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Trump, Putin discuss arms control, coronavirus in first call since Afghan bounty claims

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

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

U.S. President Donald Trump said he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, about an arms agreement and fighting the coronavirus in their first call since explosive allegations emerged last month that Moscow had put bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Neither the White House nor Kremlin readouts of the July 23 call mentioned the Afghanistan bounties, which have not been confirmed.

The two leaders discussed the expiring New START nuclear agreement and combating the coronavirus pandemic, according to both readouts. Trump and Putin also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, the Kremlin statement said.

The New START treaty, which expires in February, limits the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each.

Trump wants China to be part of the treaty, a move that Beijing has rejected, raising concerns that the deal — the last bilateral nuclear-arms agreement between Washington and Moscow — could fall apart.

U.S. and Russian envoys held talks in Vienna last month to discuss a replacement for the pact and are scheduled to meet again to continue discussions.

Trump “reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia, and the United States,” adding that he “looked forward to progress on upcoming arms control negotiations in Vienna,” the White House statement said.

Iran Nuclear Deal

The Kremlin readout did not give any details about their discussion regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

The Trump administration in 2018 pulled out of an international nuclear agreement with Iran, claiming it paved the way for Tehran to develop weapons-grade uranium in a few years and that it did not stop Iran’s missile program. Russia is among the parties to the pact.

Trump and Putin have held at least seven calls since March 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the global economy and sent the price of oil, Russia’s main export commodity, tumbling. Trump and Putin spoke several times in April to negotiate a global oil production cut to shore up prices.

The White House readout of the call said Trump and Putin “discussed efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic while continuing to reopen global economies.”

The July 23 call comes a week after the United States, Britain, and Canada accused a Russian military intelligence unit of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research and as Washington announced it would sanction any company helping build the Kremlin’s natural gas pipeline to Germany.

The New York Times reported at the end of June that U.S. intelligence officials concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American soldiers. The paper went on to claim that Trump was briefed on the matter, but did nothing in response.

The White House has said neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on the alleged intelligence. The House of Representatives has held several hearings on the topic about how the U.S. should respond if the allegations are substantiated.