PRAGUE -- U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said his talks with European allies so far have not resulted in any suggestions that would persuade the United States not to withdraw from a Cold War-era arms-control treaty.
Mattis said he asked European allies for ideas at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Belgium earlier this month, about two weeks before President Donald Trump announced that the United States planned to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
During his consultations with allies, Mattis said, he reiterated his position that the status quo -- Russia violating the treaty and the United States abiding by it -- was unsustainable. He asked the other 28 nations in the alliance to offer suggestions about what the United States could do other than pull out of the treaty.
"I said, 'We need to know if you have any ideas,'" Mattis recounted in comments on a trip from Bahrain to the Czech Republic. "So far we have not been able to find any."
Mattis consulted European allies for suggestions more than two weeks before Trump announced on Oct. 20 that he planned to withdraw the United States from the two-nation pact, which Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987, marking a breakthrough in Cold War arms-control diplomacy.
Trump said that Russia had violated terms of the treaty, which prohibits the U.S. and Russia from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. The treaty applies to both nuclear and conventional variants, and it led the two superpowers to remove thousands of nuclear missiles they had pointed at each other in Europe.
Russia has repeatedly denied producing or testing such a missile after the signing of the treaty.
Despite Mattis' consultation with NATO allies, it's unclear how many of them were aware in advance that Trump was going to announce a decision by the United States to withdraw from the pact.
Speaking at a news conference with Mattis in Prague, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis described Washington's decision to pull out of the treaty as "bad news" and expressed hope that relations between the U.S. and Russia would improve.
Babis told reporters that relations with Russia "aren't ideal and we're returning to Cold War times," and stressed that "it would be good for the superpowers to cooperate." He also reiterated the importance of relations with the U.S., saying the Czechs will keep troops in Afghanistan despite four recent fatalities there.
Trump has said that because Russia was violating the agreement and China wasn't a party to it, he saw no reason for the United States to abide by the agreement on its own.
"We have more money than anybody else by far," Trump said last week. "We'll build it up until they come to their senses."
The president added that his plan to withdraw was "a threat to whoever you want, and it includes China, and it includes Russia and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game."
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisted last week that "Russia has fully adhered to the treaty's provisions." He noted that Russia has accused the U.S. of breaching the treaty with its missile defense installations in Europe, which Russia says can be modified to house ground-to-ground intermediate-range cruise missiles. The State Department has refuted the accusation.
NATO spokesman Oana Lungescu has endorsed Trump's view that Russia is violating the treaty with its 9M729 missile, which NATO says is nuclear-capable.
"In the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile, allies believe that the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty," she said.
Shortly after Trump announced his intention to withdraw, White House national security adviser John Bolton informed Putin of the administration's intent.
Mattis did not rule out the possibility that the United States would once again deploy intermediate-range missiles on land in Europe, nor did he say that it wouldn't happen, citing his policy of not telegraphing such moves in advance.
"There are a number of ways for us to respond," Mattis said. "It does not have to be symmetric, and it will be in the closest consultation with allies."
A symmetric response means the U.S. military would deploy the same weapons as Russia, namely midrange ground-launched cruise missiles. An asymmetric response would see the United States deploy different types of weapons to account for Russia's moves, or take other measures.
The State Department hasn't formally announced that Russia is in material breach of the treaty. Nor has Washington issued Moscow with a document certifying its withdrawal from the pact.
Trump and Putin are due to meet in November during World War I centennial commemorations in Paris and will probably discuss the matter, as well as other arms-control issues under consideration between Washington and Moscow. Trump has said he will withdraw unless Russia and China agree to a modified treaty whereby all three nations agree to abstain from deploying the midrange missiles.
Mattis said he will continue consulting with European allies. He expected a more final decision on the matter by the time NATO ministers meet again in early December.
"At that point I'm certain we'll have some kind of culminating point," Mattis said.
The defense secretary said that could be a decision to announce that Russia is in material breach of the treaty. Or it could be an indication by the Russians that they have "woken up to the danger" into which they have put the treaty and changed course, he said.
Mattis added, "We will have to see."
Information for this article was contributed by Paul Sonne of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.
A Section on 10/29/2018
Print Headline: Mattis: Talks yield no treaty-exit alternatives