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'Gentlemen's agreement' on U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty extension? U.S. says yes, Russia says no

The top U.S. diplomat for arms control said the U.S. is "ready to strike this deal, we could strike it tomorrow in fact."
Image: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control speaks during a press conference on June 23, 2020 in Vienna after the U.S. and Russia met for talks on their last major nuclear weapons agreement.
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea at a news conference in Vienna in June.Joe Klamar / AFP - Getty Images

Is there an agreement or isn’t there? When it comes to the extension of the last nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia, it depends on whom you ask.

Russia denied U.S. claims on Tuesday that an “agreement in principle” had been reached between the two countries to extend the landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, and is rejecting the possibility that a deal could be reached around the U.S. presidential election.

The top U.S. diplomat for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, said Tuesday that a “gentlemen's agreement” had been made “at the highest levels” to extend the New START treaty including a freeze of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

“We're ready to strike this deal. We could strike it tomorrow in fact,” Billingslea said, speaking remotely from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “But Moscow is going to have to show the political will to do so as well.”

The deal, set to expire on Feb. 5, is the last treaty between the U.S. and Russia placing limits on the growth of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals following the American withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019.

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The U.S and Russia maintain at least 5,000 nuclear weapons in their respective stockpiles, according to both governments and estimates from multiple analysts and groups, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The terms of New START meant both nations could actively deploy no more than 1,550 active nuclear warheads, whether attached to intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines or aircraft.

The agreement also allows each country to frequently inspect the other's arsenal to make sure the rules are being followed.

Shortly after Billingslea spoke, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed the U.S. proposal as “unacceptable,” and said the Trump administration should not expect Russia to sign any arms control agreement “timed to coincide with their elections.”

"If the Americans need to report to their superiors something about which they allegedly agreed with the Russian Federation before their elections, then they will not get it," Ryabkov said according to Russian state run news agency RIA Novosti.

Billingslea told the Heritage Foundation he had been so certain that an agreement had been reached “at the highest levels” that he ended his meetings in Asia this month to meet with Ryabkov.

“It's why I cut short my trip to Asia and made a beeline for Helsinki when the Russians called and wanted to sit down,” Billingslea said. “And I'm hopeful that that sort of gentlemen's agreement, that arrangement I feel has been reached, as I've said, at the highest levels will ultimately need to percolate down through their system, so that my counterpart hopefully will be authorized to negotiate.”

President Donald Trump called the agreement, which was ratified in 2011 under then-President Barack Obama, “one-sided” and “just another bad deal,” in an interview with Reuters in 2017.

Billingslea’s opening remarks at the Heritage Foundation focused on China’s efforts to build up their nuclear arsenal and the need for a trilateral arms control agreement.

“Everything we agree with the Russians must be framed and must be formatted in a way that allows us to extend that arrangement to the Chinese when they finally are brought to the negotiating table,” Billingslea said.

Beijing has consistently denied the Trump administration’s requests to join U.S. and Russian arms control discussions.