Three decades ago, the Soviet Union and the U.S. carefully crafted what they called the first step to a nuclear-free planet. How did it go so wrong?

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were downright giddy 32 years ago as they signed a breakthrough treaty to reduce their nations’ stockpile of nuclear-armed missiles.

Mr. Gorbachev called the pact “the first step down the road to a nuclear-free world,” while Mr. Reagan mused aloud about whether war itself might one day become an anachronism. Four years later, the Cold War was indeed over.

Neither man could have predicted a world where Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would inherit their jobs, and tear up the deal they had so painstakingly crafted.

But three decades after Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty that’s exactly what’s happening. Blaming Moscow, President Donald Trump said Friday that the United States would “suspend its obligations” under the treaty, meaning it will now be free from the constraints Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev agreed to, including a ban on the testing and deployment of nuclear-capable missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.

It will take six months for the U.S. to formally complete its withdrawal – a period that a worried German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday she would use “to keep the window for dialogue open” – but few expect the deal will be salvaged in that time.

“Yet another mechanism to avoid nuclear conflict has been destroyed,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council. “The U.S. has taken another step toward destroying the world.”

The deal, until recently, had been seen as an unqualified success. Unlike the arms-control agreements that preceded it, which only set caps on how many weapons each side could possess, the INF Treaty directly led to the destruction of almost 2,700 nuclear-capable missiles. Europe, which had long feared being caught in the middle as the superpowers exchanged atomic blows, was the primary beneficiary.

But the U.S. says Russia stopped complying in 2014, shortly after tensions spiked between Moscow and the West over the annexation of Crimea. “For far too long, Russia has violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad,” the White House said in a statement released on Friday.

The weapon in question is Russia’s Novator 9M729 system, a cruise missile that can be fired from a fixed or mobile launcher. While Russia says the missile has a range of 480 kilometres, the NATO military alliance believes it can fly four times that distance.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia violated the accord by not allowing U.S. inspectors to verify the full capabilities of the 9M729. “If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty within this six-month period by verifiably destroying its INF-violating missiles, their launchers and associated equipment, the treaty will terminate,” he told a press conference in Washington.

Russia has accused the U.S. of inventing a reason to tear up the INF Treaty so that it can resume producing the types of weapons it prohibits. Critics in both Moscow and Washington claim the real reason the U.S. wants to withdraw from the treaty is the building tension with China, which is not bound by the treaty, and which is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles of the type the U.S. and Russia are banned from possessing.

Russia has also complained for years that the U.S. damaged the INF Treaty by constructing missile-defence systems in Eastern Europe that upset the post-Cold War balance of power.

Despite the heated rhetoric from Moscow, Mr. Putin is no more of a fan of the INF Treaty than Mr. Trump is. The Kremlin leader has complained for more than a decade that Russia was limited by the pact, while neighbours China and India were not. “Putin and the Russian military have been saying since 2007 that the INF is a bad treaty that was unfair to Russia and should be abandoned,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, recently told The Globe and Mail. “Having the Americans abandon it first is good for PR purposes.”

Mr. Felgenhauer said that tearing up the INF Treaty would benefit Russia strategically in the short term because it can now openly deploy the 9M729, while the U.S. currently has no system of its own to counter with.

While NATO headquarters in Brussels released a statement on Friday declaring that it would “fully support” the U.S decision to withdraw from the treaty, there were dissenting voices within the alliance. “Without the treaty, there will be less certainty,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote on his Twitter account.

Mr. Gorbachev is also among those concerned. “Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements,” the 87-year-old said in an October interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency. “Do they really not understand in Washington what this can lead to?”

The Globe and Mail, February 1, 2019