WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has proposed to Russia a five-year extension of a nuclear arms treaty that is otherwise set to expire in February, the White House said Thursday.
Biden proposed the extension even as he asked the intelligence community to look closely into Russia's cyberattacks, its alleged interference in the 2020 election and other actions, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Russia has said for some time that it would welcome an extension of the New START treaty, which limits the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. The Trump administration made a late bid to extend the treaty, but its conditions were rejected by Russia.
U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, are sure to applaud Biden's proposal, which also provides an early signal of his intent to pursue arms control,
Psaki noted that a five-year extension is permitted by the treaty and it "makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time."
She called the treaty, which is the last remaining arms control pact between Washington and Moscow since the Trump administration withdrew from two others, "an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries."
Despite the extension proposal, Psaki said Biden was committed to holding Russia "to account for its reckless and adversarial actions," such as its alleged involvement in the Solar Winds hacking event, 2020 election interference, the chemical poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the widely reported allegations that Russia may have offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's chief spokesman, John Kirby, said allowing the treaty to lapse would have weakened U.S. understanding of Russia's nuclear forces.
"Extending the treaty's limitations on stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons until 2026 allows time and space for our two nations to explore new verifiable arms control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans," he said. "And the department stands ready to support our colleagues in the State Department as they effect this extension and explore those new arrangements."
Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan was to convey the extension proposal to Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, on Thursday afternoon, according to one official familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic conversations.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier Thursday called on the United States and Russia to extend the treaty and to later broaden it.
"We should not end up in a situation with no limitation on nuclear warheads, and New START will expire within days," Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. The treaty expires on Feb. 5.
Stoltenberg underlined that "an extension of the New START is not the end, it's the beginning of our efforts to further strengthen arms control."
The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.
Obama won Senate ratification of the treaty with a commitment to move ahead with a vast and enormously expensive recapitalization of the U.S. nuclear force. That program, which some Democrats in Congress call excessive, is likely to be further scrutinized by the Biden administration. At a projected cost exceeding $1 trillion over the next several decades, the plan is to replace each of the three "legs" of the U.S. nuclear triad — ballistic missile submarines, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft and land-based nuclear missiles.
President Donald Trump had been highly critical of New START, asserting that it put the United States at a disadvantage. His administration waited until last year to engage Russia in substantive talks on the treaty's future. Trump insisted that China be added to the treaty, but Beijing rejected the idea out of hand.
Trump's lead negotiator on New START discussions with the Russians, Marshall S. Billingslea, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that Biden would be making a mistake by quickly agreeing to a five-year extension.
"Hope this is not true," he wrote, referring to news reports of Thursday's proposal. "If so, shows stunning lack of negotiating skill. Took just 24 hours for Biden team to squander most significant leverage we have over Russia."
Robert Soofer, who was the Trump administration's top nuclear policy official at the Pentagon, said in an interview that he sees the Biden decision to accept a five-year extension as a lost opportunity.
"The Russians are likely to pocket this extension and walk away from the table," Soofer said, rather than accede to a longstanding U.S. request that they negotiate limits on other categories of nuclear weapons, such as tactical weapons.
Some U.S. officials have been leery of renewing New START without getting a Russian commitment to negotiate limits on new types of strategic weapons, including Moscow's nuclear-capable Avangard hypersonic long-range missile.
Biden, who indicated during the campaign that he favored extending New START, is not proposing any alterations, the U.S. official said. Thus it appeared likely that Moscow would be amenable to an extension.
The proposal was reported first by The Washington Post.
By MATTHEW LEE and ROBERT BURNS Associated Press
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