Hmmm: Russia backs down, agrees to Trump's terms on nuke-pact extension

Curious timing, and equally curious strategy. With just two weeks remaining before the US presidential election, Vladimir Putin could have run out the clock on Donald Trump to get a better deal from Joe Biden on the New START pact. The Trump administration refused to extend it unless Russia agreed to cover battlefield nukes as part of the freeze. Russia resisted, and instead on Friday just offered a one-year extension on the previous terms only.

Today Moscow reversed itself and agreed to accept the one-year extension with the broader cap, a foreign-policy win by the Trump administration:

Russia said Tuesday it’s ready to accept a U.S. proposal to freeze the number of nuclear warheads and extend the two nations’ last arms control pact for one year and Washington responded that it’s prepared to make a quick deal. …

The statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry marked a shift in Moscow’s position after Russia and the U.S. rejected each other’s offers regarding the New START treaty that expires in February. …

Russia has offered its extension without any conditions, while President Donald Trump’s administration initially pushed for a new arms control agreement that would also include China.

It recently modified its stance and proposed a one-year extension of the 2010 treaty, but said this must be coupled with the imposition of a broader cap on U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. The cap would cover warheads attached to battlefield weapons, which are limited by the New START treaty that only restricts strategic nuclear arsenals.

Russia has agreed to a one-year extension but resisted a broader cap on warheads until Tuesday.

That’s no small concession. Russia’s work on battlefield nuclear missiles is what caused Trump to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, and refuse to re-up New START until it covered those weapons systems. Putin had been bragging about a new hypersonic nuclear missile system immediately after the INF withdrawal, which NATO called “Skyfall.” That bragging stopped in August 2019 when Russia had some kind of nuclear accident that was almost certainly related to Skyfall development. The accident contaminated a significant area on the White Sea, about which Moscow has never explained or warned. Ever since, Russia has tried to cover its tracks on Skyfall, and we’ve heard very little about Putin’s pet project ever since.

In that context, it might make sense for Putin to agree to these terms, since their own battlefield nuclear weapons development had just gone Chernobyl on them. But that was true on Friday, and for a while before that, too — and yet Putin resisted it until today. And it’s not like Putin didn’t think he could better-deal Trump by standing pat until after the election either, since Biden had already declared that he’d extent the original agreement on strategic nukes only for five years:

The treaty includes a clause that allows the leaders of both nations to extend the agreement by five years without requiring ratification. Both Putin and Biden have said they would agree to the five-year extension. In an interview with state television earlier this month, Putin said Biden’s willingness to prolong New START “is a serious signal for our possible future interaction.”

We’re two weeks out now for Putin to find out which president will negotiate which deal. Why act now and commit for a full year? Even better, why set the precedent now to cover the battlefield nuclear systems when Biden would have given Putin a pass over it?

The Trump administration doesn’t mind taking the win, especially ahead of what was supposed to be a foreign policy debate on Thursday night. No doubt Trump will use this as an example of how he’s actually been tougher on Russia in regard to policy than Barack Obama or Biden had been in eight years of dealing with Putin, and not without some justification. Putin has to know this too, which makes this even more curious. Either Putin figures Trump will win re-election so handily that it’s worth cutting a deal now, or he saw something from the US side on development of a Skyfall competitor that made him nervous. Was that the point of this leak to Woodward?