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AFP
May 24, 2020

Time running out on last US-Russia nuclear arms treaty

Top Story

AFP
May 24, 2020

WASHINGTON: Time is running out on an arms control treaty that, if allowed to expire, will leave the world with no legal restrictions on US and Russian nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly half a century.

If President Donald Trump does not extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — only remaining US-Russia arms control pact — or succeed in negotiating a replacement treaty, it will expire on Feb. 5. That’s just 16 days after Trump begins a second term or his successor is sworn into office.

Russia has offered to extend New START for up to five years, but Trump is holding out. He thinks China, which is expected to double its stockpile of nuclear weapons in the next decade, should have to sign on to a nuclear arms control accord, too.

The future of New START was further called into question with Trump’s announcement Thursday that the US intends to withdraw from another treaty that permits observation flights over the US, Russia and more than 30 other nations.

Trump voiced his desire for a three-way arms control agreement months ago, but that effort is still in the starting blocks.

Marshall Billingslea, who was appointed last month as the president’s special envoy for arms control, said Thursday that he had his first secure phone call with his counterpart in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Billingslea said they agreed to meet, talk about their objectives and find a way to begin negotiations.

“Suffice to say, this won’t be easy. It is new,” Billingslea said, adding that the U.S. fully expects Russia to help bring China to the table.

Russian officials and many arms control experts agree that China, as a rising power, should be part of a nuclear arms accord, but they are eyeing the calendar.

“It’s really hard to see how, in the midst of a pandemic that would make actual in-person negotiations quite difficult, you’re going to get something done and ratified and in force before the New START treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021,” said Alexandra Bell at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation.

They note how Trump’s reelection campaign, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic problems it has created are consuming a lot of time. Negotiating complex nuclear accords can take years, and even the president, who has blamed Beijing for not stopping the spread of the virus, has said he’s doesn’t want to talk to President Xi Jinping right now.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said in January that China has “no intention to participate” in trilateral arms control negotiations. Billingslea, however, is optimistic that Beijing will want to join in and be seen as a world power.