As the 2020 presidential election looms a mere 22 days away, Axios has reported that President Donald J. Trump is looking to Russian president Vladimir Putin to close the deal on a pre-election nuclear agreement. It's an "October surprise even for senior Republicans and some in the White House."
Arms control has been the topic of discussions between Trump and Putin over the last six months, but negotiations seemed to be at a standstill until just a few days ago. In a meeting between national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva Oct. 2, momentum was created to instigate a meeting in Helsinki between Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov. Billingslea reportedly cut his trip to Asia short to make the meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting in Helsinki on Friday, a source familiar with the discussions said the Trump administration believed they had landed on an agreement on principle that might be finalized within one week.
Ryabkov disagreed with the assessment and countered on Saturday that “there are still huge differences in approaches, including to the central elements of such an agreement.” He added that any talk regarding an imminent deal was hardly “realistic."
There are at least two major deadlines approaching that directly impact the United States and Russia relationship: the Nov. 3 presidential election and the Feb. 5 New START deal. New START is the last major bilateral treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, which both Putin and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden want to extend for five years. The Trump administration has said it would only extend the Obama-era treaty with a parallel agreement in which both sides agree to freeze their nuclear warhead stockpiles.
The U.S. also wants Russia to agree to future negotiations toward an arms control treaty that brings China to the table. Russia has rejected anything that explicitly pressures China, so the U.S. is trying to find language both sides can live with, the source familiar says.
Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator for New START, has said she believes New START negotiations “could be done tomorrow” because “the contours are already there” and it doesn’t require the precision of a binding treaty.
“Trump has clearly conveyed that he wants the deal to be done, and I think Putin would very much like to sign a deal with President Trump,” said Gottemoeller.
Gottemoeller assessed that Trump's timeline was tighter than Putin's and added that, “When there’s that much high-level attention, negotiations tend to succeed. I experienced it with President Obama and President Medvedev breathing down my neck, as well as my Russian counterpart.”
For Billingslea's part, he has warned that if the Russians decline to cut a deal now and Trump is re-elected, the U.S. asking price will go up and New START will be at risk. There appears to be no real rush where the Russians were concerned - Election Day or not.