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US ready to meet ‘immediately’ with Russia over extending nuclear weapons accord

Morgan Ortagus (U.S. Department of State/WikiCommons)

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

The United States says it is prepared to meet “immediately” with Russia to finalize a deal to extend their last major arms-control treaty, New START, by one year after Moscow backed a U.S. proposal to freeze its total number of nuclear warheads if Washington does the same.

“We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a brief statement on October 20.

“The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same,” Ortagus added.

Hours earlier, Russia proposed extending the accord, which is due to expire in February, by one year, saying it was “ready, together with the United States, to make a political commitment to ‘freeze’ the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period.”

In its statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted that the freeze and extension to buy time for the two sides to discuss nuclear arms control in greater depth would be possible if Washington made no other demands.

The Russian offer appeared to narrow the gap between the two sides over the fate of New START after Washington last week rejected a Russian offer to unconditionally extend the pact for one year.

White House national-security adviser Robert O’Brien said on October 16 that the previous Russian proposal was a “nonstarter” in the absence of a freeze on nuclear warheads.

New START, signed in 2010, imposes limits on the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals. It can be extended for five years, which Moscow has said it is ready to do without preconditions.

A possible extension of the accord — even by one year — would mark a rare bright spot in the strained relationship between the two countries, while failure to extend it would remove the main pillar maintaining the nuclear balance between them.

The White House, which has already withdrawn from other arms-control treaties because it accused Moscow of violating them and felt the agreements benefited Russia more than the United States, has called for China to join Moscow and Washington to find a replacement for New START.

China, which has a small fraction of the nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States possess, has rejected the idea.

Earlier this month Russia and the United States held an 11th-hour round of talks on the treaty in Helsinki, with Washington saying it was willing to extend the New START treaty for some period of time provided the Russians agreed to the freeze, a proposal the Kremlin quickly rejected.

The issue of the New START treaty comes two weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden 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.”

On October 13, more than 75 lawmakers across Europe called on the United States to extend New START before its expiration.

The Trump administration has already left the landmark Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, after 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 others territory.