Russia, US in war of words over arms treaty

Lavrov called on European nations to help influence Washington to save the treaty (AFP Photo/Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)
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Moscow (AFP) - Russia on Wednesday accused Washington of being uncooperative on efforts to save a crucial arms control treaty, only to be accused by the US of dishonesty.

Tensions have raged for months over the fate of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) signed in 1987 by then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

US President Donald Trump has promised to walk away from the agreement and President Vladimir Putin threatened a new arms race, saying Europe would be its main victim.

Speaking after fresh talks between US and Russian officials in Geneva to salvage the INF led nowhere, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to continue negotiating.

"We are still ready to work to save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty," Russia's top diplomat told reporters.

He called on European nations to help influence Washington, saying they had a major stake in the issue and should not be "at the tail-end of the US position".

Last month Washington gave Russia a 60-day deadline to dismantle missiles that it claims breach the INF treaty or the US would begin the six-month process of formally withdrawing from the deal.

Moscow's top negotiator in Geneva, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, said the Geneva talks centred on Russia's 9M729 system but that US demands regarding the missile were unacceptable.

Lavrov said on Wednesday the Russian side in Geneva came up with "constructive proposals" aiming to give the US an idea of what the 9M729 system was, but the US side arrived with an "ultimatum" and demanded to "destroy" the rocket and related equipment.

- 'Lip service' -

US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson countered that talks "did not break new ground" and said Russia's offers of inspection of the 9M729 were inadequate and merely "paid lip service to transparency."

"Disappointingly but unsurprisingly we weren't able to break any new ground" in the Geneva talks, Thompson told reporters after briefing NATO allies in Brussels.

She said Moscow's offers, such as a "static display" of the missiles, would not show whether they breach the treaty. The US wants to see the system in testing, not in an environment where the Russian military can "control the results," she said.

Russian negotiators on Tuesday proposed holding another round of talks on the agreement but received no reply from the US side, Ryabkov has said.

Russia denies it is in violation of the treaty, which forbids ground-launched short- and intermediate-range missiles.

In Geneva on Tuesday, US and Russian diplomats blamed each other for pushing the agreement to the brink of collapse.

Russian officials said US representatives had confirmed Washington's intention to begin withdrawing from the treaty from February 2.

- US trying to 'impose its will' -

Lavrov also expressed hope it would be possible to save another key arms control agreement, the New START.

The agreement, which caps the number of nuclear warheads held by Washington and Moscow, expires in 2021.

"We are doing a lot to remove possible irritants regarding it and are interested in having it extended," he said.

He slammed Washington's overall position, saying the potential for conflict was increasing due to the West's unwillingness to accept "the reality of an emerging multi-polar world" and its desire to "impose its will" on the rest of the global community.

Putin has threatened to develop nuclear missiles banned under the INF treaty if it is scrapped.

He said in December he was open to the idea of other countries joining the INF treaty or to starting talks on a new agreement.

Putin has also said that if Washington moved to place more missiles in Europe after ditching the deal, Russia would respond "in kind" and that any European countries agreeing to host US missiles would be at risk of a Russian attack.

The INF deal resolved a crisis over Soviet nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles targeting Western capitals, but put no restrictions on other major military actors such as China.