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Talks to salvage last major nuclear treaty between US, Russia begin in Vienna

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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

The United States and Russia have opened two days of talks on June 22 on their last major nuclear agreement, the New START treaty, which caps the number of deployed long-range nuclear warheads each can have.

The United States announced last week that its top arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, would travel to Austria for the talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Russia has called for an extension of New START, which limits Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed long-range nuclear warheads each. It is the last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the U.S. and Russia and it expires in February.

Both Billingslea and Ryabkov were guarded in their statements as they arrived for the discussions in Vienna.

“We’ll see,” Billingslea said when asked what he expected to come of the talks. He declined to elaborate on their content.

Ryabkov was equally cautious, telling reporters, “Let’s see, let’s see. We are always very hopeful.”

On June 20, Ryabkov told Interfax that Russia has run out of arguments for extending the pact but will still raise the idea.

“We have repeatedly explained to the Americans why we think a decision in favor of an extension is right,” he said at the time. “We won’t find any more arguments for what we have already told them many times. Of course, we will use the opportunity to remind of our position.”

While Russia would consider it “right and logical” to extend New START, “by and large this treaty is not everything,” Ryabkov told Interfax.

Moscow, however, has repeatedly warned of the danger of a new arms race if the treaty is not renewed.

Ultimately, it will be up to what U.S. President Donald Trump’s government decides, he added.

Trump has pulled out of or let expire a number of international agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. But his administration has voiced a general interest in preserving New START.

The United States has said that its bilateral arms control agreements with Russia are outdated and that it wants China to be included in any future agreements on nuclear weapons.

A State Department statement announcing Billingslea’s travel to Austria also said the United States has extended an invitation to China to join the discussions “and has made clear the need for all three countries to pursue arms control negotiations in good faith.”

China has repeatedly rejected attempts to get it to join the talks. While China has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, it is still far smaller than the U.S. and Russian programs.

Russia, whose nuclear arsenal is a key element of power while it is vastly outspent on defense by the United States, says it wants to ensure parity with Washington.

It also wants a broader discussion with Washington on arms control, including on U.S. threats to resume nuclear tests after a suspension of nearly three decades.

Billingslea said last month that the United States was concerned not only about China but Russia, accusing Moscow of modernizing thousands of “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons that fall outside of the New START treaty.

“They have adopted a highly provocative nuclear doctrine that embraces early escalation and use of nuclear weapons,” Billingslea said, calling for any successor treaty to put more Russian arms under monitoring.