Politico

Hopes dim for nuclear agreement with Russia before Election Day


President Donald Trump has been eager to notch a major foreign policy election-season win on arms control with Russia — and that prospect looked promising early this week when Moscow appeared to give in to a major U.S. demand.

But a top Trump official, and now Russian President Vladimir Putin, are making clear there is still a serious divide between the two nuclear heavyweights.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien is cautioning that an agreement to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for another year is not “a done deal,” insisting that negotiators must still iron out the procedures for verifying the terms of an agreement “that are suitable to both parties.”

At issue is Washington’s requirement that an extension of the 10-year-old agreement include a temporary freeze on all nuclear weapons, including strategic weapons covered by the treaty and tactical weapons that aren’t.

“In any negotiation but especially in arms control, the devil is always in the details,” O’Brien said in an interview. “Assuming that we can get suitable verification on the freeze, I think we should be able to get a deal. At least I hope so. I think we will propose something very shortly in the next couple days, or next week.”

Putin on Thursday threw more cold water on the prospect of an imminent victory for Trump.

“The agreement expires in February and what I proposed is very simple,” Putin said in an online appearance at the Valdai forum in Moscow, Bloomberg reported. “Nothing terrible will happen if we extend it for a year, without preconditions, and we can continue to work with determination on resolving all the issues that concern us and the Americans.”

Washington has already rejected an extension without preconditions, so the comments dimmed hopes for an agreement just days after Putin indicated that his government was open to a one-year freeze, including tactical weapons that aren’t covered by New START.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also told a Russian newspaper on Thursday that the two sides are far from a deal.

“So far, at this stage, it cannot be said that we are on the verge of agreements, and that an appropriate agreement or even a common understanding of a political nature as to whether START will be extended and, in general, what can happen in this area, is within reach,” he told Kommersant, according to a translation provided by the Arms Control Association.

The treaty, which went into force in 2010, caps the U.S. and Russia’s long-range weapons at 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems, such as missiles, bombers and submarines. The pact also stipulates that it can be extended up to five years if both sides agree.

But a number of experts see weakening chances to extend New START unless Russia concedes to U.S. demands or the Trump administration is willing to accept little more than a freeze on paper at this stage and a commitment to keep talking.

The U.S. and Russia both have large undeclared stockpiles of nuclear arms, including tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons that are much more difficult to track than the weapons that are covered by New START, which can more easily be monitored from satellites and other intelligence-gathering means.

For example, the director of national intelligence has estimated that Russia has at least 2,000 and as many as 5,000 tactical weapons that it has never publicly declared.

“You can’t freeze what you can’t count, so you have to get an accurate count,” said Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “New START gives us a fuzzy start. The hard part will be to freeze non-strategic systems which are not even accounted for.”

He predicted that fashioning a viable process for verifying a freeze of both sides’ entire nuclear arsenals would take “many months” and “probably over a year.” That could mean a freeze will not be formalized until after the treaty extension expires.

The National Academy of Sciences is conducting a study for the Trump administration on what it would take to verify that the Russians have frozen all their “theater systems,” or shorter-range nuclear weapons.

Trump’s top arms control negotiator, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, was in Europe this week to brief NATO allies on the status of negotiations and to keep pursuing a deal with the Russians. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Richard Burt, the U.S. ambassador to Germany for Ronald Reagan who negotiated the first START agreement on behalf of George H.W. Bush, agreed that a freeze can only be agreed to in principle at this stage given the major unknowns about the Russian arsenal and the technical nature of any verification regime, which would also likely include on-site inspections as called for in New START.

“Sometimes it can take more than a year,” he said in an interview. “That’s been the history of these agreements. Moving to a complete ban on warheads, including those that are either in storage or in reserve — which were never been limited before — is a very big step.”

But Burt, whose advice was sought by the State Department this year on how to proceed, also said the Trump administration has itself to blame for so little time to finalize an acceptable deal.

He pointed out that Putin, in his first telephone call with Trump in 2017, raised the possibility of extending the treaty but Trump denounced the agreement as an Obama-era relic and a bad deal.

“This administration has known since that very call that they needed to take a decision on this existing treaty,” said Burt, who is now chairman of the disarmament group Global Zero. “And they basically did nothing about it for three-and-a-half years.

“The administration has committed diplomatic malpractice by pushing this very ambitious concept at the last minute,” he added. “It seems to me they’re very anxious to demonstrate they’ve done something in this area. But they didn’t approach it in a really thoughtful, professional way that gives them enough time to really work through all the issues and problems.”

The Trump administration’s longer term plans are even more ambitious. It also wants to include China in a broader arms control agreement, but the Chinese have shown no interest in coming to the table.

That’s “really a shame,” O’Brien said, noting that “it would be better for all parties, for the whole world” if Beijing agreed to constrain its relatively small but growing nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon most recently assessed that Beijing has a total nuclear arsenal in the low 200s, and is on track to at least double that number over the next decade. That is significantly less than both America’s and Russia’s stockpiles. According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, which tracks global inventories of atomic arms, the U.S. has 3,800 warheads while Russia has 4,310.

“The Communist Party of China doesn’t seem to be interested at this point, so we will do the best we can with the Russians now and we will deal with the Chinese another [time],” O’Brien said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to have an arms race in 2020.”

Russia also may be dragging its feet in anticipation of a change in U.S. administration. Joe Biden has indicated that he would extend the deal for five years without preconditions to buy time to negotiate a more comprehensive follow-on agreement.

This is not the first time the negotiations between Washington and Moscow have broken down. O’Brien provided a glimpse into the last few weeks of frantic negotiations to clinch a deal on extending New START before it expires on Feb. 5.

Talks stalled this fall after the U.S. rejected Putin’s first offer to extend the treaty for five years without any preconditions. Trump dispatched O’Brien to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart. Nikolai Patrushev, “to see if we could break that logjam,” O’Brien said.

The U.S. proposed extending the agreement by one year in exchange for a freeze on all nuclear warheads, including those not covered by the original agreement. At the time, the Russians indicated that such a deal would be “acceptable,” O’Brien said. But last Friday Putin appeared to backtrack, making a new offer to extend the treaty for one year without preconditions.

In response, O’Brien called out in public comments and on social media the Russian proposal was a “non-starter” unless Moscow also agreed to a temporary freeze on all nuclear weapons in return. The Russians appeared to relent on Tuesday, offering what they called a new proposal to extend the agreement for one year in exchange for capping nuclear warheads.

“They claimed it’s their proposal, which is fine because I don’t care who gets the credit for it as long as it’s a good deal,” O’Brien said, noting that his tweet likely played a role in their decision to back down. “They referenced social media by a U.S. official — I assume that was referring to me.”

The one-year extension would give the two parties “some breathing space” in which to negotiate a future long-term deal, O’Brien said.

But any such deal now appears to be even further off.

“We have to admit that the degree of our discrepancies is very serious,” Ryabkov told Kommersant.

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