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US seeks to pressure Russia into nuclear weapons treaty concessions before election

Posted September 18, 2020 12:12 a.m. EDT

— The Trump administration is threatening Russia that they could increase the cost of extending the one remaining nuclear weapons treaty between the two countries if Moscow does not commit to meeting US demands, including agreeing to stronger verification measures, before the American presidential election in November.

The two countries have spent months negotiating over the renewal of the New START nuclear weapons treaty. Moscow has said it is open to renewing it for five years, while the Trump administration is seeking a new framework and will only renew the treaty if Russia makes additional commitments.

"What we have suggested to the Russians in terms of the way ahead is -- in our view precisely that the Russians have a choice to make," Marshall Billingslea, the top Trump administration nuclear negotiator, told CNN. "But they may find the price of admission goes up after November."

The Trump administration assesses that Russia is "desperate" to uphold New START, and that they will be willing to make concessions in order to keep it in place. While the US has already made significant asks of Moscow, Billingslea said "there is a lot more we could demand." He added that the US could begin "including a lot of the other bad behavior that the Russians are engaged in around the world" into the nuclear negotiations. He didn't say what Russian behavior he was referring to.

The Trump administration has recently condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexy Navalny. US intelligence officials have said Russia continues to meddle in the upcoming election and the administration has condemned recent Russian aggression around the world. However, President Donald Trump has downplayed Russia's election interference efforts and rarely criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Billingslea's declaration puts new pressure on Russia to come to the table before November, but Moscow is aware that the final outcome will be wholly dependent on who wins the election.

Some experts are skeptical that Russia will buckle under US pressure.

"The Trump administration is playing a risky game of chicken with the New START treaty, which has proven to be effective, which both sides are complying with and which is essential for US and Russian national security," said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. "I do not see the logic to Russia responding to this offer before November 3. They can see the polls. Why should they say yes to something right now when Trump may be out of office and they think they know the Biden administration will agree to an extension and follow on talks?"

Vice President Joe Biden has already said that he will sign off on renewing New START if he becomes president. The deadline for the extension is February 5, 2021 -- which would give a possible Biden administration about two weeks to secure the extension.

The Trump administration suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, prompting criticism that they are aiming to start a nuclear arms race. Billingslea and other Trump administration officials claim that is not the case.

China, which the Trump administration has unsuccessfully attempted to draw into nuclear arms control talks, is seeking to at least double the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal in the next decade and its military has already equaled or surpassed the United States in a series of key areas, according to a new Pentagon report released this month.

Still, the overall number of Chinese nuclear warheads greatly lags behind that of the US. The New START treaty limits Russia and the US to some 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. In total the US has about 5,800 nuclear warheads, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Trump has shown a keen interest in America's nuclear arsenal, and appeared to share classified developments with journalist Bob Woodward, in an interview for his new book "Rage." Trump states to Woodward: "I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before," Trump said, according to a recording of their December 5, 2019, conversation, before going on to say: "We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody. What we have is incredible."

US demands on Russia

The demands the Trump administration has already insisted that Russia agrees to, if they want New START extended, include: a commitment to follow-on talks about an arms control agreement that includes all US and Russian nuclear weapons, a commitment that China will be part of the next arms control treaty and stronger verification measures.

The stronger verification measures would include increasing the number of inspections and longer inspection timelines.

When asked what kind of leverage Russia could use to pressure China to be part of the next treaty Billingslea spoke in broad terms.

"It's Vladimir Putin. He's got all kinds of leverage. If they really wanted to help they could," he said, adding he has not seen an effort by them on that front so far.

Billingsea asserted that stronger verification measures -- which the US is proposing in the form of a political agreement -- could be agreed to between now and US election.

"If Moscow wants to take the deal we've offered they could do it tomorrow," Billingslea said. "It's just a matter of political will."

If Russia made such a commitment, it could lead to Trump and Putin meeting to sign a treaty before Election Day. Trump has broadly discussed the negotiations during recent phone calls with the Russian President, but it is unclear what kind of details they focused in on.

While Billingslea said that additional verification measures are needed, critics point out the fact that Russia has never been charged with breaking the terms of the treaty.

"I think they are unlikely to get an agreement on additional verification measures concurrent with New START extension. It is also not clear why they feel they need them because the intel community continues to verify with a high degree of confidence that Russia is in compliance," said Lynn Rusten, a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

An effort to bring Putin to the table?

The push for a renewed nuclear framework with Russia -- and with China down the line -- comes as Trump is seeking to accrue major foreign policy wins ahead of the election.

Some view the push for new verification measures as part of that effort, a potential excuse to bring Trump to the table with Putin sometime in the next few weeks.

National security adviser Robert O'Brien rejected the idea of a summit with Putin during an interview last month, but did say signing an arms control agreement would be welcome.

"At some time," O'Brien said. "We'd love to have Putin come here hopefully to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians."

Billingslea himself used the US election deadline as a peg to threaten the Russians to come to the table now -- but he said that Trump is not demanding progress on a nuclear agreement with Russia before November.

"He knows how to negotiate deals that no other presidents have been able to pull together for the past 20, 30 years," Billingslea said of Trump. "November is not the key."

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