Trump Moves Closer to Renewing Nuclear Treaty With Russia

But Russian negotiators still haven’t agreed to stepped-up verification of its nuclear warheads, a major sticking point.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and Russia appear to be closer to clinching a deal to extend the Barack Obama-era New START arms control treaty, after Russian negotiators publicly conceded to a freeze on the number of nuclear warheads in exchange for a one-year extension of the agreement, according to new statements from U.S. and Russian officials. 

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Trump administration was near a deal with Russian negotiators, something that U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed for ahead of the November election despite calls within the administration for a more expansive agreement that would include China, another rising nuclear power. 

If a last-minute agreement is reached, it could avert the collapse of one of the most important nuclear arms agreements in the post-Cold War era and give the Trump administration an opening to tout a foreign-policy achievement ahead of the contentious 2020 elections. 

“We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on Tuesday. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”

But hurdles remain, and there appears to be daylight between U.S. and Russian statements on key remaining issues. While the Russian statement on Tuesday ceded ground to U.S. negotiators on warheads, it did not offer stepped-up verification protocols to ensure that it would abide by the freeze. 

“Russia wants an unverified warhead freeze. It would be very difficult to monitor through intelligence collection,” tweeted James Acton, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Both Russia and the United States would presumably … continue to produce new warheads, while dismantling old ones.” 

Trump’s top arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, is expected to brief NATO allies on the developments this week. Senior European and NATO officials have voiced concerns about the status of the talks in recent months. After the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia in 2019, they urged the United States to not abandon New START before its scheduled expiration in February, lest it risk the collapse of the entire arms control architecture in the post-Cold War era. 

In recent reports to Congress, the Trump administration has repeatedly acknowledged that Russia has remained in compliance with New START—unlike other Cold War-era arms control treaties—but it has raised questions about whether the deal remains in U.S. interests.

The statements on Tuesday marked a major shift from the administration. Russian President Vladimir Putin last week called for an unconditional renewal of the deal, causing Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to urge Moscow to rethink its position “before a costly arms race ensues.” Among the remaining issues that U.S. and Russian negotiators would need to hash out before such a deal is secured are the definitions of a warhead and how each side would verify compliance with the warhead freeze. Billingslea, the top negotiator, has called for a more rigorous inspection regime under a fresh New START agreement than in the original 2010 deal signed under the Obama administration. 

Still, it’s a major step forward after New START negotiations sputtered and stalled in recent months, as the Trump administration initially tried to extend the nuclear treaty to include China. Officials in Beijing refused to entertain such an offer. The rift led to a minor and clumsy diplomatic spat over social media that reflected the sharp disagreements between the United States and China.

Trump appeared to shift gears and abandon his proposal on trilateral talks the following month, when he called for a deal with Russia first before engaging with China.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer