The US has said it will resume talks with Russia “immediately” over the extension of a nuclear arms control deal between the two countries after Moscow agreed to consider a mutual freeze on atomic warheads.
An agreement on an extension of the 10-year New Start treaty beyond its February 5 expiry date would deliver a foreign policy win for Donald Trump two weeks before the US presidential election.
“We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” Morgan Ortagus, US state department spokesperson, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalise a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”
The White House last week rejected an offer from Russian president Vladimir Putin to extend the treaty by one year because it did not cover the smaller so-called tactical warheads that the US says make up 55 per cent of Russia’s arsenal. The US had already rejected a previous Russian proposal to extend the treaty without preconditions for five years.
But on Tuesday, Russia’s foreign ministry signalled a concession by saying it was ready to consider freezing both sides’ “existing arsenals of nuclear warheads”.
“The time gained through the extension of New Start could be used to hold comprehensive bilateral talks on the future of nuclear missile control, with the mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability,” the foreign ministry added.
Signed in 2010, New Start caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and bombs held by the US and Russia at 1,550. It also limits the number of deployed missiles and bombers to 700 and launchers to 800. It does not include tactical nuclear warheads, whose presence is harder to verify.
The Trump campaign has complained that foreign policy had been left off a list of topics ahead of the final televised debate between Mr Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden on Thursday.
Mr Biden, who is leading Mr Trump in polls, has said he supported extending the treaty for a further five years. But he would only have two weeks following his possible inauguration next January to agree an extension.
Mr Putin said last week that Russia was willing to discuss China’s involvement and restrictions on new Russian hypersonic weapons, as well as Moscow’s own concerns over US missile defence and a conventionally armed long-range strategic cannon.
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Moscow was “playing along with the Trump administration, but not so much to help him in the election as to correct the impression that Russia was not interested in arms control”.
Mr Trenin said the offer was “not primarily intended to help Trump, who most people here believe is sinking”, but rather “aimed at presenting an image of Russia as an interested and committed party as far as arms control/strategic stability are concerned”.