Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday made a new offer to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. before it expires in February, but President Donald Trump's top security adviser called it a "non-starter" unless Moscow also agrees to a temporary freeze on all nuclear weapons in return.
Putin, speaking at a meeting of his Security Council in Moscow, called for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for one year without conditions, saying "it would be extremely sad if the treaty ceases to exist without being replaced by another fundamental document of the kind.”
“All those years, the New START has worked, playing its fundamental role of limiting and containing an arms race,” he added.
In Washington, national security adviser Robert O'Brien told a forum that the Trump administration agrees on the timeline for an extension but renewed its demand Moscow also agree to a one-year freeze of its entire stockpile, including classes of nuclear weapons that are not covered by the treaty.
"We made a proposal. It was a relatively straightforward proposal that we extend New START for a year and the Russians would cap nuclear warheads for a year," O'Brien told the Aspen Institute on Friday. "I thought we had favorable movement on that front."
He followed up his remarks with a post on Twitter in which he made clear the U.S. will not accept the new Russian offer.
“The United States proposed an extension of New START for one year, in exchange for Russia and the United States capping all nuclear warheads during that period," his office tweeted. "This would have been a win for both sides, and we believed the Russians were willing to accept this proposal when I met with my counterpart in Geneva. President Putin’s response today to extend New START without freezing nuclear warheads is a non-starter."
Ultimately, the U.S. says it wants to replace New START with a follow-on treaty that also limits non-strategic weapons, or tactical nuclear weapons. It also wants to include China, which has so far given no sign it is interested in any limits on its relatively small but growing atomic arsenal.
"We are hoping to get a terrific long term arms control deal," O'Brien said. "At one point, we wanted to get China involved. They’re not interested. We were prepared to go forward with a U.S.-Russia arms control deal. We’ll see if they get back to us and what their response is."
But he also acknowledged that Russia may be biding its time to see who wins the presidential election before accepting any American demands.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has said he would be willing to extend New START the full five years permitted under the treaty, without preconditions, and begin work on a follow-on pact.
"It may well be that they don’t get back to us," O'Brien said Friday. "We’re hopeful that we’ll have some progress there, but it may be that like other countries, the Russians are waiting to see what happens. "We have something going on in 18 days that is causing folks to take stock of their negotiating position."
New START limits each country to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and includes site inspections to verify compliance.
It is the only treaty between the two countries limiting nuclear arms after Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year.
Putin’s statement comes amid conflicting signals from Russian and U.S. diplomats about the fate of the pact.
Putin on Friday proposed to “extend the existing treaty without any conditions for at least one year” to allow for “substantive talks.” He emphasized that Russia is ready to discuss the new weapons it deployed in future arms talks with the U.S.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced skepticism about reaching a deal on New START, noting that Russia can’t accept the conditions put forward by the U.S. for its extension.
Lavrov specified that Russia can’t agree to the U.S. proposal to limit battlefield nuclear weapons alongside nuclear warheads that arm strategic missiles and bombers until the U.S. agrees to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
He also noted that Moscow wouldn’t accept the U.S. demand to have intrusive verification measures like those that existed in the 1990s when inspectors were positioned at missile factories.
Lavrov’s pessimistic view contrasted with recent statements from U.S. diplomats, who said that Moscow and Washington were close to a deal.
“We would welcome the opportunity to complete an agreement based on understandings that were achieved over the last couple weeks about what the range of possibilities look like for an extension of New START and an outcome that benefits the entire world, increased stability of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
“I am hopeful that the Russians will find a way to agree to an outcome that, frankly, I think is in their best interest and in our best interest," Pompeo said.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the two sides still appear to be far apart.
He said while the U.S. wants a cap on all U.S. weapons in exchange for a New START extension, it remains an open question what it is willing to give the Russians in return.
"What is also not exactly clear is to what extent is the United States agreeing to address some of the issues that Russia has had longstanding concerns about," he said, including the placement of U.S nuclear weapons in NATO countries. "My hunch is the Russians are not satisfied with the answers."
But time is running out, he added. "We are at the 11th hour," Kimball said. "We think both sides would be smart to extend New START without conditions for five years. But given where the two sides are, we think it's wise for President Trump to say yes to Putin's offer for one year unconditional extension. That would allow both sides to continue these talks on more ambitious arms control."
Jacqueline Feldscher and The Associated Press contributed reporting.