The administration’s scramble to cut a deal with Russia before the election comes as the president’s top diplomats have been rushing to secure diplomatic achievements as U.S. voters begin going to the polls.
Trump has long sought to negotiate an arms control deal with Moscow, but so far his administration has only pulled out of pacts with the former Cold War foe, citing violations by Russia. In comments Sept. 4, Trump said arms control talks with Russia were a “very important thing”— more important than addressing global warming. Trump and Putin have been discussing a deal for months.
But the Russian government has given the U.S. negotiators little direct feedback outside public commentary since they presented their proposal about two weeks ago, according to U.S. officials. The result is U.S. frustration, which boiled over into comments in a Russian media outlet by Trump’s top nuclear negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, and a response from his Russian counterpart.
The “price of admission” for Russia to secure the deal with the United States will go up if the Kremlin doesn’t agree to terms before the U.S. presidential election, Billingslea warned in an interview Monday with the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Billingslea said the United States would insist on “a number of new conditions” if Russia waits until after the election to decide and Trump wins.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s main arms control negotiator, warned that such ultimatums wouldn’t result in a deal.
“Either they can stop making their ultimatums and we can start to negotiate something, or there will be no agreement,” Ryabkov told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Ryabkov said the U.S. demands don’t correspond to Russia’s idea of what must be done to ensure strategic stability.
In his own separate interview with Kommersant, Ryabkov said “the offer made by the Americans does not look like a good deal” and rejected the U.S. preconditions. Still, U.S. officials didn’t read Ryabkov’s comments as the final word on whether Russia would agree to some sort of deal before the election or thereafter.
At stake is the future of New START, a 2010 treaty that expires in February and restricts the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and certain launch platforms. If the treaty isn’t extended or replaced, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers will return to an era without substantive restraints on their arsenals for the first time in decades, potentially paving the way for a new nuclear arms race.
Because the Trump administration didn’t begin substantive negotiations until this year, the arms control standoff is colliding with the American political calendar. Moscow is probably calculating whether Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden would offer more favorable terms.
Russia has said it would like to extend the treaty, which includes a clause that can prolong the pact for five years without ratification if both presidents agree. In his online platform, Biden has said he would pursue an extension of New START, which President Barack Obama negotiated.
The Trump administration, however, has argued that New START is insufficient because it doesn’t include China and regulates only a portion of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The administration is willing to extend the pact only if its replacement addresses those issues and others. China has rejected U.S. calls to join the talks with Russia, citing its smaller nuclear arsenal.
The proposal offered by Billingslea two weeks ago in Vienna goes beyond the parameters of New START to encompass all the nuclear warheads of both countries, a senior U.S. official said. It would include a complex monitoring system allowing both nations to observe which nuclear weapons are coming into Russian or American facilities for refurbishment and which are coming out of the facilities for deployment.
The proposal also allows for an increased number of inspections and faster access to sites that inspectors request to visit, among other things, the senior official said.
U.S. officials drafted the proposal in the form of a political agreement that would become a treaty once China agrees to join the accord — a goal that has eluded U.S. negotiators.
The lack of response by Moscow to the proposal has led some U.S. officials to conclude that Putin has not empowered Ryakbov to cut a deal. Billingslea made his public comments to the Russian newspaper Kommersant in part to underscore the U.S. offer to Putin and seek clarity from the Russian side on its interest in an agreement, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
“So far the proposal stands in the form that we made it in. If and when Moscow expresses a desire to go down this path that, frankly speaking, President Putin has already discussed multiple times with President Trump, then we are ready,” Billingslea told Kommersant.
Promoting himself as a dealmaker, Trump has sought to undertake nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia since the 1980s, when he expressed an interest in conducting talks with the Soviets on behalf of the Reagan administration. When asked about the recent poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny at a Sept. 4 White House news conference, Trump instead emphasized that arms control talks were underway.
“With Russia, we’re right now negotiating a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which is very important. It’s a very important thing. To me, it’s the most important thing,” Trump said. “Some people say ‘global warming’; I don’t. I say this is far more important.”
The Trump administration began substantive negotiations with Russia over New START in earnest only this year, leaving insufficient time to hammer out an entirely new treaty.
The result is an attempt to extend the current treaty, probably for a year or two, on the condition that Russia agrees to certain elements in a follow-on treaty. Such a deal would allow Trump to tout a nuclear accord with Russia on the campaign trail, even if the specifics of a new treaty haven’t actually been hashed out — and may not result in an actual follow-on pact.
The Trump administration has had little success securing arms control deals.
U.S. officials have failed to reach a formal pact with North Korea, which has tested nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The administration has also been unable to negotiate a new deal with Iran, which has exceeded the restrictions on its nuclear program set by a 2015 international nuclear agreement that Trump abandoned.