- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Lawmakers pressed administration arms control officials on Capitol Hill on Wednesday as the fate of major nuclear treaties with Russia hang in the balance, amid mounting questions of the Trump administration’s game plan for negotiating new deals to curb weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members grilled Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Andrea Thompson on the future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and whether the administration is planning to extend the agreement, which expires in 2021, for an additional five years.

“The administration has not made any decision on a potential extension of New START,” Ms. Thompson said, sidestepping questions of whether she believes extending the treaty is in the U.S.’s best interest.

Visibly dissatisfied with the response, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the panel’s ranking Democrat, replied, “I’m not asking Russia about our national defense. I’m asking you.”

In prepared remarks, Ms. Thompson told the panel that although Russia has been in compliance with the 2011 New START pact, which limits both deployed strategic nuclear warheads and missile launchers, Russian “strategic forces are currently undergoing a comprehensive modernization in their force structure, operations and planning.”

Mr. Menendez said extending the Obama administration-negotiated pact was “in my mind, an easy decision,” but Committee Chairman James Risch, Idaho Republican, said Moscow’s recent actions call that into question.

Russia’s violations are part of a pattern of aggressive and dishonest behavior that must inform any future arms-control efforts,” he said Wednesday.

The administration’s decision will take into account the security needs of the U.S. and its allies, Ms. Thompson said. She cited a “more benign security environment” when the U.S. entered the treaty in 2010, but “in the intervening years, the security environment deteriorated significantly, and increased uncertainty and risk pervade,” including Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

Ms. Thompson also warned the committee that the U.S. “must be ready to ensure U.S. and allied security” if Russia does not return to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

President Trump announced in February that he has pulling the U.S. out of the key Cold War-era weapons pact with Russia, citing Russian violations of the deal. Since 2014, U.S. officials have accused Moscow of breaching the treaty, specifically through the deployment of a cruise missile system known as the Novator 9M729.

U.S. officials are conducting research and developing ground-launched, non-nuclear missile systems, which are “designed to be reversible, should Russia return to full and verifiable compliance before August 2,” Ms. Thompson said. However, because the U.S. has been abiding by the treaty, Ms. Thompson said, the U.S. is not currently in a position to immediately field a similar weapon.

The hearing came on the heels of a brief trip Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made to Russia on Tuesday in part to discuss new arms control agreements, meeting with both President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

While U.S.-Russia friction has emerged on a range of fronts in recent years — including disputes over Russian violations of the INF Treaty — during the meeting, Mr. Lavrov pressed Mr. Pompeo on potential new areas of negotiation on limiting nuclear arms.

Mr. Pompeo said that arms control is “very much on President Trump’s mind,” but added, “The president has charged his national security team to think more broadly about arms control.”

But China has already strongly rebuffed one U.S. priority, saying it has no intention of joining any new, expanded INF deal to limit its shorter-range, “tactical” nuclear arsenal.

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