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It would be images for the history books - and for the election campaign: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin sign an agreement that limits the so-called strategic nuclear weapons of the two powers and also paves the way for negotiations on a number of contentious arms control issues. Trump would be ennobled as a statesman who ties in with Ronald Reagan's summit diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. And the Democrats could hardly object to this, as their presidential candidate Joe Biden was instrumental in negotiating the "New Start" treaty under Barack Obama, the extension of which is at the core.
At a meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday, Putin offered the US to extend this agreement "without preconditions" for at least a year - in order to create time "for substantive discussions on all the parameters of the subjects regulated in such agreements". That would save "our two countries and the whole world" a situation without "such a fundamental agreement" as "New Start", he said.
What at first glance looks like an offer that cannot be refused was little more than Putin's cleverly packaged rejection of US advances - which the White House had linked to demands. Trump's security advisor Robert O'Brien already thought of Putin's proposal with a play on words: "non-starter".
"New Start" is the last remaining agreement between the two most important nuclear powers by far. If it is not renewed, it will expire on February 5th. For the first time since 1972, there would then no longer be any limits on the arsenals. An even more intense nuclear arms race might be the result. Trump has threatened to "make Russia forget" by increasing military spending - an allusion to the fall of the Soviet Union, which also collapsed because its ailing economy could no longer finance the armaments the Kremlin deemed necessary for the United States and to be able to stand up to NATO. Putin, in turn, is currently talking about "new weapon systems that we have, but the American side does not, at least not yet".
Moscow has long been interested in extending "New Start" by five years, as the agreement allows. The treaty limits the arsenals, which affects ranges of more than 5,500 kilometers: to 1,550 battle-ready nuclear warheads and 700 land-based ICBMs and long-range bombers stationed on submarines. Putin had already asked Trump in their first conversation about an extension. The reason given by Western experts is Russia's concern that it will not be able to keep up with the USA in the medium term despite modernizing its strategic armed forces.
Trump, on the other hand, had neglected the issue for a long time; only last April did he appoint Marshall Billingslea as his special envoy for arms control. He started talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Riabkov in June. Initially, the White House insisted on including China, with its growing nuclear and, above all, missile arsenal, in a future agreement. At the first meeting with the Russians in Vienna, Billingslea had the negotiating room draped with Chinese flags. Meanwhile, the Americans want to achieve one thing above all else: a political declaration by the two presidents on the parameters of future comprehensive negotiations on arms control. They also offer to extend "New Start" by one year, but only if not only the warheads that are ready for use but also those in reserve are included, both sides freeze the production of new warheads and the Kremlin agrees to an agreement also include all nuclear weapons with a range of less than 5500.
European diplomats view the talks positively after they were as little able to avert Trump's termination of the treaty on medium-range nuclear systems as had been broken by Russia, as they were unable to avert his exit from the agreement that enables control flights over military facilities on the other side. The approach of putting all controversial topics on strategic stability on the table is correct. However, it would have been far more promising if the talks had started two or three years ago. The matter is technically and politically extremely complex.
From the Kremlin's point of view, an agreement should be reached on missile defense as well as on high-precision conventional long-range missiles or space weapons that are being developed in the USA. The Americans demand that all nuclear warheads be included in the future, including those with a shorter range. The US only keeps around 500 of these operational, while Russia, according to US estimates, has around 2000. The Russian army regards these weapons as a means of compensating for the perceived conventional superiority of NATO forces in Europe. They stationed new land-based cruise missiles as carriers for such warheads; this brought the end of the medium-haul contract.
A decision would also have to be made about the inclusion of new delivery systems. Russia has already introduced hypersonic gliders. They should be able to outmaneuver the US missile defense. On Putin's birthday on October 7, the Navy tested a cruise missile that is said to fly at more than eight times the speed of sound. Putin has also announced underwater weapons and a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Above all, the hypersonic systems, which the Americans are still developing, are causing the USA headaches: Their high speed reduces the reaction time, in which a nuclear counter-strike has to be decided, to a few minutes. In addition, unlike ICBMs, they are difficult to locate. And their trajectories are not predictable. This endangers the strategic stability, which is ultimately based on the fact that after a nuclear attack everyone can still destroy the other with a nuclear second strike.
The Kremlin is ready to subject hypersonic gliders and new ICBMs that are about to be introduced to the "New Start" rules in the future. But that will hardly be enough for Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the treaty as one of several bad agreements that his predecessor Obama had entered into. The negotiator Billingslea first warned Putin that after the presidential election the Americans would significantly increase their basic conditions for new negotiations. Last week he spread the word that there had been a political agreement in principle with the Kremlin.
With Putin that sounded very different. He also knows that Biden announced during the election campaign that he would extend "New Start" - presumably without Russia having to make any advance payments. For this reason alone, European diplomats do not consider a negotiation success at the last minute particularly likely.
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