The United States and Russia remain in disagreement over the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). The first lackluster offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin was promptly rejected by Washington. However, time remains of the essence.

The Treaty Expires Very Soon

The last remaining major nuclear disarmament treaty between Washington and Moscow expires in four months. The Trump administration rejected a Russian proposal for an extension nonetheless. Putin’s proposal to extend the New START Treaty without a freeze on the number of nuclear warheads was “unacceptable,” said National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, on Friday, adding that “we hope that Russia will reassess its position before a costly arms race sets in.”

Putin had previously offered an unconditional extension of the New START agreement on nuclear disarmament by one year without preconditions. He is proposing to extend the existing agreement with the United States for at least one year to allow for comprehensive negotiations, Putin said on Friday, according to the Kremlin. The Russian leader further said the agreement had worked well so far at a meeting with the National Security Council on Friday, and added that it would be “extremely regrettable” if it were no longer effective.

Moscow Rejected Washington’s Treaty Conditions as ‘Unacceptable’

A few days ago, the US announced an agreement in principle with Russia on an extension. However, US negotiator Marshall Billingslea made a limitation or “freeze” of the Russian nuclear arsenal a condition. Moscow rejected this at the time as “unacceptable”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced skepticism about the possibility of reaching a deal on New START, noting that Russia cannot accept the conditions put forward by the US for its extension. Lavrov specified that Russia could not agree to the US proposal to limit nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads until Washington agrees to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

However, Moscow announced that it would “freeze” the number of nuclear warheads for a year on Tuesday. If the agreement is initially extended by twelve months, Russia will make this political commitment, announced the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Nevertheless, this is only possible if the United States does not make “additional demands.”

China Declined to Participate in Talks, Despite US Request

Washington and Moscow ended an initial round of negotiations on New START in Vienna in June without any concrete results. The Washington government insisted on China’s participation in the disarmament talks. However, China was not interested. Representatives from Beijing declined an invitation to Vienna. It was “not yet the right time” for China to talk on nuclear disarmament, Beijiing said in June.

Both sides still hence appear to remain far apart. While Washington seeks a cap on all US weapons in exchange for a New START extension, it remains an open question of what it is inclined to provide Moscow in return.

Will Washington Accept Putin’s Latest Offer?

However, with the political implications an agreement holds, one should not be surprised if the US accepted Putin’s latest offer, though slightly modified. Not only would it allow both sides to continue negotiations without the current degree of urgency, but it also could provide the president with a marketable – though geopolitically redundant – success so close to election day.

The New START Treaty was signed in 2010 and is the last significant agreement between the United States and Russia to control their nuclear weapons. Russia and the US together hold approximately 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal.  Both countries undertook to reduce the number of their nuclear warheads to a maximum of 800 carrier systems and 1,550 ready-to-use nuclear warheads each: around 30 percent less than in the previous START agreement of 2002.

In 2019, Washington terminated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In May of this year, the White House announced its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty with Russia, enabling both sides to fly in the other party’s airspace.