White House weighs shorter extension of nuclear arms pact with Russia

Bryan Bender

The Trump administration is weighing a face-saving strategy for keeping an Obama-era nuclear treaty from expiring while it pursues a more sweeping arms pact with both Russia and China, according to current and former administration officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations.

Under the plan, the White House would temporarily extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty while seeking a new agreement with Moscow that also tries to convince China to come to the table, they said.

The diplomatic formula is viewed at the State Department and National Security Council as a promising way to both prevent New START from expiring in February and getting Russia to agree — at least in principle — to more comprehensive limits on nuclear arms.

"Both approaches are available, or a mix thereof," said a State Department spokesperson who asked not to be named.

New START is one of the last remaining pacts aimed at keeping the world's largest atomic arsenals in check. But concerns have grown among Republicans and Democrats that President Donald Trump could walk away just as he has jettisoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran.

The administration's potential approach has gained traction in recent weeks as the Trump administration faces growing criticism that Trump’s goal of negotiating a broader nuclear treaty with both Moscow and Beijing before New START expires is unrealistic and, if it fails, risks igniting a full-blown nuclear arms race.

“There are a host of options or steps that could be taken to accomplish the president’s direction, some of which could be done in fairly short order,” said an administration official also involved in the deliberations. “There's not a one-size-fits-all model.”

Arms control experts raised a number of questions and concerns, noting that the approach still poses a risk to New START with no guarantee that any follow-on pact would be as enforceable.

But it also has intriguing possibilities, said Jon Wolfsthal, who oversaw nuclear policy on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

"A six-month extension to buy yourself some time to negotiate something new with the Russians — and call on the Chinese to join — inherently isn't bad," said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to Global Zero, a disarmament group. "It might be a way to square the circle — if you can also be sure that the next administration has the leeway to extend [New START] more."

New START, which was signed by President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in 2010 and ratified by the Senate, limits strategic nuclear arms on both sides to 1,550. It also includes detailed verification measures such as on-site inspections to ensure both sides are complying.

Russia said publicly late last year it is willing to extend the treaty the full five years without preconditions. So far, the Trump administration has insisted that the treaty is flawed because it doesn't cover a series of nuclear arms in the Russian arsenal such as tactical warheads.

The U.S. has not committed to an extension of the treaty and says Trump instead wants to replace it with a more comprehensive agreement that covers more classes of weapons to include stringent verification measures.

“This is crucial because we’re talking about two countries with abysmal track records in terms of treaty compliance,” Marshall Billingslea, Trump's special envoy for arms control, recently told the Washington Times. “Russia has violated nearly every single agreement we’ve ever had with them — and the Chinese stand in violation of a number of agreements that they’ve also signed.”

Officials said the first element of the strategy now under serious consideration would be an extension of New START, but for a significantly shorter duration that the maximum five years permitted under the treaty.

Wolfsthal said one major issue is whether the treaty could legally be extended again if the U.S. and Russia — not to mention China — failed to reach any follow-on agreement before the New START extension ran out.

"Could you have multiple extensions as long as those multiple extensions don't exceed a five-year period?" he asked. "There is some concern that this administration, in order to kill New START, would say we are going to extend six months, but then you burn your bridge. Others are saying, 'No, you can extend for six months and then extend for four-and-a-half years or three years, as long as the extension periods don't total more than five years.'"

An even more controversial move would be to pursue a new agreement with Moscow that doesn't clearly spell out how compliance would be guaranteed.

A former government official who closely tracks nuclear policy described the administration's evolving thinking as reflecting a growing reality that this late in the president’s term — and as relations with Russia and China continue to suffer — the administration is not likely to be able to achieve the kind of historic diplomatic breakthrough Trump has been promising.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought they were going to get an official deal but they wanted at least [a] gentleman’s agreement,” the former official said. “I’ve heard that used many times in terms of what they want to get from the Russians.”

The administration could seek a “one-year or two-year extension of the treaty while they get something — a gentleman’s agreement is probably too light, I think they wanted something in writing,” the former official explained. “But it wouldn’t be a binding legal document. I think it would just be in principle.”

Added the State Department spokesperson: “It doesn’t necessarily need to look just like New START."

Some officials have held out the prospect of a follow-on agreement more akin to the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty.

Signed by Putin and then-President George W. Bush, it called for further cuts to nuclear arms on both sides but was less prescriptive than similar treaties and included fewer constraints on how each side could carry out its commitments. Some critics used its acronym to call it the "sort of" treaty.

But a major element at the time was that START I, which predated New START, was still in place for seven more years, and the Moscow Treaty was able to piggyback on its verification measures.

"You still had inspectors on the ground in both countries," said Wolfsthal. "You still had a fence around their missile production facilities and X-rayed what went out. The intelligence community could certify that we have high confidence that Russia's was complying with the Treaty of Moscow because of the START verification provisions."

Without new verification procedures, a short extension of New START would unlikely offer such backup — and that gives arms control advocates pause.

"Gambling with the benefits that New START provides on a very low-odds-of-success bet that a short-term extension will convince the Russians and the Chinese to come to the table and meet our terms does not strike me as a smart or responsible approach," said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

The State Department, however, says it hopes to restart talks with Russia as soon as possible and reiterated its invitation for China to join the discussions.

"Russia has stated that it has no preconditions to extension, which is a position that we will remember," said the spokesperson. "In December 2019 we separately formally invited China in good faith to begin a strategic security dialogue on nuclear risk reduction, arms control, and their future. We hope to begin this as soon as possible. We await Beijing’s response."

But the biggest immediate question, says Wolfsthal, may be whether Trump can be convinced to take the first step.

"The central question is whether there is a way to convince Trump to extend an Obama treaty," he said. "There is a lot of doubt about that."

Lara Seligman and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.