Russian President Vladimir Putin made a strong call to save the last existing nuclear arms control pact between his country and the United States, proposing to extend it at least for one year.
Mr Putin’s statement comes amid conflicting signals from Russian and US diplomats about the fate of the New Start treaty that is set to expire in February unless Moscow and Washington agree on its extension.
Speaking at a meeting of his security council on Friday, Mr Putin said that “it would be extremely sad if the treaty ceases to exist without being replaced by another fundamental document of the kind”.
“All those years, the New Start has worked, playing its fundamental role of limiting and containing an arms race,” he noted.
The New Start treaty was signed in 2010 by US President Barack Obama and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.
After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, New Start is the only nuclear arms control deal between the two countries still standing.
Russia previously offered its extension for five years without any conditions, while the US administration pushed for a new arms control agreement that would also include China.
Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its much-smaller nuclear arsenal.
Mr Putin on Friday proposed to “extend the existing treaty without any conditions for at least one year” to allow for “substantive talks”, instructing Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to get a quick US answer to the offer.
He emphasised that Russia is ready to discuss the new weapons it deployed in future arms talks with the United States.
Earlier this week, Mr Lavrov voiced scepticism about reaching a deal on New Start, noting that Russia cannot accept the conditions put forward by the United States for its extension.
Mr Lavrov specified that Russia cannot agree to the US proposal to limit battlefield nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads that arm strategic missiles and bombers until the US agrees to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
He also noted that Moscow would not accept the US demand to have intrusive verification measures like those that existed in the 1990s when inspectors were positioned at missile factories.
Mr Lavrov’s pessimistic view contrasted with statements from US diplomats, who said that Moscow and Washington were close to a deal.
“We would welcome the opportunity to complete an agreement based on understandings that were achieved over the last couple weeks about what the range of possibilities look like for an extension of New Start and an outcome that benefits the entire world, increased stability of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.
Mr Pompeo said that “I am hopeful that the Russians will find a way to agree to an outcome that, frankly, I think is in their best interest and in our best interest”, and voiced hope that China will eventually join the talks too.
After the last round of talks in Helsinki earlier this month, lead US negotiator Marshall Billingslea, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said the meeting had yielded “important progress”.
A person familiar with the talks said last Friday that US and Russian negotiators have agreed in principle to continue freezing their nuclear warhead stockpiles in a bid to salvage the New Start.
The person said an agreement could be announced before the November 3 presidential election with an eye toward extending the accord and eventually bringing China into it, a longtime demand by Mr Trump’s administration.
But Russia’s top negotiator in the talks, Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, dismissed the allegations of reaching the agreement in principle as “wishful thinking” on the US part, emphasising that sharp differences remained and Moscow was not going to sign a deal on the US terms.