President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russia’s development of the 9M729 - SSC-8 ground based cruise missile, which could deliver nuclear warheads and whose estimated 500 to 5,500 kilometer range would violate the INF treaty.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that right now, the main focus “is to preserve the treaty,” adding that the withdrawal process will not complete until August. "At same time,” Stoltenberg said, “we are planning for future without an INF treaty and Russia with more missiles.”
However, in a background briefing with reporters, a NATO official acknowledged that there was no consensus yet on what the alliance will do if Russia does not destroy the missiles, launchers and associated training equipment.
“If after six months they take no steps back toward compliance ... we just have to continue to think about what this means for deterrence and to do everything we deem necessary to ensure the peace,” the NATO official said.
At a press conference Wednesday, Stoltenberg said the 29 NATO members were assessing options on a response.
Under the terms of the treaty, Russia can still retain the research labs and data associated with the missile, including prototypes, the official said.
“We don’t require them to set fire to their plants … erase their memories or anything like that,” the NATO official said. “It’s the physical stuff."
A senior US official traveling with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters that the U.S. is only considering providing additional conventional weapons to assist in the defense of NATO if the treaty does fail.
The NATO official said those options are still premature.
“The U.S. has stated clearly they are looking at different options in terms of medium-range missiles,” the official said. “As to whether or not they need to be put in Europe, that is not even a question we are looking at" right now, the official said.
Likening the INF treaty to a failed relationship, the NATO official suggested those options could be part of the discussion in the future as it gets ready for post-INF treaty world.
“When your partner has left you for someone else, you don’t say, well, ‘Marriage is cool, this is great.’ At some point you say, 'I think we’re divorced!’”
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.