to save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty, failed and thus Washington will begin the six-month withdrawal process starting Feb. 2.
"Unfortunately, there is no progress," Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said following the treaty discussions, according to a translation by Reuters. "As far as we understand, the next step is coming, the next phase begins, namely the phase of the United States stopping its obligations under the INF, which will evidently happen this coming weekend."
Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, who is leading U.S. efforts, said that "diplomacy is never done" but that Washington is likely to withdraw from the INF pact.
"The Russians still aren't in acknowledgment that they are in violation of the treaty," Thompson told Reuters.
The INF treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibited the development and deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges of 310 miles to 3,420 miles. The agreement forced each country to dismantle more than 2,500 missiles and kept nuclear-tipped cruise missiles off the European continent for three decades.
In October, President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Cold War-era pact. Russia, Trump says, has violated the arms agreement by building and fielding the banned weapons "for many years." On behalf of the administration, national security advisor John Bolton flew to Moscow to personally deliver the decision to the Kremlin.
Two months later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited material evidence that Russia has quietly added nuclear-tipped missiles that are currently banned by the INF treaty to its colossal arsenal. Russia, Pompeo said, has developed "multiple battalions of the SSC-8 missiles," a move that falls outside the arms agreement.
"Its range makes it a direct menace to Europe," he said after a meeting with his NATO counterparts.
Pompeo then offered Russia an ultimatum: come into compliance of the agreement within 60 days or the United States will exit the weapons pact.
NATO on Tuesday also called on Moscow to "return urgently to full and verifiable compliance." "It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty," wrote NATO foreign ministers in a joint statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin upped the ante a day later by saying he is prepared to develop nuclear-tipped missiles if the U.S. withdraws from the INF Treaty.
"Now it seems our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that the United States must also have such a weapon. What's our response? It's simple: in that case we will also do this," Putin said.
As it stands, the INF withdrawal process will last six months and will begin on Saturday. The process, however, could be reversed if Russia came back into compliance.