President Trump’s efforts to secure foreign policy wins heading into the presidential election have hit a wall in arms control talks with Russia.
The Russians, perhaps hedging their bets in case Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins in November, recently rejected the Trump administration’s latest offer, while on Friday, the administration rejected Moscow’s counteroffer to extend the existing New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
The impasse has dimmed prospects for a deal before Election Day, depriving Trump of an accomplishment he could tout in the remaining days of the campaign.
Arms control advocates were unsurprised at the latest developments, arguing Trump squandered much of his tenure and treated the talks with urgency only as the election drew near.
“The administration really didn’t get serious about talking to the Russians on a potential extension of New START and a broader agreement until this spring. So the first three and a half years, the administration effectively wasted,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
“Our concern had been that the administration’s approach here was far more consistent with running out the clock on New START than a serious effort to advance arms control to capture additional types of weapons and to bring in additional additional nuclear armed states,” he added. “To say the least, that concern remains.”
Trump has been leaning on foreign policy accomplishments in the final stretch of the presidential campaign amid heavy criticism of his handling of domestic issues such as the COVID-19 crisis and racial tensions.
He has touted troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, promising even more reductions to fulfill his pledge to end so-called forever wars.
Trump also brokered peace agreements between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and between Bahrain and Israel, which he celebrated at a signing ceremony at the White House. And he facilitated normalized economic ties between Serbia and Kosovo.
But when it comes to a broad new arms control agreement with Russia, as well as China, Trump’s efforts have not produced results, and talks now appeared deadlocked.
Trump has been seeking an agreement to replace New START, which expires in February. The treaty includes an option to extend it for another five years without needing new approval from the U.S. Senate.
The agreement caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 apiece, places limits on the weapons that can fire the warheads, and creates a verification regime.
Biden’s campaign has said he would extend the treaty, which was negotiated by the Obama administration.
But Trump wants a new deal that also covers China’s weapons as well as Russia’s so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Beijing, whose nuclear arsenal is a fraction the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s, repeatedly rejected joining the talks. Russia, for its part, offered to extend New START for five years without preconditions.
Despite engaging in what the U.S. intelligence community describes as an active disinformation campaign to boost Trump’s reelection prospects, Moscow turning down Trump’s offer on New START could suggest it is waiting for a better deal from Biden.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien acknowledged Friday the election could be playing into Russia’s calculus.
“It may be that, like other countries, the Russians are waiting to see what happens,” he said at a virtual event hosted by the Aspen Security Forum. “Apparently, we’ve got something going on here in 18 days that’s causing folks to take stock of their negotiating position.”
With time running out before the election, the administration pared down its demands and offered Moscow a deal to extend New START for a year in exchange freezing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals at their current sizes. Officials also warned Russia that U.S. demands would increase after the election.
On Tuesday, arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea said the United States and Russia had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” on a freeze in exchange for a short-term extension. But his Russian counterpart almost immediately denied that, calling the offer “unacceptable.”
Then on Friday, in a meeting with his foreign minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly offered to extend New START for at least one year without any other conditions. Doing so, Putin said, could allow for “substantive talks.”
“It would be extremely sad if this treaty ceased to exist and was not replaced by another fundamental document of this kind,” Putin said. “During all the previous years, the New START worked and worked properly, performing its fundamental role as a constraint curtailing the arms race and a tool of arms control.”
The Trump administration quickly rejected the counteroffer.
“President Putin’s response today to extend New START without freezing nuclear warheads is a non-starter,” O’Brien said in a statement Friday. “The United States is serious about arms control that will keep the entire world safe. We hope that Russia will reevaluate its position before a costly arms race ensues.”
Billingslea also accused the Russians of having “backtracked” on an agreement, saying in a tweet that the “United States made every effort.”
The United States’s European allies have also pressed for an extension of New START. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers this week, more than 75 European lawmakers urged them to press the administration on the treaty.
“As officials who strive to protect the health and security of millions of European citizens, we feel distressed by the possibility that New START may lapse in less than four months,” they wrote in a letter organized by the European Leadership Network, a group originally founded to advocate for nuclear disarmament.
“We would like to appeal to our colleagues, the elected representatives of the United States, to act on this issue,” they added. “The broad support that continues to be given to New START by many members of the U.S. Congress gives us hope that bipartisan efforts within the U.S. government can help ensure the treaty’s survival.”
New START is the last treaty constraining the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals after Trump, followed by Putin, withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year.
If New START expires, it would be the first time in decades with no treaty limiting U.S. and Russia nuclear weapons.
Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador now on the board at political nonprofit Foreign Policy for America, said both the United States and Russia now appear “more interested in positioning themselves as the reasonable party than they are intent on actually reaching a deal.”
“Recent U.S. and Russia talks on the vital issue of extending New START have deteriorated into a volley of tweets now centering on a one-year vs. five-year extension,” she said in a statement Friday. “Expect Putin to hang tough on a clean extension; Biden has long since made clear his support for full extension of this crucial treaty while the sides pursue more comprehensive follow-on negotiations.”
Reif, at the Arms Control Association, predicted the fate of New START now hinges on the election.
“Biden has made clear he supports an extension. So, I think if he wins, you’re likely to see the two sides move to extend the agreement,” he said. “But in the event of a Trump victory, then I think it remains to be seen whether the Russian position would change, whether as the U.S. has threatened a second term Trump administration would add even more conditions to its current term proposal. But in that case I think the situation would be very bleak for the agreement in the event of Trump reelection.”