Russia makes US an offer on last major arms control treaty

Russia says it will freeze its number of nuclear warheads to extend the New START agreement, which expires in February.

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin, third from left, at the National Defence Control Centre to oversee the test of a new Russian hypersonic missile system called Avangard, which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads, in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018 [File: Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters]

Russia said on Tuesday it would be ready to freeze its total number of nuclear warheads if the United States did the same in order to extend their last major arms control treaty by a year.

The offer, two weeks before the US presidential election, appeared to narrow the gap between the two sides over the fate of the New START agreement, which is due to expire in February.

The US last week rejected a Russian offer to unconditionally extend the pact for one year, saying that any proposal that did not envisage freezing all nuclear warheads was a “non-starter”.

But a statement published by the Russian foreign ministry on Tuesday suggested that the two countries’ positions had moved closer.

“Russia is proposing to extend New START by one year and is ready together with the United States to make a political commitment to ‘freeze’ the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period,” it said.

New START, signed in 2010, imposes limits on the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals.

Extending it would mark a rare bright spot in the fraught relationship between the two countries. Failure to do so would remove the main pillar maintaining the nuclear balance between them and add yet another element of tension.

The Russian foreign ministry said the warhead freeze and one-year extension would be possible if Washington did not make any additional demands. It said the extension would give the two sides time to discuss nuclear arms control in greater depth.

Moscow and Washington have been at odds over the treaty despite several months of talks. The US has called for China to be included in a broader treaty that would replace New START. China has rejected that proposal.

Last year, the US pulled out of a Cold War-era arms control pact banning ground-launched nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 310 miles and 3,400 miles (500km-5,500km), citing Russian violations denied by Moscow.