The Trump administration has accused Russia of "cheating" on the terms of a treaty on nuclear missiles. Europe could face security concerns if Washington carries through on a threat to withdraw from the pact.
NATO foreign ministers backed the Trump administration's stance over a landmark missile treaty with Russia when they met in Brussels Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NATO ministers that Washington would begin the process of withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) within 60 days if Moscow did not start complying with the terms of the pact.
"It makes no sense for the United States to remain in a treaty that constrains our ability to respond to Russia's violation," Pompeo said, adding that: "The United States today declares Russia in material breach of the treaty and we will suspend our obligations unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance."
Read more: NATO: Russia violated INF nuclear treaty
At issue is a new Russian missile system — known as both the 9M729 and SSC-8 — that is nuclear-capable and violates the treaty's ban on ground-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (311-3,418 miles). Pompeo said that Russia is in "material breach" of the contract.
DW's correspondent at NATO, Teri Schultz, said the US had allowed the 60-day concession in response to European concerns over an immediate withdrawal and followed direct intervention by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Nobody at NATO thinks Russia is going to come back into compliance," Schultz told DW's The Day programme. "At the end of the 60 days, it's going to be a free-for-all. The US wants to be free to advance its own weapons systems without constraint."
The INF treaty was a US-Soviet agreement aimed at reducing the superpowers' nuclear arsenal. It remained in force after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Preparing for the worst
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said of the treaty: "This was really arms control at its best and therefore it's a really big setback if this treaty now breaks totally down." Stoltenberg stressed that Russia still had time to comply but added "we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty."
A statement released by the NATO foreign ministers said: "Allies have emphasized that the situation whereby the United States and other parties fully abide by the treaty and Russia does not, is not sustainable. We call on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance. It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF treaty."
Europe has been rattled by the prospects of the Russian system as it would give Moscow the ability to launch essentially undetectable attacks on European cities. That fact, says NATO, would dramatically shift its security calculus on the continent.
Europeans are concerned that the US would once again be obliged to deploy its own missiles across the continent should the treaty fall apart. Pompeo called the Russian system "a direct menace to Europe," adding that Moscow's actions "greatly undermine America's national security and that of its allies."
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova rejected accusations of noncompliance: "Russia strictly complies with the conditions of the treaty and the US side is aware of that."
js/rt (AFP, dpa, Reuters)