U.S. Congress pressures Trump to renew Russia arms control pact

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers of both parties are pressuring the White House to extend the last remaining restraints on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons deployments by demanding intelligence assessments on the costs of allowing the New START treaty to lapse.

The demands, contained in three bills that may be harmonized this week, reflect doubts about whether the Trump administration has done sufficient analytical work on how China and Russia may respond to the 2010 treaty’s expiration in February 2021.

New START restricted the United States and Russia to deploying no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads, the lowest level in decades, and limited the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that deliver them.

It can be renewed for up to five years if both sides agree. Moscow has offered to immediately extend the treaty. Washington still is considering the issue.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his aides have argued that New START does not cover all Russian nuclear weapons and said they want to bring China, which they increasingly view as the primary, long-term threat, into a wider arms control framework.

Some lawmakers and arms control experts view the proposal as a “poison pill” to kill New START, ending restraints on U.S. strategic nuclear weapons deployments, because China rejects the idea.

In May, Trump announced that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a possible new accord limiting nuclear arms that eventually could include China.

Three days later China, estimated to have only about 300 nuclear weapons, dismissed the idea of participating in trilateral nuclear arms reduction talks.

China’s arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia. Both are estimated to have over 6,000 deployed, stockpiled or retired (and awaiting dismantlement) nuclear warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Lawmakers, congressional aides and former officials say they are unaware of the administration conducting any formal intelligence estimates of the implications of New START’s expiration either before or after Trump unveiled the idea.

Nor are they aware of extensive inter-agency deliberations on devising a negotiating stance with China, or even whether any negotiations with China have occurred.

“What we don’t want to see is … China used as an excuse to blow up the existing, or potential extension of an agreement with Russia that contributes to international security and … that’s very important to our survival,” Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said at a Dec. 3 hearing.