US response to Putin may close door to more arms control talks under Trump

Journalists look at a screen showing Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during his annual press conference via a video link from the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, at the World Trade Center in Moscow, Russia, 17 December 2020. [Maxim Shipenkov/EPA/EFE]

The United States on Thursday (17 December) reiterated a proposal already rejected by Moscow for extending their last strategic arms limitation treaty, appearing to close the door to talks in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

The 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) expires on 5 February unless the presidents of the world’s two biggest nuclear arms powers agree to extend it by up to five years. The deadline puts pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden to act quickly after taking office on 20 January.

The treaty’s lapse would end all restraints on deployments of US and Russian strategic nuclear warheads and the missiles, bombers and submarines that carry them, fueling a new nuclear arms race, policy experts said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday tweeted that “We are ready to continue the dialogue with the US, but for that our partners need to respond.” Putin, at his annual news conference on Thursday, blamed Washington for starting a new arms race, saying Moscow was forced to develop hypersonic weapons in response.

Russia plans new missile systems to counter US by 2021

Russia will race to develop two new land-based missile launch systems before 2021 to respond to Washington’s planned exit from a landmark nuclear arms control pact, it said on Tuesday (5 February).

Marshall Billingslea, US President Donald Trump’s special arms control envoy, answered by reiterating a US proposal for a one-year New START extension and an undefined warhead freeze to which he said Putin had agreed.

The Russian Foreign Ministry “rejected all mtgs,” Billingslea said on Twitter. “All we need to do is define what we are freezing, the cap level & start verification talks.”

Russia had proposed a one-year New START extension and a strategic and tactical warhead freeze of the same duration, but only if Washington sought no further conditions.

Moscow rejected the idea after Washington demanded strict verification measures, a complex negotiating process.

Talks have been stalled since October. Russia in November revived an earlier call for an unconditional New START extension for the five-year maximum.

Russia rejects 'unacceptable' US conditions to extend nuclear arms treaty

With less than four months until the New START Treaty expires, the US said on Tuesday (13 October) it had reached an “agreement in principle” with Russia on extending the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms-control accord between Washington and Moscow.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a Washington advocacy group, said Billingslea’s response made it all but certain there would be no further talks until Biden succeeds Trump.

Putin’s tweet “was aimed at Biden,” he said.

Biden favors extending New START as a “foundation for new arms control arrangements.” Sources close to his transition team said last month that Biden has made no decision on a duration.

New START capped at 1,550 the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads the sides can deploy and to 700 the numbers of deployed strategic missiles and heavy bombers.

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