US, Russia hold arms talks with little sign of accord

The United States and Russia held talks in Vienna on Monday on their only remaining major nuclear weapons accord with little prospect of imminent agreement, as critics questioned whether either side saw value in arms control.

US President Donald Trump has previously insisted China should be involved in discussions to extend New START, the treaty that limits US and Russian nuclear warheads, because he says Beijing has had a free pass to develop weapon systems.

The current treaty limits each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.

China has shown no interest, giving Washington more cause for complaint -- although critics say the US finds it a useful stick to beat its growing rival.

After a full day of talks at the Niederoesterreich Palace in the Austrian capital, the Russian foreign ministry said only that "discussions on prospects for arms control continued, including the question of extending the New Start treaty and maintaining stability".

US envoy to the talks Marshall Billingslea said on Monday evening that the talks had been "very positive".

There had been "detailed discussions" on a "full range of nuclear topics", he tweeted, without going into detail.

Billingslea added that there was "agreement in principle" between the two sides on holding a second round of talks.

Daryl Kimball of the Washington-based Arms Control Association said before the talks that the Trump administration's focus on China showed that it was not serious about an accord.

"The only conclusion I can come to is that... the Trump administration (does) not intend to extend New START and is seeking to display China's disinterest in trilateral arms control talks as a cynical excuse to allow New START to expire," Kimball said.

Trump has already scrapped several treaties with Russia -- on overflights and on intermediate-range nuclear forces.

Billingslea and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov headed the delegations discussing the future of New START, which was agreed in 2010 and expires in February 2021.

That leaves very little time to renew a complex deal, let alone negotiate a new treaty involving China, especially with a November presidential election looming.

- 'Performance art' -

Shortly before talks began, Billingslea once again raised the issue of what he called China's "no-show" by tweeting a picture of an empty negotiating table decked with Chinese flags.

"Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things," Billingslea said in his tweet.

China's mission in Vienna responded by ridiculing the tweet as "performance art".

China's nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding but is still far smaller than those of the US and Russia.

The current deadlock over New START and the demise of other nuclear arms control treaties "suggest that the era of bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the USA might be coming to an end", said Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

According to the institute's latest research, Russia has 6,375 nuclear warheads, including those that are not deployed, and the United States has 5,800.

China comes a distant third with 320 warheads.

Song Zhongping, a defence analyst in Beijing, said 2,000 warheads would be an ideal arsenal for China, whose main concern is to counter the United States.

"China will never participate in nuclear disarmament negotiations between the US and Russia," he said.

"The nuclear disarmament talks proposed by the US are only a trap."

Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said there was no reason to expect progress in Vienna.

"The Trump administration has rejected nearly all the restraints linked to the treaties agreed in the past," Lukyanov said.

"There is nothing to suggest that this treaty will be the exception."

An extension of New START would be "really welcome", Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said on Monday.

However she warned that "we need to be sure that they don't lower our expectations so much that simply not unravelling a treaty is considered amazing progress".

Major nuclear treaties between Washington and Moscow
Paris (AFP) June 22, 2020 - Moscow and Washington have signed a string of key treaties aimed at reducing nuclear weapons since 1963 with the two resuming negotiations on one of them on Monday.

Here is a summary of these pacts:

- Two multilateral treaties -

In August 1963, the United States, the then Soviet Union, and Britain signed the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in Moscow, banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater.

This was followed by the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), under which nuclear powers agreed not to assist other states in obtaining or producing nuclear weapons.

In force since 1970, the NPT was extended in 1995 for an indefinite period.

- Obsolete bilateral accords -

In May 1972, Moscow and Washington signed SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and the ABM (Antiballistic Missile Treaty).

SALT I froze for five years the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at existing levels. The ABM, meanwhile, banned the Soviet Union and the US from deploying missile shields.

In June 1979, the powers signed SALT II to set limits on the number of strategic bombers and launchers. But the pact was never applied.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) agreement came into force in May 1988, banning missiles that can travel distances of between 310 and 3,400 miles (500 and 5,500 kilometres).

In August 2019, Washington and Moscow stepped out of the treaty, each accusing the other of violating it.

The two countries said they would develop new missiles and the United States carried out its first intermediate-range missile test since the Cold War.

The Pentagon warned China that the United States now has a free reign to match its military arsenal in Asia.

In July 1991, the two countries agreed to cut their warheads over a period of seven years with the START I treaty, which expired in December 2009.

Another pact, known as START II, was signed in January 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the aim to further reduce each side's strategic arsenal. But it never came into force.

When the US in 2002 withdrew from the ABM Treaty, Russia withdrew from START II.

The same year, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), commonly known as the Moscow Treaty, was signed to cap the number of nuclear warheads.

- One bilateral treaty in force -

SORT was replaced in April 2010 by the new START treaty, which allowed Russia and the US a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads -- about 30 percent lower than the limit imposed under the 2002 pact. It came into force in February 2011 for 10 years and can be renewed for a maximum of five.

The accord, which also includes reciprocal checks, is up for renewal in 2021.

Negotiations on the treaty resume in Vienna on Monday. Moscow has been demanding negotiations on its renewal since late 2019, but the administration of Donald Trump has dragged its feet, insisting on Beijing's inclusion in the talks.

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Opening nuclear talks with Russia, US may also be ending them
Washington (AFP) June 20, 2020
The United States and Russia on Monday open talks on their last major nuclear agreement - but for some observers, it may simply be the beginning of the end. President Donald Trump's administration has insisted, to no avail, that China join the discussions in Vienna on New START, the treaty that caps US and Russian nuclear warheads. New START expires on February 5 - presenting an extraordinarily tight deadline to renew a complex deal, let alone negotiate a new treaty involving a third power. ... read more

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