STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Back in December, the Trump administration gave Russia a deadline. Russia had 60 days to comply with an arms control treaty. Now time is running out. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce the United States is withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces - or INF - Treaty. NPR's Lucian Kim is covering this story from Moscow.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: I - 1987 treaty - I got a note that almost half of this country, almost half the United States, Americans, weren't even born when this treaty was signed. Probably, a lot of people have never thought about it. So why does this treaty matter in 2019?
KIM: Well, it's really hard to downplay the significance of this treaty because it was one of the symbols of the end of the Cold War. It was signed by Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and eliminated medium-range, land-based nuclear missiles, which vastly reduced tensions in Europe. That was important because it gave Russian leaders a little more time to decide if they were really under attack or if it was a false alarm.
INSKEEP: Oh, trying to make sure you didn't have an accidental nuclear catastrophe.
KIM: Exactly. And now the Trump administration's decision to withdraw is not just coming out of the blue. The Obama administration was already complaining about a Russian missile. The U.S. says its range violates the INF treaty and that it's already been deployed. Here we have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking back in December.
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MIKE POMPEO: The United States today declares it has found Russia in material breach of the treaty and will suspend our obligations as a remedy effective in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.
KIM: Well, here we are in February, and that deadline is running out. And the U.S. is expected to announce its withdrawal now.
INSKEEP: I guess we should note the Trump administration, President Trump, has very publicly withdrawn from a lot of international agreements. He doesn't seem to like them. But in this case, there, according to the U.S. anyway, is evidence, and European allies seem to be on board. But what does Russia say about all this?
KIM: Well, the Russians say they won't accept what they call ultimatums. They say the U.S. has already made this decision a long time ago, and they're just looking for a pretext. They say the missile in question, under scrutiny, is not in violation. Actually, last week, they invited military attaches and journalists to look at the launch tube of this missile. And that was supposed to convince laypeople that Russia is not in violation.
Russia kind of flips the story - the narrative and says, in fact, the U.S. is in violation. U.S. missile defense sites in Eastern Europe could be quickly retooled to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. That's what the Russians say, and they also say that armed U.S. drones really stretch the definition of what you call a medium-range missile. I think we have President Putin speaking last fall right here.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: So what he's saying here is that the main question is what the U.S. will do now - if it will base those medium-range missiles in Europe again and that if it does, Russia would have to respond and target European countries in return.
INSKEEP: Wow, and there you are with a new arms race. Lucian, thanks so much.
KIM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.