U.S., Russia May Seek Nuclear Talks in July, Deadline Looms

The U.S. and Russia are planning to have more arms-control talks as early as July after discussions in Vienna yielded enough progress to continue negotiating over nuclear-weapons stockpiles.

The New START treaty between Washington and Moscow is set to expire in February and a failure to extend the pact or agree to a new one could raise risks posed by nuclear arms. The Trump administration has insisted that China take part in the talks so that they can move forward, a condition that Moscow has rejected.

“We’ll meet as soon as practical and as soon as tangible progress has been made by the working groups,” U.S. envoy Marshall Billingslea said Tuesday at a briefing in the Austrian capital. “Ideally, in my view this would happen toward the end of July or early August.”

Billingslea called the talks “very robust and very productive” while reiterating that Chinese officials should join future rounds. A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be identified discussing details of the talks, said three working groups had been created: one to discuss unconstrained stockpiles, one to discuss transparency and verification, and one to discuss concerns over the weaponization of space.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a far more cautious note, saying it was “unrealistic” for the U.S. to expect China to take part in the talks and that Moscow isn’t willing “to influence Beijing in the way that the Americans would like,” the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported.

“We, unfortunately, didn’t feel during yesterday’s meeting in Vienna that the Americans were ready to accept our logic in favor of an extension without preconditions” to the START treaty, Ryabkov said, according to RIA.

Russia and China criticized the U.S. on Monday after U.S. negotiators sought to embarrass Beijing by posting a photo of Chinese flags and empty chairs for delegates who weren’t scheduled to attend talks aimed at rescuing the treaty signed in 2010. Billingslea said his delegation was responsible for bringing the Chinese flags.

The U.S. official said that the American delegation had brought flags of all three countries and acknowledged that the picture of the Chinese flag was a photo op aimed at underscoring how China was still refusing to show up as the U.S. waits.

While Billingslea didn’t rule out extending New START, he said that doing so without including China in the talks would “no longer make sense.” The U.S. also wants to include non-strategic weapons, like cruise missiles that can potentially carry nuclear warheads, in the talks, he said.

Even a willingness to consider an extension marks a concession by the Trump administration, which had previously rebuffed Russian calls to open such talks. The 10-year-old treaty, the last one capping the nuclear forces of the former Cold War foes, has an option to renew for a further five years with the agreement of both parties.

In a statement posted on its website late Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that talks aimed at “maintaining stability and predictability” had taken place but didn’t mention possible dates to reconvene.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed the U.S.-Russia meeting in Vienna. The U.S. will brief NATO tomorrow on the threat posed by China’s nuclear buildup, according to the U.S. official.

“That is of great importance for all of us -- for the whole world,” Stoltenberg told an online event on Tuesday from Brussels. “Of course, there is still a long way to go before they reach an agreement, but these are important first steps.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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