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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that the United States is ready to withdraw from a crucial nuclear weapons treaty with Russia on Saturday, a move that has sparked concerns of a budding arms race between the world's two biggest nuclear powers.
The announcement comes a day after Russia and the United States said that discussions to save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty had failed.
"Tomorrow, the United States will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty and begin the process of withdrawing ... which will be completed in six months unless Russia comes back into compliance by destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment," Trump said in a statement.
"We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other. We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct," Trump added.
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, Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from the Cold War-era pact and sent national security advisor John Bolton to personally deliver the decision to the Kremlin. Russia, Trump said, has violated the arms agreement by building and fielding the banned weapons "for many years."
In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited material evidence that Russia has quietly added nuclear-tipped missiles that are currently banned by the treaty to its colossal arsenal. He said Russia 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 also called on Moscow to "return urgently to full and verifiable compliance." "It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty," NATO foreign ministers said 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.
And so, on Saturday, the U.S. will begin to withdraw from the INF Treaty, a process that will last six months but could be reversed if Russia came back into compliance.
"We stand ready to engage with Russia on arms control negotiations that meet these criteria, and, importantly, once that is done, develop, perhaps for the first time ever, an outstanding relationship on economic, trade, political, and military levels," Trump said adding that "this would be a fantastic thing" for Russia, the U.S. and the world.