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Top Russian diplomat skeptical about nuclear pact extension

Posted October 14, 2020 4:01 p.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2020 6:32 p.m. EDT

In this photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

— Russia's top diplomat voiced doubt Wednesday that Moscow and Washington could negotiate an extension of their last arms control pact still standing, even as the United States offered a more optimistic view.

Speaking in an interview with several Russian news outlets, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia can't accept the conditions put forward by the United States for the extension of the New START treaty.

“I personally don't see the prospect,” Lavrov snapped when asked if the extension is possible before the pact expires in February. “We will never say that we will shut the door and cut all contacts. But we explain that it's impossible to talk on the basis of an ultimatum they put forward that fully ignores the principles which were acknowledged as the basis for all our agreements for decades."

Lavrov's pessimistic view contrasted with the statements from U.S. 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,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

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,” voicing hope that China will eventually join the talks too.

A person familiar with the talks told The Associated Press Friday that U.S. and Russian negotiators have agreed in principle to continue freezing their nuclear warhead stockpiles in a bid to salvage the New START. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s not yet clear if the agreement for a freeze will succeed or translate into an extension of the pact.

If it works, the person said an agreement could be announced before the Nov. 3 presidential election with an eye toward extending the accord and eventually bringing China into it, a longtime demand by President Donald Trump's administration.

The New START treaty was signed in 2010 by U.S. 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, the New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.

Russia has offered its extension without any conditions, while the Trump administration has 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.

Lavrov specified Wednesday that Russia can’t accept the U.S. proposal to limit battlefield nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads that arm strategic missiles and bombers until the U.S. agrees to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

He also noted that Moscow wouldn't agree to the U.S. demand to have intrusive verification measures like those that existed in the 1990s when inspectors were positioned at missile factories.

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Associated Press diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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