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Kremlin suddenly offers arms-control treaty extension with the major warhead freeze demanded by the Trump administration

In negotiations to extend Obama-era the New START arms control agreement, which expires early next year, the Trump administration has insisted on adopting a broader cap on nuclear warheads not currently limited by the treaty. Last week, Washington rejected the Kremlin’s latest proposal to extend the New START for one more year “unconditionally.” On Tuesday, October 20, Russia’s Foreign Ministry “clarified” its offer, saying the country is ready to “freeze” the number of its nuclear warheads together with the U.S. during the one-year treaty extension, provided this is the only precondition to prolonging the agreement.

“If this approach suits Washington, we can use the time gained as a result of New START’s extension to conduct comprehensive bilateral negotiations about the future of controls over nuclear missiles with the necessary consideration of all factors affecting strategic stability,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement shared on its website.

Update: U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus has welcomed Russia’s “willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” saying that Washington is “prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement.” Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov later called the response “good news,” but stressed that the meaning of the word “verifiable” in the Americans’ response “needs to be clarified.”

On October 16, 2020, during a video conference on Friday with members of Russia’s National Security Council, Vladimir Putin proposed offering to extend the New START treaty with the United States by another year “unconditionally” in order to salvage “substantive talks” on arms control. The New START agreement is due to expire in February 2021. 

Moscow says it never received a formal response from the White House, but U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and President Trump’s lead arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, both wrote on Twitter that they reject the idea of an unconditional extension, calling it “a non-starter” and “disappointing.” 

Some U.S. analysts have questioned the Trump administration’s insistence on coupling a New START extension with a promise to freeze all categories of warheads. Former Defense Secretary William Perry told The Associated Press that the U.S. freeze idea may be a “domestic political gambit” ahead of the November 3 presidential election, largely because the number of these weapons hasn’t changed significantly in recent years. At the same time, Washington has accused Moscow of cheating past arms-control agreements and maneuvering to build up its nuclear arsenal of shorter-range and non-strategic weapons that aren’t currently governed by the New START treaty.

According to The New York Times, Joe Biden supports extending the New START Treaty for another five years without preconditions.

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