Russia skeptical about nuclear pact extension prospects

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, attends a meeting with Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde in Moscow, Russia. Lavrov said Friday, July 10 that contacts with the U.S. negotiators leave little optimism about the possibility of extending the New START arms control treaty that expires next February. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, file) (Pavel Golovkin, Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MOSCOW – Russia's top diplomat said Friday he's not very optimistic about prospects for an extension of the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control agreement because of Washington's focus on making China sign up to the pact.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Russia only wants to keep the New START treaty as much as the U.S. does and will protect its security regardless of the pact's fate.

“We only need the extension as much as the Americans do,” Lavrov said during a conference call with foreign policy experts. “If they categorically refuse, we will not try to persuade them.”

The New START treaty was signed in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, the New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries. It's set to expire in February 2021 unless the parties agree to extend it for another five years.

Russia has offered its extension without any conditions, while the Trump administration has pushed for a new arms control agreement that would also include China. Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its much smaller nuclear arsenal.

Lavrov dismissed the U.S. suggestions that Russia help convince Beijing to join nuclear arms cuts, saying that Moscow respects the Chinese position and considers it “undiplomatic" to push it on the issue. He reaffirmed that Russia would welcome other nuclear powers, including Britain, France and China to join nuclear arms cuts, but emphasized that it should be their own decision.

The minister noted that American and Russian negotiators last month held a round of nuclear arms control talks in Vienna and are poised to continue the discussions, but added that the U.S. insistence on having China join the talks leaves little hope for their success.

“I’m not particularly optimistic about the New START in view of the course taken by U.S. negotiators,” he said.

Lavrov emphasized that Russia is ready for the treaty to expire in February, adding that “we are absolutely confident that we can guarantee our security for a long perspective, even in the absence of this treaty.”

He noted that Russia hasn't decided yet whether to remain in the Open Skies Treaty allowing observation flights over military facilities after the U.S. pullout.

Trump declared an intention to pull out of the agreement in May, citing Russian violations. Russia denied breaching the pact, which came into force in 2002, and the European Union has urged the U.S. to reconsider.

“We will make a final decision on whether to stay in it after we weigh all the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal,” Lavrov said.

Asked whether global stability could benefit if Democrat Joe Biden wins the U.S. election, Lavrov refrained from comment.

“It's the American people's business, a U.S. domestic affair,” he said. “I wouldn’t engage in guesswork. The situation is unpredictable."

He noted that while the Democrats traditionally have shown more interest in arms control deals, Russia-U.S. ties went into a quick tailspin under President Barack Obama's administration.

Russia-U.S. relations have plunged to the lowest levels since Cold War times after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, its support for pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Commenting further on U.S.-China tensions, Lavrov voiced concern about their impact on global stability, noting that Russia isn’t going to benefit from them in any way.

Asked if Russia could be a broker in U.S.-China relations, he said it could do so if asked.

“If they ask us, if they show such interest, we won’t refuse to do so,” Lavrov said. “We’ve established contact with both parties. We are always ready to try to help, but, of course, we won’t push our services on anyone.”