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Putin says Russia prepared to drop arms control treaty if US not interested in renewal

Vladimir Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In a far-ranging discussion on foreign policy, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is prepared to drop the New START arms control treaty if the United States is not interested in renewing it.

Speaking on June 6 at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin also denied Moscow is pulling defense personnel out of Venezuela, contradicting an earlier comment by U.S. President Donald Trump.

On Britain, Russia’s leader said it is time for the two countries to “turn the page” in their strained ties and to “leave behind” matters related to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England last year.

Putin made the comments amid persistent tensions between Russia and the West over issues including the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, Moscow’s meddling in other countries’ elections, and the nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern British city of Salisbury.

There is also uncertainty over the fate of two U.S.-Russia arms-control treaties, including New START, the only bilateral pact limiting deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

At a meeting with the heads of international news agencies in St. Petersburg, Putin said Washington is reluctant to begin talks on extending the deal, which is due to expire in 2021.

“We do not have to extend it. Our systems can guarantee Russia’s security for quite a long period of time,” Putin said.

“If no one feels like extending the New START agreement, well, we won’t do it then,” the Russian president said.

The pact, signed in Prague in 2010, built on the original START I by effectively halving the number of strategic nuclear warheads and launchers the two countries could possess.

“Everything ends in 2021,” Putin said. “There will be no instruments left to curb the arms race.”

Moscow and Washington are also at odds over the bilateral 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of missiles.

In February, the United States suspended its participation in the agreement, with Washington and its allies accusing Russia of deploying a missile system that violates the pact.

Russia, which denies the accusation, later followed suit. Moscow accuses the United States of breaking the accord itself, an allegation rejected by Washington.

The INF Treaty banned the United States and Russia from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Putin said that his most recent phone conversation with Trump gave him some cause for “optimism” concerning issues related to arms control, but he insisted that practical steps are needed.

The Russian president also said that all nuclear-armed countries should be involved in discussions on the matter – something China has opposed.

Putin also expressed hope that London will make the choice to improve relations with Russia, saying: “We need to eventually turn the page about spies and assassination attempts.”

London’s relations with Moscow have deteriorated considerably since the Novichok nerve-agent poisoning on the Skripals in March 2018, an attack the British government says was “almost certainly” approved by the Russian state.

Moscow has denied it had any involvement in the poisoning, which led to a series of sanctions against Russia by the West and tit-for-tat diplomatic actions.

Referring to the poisoning, Putin said Moscow and London “need to eventually leave it all behind,” adding that “common economic, social, and security interests are more important than the intelligence agencies’ games.”

On Venezuela, a close Russian ally, Putin said that Russian technical specialists remained in the Latin American country in order to service Russian military hardware.

“We aren’t creating any bases or sending troops there,” Putin said. “But we will be keeping our obligations in the sphere of military and technical cooperation.”

Trump earlier this week tweeted that the Russia had informed Washington it had “removed most of their people from Venezuela.”

In March, the U.S. president called on Russia to “get out” of Venezuela after Moscow deployed around 100 military personnel to the crisis-hit country.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, backed by the United States and more than 50 other countries, declared himself interim president in January. Socialist President Nicolas Maduro is backed by allies such as Russia and China.

Maduro took office in 2013 and was sworn in for a second term in January following elections in May 2018 that were marred by an opposition boycott and claims of vote-rigging.