Moscow Salvages START Nuke Control Extension by Accepting Additional Terms
For one year the countries will cap deployed and non-deployed warheads both — the latter have never been part of a deal because they're impossible to verify
Editor’s note: Putin offered a one-year extension of the deal as-is but the US wanted to additionally cap non-deployed warheads as well. Let’s hope that wasn’t done in bad faith, eg to try to gain unprecedented access to Russian military facilities and then torpedo nuclear control again when it’s not granted.
Russia has proposed granting the United States its request for a mutual nuclear warhead freeze if Washington agrees to Moscow’s calls to extend their last nuclear arms treaty for at least one year without further preconditions.
After a week of wrangling through public statements with U.S. officials, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a surprise statement Tuesday clarifying its position on the ongoing efforts to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The statement appeared to offer the same freeze previously dismissed as “unacceptable” by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as talks entered the 11th hour before the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
“Russia has proposed extending the New START for one year and is ready to assume a political obligation together with the United States to freeze the sides’ existing arsenals of nuclear warheads during this period,” the statement said.
Such a position was contingent on the U.S. agreeing not to impose any additional conditions, which have so far limited progress on negotiations.
“Our proposal can only and exclusively be implemented on the understanding that the United States will not advance any additional conditions with regard to freezing the arsenals,” the statement added. “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, with the mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability.”
The remarks followed Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s proposal Friday to extend the treaty without conditions for one year, a message that the Russian Foreign Ministry Ministry complained Monday had only been answered through social media.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien had replied at the time that the agreement was a “non-starter” because it did not include “freezing nuclear warheads.”
Shortly after Monday’s Russian Foreign Ministry statement, however, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus issued a formal response.
“We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” Ortagus said. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”
Both the U.S. and Russia have highlighted the importance of regulating their strategic arsenals but have expressed differing views on how to prevent New START’s scheduled expiration on February 4.
Putin has since last year offered an immediate, unconditional extension and revised his offer Friday to include a one-year renewal that has once again been amended to include a mutual capping of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
After comments made last Tuesday by U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control Marshall Billingslea and confirmed to Newsweek sparked hope of an “agreement in principle,” the Russian side shot down the remarks, with Ryabkov identifying the nuclear freeze as the main point of contention.
Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov also warned of a “deep crisis” in relations with Moscow and Washington, and warned against U.S. attempts to “seek military advantage over Russia,” in remarks sent to Newsweek at the time.
Washington has emphasized the need for a more comprehensive agreement to replace New START, one that involved new weapons systems and additional countries, such as China, which has repeatedly rejected such an offer owing to its far larger arsenal.
The agreement limits deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and nuclear-capable heavy bombers to 700; deployed nuclear air, land and sea nuclear warheads to 1,550; and deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and nuclear-capable heavy bombers to 800.
It is the third installment of START agreements dating back to the original signed between Washington and Moscow in 1991, just months before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Tuesday, Moscow said it is ready to offer the US a mutual one-year freeze on both sides’ nuclear arsenals to extend the New START treaty for the same period. The freeze on warheads is a key US demand to extend the treaty, which will expire in February 2021 if an agreement is not reached.
“Russia offers to prolong New START for one year, and it is ready to take on the political obligation along with the USA to freeze the amount of its nuclear warheads for that period. This position can be implemented strictly on the understanding that the freezing of the warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands from the side of the US,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus welcomed the statement and said the US is ready to finalize a deal with Moscow. “We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” Ortagus said in a statement. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”
A senior Trump administration official told The Wall Street Journal that the US and Russia are close to making a deal. “We are very, very close to a deal,” the official said. “Now that the Russians have agreed to a warhead freeze, I do not see why we cannot work out the remaining issues in the coming days.”
The New START limits the number of warheads each side can have deployed at 1,550. But the mutual freeze would cap all warheads in each country’s arsenal, including those in storage, making verification difficult.
The Journal quoted Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association on the difficulties of verification. “A freeze on all warheads has never been done before,” Reif said. “Defining and verifying such a freeze is far from a simple matter.”
According to the Journal, under the administration’s plan, each side would declare the number of warheads they have deployed on launchers of all ranges and in storage and pledge not to exceed that number.
The Trump administration said the US isn’t demanding that a verification system be in place before the New START expires in February. But the US wants to begin technical discussions before that time on how to implement verification.
Talks between the US and Russia to extend the New START have been ongoing for months. Moscow has offered to extend the treaty for five years with no preconditions, as the agreement allows. But the Trump administration has made additional demands, although it seems the US has dropped the more unreasonable ones for now.
The purpose of a temporary extension is to buy time to negotiate a future treaty that would replace the New START. The Trump administration says a future pact should include China. But Beijing has no interest in trilateral arms control since its nuclear arsenal is much smaller than the US and Russia’s.
The Trump administration is looking to reach an agreement with Russia to secure a foreign policy victory ahead of November’s presidential election. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s policy plan says he will pursue an extensions of the New START and use it as a foundation for new arms control treaties.