Russian officials this week said they would not allow inspectors to examine a controversial nuclear missile that violates a major Cold War treaty limiting mid-range nuclear arms.
The clock is ticking on Washington's warning that it would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty if Russia does not dismantle its missiles in breach of the treaty.
But even with the 1987 treaty at risk, and NATO allies calling for a swift resolution, Russia is responding with intransigence.
The United States and NATO allies are seeking the destruction or modification of Russia's 9M729 system, also known by the designation SSC-8. The missile -- with a strike range of up to 2,500km -- violates the historic pact, which banned ground-launched missiles with a range of 500km to 5,500km.
"The United States' legal pretext for the suspension it announced, and precisely speaking, the reference to the alleged material breach of the treaty by Russia is absolutely groundless," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in an interview with Kommersant published Wednesday (December 19).
"Russia has not produced or tested missiles that are covered by the INF Treaty and have a prohibited flight range," he said. "This fully applies to the 9М729."
Ryabkov balked when asked by the interviewer why Russia does not allay American concerns by demonstrating the missile to inspectors.
"The INF does not require us to do this," he said. "A demonstration of the missile to the Americans would be a manifestation by our side of increased transparency beyond the framework of the treaty."
Responding to Moscow's violations
If Moscow makes no move to rectify its violation of the INF Treaty, the United States will in February start the six-month process of withdrawing from it.
"The United States today declares Russia in material breach of the treaty, and we will suspend our obligations as a remedy in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said December 4 after talks with fellow NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
"We strongly support the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty," NATO's 29 foreign ministers said in a joint statement in support of Pompeo's warnings.
"We call on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance," the statement said. "It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty."
Over the past five years, Washington has raised its concerns over the SSC-8 at least 30 times with Russia "to the highest levels of leadership", only to hear denials, obfuscation and spurious counter-claims, Pompeo said.
Although Russia has a last chance to comply, "we must also start to prepare for a world without the treaty", NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said December 4.
A long running dispute
The US State Department has provided Moscow with "more than enough information for Russia to engage substantively on the issue", the US State Department said in a statement December 4.
The information included details on the missile's test history and the names of companies involved in developing and producing the missile and its launcher.
Public concern over Russian non-compliance dates back to 2014, when the US State Department said in an annual report that "the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty", adding that the United States had raised these concerns with Moscow in 2013.
The same reports for 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 repeated the claim.
The latest row started in October with a warning from US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
"Russia must return to compliance with the INF Treaty, or the United States will need to respond to its cavalier disregard for the treaty's specific limits," he said October 4 after a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"Make no mistake -- the current situation with Russia in blatant violation of this treaty is untenable," he said.
"Russia has violated the agreement. They've been violating it for many years," US President Donald Trump told reporters October 20.
"The Netherlands can independently confirm that Russia has developed and is currently introducing a ground-based cruise weapon," Foreign Minister Stef Blok and Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld wrote in a joint letter dated November 27. They credited their findings to "intelligence".