The latest on renewing the New START Treaty

From Politico’s Morning Defense Newsletter, October 23, 2020:

FRESH START OR FULL STOP? “President Donald Trump has been eager to notch a major 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,” Seligman and your Morning D correspondent report.

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

National security adviser Robert O’Brien told Seligman that an agreement to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for another year is not “a done deal” because the two sides still need 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 also threw more cold water on the prospect of an imminent victory for Trump on Thursday. “The agreement expires in February and what I proposed is very simple,” Putin said in an online appearance at the Valdai forum in Moscow. “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,” he told Kommersant.

What the U.S. is demanding is considered extremely ambitious: a full accounting of all of Russia’s nukes and protocols for verifying it is abiding by a freeze, including on-site inspections. That’s especially true when it comes to the thousands of weapons Russia is believed to possess that are not covered by New START. 

“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 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 graybeards weigh in: Some of the leading architects of the Cold War arms control regime that birthed New START are hoping things can be salvaged so the last remaining nuclear treaty between the two sides doesn’t disappear.

“The United States and Russia should seal the deal now to extend New START, because if the last remaining bilateral treaty governing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces ends in February, the world’s most destructive nuclear arsenals will be unlimited and unverified for the first time since the end of the Cold War,” former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn wrote in The Washington Post.

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