With only weeks to go until the general election, the Trump administration is renewing a push to finalize a nuclear agreement with Moscow, hoping that a deal may force China to reconsider its position on trilateral arms talks.
A senior administration official told CNN that the effort made some headway when President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien met in early October with Nikolai Patrushev, the top national security adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting, which took place in Geneva, got the ball rolling for a follow up meeting between Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, the official said.
The two sides reached an agreement in principle, the official added, but the effort remains a work-in-progress, and talks are ongoing.
The meetings were first reported by Axios.
Progress on these talks seeks to avoid the ultimate dismantling of the post-Cold War arms-control framework, already buffeted by the demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the uncertain fate awaiting the New START accord on US and Russian long-range nuclear arms, which expires on February 5, 2021.
The race by the Trump administration to conclude talks with the Russians before Election Day is driven by several motivations. Trump has repeatedly signaled his interest in leaving the three-decade old New START agreement, designed to reduce the risk of war between Russia and the West.
Both Putin and Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, have said they would look to extend the treaty. However, Trump said he’d only agree to an extension if both sides also agree to freeze all warhead stockpiles. The US is also looking for ways to bring China into the fray – something that both Beijing and Moscow have reacted to unenthusiastically.
The National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kremlin says it’s ‘too early’ to say if an agreement will be reached
On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it’s “too early” to say a final agreement has been reached with the US to extend the New START treaty but added that Russia wants to “take action” before it expires.
“We are in a time crunch and of course if there is a new administration forming in the US that can stall the process of any kind of negotiations,” Peskov told CNN when asked if it’s a priority for Russia to sign the deal with the current US administration or wait until a new one is formed.
“But the most important thing is to take action before the treaty expires. We see that in this case, we have certain problems as the electoral cycle will end in the States and there will be some formation of a new administration and this could sufficiently stall the entire process,” Peskov told CNN.
“This is a hot topic, this is one of the priorities for us in our contacts with the Americans,” Peskov added.
The US has previously offered Russia to sign a presidential memorandum that would serve as a blueprint for the next comprehensive deal and cover points of concern for the US, including China’s nuclear potential and Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.
China refused to join the talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in August that Russia respects this stance and refuses to “persuade” China to sit down at the negotiation table. Russian diplomats have also said they shared proposals for a new treaty but would like to extend the current treaty without preconditions in the meantime.
Several high-profile expert meetings took place in the past months to discuss the treaty following multiple phone calls between Trump and Putin.
Billingslea previously indicated in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the Trump administration is looking to have a document signed by both presidents before the election. In case Russia doesn’t agree to it before the vote, the US could demand additional requirements to keep the deal alive or move forward without any treaty at all.
“You know, Russia must decide for itself if it wants to extend the New START treaty,” Billingslea told Kommersant. “We made a good offer and we don’t think this offer is unfair … we think this is very valuable in the current situation when the US and Russia do not trust each other on anything,”
Following the talks with Ryabkov, Billingslea tweeted about “important progress” in “pivotal US-Russia nuclear arms control negotiations.” But the Russian side was more cautious about the course of the talks, with Ryabkov calling reports of a quick agreement on the treaty “an illusion,” citing vast differences between the Russian and the American versions of the agreement, according to state-run agency RIA Novosti.
“There are only a few fragments that could be called similar but they are not accordant; as for the rest, we have big discrepancies,” Ryabkov said. “If the Americans agreed with our documents, which we handed over to them, and accepted them, then such an agreement could be reached even tomorrow. But with these differences, I generally cannot imagine on what basis my colleagues in Washington make such assumptions [about the progress].”