January 25, 2019 / 11:24 AM / 25 days ago

NATO, Russia fail to agree over missile breach, U.S. to quit treaty

BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) - NATO and Russia failed on Friday to resolve a dispute over a new Russian missile that Western allies say is a threat to Europe, bringing closer Washington’s withdrawal from a landmark arms control treaty.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

At a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, envoys from NATO’s 29 members renewed their call on Moscow’s deputy foreign minister to destroy a nuclear-capable cruise missile system before a Feb. 2 deadline.

Without a breakthrough, the United States is set to start the six-month process of pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), having notified it would do so in early December and accusing Moscow of breaching it.

Russia denies violating the terms of the treaty, which eliminated the medium-range missile arsenals of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

“The treaty is in real jeopardy,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “The sooner Russia comes back into compliance, the better. The treaty has no value if it is not respected, the problem are the Russian missiles in Europe,” he told a news conference after the meeting.

One NATO diplomat said the U.S. ambassador to the alliance told the assembled diplomats and officials that Washington would start the pull-out process from the INF on Feb. 2. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the closed-door meeting that it was the United States that was breaching the treaty, alliance diplomats said.

Ryabkov, who spoke in both Russian and English, cited the U.S.-built NATO missile defense system in Romania as a treaty breach. NATO says the shield is designed to shoot down rockets from Iran, not from Russia.

Separately, the Russian foreign ministry also accused the United States of reviving a Cold War-era plan to deploy a missile defense system in space.

While NATO diplomats described Friday’s meeting as calm and professional, Stoltenberg said Russia had shown no willingness to compromise. But he and some European nations such as Germany held out hope for diplomatic progress during the six-month withdrawal process.

“PURE SHOW”

Russia stands accused of developing land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting European cities at short notice, breaching the Cold War-era pact that took such rockets out of Europe.

But the Kremlin, which this week displayed its missiles to foreign military attaches in Moscow, says the missiles’ short range puts it outside the INF treaty. It says the Novator 9M729/SSC-8 rockets have a maximum range of 480 km (298 miles).

NATO diplomats repeated their view that there was no way of verifying that information because the missiles have only been shown publicly in a “static display” that gives no indication of their flying distance. One NATO diplomat said the Russian display on Wednesday was “pure show”.

FILE PHOTO: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a news conference after a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File photo

Some NATO diplomats believe that Russia may have developed the new missile system, which is mobile and easy to hide in forests and other strategic locations, to counter Chinese missile programs, but that did not justify deploying it.

The 1987 treaty requires the United States and Russia “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km (310-3,420 miles) “or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles”.

Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China - the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - are due to meet in Beijing on Jan. 30 to discuss arms control, diplomats told Reuters. But it was not clear if the INF treaty would be on the agenda.

Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Gareth Jones

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