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Biden favors renewal of U.S.-Russia nuke accord

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris (AN/White House)

U.S. President Joe Biden proposed on Thursday seeking an extension to the last remaining major U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, which the Trump administration decided to let lapse rather than re-negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The move comes just before the decade-old New START treaty is set to expire on February 5. In October, Putin offered to extend it without making any changes, but former President Donald Trump’s administration called that a “non-starter” because it did not apply to China or all of Russia’s arms. Former President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in 2010 to limit each nation to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.

“I can confirm that the United States intends to seek a five-year extension of New START, as the treaty permits,” Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, told reporters during her daily press briefing.

“The president has long been clear that the New START treaty is in the national security interests of the United States,” she said. “And this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversial as it is at this time. New START is the only remaining treaty constraining Russian nuclear forces, and is an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries.”

Russia’s foreign ministry appeared to welcome the news in a tweet that called for the new U.S. administration to take “a more constructive stand” on nonproliferation than its predecessor. The ministry said in a statement that the Trump administration had “worked consistently and systematically to destroy the agreements” between the United States and Russia that had “prevented Washington from arbitrarily building up, projecting and using military force.”

“For our part, we have always advocated and continue advocating the extension of New START based on highly realistic positions. We believe that the treaty can only be extended as it was signed and without any preconditions,” the ministry said.

“The best option would be to extend New START for five years as it is stipulated in the text of the treaty,” it said. “This would give Russia and the United States enough time to get down to a joint search for answers to the international security and strategic stability questions that are currently emerging. At the same time, this would preserve the current level of transparency and predictability in the sphere of strategic offensive weapons, which will be in the interests of both parties and the rest of the world.”

A lost year of talks

At a virtual meeting of Putin’s Security Council in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in October the Russian government was “quite proactive” in trying to keep the treaty alive. A U.S. special envoy for arms control indicated last year that progress was made towards renewing this key part of the Cold War-era’s nuclear arms control regime.

But the United States and Russia only resumed nuclear disarmament talks after Trump spent a year ignoring Putin’s offer to hold the talks. Trump insisted that China should be included in negotiations to extend New START, which took effect in 2011 and replaced the START treaty from 2004 to 2009.

Trump also allowed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to expire in 2019. It had been signed by former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ban the use of all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles that could strike targets between 500 and 5,500 kilometers away.

Last year in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged the United States and Russia to renew New START for another five years.

“In the absence of any agreement which includes China,” he told the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, “I think the right thing will be to extend the existing New START agreement to provide the necessary time to find agreement — U.S., Russia — but hopefully also with China. Because we should not end up in a situation where we have no agreement whatsoever regulating the number of nuclear weapons in the world.”

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