The last major treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear might hangs in the balance as the Trump administration pushes to replace it with an arms-control pact that also includes China five months before the U.S. presidential election.
The New START accord, which restricts the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and certain launch platforms, is set to expire in February. If the Trump administration declines to extend it and the caps disappear, the United States and Russia will be left without any significant limits on their nuclear forces for the first time in decades.
Russia has said it is willing to extend the New START pact unconditionally. But the Trump administration has balked, saying the treaty signed by former President Barack Obama in 2010 is outdated, insufficient and overly advantageous for Moscow.
In addition to wanting a broader pact that covers China, President Donald Trump's administration is seeking better verification mechanisms and limits on all Russian nuclear weapons, many of which are particularly risky and fall outside the parameters of the treaty.
"New START is going to expire in February. There is the ability to extend it. But again, it's the wrong framework for the future," Marshall Billingslea, Trump's new special envoy for arms control, said in an interview in May, declining to say whether the United States would extend the treaty. "The right framework for the future is a trilateral approach that has at its heart effective verification."
On Monday, Billingslea said in a tweet that he had agreed on a time and date this month to meet with Russia's main arms-control negotiator. He said Chinese officials had been invited to the meeting as well but suggested they had not yet accepted the invitation.
Asked in the interview about a proposal to extend the treaty so long as Russia progresses toward a new deal that regulates all of its nuclear weapons, Billingslea said: "There is some very strong thinking in there."
The proposal, by two former top Republican defense officials, would see Russia agree to begin negotiations on a new treaty that captures all Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons in exchange for the extension of the New START pact, and the Trump administration would reserve the right each year to end the agreement if progress isn't being made.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said Russia is prepared to discuss limits on its weapons under development -- which include nuclear-powered cruise missiles and torpedoes that Putin has trumpeted -- but only if the United States agrees to discuss Moscow's concerns about U.S. missile defenses, space weapons and conventional weapons under development that could strike anywhere on Earth in as little as an hour.
"If they want to negotiate, the path is open," Ryabkov said in an interview last month with the Russian newspaper Kommersant. "The condition of our willingness to discuss future types [of weapons] is the U.S. agreeing to a substantive discussion of our concerns."
Billingslea has said the White House isn't willing to limit U.S. missile defenses. In a May 21 appearance at the Hudson Institute, he said that "the Russians would have to make some incredibly impressive offer -- I can't even fathom what it might be -- for the president to change that position."
The result is a game of nuclear brinkmanship in the waning days of the Trump administration's first term.
Russia may wait to see if the Democrats take the White House and opt to extend the New START accord as is. China has rejected nuclear talks outright, leaving the Trump administration looking for ways to bring Beijing to the table.
In recent months, Russian officials have expressed concern that the Trump administration's delay on extending the New START pact is more than just a bluff to extract better conditions.
Ryabkov, speaking May 14 during an online conference in Russia, said that new weapons technologies require new arms-control agreements but that there is "no trust at all" between Russia and the United States -- and also little time. Ryabkov said the United States and Russia should extend the treaty for a year without any preliminary conditions "so that we could try to come up with something new."
Asked about whether the United States is actually willing to not extend the pact, a senior Trump administration official said: "We are absolutely willing to walk away. But I would temper that by saying that in fact all options are on the table."