U.S., Russia Near Deal to Extend Nuclear Treaty and Freeze Warheads for a Year Breakthrough on New START agreement would buy time for a future pact that the Trump administration says should include China

The U.S. and Russia are on the verge of an arms-control deal that would freeze the number of nuclear warheads on each side and extend the New START agreement for a year, a senior Trump administration official said Tuesday. “We are very, very close to a deal,” the official said. “Now that the Russians have agreed to a warhead freeze, I do not see why we cannot work out the remaining issues in the coming days.” The Trump administration has been pressing Russia to conclude the agreement before the Nov. 3 U.S. election, a development that would provide President Trump with a diplomatic achievement in the final days of his campaign.

On Friday, the two sides appeared to be at odds over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal that the 2011 New START treaty—which cuts long-range arms and is due to expire in February—be extended unconditionally for a year. But on Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that Moscow also would agree to the longstanding U.S. demand for a warhead freeze for the same period if New START is extended. The remaining issues to be worked out include verification of the warhead freeze and the definition of a warhead, the U.S. official said. “We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”

The purpose of the deal would be to buy time for a future treaty that would take the place of New START and which the Trump administration says should include China. The politically binding deal currently under negotiation between U.S. and Russian officials, however, wouldn’t specifically mention China, officials on both sides have said.The deal, proponents of Mr. Trump’s approach say, could also shape expectations for a future treaty under an administration led by Democrat Joe Biden if Mr. Trump loses on Nov. 3. Marshall Billingslea, the chief U.S. negotiator, was scheduled to brief NATO diplomats Tuesday on prospects for an agreement.

A warhead freeze has been a central requirement for the Trump administration and a step that Moscow had previously resisted.While the New START treaty limits the number of warheads deployed by each side to 1,550, the U.S. administration’s freeze would also cap warheads carried by shorter-range systems and in storage. Negotiating the verification arrangements for such a freeze, however, could prove tricky.“A freeze on all warheads has never been done before,” said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association, a nongovernmental group. “Defining and verifying such a freeze is far from a simple matter.”

Under the administration’s plan, each side would declare the number of warheads deployed on launchers of all ranges and in storage, and would pledge not to exceed that inventory. The U.S. also has proposed that a monitoring system—dubbed “portal monitoring” by experts—be set up outside of Russian and U.S. warhead-production plants to count the number of warheads that are transported from and returned to those facilities.The U.S. isn’t demanding that such a system be in place before New START is extended in February, the senior Trump administration official said. But it wants to hold technical discussions by that time on how such an approach could be implemented.Whether Russia will agree to such a demand or propose alternative verification arrangements isn’t clear to U.S. officials.

The two sides agreed on a similar monitoring approach outside of the Russian-missile production facility at Votkinsk for the 1988 treaty banning Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and the 1994 START I agreement cutting long-range nuclear arms. But those verification arrangements were implemented during a period of better ties between the two countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry made no mention of verification in its Tuesday statement and said that a warhead freeze would “be implemented on the understanding that the United States will not advance any additional conditions with regard to freezing the arsenals.” Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said a demand that Russia accept Votkinsk-style monitoring outside warhead production sites could yet be a deal breaker. “The fact that there are no longer U.S. inspectors present at facilities related to production of nuclear and strategic weapons was something that Mr. Putin himself, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense all argued was something good,” Mr. Stefanovich said.

If an agreement is reached before the election, it would take the form of a politically binding statement by the two sides. There would be a separate exchange of diplomatic notes extending New START, which would be legally binding.

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