Tuesday August 09, 2022

Opening nuclear talks with Russia, US may also be ending them

June 21, 2020

WASHINGTON: The United States and Russia on Monday open talks on their last major nuclear agreement -- but for some observers, it may simply be the beginning of the end.

President Donald Trump’s administration has insisted, to no avail, that China join the discussions in Vienna on New START, the treaty that caps US and Russian nuclear warheads.

New START expires on February 5 -- presenting an extraordinarily tight deadline to renew a complex deal, let alone negotiate a new treaty involving a third power.

Marshall Billingslea, the US envoy, has ramped up pressure on Beijing, saying that its role will be a factor in determining if the Vienna session is constructive.

China -- whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding but is still far smaller than the US and Russian programs -- has repeatedly declined to take part, amid tensions with the Trump administration on multiple fronts.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research group, said the insistence on including China showed the Trump administration was not serious.

"The only conclusion I can come to is that Marshall Billingslea and the Trump administration do not intend to extend New START and are seeking to display China’s disinterest in trilateral arms control talks as a cynical excuse to allow New START to expire," he said.

The Trump administration has already left two treaties with Russia -- on overflights and on intermediate-range nuclear forces.

Russia, to be led in Vienna by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, has proposed simply extending New START to allow time to negotiate.

But Moscow’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said he was "quite pessimistic, as for now I don’t see any positive sign."

New START, a Cold War legacy whose latest version was negotiated by president Barack Obama, allows the United States and Russia to deploy no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads each and cut in half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers.

Russia, whose nuclear arsenal is a key element of power while it is vastly outspent on defence by the United States, says it wants to ensure parity with Washington.

It also wants a broader discussion with Washington on arms control, including on US threats to resume nuclear tests after nearly three decades.

Billingslea said last month that the United States was concerned not only about China but Russia, accusing Moscow of modernizing thousands of "non-strategic" nuclear weapons that fall outside New START.