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Russia rejects US call to ‘freeze’ nuclear arsenals as arms treaty set to expire

U.S. Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea (The Arms Control Association/Released)

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

U.S. and Russian officials have offered conflicting accounts over arms-control talks, plunging the fate of their last remaining bilateral nuclear-arms pact deeper into uncertainly months before it is set to expire.

The U.S. envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, suggested on October 13 that Washington and Moscow had reached “an agreement in principle” to extend New START for an unspecified period.

The 2010 treaty limits strategic nuclear weapons and is due to expire in February, although it can be extended for five years.

Billingslea cut short a trip to Asia last week to fly to the Finnish capital of Helsinki for a new round of 11th-hour arms-control talks with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, under the impression the two sides would reach a breakthrough compromise.

“We are in fact willing to extend the New START treaty for some period of time provided that they, in return, agree to a limitation — a freeze — on their nuclear arsenal,” Billingslea said on October 13 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

“We believe that there is an agreement in principle at the highest levels of our two governments,” he said, suggesting an informal agreement between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Billingslea said the freeze should include short-range, tactical nuclear weapons systems, something that is not covered under New START.

Ryabkov threw cold water on a broad nuclear freeze, calling it an “unacceptable” proposal.

“But with so many differences, I cannot imagine on what basis our colleagues in Washington are putting out such theories,” he told the RIA Novosti news agency.

“The U.S. position in favor of freezing has long been known to us, it is unacceptable for us. Not because we are against freezing, but because we need to deal with the problems of strategic stability in a complex: we need to deal with launch vehicles, we need to deal with space, we need to deal with missile defense — a system that the United States is creating, it is necessary to deal with their new strategic range carriers in conventional equipment,” Ryabkov said

The Russian diplomat said Moscow would not agree to any extension of New START before the November 3 U.S. election.

“If the Americans need to report to their superiors something about which they allegedly agreed with the Russian Federation before their elections, they will not get it,” Ryabkov said.

Joe Biden, who leads Trump in all major polls, supports extending New START “to use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” If Biden wins, the treaty will expire just weeks after he is inaugurated.

Biden calls the treaty–which was negotiated when he was vice president under President Barack Obama–an “anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia.”

The Trump administration wants any new nuclear arms-control treaty to cover all types of warheads, stronger verification and transparency measures, and bring China on board.

Beijing, which has a fraction of the nuclear weapons of Russia and the United States, has rejected the idea.

Billingslea said that the United States was still insisting on the participation of China in any agreement with Russia.

“Everything we agree with the Russians must be framed and must be formatted in a way that allows us to extend that arrangement to the Chinese when they are finally brought to the negotiating table,” Billingslea said.

Russia has said it is ready to extend New START for five years without preconditions and has warned that there is not enough time to renegotiate a complicated new treaty.

Daryl Kimball, the director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, wrote on Twitter that while a temporary freeze may be useful, both sides should agree on a five-year extension of the treaty.

“Whether Russia agrees to the U.S. ‘freeze’ concept on the eve of the U.S. election — and the gaps between the Trump administration and the Kremlin still appear to be very wide at this point — a five year extension of New START is very much in the interest of both sides,” he wrote.

On October 13, more than 75 lawmakers across Europe called on the United States to extend New START before it expires in February.

“While we support the call to discuss the next generation of arms control and the need to consider the role of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, extending New START and engaging in good faith dialogue with other nuclear powers are not mutually exclusive,” the letter from the European Leadership Network states.

“As was evident in the process that led to New START, time is needed to negotiate solutions that meet the laudable goals put forward by both the United States and Russia during their strategic stability talks this year. In short, extending the duration of New START is not an end,” the lawmakers wrote to their colleagues in the U.S. Congress.

The Trump administration has already left the landmark, Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, accusing Russia of violating it. Washington also unilaterally exited Open Skies, a treaty that permits the United States and Russia to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.