U.S., Russia Move Closer to One-Year Extension of Nuclear Treaty

The U.S. and Russia inched closer to a deal to extend the New START arms-control treaty for a year after Russia softened its position on freezing a broader range of nuclear warheads, though key questions remained about the ability to come to an understanding.

In a statement Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry proposed extending the accord for a year and said it was prepared to commit to “a political obligation” with the U.S. to freeze both sides’ existing arsenals of nuclear warheads during that time.

“If this suits Washington, the time gained through the extension of the New START could be used to hold comprehensive bilateral talks on the future of nuclear missile control,” according to a statement from the ministry.

The U.S. welcomed Russia’s offer.

“We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday morning. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”

The offer from Moscow suggested President Vladimir Putin’s government is willing to ease its stance after President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday rejected a Russian proposal to prolong the treaty for 12 months without conditions before it expires in February. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said at the time extending New START without capping the number of nuclear warheads that aren’t covered by the strategic weapons pact was a “non-starter.”

Key questions remain about the two sides’ ability to come to a deal. Russia’s statement didn’t mention strict new verification requirements that Washington has stipulated and which Ortagus alluded to in her statement. It’s also not clear whether the two sides will be able to agree on all the types of warheads that would be included in a freeze.

The negotiations are taking place amid the U.S. presidential election campaign and as the clock ticks down toward the expiration of New START. Trump is eager for diplomatic wins ahead of the Nov. 3 vote, while his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, supports an extension of the 2010 pact. It has an option of renewal for up to 5 years.

“That Russia took this step on the eve of the election quite clearly shows that it’s trying to help Trump a bit,” said Alexei Arbatov, an analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow who worked on the original START I treaty in the 1990s. “How well it will work, nobody knows.”

The accord put limits on the number of strategic nuclear weapons, such as submarine-launched missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But it didn’t limit many other types of nuclear warheads, and Trump administration officials had sought to broaden its terms before agreeing to an extension.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that the U.S. is demanding a return to “intrusive” inspections as well as a freeze on the entire nuclear arsenal -- including smaller tactical weapons that according to Washington account for 55% of Russian nuclear capabilities.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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