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Republicans push to verify Russia’s compliance with nuclear treaty

The Republican heads of three US congressional committees have asked the Biden administration to determine whether Russia is complying with New Start amid concerns that the only remaining nuclear arms treaty may be in jeopardy.

The chairs of the House armed services and foreign affairs committees and the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel have sought a determination by January 31, according to a letter obtained by the Financial Times sent to secretary of state Antony Blinken, defence secretary Lloyd Austin and director of national intelligence Avril Haines.

The congressional concern was triggered by Russia’s decision last year to suspend New Start inspections and its subsequent refusal to participate in consultations required under the treaty to support its implementation. It also comes amid fears that Russian president Vladimir Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, and as disquiet mounts about China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal.

The Republican lawmakers — Mike Rogers, Michael McCaul and Michael Turner — asked the administration to assess whether Russia’s stance had resulted in non-compliance or a material breach of the treaty. They said Russian actions and statements attacking the US for supporting Ukraine raised “serious compliance concerns” about Moscow’s adherence.

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“This would occur during a uniquely dangerous time when both Russia and China are expanding and modernizing their arsenals, Iran . . . continues to expand its nuclear program and North Korea rattles its nuclear saber,” the representatives wrote in the letter.

Rogers told the FT that he believed Russia was in “clear violation” of the treaty and the Biden administration “should say so”. He accused Moscow of using New Start as leverage to try to bolster its military campaign in Ukraine.

“Russia is attempting to use New Start to intimidate the US and other nations from providing lethal assistance to Ukraine,” he said. “We can’t let the US and Nato be extorted . . . and step one is calling out these violations.”

The US and Russia in 2021 agreed a five-year extension to the treaty, which limits both countries to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Russia’s actions have raised concern that Washington and Moscow may struggle to reach a follow-on deal in 2026, which would leave the world with no nuclear arms control deals.

At the same time, the Pentagon warned last year that China was on track to grow its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads by the mid-2030s, which would mean the US would, for the first time, have to “deter two major nuclear powers”. China has refused to engage in even nascent arms control negotiations.

Russia abruptly pulled out of planned consultations with the US on New Start in November. US ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament Bruce Turner said on Tuesday that Moscow had failed to meet a deadline to reschedule the talks.

The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment. Russia has insisted that it has remained in compliance with the treaty, but it has cast doubt on the prospect of negotiations resuming while the war in Ukraine continues.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the US of cutting off dialogue on New Start and said Moscow was waiting for Washington to take the initiative.

“We’re not going to run after them and say, ‘Let’s be friends again’. They know we are serious and will respond seriously if we are treated seriously,” Lavrov said last week.

The Biden administration is finalising a report on New Start compliance, as required under the treaty. Turner said the US was “assessing the Russian Federation’s compliance with the New Start treaty”.

But some Republican lawmakers are concerned that the administration might not reach a definitive conclusion out of fears of derailing New Start, which the Biden administration strongly supports, a congressional aide told the FT.

The Pentagon and state department declined to comment on the letter.

Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear arms control expert at the Hudson Institute think-tank, said: “If the administration comes out and says, ‘we believe they are not complying’, there needs to be some formal planning and consultation with allies about the post-New Start environment.”

Heinrichs added that those talks would include the needs of US allies in terms of extended deterrence — a reference to the so-called nuclear umbrella under which Washington protects non-nuclear allies.

Leonor Tomero, a former Biden administration nuclear policy official, said the Republican effort to confront Russia for blocking New Start consultations might help the administration to press Moscow to return to the table.

“A ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach could prove helpful in holding Russia accountable,” Tomero said. “All elements of the US government should work together to keep verified limits on Russian nuclear weapons.”

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