MOSCOW: A surprise offer from Vladimir Putin has the U.S. and Russia once again circling a potential pre-election nuclear deal.
The last treaty constraining the U.S. and Russia, New START, is due to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, two weeks after the next U.S. presidential inauguration. For the first time since the height of the Cold War, the nuclear guardrails could come off.
“The arms control architecture would practically cease to exist,” EU arms control envoy Marjolijn van Deelen said today on a call hosted by the European Leadership Network (ELN).
Both sides have warned that without a deal, they’re prepared for an arms race.
While Joe Biden has said he’d extend New START if elected, the Trump administration has insisted it will only extend the Obama-era deal if Russia addresses its priorities — limiting all nuclear warheads and bringing China to the table.
U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea has repeatedly said the offer will expire on Election Day. After that, “our asking price will go up.”
Putin came in with an offer this week that was well below that asking price, but it closed enough of the gap that Billingslea pronounced a deal “very, very close.”
Driving the news: Just days earlier, the White House had rejected a proposal from Putin — a one-year extension to allow for further negotiations — as a “non-starter.” But on Tuesday, Russia added a surprise twist.
It was now prepared to “undertake a political commitment to ‘freeze’ … the number of nuclear warheads that each side possesses” for a year, as long as the U.S. dropped all “additional demands.”
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus quickly said the U.S. was “prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement,” which a senior U.S. official told the WSJ could be reached within days.
Between the lines: That’s where things get complicated. Russia hadn’t said anything about the agreement being verifiable.
In fact, Billingslea’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, today seemed to suggest it wouldn’t be.
Russia had simply agreed to “the concept of a nuclear warhead freeze — without additional appendages and requirements for Russia,” he told Russia’s Kommersant newspaper.
Between the lines: “Russia, as a closed society, has always treated verification as a concession,” notes Pranay Vaddi of the Carnegie Endowment.
The two sides also don’t have a shared definition of what exactly would be frozen.
While New START limits the number of deployed warheads with which the U.S. and Russia could strike one another, it doesn’t cap shorter-range systems or non-deployed warheads.
A full accounting of all warheads has never been attempted.
Where things stand: Billingslea told “PBS Newshour” on Tuesday that any deal would “of course” have to include “effective verification.” But he acknowledged that no agreement to that effect had been reached.
The bottom line: That’s leaves quite a bit of ground to cover in less than two weeks.