The US and Russia continue to drift apart as their most recent arms control treaty runs to an end

After the latest round of nuclear disarmament talks on Tuesday (18 August), the United States and Russia remain at odds over several key issues, but open the door an inch towards a possibly temporary extension of the New START Treaty, which is set to expire in less than six months.

“There are some areas of convergence, but we do remain far apart on a number of key issues,” US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Marshall Billingslea, said on Tuesday after two days of talks with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Treaty (New START), the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms-control accord, which caps the number of deployed long-range nuclear warheads each country can have, is set to expire in February 2021, unless Washington and Moscow agree to roll it over.

A first round of disarmament talks between the two powers had ended with with no apparent breakthrough on a possible extension of the New START Treaty in late June.

Both sides agreed to set up several joint working groups on ‘strategic stability’, for which they held additional consultations in late July on space security, doctrines and potentials as well as transparency and verification.

China ‘obstacle’ solved?

For more than a year, negotiations stalled over American insistence of China joining a future accord, a proposal repeatedly rejected by Beijing and frowned upon by Moscow.

Russia, meanwhile, has said that if China is part of a new treaty, Britain and France should also be included. “But in view of non-readiness of the above-mentioned countries, the US and Russia should concentrate on the bilateral track,” Russian negotiator Ryabkov said.

The world’s only remaining nuclear arms control treaty is set to expire in less than a year unless Russia and the US agree to roll it over. While Washington has repeatedly called on China to take part in negotiations to extend it, the overall tone between the three nuclear powers is becoming rough.

However, after the talks, Billingslea said a framework with Russia was the primary objective and “can include China in due course”, effectively softening Washington’s stance on the matter.

“What we’ve said is that we view New START as deeply flawed and that it is not particularly in the US interest to simply extend that treaty,” Billingslea told reporters in a telephone briefing, saying Washington informed Moscow of its terms for extending the accord.

“We’ve got to address these unconstrained warheads that exist outside of the treaty, and to which the Russian Federation is systematically adding more and more and more,” he said.

Those terms include addressing what Washington says is Moscow’s build-up of shorter-range nuclear weapons that are not covered by the treaty, and making the verification system more robust.

Modifications would also concern the exchange of telemetry information, data generated during missile flight tests, and to address how quickly inspectors could be sent to a site, and the frequency of inspections.

If Moscow would agree to comply with such steps, Billingslea said he would recommend US President Trump to consider a temporary extension of New START, possibly proceeded by a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Putin.

“The two presidents, I presume, would like to get together,” Billingslea told reporters. “We laid down what we need to see from the Russian Federation, and it is now a question of whether they are ready to walk down that path with us.”

According to Billingslea, such an outcome might be possible if the two leaders settled on a politically binding agreement that affirmed the main elements the Trump administration believes should be featured in a future nuclear weapons treaty.

“Russia understands our position. And what remains to be seen is if there is the political will in Moscow to get this deal done. The ball is now in Russia’s court,” Billingslea said after the meeting with Ryabkov.

Ryabkov demanded the extension of the treaty without any new conditions.

Moscow has repeatedly announced it is seeking to extent the accord, but insisted on it’s long-standing call for US missile defence to be limited.

“Russia stands for an extension of the START Treaty, but is not ready to pay any price for that,” Ryabkov said after the talks, according to his ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna.

A follow-up meeting has not yet been scheduled, but a potential new date was floated in two week’s time.

Election factor

With less than 100 days to go until the US Presidential election, an agreement in principle would constitute a considerable win for Trump, who during his term came under fire from Democrats and parts of his Republican base for exiting several international landmark agreements.

Last year Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, with senior officials saying Moscow had deployed a cruise missile in violation of the INF pact. Russia denied the missile’s range puts it outside the accord.

The Trump administration’s latest move was to pull the country out of yet another major global landmark accord in May, the 35-nation Open Skies Treaty, allowing unarmed surveillance flights over signatory states, due to Russian non-compliance.

Former Vice-President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called the New START treaty “an anchor of strategic stability” and said he will pursue the accord’s extension if elected president, which may factor in Moscow’s deliberations.

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