The Trump administration is looking for a foreign policy victory ahead of the November election in the form of nuclear concessions from Russia. The fate of the last nuclear arms control treaty hangs in the balance as the administration is leveraging its renewal to be tough on Moscow.
The New START limits the number of warheads each signatory can have deployed and includes a verification regime, and is set to expire in February 2021. Arms control talks between Washington and Moscow have been ongoing for months.
Moscow has repeatedly offered to extend the New START for five years without preconditions, as the treaty allows, but the US has so far rejected that offer. According to a report from CNN, the Trump administration has assessed that Russia is “desperate” to renew the New START and that they will be willing to make concessions to hold up the treaty.
President Trump’s envoy for the arms control talks, Marshall Billingslea, spoke with CNN. “What we have suggested to the Russians in terms of the way ahead is — in our view precisely that the Russians have a choice to make,” Billingslea said. “But they may find the price of admission goes up after November.”
The New START already allows up to 18 on-site inspections per year, but the US is demanding Russia concede to stricter verification. The Trump administration is also seeking a commitment from Russia that China will be part of the next arms control treaty.
Since the talks started, the US has insisted that China should be involved. But Beijing has no interest since both the US and Russia have vastly larger nuclear arsenals than China. Current estimates put China’s arsenal at around 300 warheads, the US and Russia both have about 6,000. The New START caps the number of warheads that can be deployed at 1,550.
When asked how Russia could get China to agree to trilateral arms control, Billingslea said, “It’s Vladimir Putin. He’s got all kinds of leverage.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he plans to extend the New START and build new treaties on top of that. With the election approaching, Moscow will likely wait and see who wins on November 3rd.