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White House wants to engage Russia on nuclear arms control in post

Jun 14, 2023Jun 14, 2023

Aamer Madhani, Associated Press Aamer Madhani, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is ready to talk to Russia without conditions about a future nuclear arms control framework even while taking countermeasures in response to the Kremlin's decision to suspend the last nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in February he was suspending Russia's cooperation with the New START Treaty's provisions for nuclear warhead and missile inspections, a move that came as tensions worsened after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Russia did say it would respect the treaty's caps on nuclear weapons.

Sullivan said at the Arms Control Association's annual meeting said that the United States is committed to adhering to the treaty if Russia also does and that Washington wants to open a dialogue on a new framework for managing nuclear risks once the treaty expires in February 2026.

"It is in neither of our countries’ interest to embark on opening the competition in the strategic nuclear forces," Sullivan said. "And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026" agreement.

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The U.S. is willing to stick to the warhead caps until the treaty's end. Figuring out details about a post-2026 framework will be complicated by U.S.-Russia tension and China's growing nuclear strength.

China now has about 410 nuclear warheads, according to an annual survey from the Federation of American Scientists. The Pentagon in November estimated China's warhead count could grow to 1,000 by the end of the decade and to 1,500 by around 2035.

The size of China's arsenal and whether Beijing is willing to engage in substantive dialogue will affect the future U.S. force posture and Washington's ability to come to any agreement with the Russians, administration officials said.

U.S.-Chinese relations have been strained by the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon this year after it crossed the continental United States; tensions about the status of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own; U.S. export controls aimed at limiting China's advanced semiconductor equipment; and other issues.

Sullivan said that he had a candid exchange with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, about arms control when the two met in Vienna last month for broad talks on the U.S.-Chinese relationship and that the Biden administration has made clear to Beijing that it's "ready to talk, when you’re ready to talk."

"Simply put we have not yet seen the willingness from the PRC to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship," Sullivan said, using the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

The White House push on Moscow on nuclear arms control comes the day after the administration announced new steps in response to Russia suspending participation in the treaty.

The State Department said it no longer would notify Russia of any updates on the status or location of "treaty-accountable items" such as missiles and launchers, would revoke U.S. visas issued to Russian treaty inspectors and aircrew members, and would cease providing telemetric information on test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

It remains unclear that the Kremlin would be willing to engage with Washington on the issue at a moment when U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Sullivan noted that over the years the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia built a track record of compartmentalizing management of nuclear risks even when the relations with the U.S. were strained.

"I can't predict exactly what Vladimir Putin will do," Sullivan said. "But there is a track record of our two countries being capable of engaging in these kinds of discussions in a way that serves our respective national interests and our common interests."

The United States and Russia earlier this year stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data required by the treaty.

The treaty, which then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in 2010, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and provides for on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The inspections have been dormant since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on resuming them were supposed to have taken place in November 2022, but Russia abruptly called them off, citing U.S. support for Ukraine.

Left: U.S. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks to the news media about the situation in Ukraine during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 11, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

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Aamer Madhani, Associated Press Aamer Madhani, Associated Press