Russian president Vladimir Putin has offered to extend a crucial nuclear treaty with Washington by one year in a move that could hand Donald Trump a foreign policy win before the US presidential election.
Mr Putin told his security council on Friday that “it would be exceedingly sad” if New Start, a 10-year bilateral accord that limits US and Russian nuclear warheads, were to expire on February 5.
“I have an offer: to extend the existing agreement without preconditions for a year at least, in order to have the possibility to hold constructive negotiations on all parameters of the issues regulated by such agreements,” Mr Putin told foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “Try to get some sort of coherent answer out of them as soon as possible.”
The Trump administration had refused to accept Russia’s earlier offer to extend the treaty for five years without preconditions, terms that are acceptable to Joe Biden, Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent. If elected at next month’s polls, Mr Biden would take office in January with little more than a fortnight to negotiate and sign a five-year extension, however.
The Trump administration is seeking to rack up foreign policy wins in the final stretch of the campaign before the November 3 election as US president tries to narrow Mr Biden’s lead in national polls.
Mr Trump said this month that US troops “should” return home from Afghanistan by Christmas, and claimed last month that “five or six” more countries were ready to strike US-brokered deals to normalise relations with Israel, following in the steps of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
However the Trump administration has been unwilling to extend the treaty with Russia without extracting an agreement from Moscow to freeze its entire nuclear arsenal, including smaller tactical nuclear weapons that are not covered by the agreement but make up as much as 55 per cent. The US also wants to include China in nuclear accords.
Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said a short extension of the treaty would be “infinitely preferable” to expiration. But it would be better for both sides to extend the treaty for a full five years to “provide a more secure environment for Washington and Moscow to create new and expanded agreements,” she added.
Marshall Billingslea, presidential envoy for arms control, did not immediately appear to respond to the offer. State Department did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Mr Lavrov said US intransigence over “quite a large number of [US] preconditions that go beyond both the treaty itself and our competence” had led to a “critical situation” where “work on extending the treaty without preconditions that are not contained in it has basically not even begun.”
He warned that Russia would be left without “any sort of other instrument that ensures any kind of joint approaches to strategic stability” after US withdrawal from a series of other treaties. “Everything else has either already been destroyed or the Americans are offering to end it,” he said.
Mr Putin said Russia was willing to discuss China’s involvement and restrictions on new Russian hypersonic weapons, as well as Moscow’s own concerns over US missile defence and a conventionally armed long-range strategic cannon.
“In previous years New Start has worked faultlessly by fulfilling its fundamental role to limit and contain the arms race,” the Russian leader said. “Obviously, we have new weapons systems that the American side doesn’t have, at least not yet. But we are not refusing to discuss that side of the issue either.”
US national security adviser Robert O’Brien revived talks when he met his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva this month. The encounter was followed by talks in Helsinki between Mr Billingslea and deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.
The gap between the two sides was evident on Tuesday after Mr Ryabkov said the US stance was “unacceptable” — hours after Mr Billingslea said the US believed there was “an agreement in principle at the highest levels of our two governments”.
Andrei Baklitsky, senior research fellow at Moscow’s MGIMO university, wrote on Twitter: “One thing is clear: no deal for Trump before the elections. It’s either a one-year extension of the [New Start treaty] or nothing. I almost feel sorry for [Mr Billingslea], who was telling everyone that there’s a deal agreed in principle, which will materialise within a week. Or will he simply say that President Putin is not attuned to the Russian leadership?”