Photo: 2016 Goldman Prize Winners (left to right) Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Puerto Rico: Destiny Watford, United States; Edward Loure, Tanzania; Leng Ouch, Cambodia; Máxima Acuña, Peru; and Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia. Credit:

Photo: 2016 Goldman Prize Winners (left to right) Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Puerto Rico: Destiny Watford, United States; Edward Loure, Tanzania; Leng Ouch, Cambodia; Máxima Acuña, Peru; and Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia. Credit: - Photo: 2020

U.S. Shifts Arms Control Strategy with Russia

By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

While Kingston Reif is the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Shannon Bugos is research assistant at the Arms Control Association.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (IDN) – The Trump administration has softened its demand that China immediately participate in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia and says it is now seeking an interim step of a politically binding framework with Moscow.

But the administration continues to reject Russia’s offer of a clean five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and has said that President Trump will not consider an extension until several conditions are met.

According to Trump administration officials, the framework with Russia must cover all nuclear warheads, establish a verification regime suitable to that task, and be structured to include China in the future.

“We’re dealing with Russia right now on a nuclear arms pact,” said President Donald Trump August 11. “They want to do it badly.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on August 31 that the United States is in “detailed discussions with them [Russia] on an arms control agreement” and that he hopes Washington and Moscow can “get that done before the end of the year.”

Following talks from August 17-18 in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea pinned a potential extension of New START on Moscow fixing alleged verification flaws in the treaty and agreeing to the new framework.

“New START is a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration,” said Billingslea during an August 18 press briefing. “It has significant verification deficiencies.”

According to Billingslea, these deficiencies include the absence of sufficient exchanges of missile telemetry and the limited frequency of on-site inspections.

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START, addressed Billingslea’s comments regarding verification in May. She said that in the end, “the United States got what it wanted in the New START verification regime: streamlined inspection procedures at a sufficient level of detail to be effectively implemented.”

He said that he would recommend that Trump consider extending the treaty only “if we can fix” the flaws “and if we can address all warheads, and if we do so in a way that is extensible to China.”

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty [New START] extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” he said, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Robert Soofer reiterated the administration’s position at a September 2 discussion hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

“There are some conditions that have been laid out for a possible New START extension” that “will depend on how much progress we’re making with Russia,” said Soofer. “Now we are waiting to see if Russia has the political will now to come talk to us about it.”

Following the August talks, Ryabkov responded that Russia would not support an “extension at any cost.” He added that “any additions” to New START “would be impossible both for political and procedural reasons.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said August 23 that “the Americans put forth conditions that are, frankly speaking, absolutely unrealistic, including the demand that China join the New START or some other similar treaty that will be signed in the future.” Moscow, he said, continues to support an unconditioned extension of the treaty.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien suggested August 16 that Putin could visit the White House to seal a new bilateral arms control understanding. “We’d love to have Putin come here to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians.” But Billingslea emphasized on August 18 that the two sides “remain far apart on a number of key issues.”

The Trump administration has not specified what it would be willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia’s agreement apart from consideration of an extension of New START.

Billingslea told Axios on August 21 that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but that Moscow’s non-nuclear concerns about, for example, U.S. missile defenses are not on the table as part of a possible framework deal.

Billingslea has offered few clues about how a new agreement should capture U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons that have never before been limited by arms control, such as shorter-range tactical nuclear warheads and warheads held by each country in reserve.

He hinted, however, that the preferred U.S. approach would not necessarily hinge on counting individual unconstrained warheads and that a new agreement might put a cap on, rather than reduce, such warheads.

“What we likely will see is a hybrid approach that would maintain limitations on the strategic systems but which would provide for a method of ensuring that the overall inventory of warheads writ large is static,” he said.

New START expires next February but can be extended by up to five years if the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to do so. The treaty caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

On-site inspections under the treaty, which were suspended in March due to the coronavirus, have yet to resume, and the next meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), the implementing body of the treaty, remains postponed.

“The United States is studying how and when to resume inspections and the BCC while mitigating the risk of COVID-19 to all U.S. and Russian personnel,” said a State Department spokesperson September 16. “The United States continues to implement and abide by the New START Treaty.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 September 2020]

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Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Manila, Philippines on August 6, 2017. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of State/Public Domain)

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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