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Trump pushes New START before election

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation shake hands at Helsinki, Finland in July 2018 (AN/Shealah Craighead)

(Arête News) — U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to be pushing for a foreign policy win before Election Day, as his special envoy for arms control declared on Tuesday “important progress” was made towards renewing a nuclear arms control deal with Russia.

Trump’s last-minute effort to salvage the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, comes after letting more than a year slip by without pursuing disarmament talks.

Hosted by Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, diplomatic talks between Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s special envoy for arms control, and Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, were held in Helsinki on Monday over a possible New START extension.

“Thank you to President Niinistö and the wonderful people of Finland for their generous hospitality in hosting such pivotal U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control negotiations. Important progress,” Billingslea said a day later.

Their meeting followed talks in Geneva last Friday between U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Russian Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev.

With polls showing Trump likely to lose the U.S. presidential election to former Vice President Joe Biden on Nov. 3, Trump seems to want an arms control deal that he could use as a policy win this month. New START is the last major U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty.

The United States and Russia only resumed nuclear disarmament talks at Vienna in late June. For a year, Trump ignored Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to hold talks. Trump said he wanted China included in any negotiations over extending New START.

Trump also allowed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty — a key part of the Cold War-era’s nuclear arms control regime — to lapse between the United States and Russia last year, without any further attempts to resolve their differences.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had signed into law the INF Treaty, which banned 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.

NATO considered the INF Treaty — which was effective from June 1, 1988 until August 2, 2019 — to be a cornerstone of European security. The treaty helped to bring about the destruction of almost 2,700 missiles and their launchers, and it served as an important tool for strengthening the U.S.-Soviet relationship just as the Cold War was receding.

Sole remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear accord

New START took effect in 2011, replacing the START treaty from 2004 to 2009. Under New START, each side met a 2018 deadline to reduce their strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed missiles or bombers.

If New START is renewed before early next year, the United States and Russia would continue freezing their nuclear warhead stockpiles, which together accounted for more than 90 percent of the world’s 13,865 nuclear weapons as of early 2019.

Nine countries — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States — are known or believed to possess nuclear weapons.

If negotiations fail and Trump is reelected, New START would be set to expire on February 5, 2021, just 16 days after he is sworn into office for a second term on January 20.

But if Biden wins the presidency, he has promised to immediately seek an extension to New START after taking office on January 20, even if China is not a part of it.

As the talks were held on Monday in Helsinki, Russia’s U.N. Mission in Vienna noted that New START — its “only remaining” arms control agreement with the United States — was slated to expire in exactly four months.

The Russian government, it emphasized, had “offered to extend it in its original text with no preconditions” more than a year earlier, but Trump had declined Putin’s offer.

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