US calls on Moscow to get rid of banned arms

Washington (AFP) - Ratcheting up tensions with Moscow, Washington on Tuesday urged Russia to destroy prohibited weapons after it accused Russian leaders of flouting a 1987 treaty banning medium-range cruise missiles.

A 2014 report submitted to Congress on compliance with arms control and non-proliferation accords found Russia was "in violation of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

"We encourage Russia to return to compliance with its obligations under the treaty and to eliminate any prohibited items in a verifiable manner."

Under the 1987 INF treaty Moscow had committed not to possess, produce or flight test a ground launch cruise missile with a range of capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, Psaki said, though she did not specify when the violation had occurred.

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke earlier Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and called for "senior level, bilateral dialogue immediately" on the arms issues.

The report submitted to Congress on Tuesday comes amid mounting tensions between Russia and the United States, which accuses Moscow of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine.

But Psaki insisted the US "first raised this issue last year" with Russian leaders.

"To be clear this is nothing to do with Ukraine," she said, even as Washington was drawing up new sanctions against Moscow for its backing of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.

President Barack Obama late Monday sent a letter to his counterpart Vladimir Putin on the subject, which White House spokesman Josh Earnest described as "a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now."

"The United States is committed to the viability of the INF Treaty," he said.

- Mutual security -

And he backed Psaki saying the finding was not based on the current state of US-Russia ties but "on intelligence analysis, and the decision to make it public was based on our filing of the 2014 compliance report, something that's done on an annual basis."

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by then US president Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated nuclear and conventional intermediate range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

Psaki said the INF treaty served the "mutual security interests of the parties" -- not only the United States and Russia but also 11 other successor states of the Soviet Union.

"Moreover, this treaty contributes to the security of our allies and to regional security in Europe and in the Far East."

Washington raised concerns with Moscow in January following a New York Times report that Russia had begun testing a new ground-launched cruise missile as early as 2008.

Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told AFP he believes the US is concerned about a cruise missile version of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile system, the Iskander-K.

He said the missile has been tested at a range of 1,000 km, but could the range could be extended up to 2,000-3,000 km by adding extra fuel tanks.

Felgenhauer noted that Russian leaders were not enthusiastic about the INF treaty.

"Putin and (Putin's chief of staff and former defense minister) Sergei Ivanov have spoken about the INF treaty being detrimental and no longer needed by Russia, with Ivanov referring to the Iskander-K," said Felgenhauer.