MOSCOW and WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday made a strong call to save the last existing nuclear arms control pact between his country and the United States, proposing to extend it at least for one year.
Putin’s statement comes amid conflicting signals from Russian and U.S. diplomats about the fate of the New START agreement, which will expire in February unless Moscow and Washington agree on its extension.
Speaking at a meeting of his Security Council, Putin said that “it would be extremely sad if the treaty ceases to exist without being replaced by another fundamental document of the kind.”
“All those years, the New START has worked, playing its fundamental role of limiting and containing an arms race,” he noted.
New START was signed in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.
After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, New START became the sole nuclear arms control deal between the two countries still standing.
Russia previously offered its extension for five years without any conditions, while the U.S. administration pushed for a new arms control agreement that would also include China. Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its smaller nuclear arsenal.
Putin on Friday proposed to “extend the existing treaty without any conditions for at least one year” to allow for “substantive talks,” instructing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to get a quick U.S. answer to the offer. He emphasized that Russia is ready to discuss the new weapons it deployed in future arms talks with the United States.
Speaking Friday morning in Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien expressed optimism about an American offer to extend New START by one year while capping Russia’s nuclear warhead number for a year.
O’Brien, whose comments indicated that he was not yet aware of Putin’s most recent offer, called the U.S. plan a “very fair deal.”
Notably, O’Brien’s comments also included an acknowledgement that the longstanding U.S. plan to force China into New START discussions is at an end.
“We were hoping, and are hoping, to get a terrific arms control deal, a long term arms control deal,” O’Brien said. “At one point we wanted to get China involved. The Chinese are so busy building nuclear warheads and building their military that they’re not, they’re not interested. And I think, you know, there’s limited pressure the Russians can bring on them to come to the table.”
Earlier this week, Lavrov voiced skepticism about reaching a deal on New START, noting that Russia can’t accept the conditions put forward by the United States for its extension.
Lavrov specified that Russia can’t agree to the U.S. proposal to limit battlefield nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads that arm strategic missiles and bombers until the U.S. agrees to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
He also noted that Moscow wouldn’t accept the U.S. demand to have intrusive verification measures like those that existed in the 1990s when inspectors were positioned at missile factories.
Lavrov’s pessimistic view contrasted with statements from U.S. diplomats, who said that Moscow and Washington were close to a deal.
“We would welcome the opportunity to complete an agreement based on understandings that were achieved over the last couple weeks about what the range of possibilities look like for an extension of New START and an outcome that benefits the entire world, increased stability of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
“I am hopeful that the Russians will find a way to agree to an outcome that, frankly, I think is in their best interest and in our best interest,” he added, voicing hope that China will eventually join the talks.
After the last round of talks in Helsinki earlier this month, lead U.S. negotiator Marshall Billingslea, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said the meeting had yielded “important progress.”
A person familiar with the talks said last Friday that U.S. and Russian negotiators agreed in principle to continue freezing their nuclear warhead stockpiles in a bid to salvage New START. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said an agreement could be announced before the Nov. 3 presidential election with an eye toward extending the accord and eventually bringing China into it, a longtime demand by Trump’s administration.
But Russia’s top negotiator in the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, dismissed the allegations of reaching the agreement in principle as “wishful thinking” on the U.S. part, emphasizing that sharp differences remained and Moscow wasn’t going to sign a deal on American terms.
O’Brien, the U.S. national security advisor, noted that any deal before the upcoming presidential election may be unlikely, as "it may be that, like other countries, the Russians are waiting to see what happens -- and apparently, we’ve got something going on here in 18 days that’s causing folks to take stock of a negotiating position.
“So we’ll see what that we’ll see what the Russians do,” he added. “Negotiating with Russia is never easy. They’re very skilled, they’re very tough and they always put their view of Russian interests 100% first.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.