- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The U.S. and Russia appear to be on the verge of a short-term deal to preserve the last remaining arms treaty between the two nuclear powers, after Moscow offered a new concession to keep the talks alive. 

Facing a February deadline to extend the 10-year-old deal, Russia on Tuesday announced that it was prepared to freeze the level of its nuclear arsenal and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — better known as New START — for one year if the U.S. agrees.

The offer could give President Trump another foreign policy win heading into November’s election, but the proposal will not include China — as the U.S. side had been hoping — and potentially leaves the future shape of the nuclear deal in the hands of a Democratic administration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously offered to extend the current deal for up to five years, but the Kremlin had resisted the freeze on new weaponry.

“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,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in its statement Tuesday. 

“This can be implemented strictly and exclusively if there is understanding that the ‘freezing’ of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands from the United States,” it continued. 

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus later welcomed the offer and said in a statement the U.S. is “prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”

The new Russian offer followed weeks of seemingly stalled negotiations over what to do with the treaty negotiated under President Obama. Mr. Trump’s team has been notably skeptical of past arms accords, ending the Cold War-era INF Treaty on intermediate-range nuclear weapons with Russia and pulling out of the multilateral Open Skies Agreement on oversight surveillance flights. 

On New START, U.S. chief negotiator Marshall Billingslea recently claimed that “an agreement in principle” had been reached — an assertion that Russian negotiators immediately denied. 

The current agreement limits the number of deployable U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons to 1,550. The accord also reduced by half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers each side may have and set up a new inspection and verification regime to prevent violations.

Mr. Putin has previously said he is ready to extend the current deal another five years, something he and Mr. Trump could do on their own. But Russia has balked at some U.S. demands and said there is not enough time to expand the talks with China, which has repeatedly refused to participate.

The development was welcomed by experts and lawmakers who have encouraged the Trump administration to extend the deal, even briefly. 

A one-year deal coupled with a freeze “makes a lot of sense,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former CIA official and director of the Atlantic Council’s Center’s Global Strategy Initiative.

“We don’t want to see a complete collapse of arms control, but a simple extension of the current agreement is not in our interest, either,” he said.

He said that the proposed agreement could also cap Russian plans for new, exotic nuclear weapons that are not covered under the existing New START, and it could be a means to bring China into discussions. 

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he was pleased the Trump administration had, in his words, “adopted the Democrats’ position on strategic arms control.”

“It is in the national interest of the United States to extend the New START treaty as we continue dialogue with both Russia and China on key nuclear issues such as limitations on non-strategic weapons and the inclusion in arms control agreements of new nuclear delivery systems,” he said. 

But Mr. Menendez added that a one-year extension amounted to a “temporary Band-Aid.”

“The real impact of a freeze on the total number of nuclear warheads will be unclear unless the Trump administration can ensure Russia sticks to the agreement’s terms through robust verification mechanisms,” he said.

Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joseph Biden has said he was ready to accept Mr. Putin’s earlier offer to extend the current deal without preconditions for another five years.

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