WASHINGTON－The United States and Russia inched closer on Tuesday to a deal to extend their last remaining arms control pact which will expire early next year.
The two sides signaled they are ready to accept compromises to salvage the New START treaty just two weeks ahead of the US presidential election on Nov 3 in which US President Donald Trump faces a strong challenge from Democratic candidate Joe Biden, whose campaign has accused Trump of being soft on Russia.
After the White House last week rejected a proposal from the Kremlin to keep the accord alive, calling it a "non-starter", Moscow said on Tuesday it could agree to a US-proposed freeze on each side’s nuclear warheads and to extend the treaty by one year. In response, the US said it was ready for a quick deal.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry outlined the shift in Moscow’s position after last week’s apparent breakdown in the talks on the New START, which expires in February. It said Russia is prepared for a deal if the US agrees to put forward no additional demands.
The US State Department then welcomed the Russian offer.
"We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control," 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."
There was no immediate indication of when the two sides might meet to conclude an agreement or what form it might take.
The New START was signed in 2010 by then-US president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.
Last remaining accord
After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, the pact was the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.
Russia had offered to extend it without any conditions, while the Trump administration had initially rejected the proposal.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued that Russia could not agree to the US proposal to limit tactical nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads that arm strategic missiles and bombers until Washington agreed to withdraw its nuclear warheads from Europe.
Lavrov also noted that Moscow would not accept the US demand to have intrusive verification measures like those that existed in the 1990s when inspectors were positioned at missile factories. Moscow appears still to resist the deeper inspections, which are not envisaged by the New START.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said: "A one-year politically binding warhead freeze could be a useful confidence-building measure if combined with a one-year New START extension, with the option of an additional extension adding up to a total of five years.
"It would be a step in the right direction that would avert, for now, an all-out arms race," Kimball said, adding it would give Washington and Moscow more time for further talks on a new deal to cut their nuclear arsenals.
Agencies via Xinhua