Are Russia and the United States on the verge of saving the last major arms-control treaty, keeping a lid on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and staving off the possibility of an all-out arms race?
With less than four months remaining until the expiration of the 2010 New START treaty, Washington and Moscow have struggled to find common language that will preserve the pact, if only temporarily, and forestall the uncertainty that could ensue if neither side was restrained in its development and deployment of nuclear weaponry.
Last year saw the collapse of the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty following Washington's decision to withdraw. Many arms-control advocates have held their breath as Russia threw cold water on U.S. conditions for extending New START -- including a cap, or freeze, on the number of warheads each side possesses.
"We don't have an agreement yet," the chief U.S. negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, said on October 20, "but, certainly, given the fact that Russia has moved in the direction of the United States' proposal for this cap, it looks like the two sides are getting much, much closer together. And we -- I would say we're very, very close to a deal."
Don't exhale yet, though.
New START put limits on the numbers of heavy bombers and long-range strategic missiles -- land-launched and submarine-launched-- that the countries can possess: 800 in all, with a maximum of 700 launchers and 1,550 warheads deployed. The treaty expires on February 5 and can be extended for five years if both sides agree.
Both countries have continued to modernize and upgrade their nuclear arsenals, and even build new weaponry. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made whiz-bang presentations of weapons like hypersonic glide vehicles and a nuclear-powered cruise missile a feature of several public speeches, seeming to taunt Washington and the West.
But both sides have adhered to New START's limits, according to the latest official data from the U.S. State Department released on October 1.
How Close To A Deal?
Last week, Putin announced he would support a one-year extension of the treaty. That was echoed on October 20 by the Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued just a few hours before Billingslea's televised comments.
The Foreign Ministry statement also mentioned a "political commitment" to freeze the number of warheads each side possesses on both strategic and nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons -- the latter of which are not covered by New START.
That has been a key demand of the United States, and its mention by Russia was a reversal of a long-standing negotiating stance.
"Russia offers to extend the New START Treaty for one year and meanwhile is ready to jointly with the U.S. undertake a political commitment to 'freeze' for the above-mentioned period the number of nuclear warheads that each side possesses," the ministry said. "This position of ours may be implemented only and exclusively on the premise that 'freezing' of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands on the part of the United States."
The U.S. State Department responded later with an upbeat statement praising Russia for being "willing to make progress." But spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus also added, "The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement."
'Trust, But Verify'
That quickly grabbed the attention of a Russian diplomat who used to head the Foreign Ministry department for nonproliferation and arms control. "What is the meaning of the word 'verifiable'? Does it apply to the current verification regime under the Treaty?" Mikhail Ulyanov, now Moscow's ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, wrote on Twitter.
That's no small sticking point, analysts said.
"The US wants numbers on Russian non-strategic weapons (something that Moscow was reluctant to give for the last 30 years) & intrusive verification (which Russian top leaders despise)," Andrei Baklitsky, a researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, wrote in a post to Twitter. "So either there's a change here (which I don't see) or there will be no deal after all."
Verification is one of the main reasons the INF Treaty collapsed: the United States asserted that Russia tested, and then deployed, a missile system in violation of the treaty. Russia refused first to even acknowledge the existence of such weapons, and then later refused to agree to any sort of verification.
That dispute shadows the New START talks, Billingslea suggested. "We have documented numerous Russian violations of nearly every arms-control agreement they have with us and with the world, which is precisely why verification is going to be so important," he said.
New START includes provisions for verification: 18 on-site inspections per year, with so-called "Type 1 inspections" that focus on sites with deployed and nondeployed strategic systems, and "Type 2" inspections that focus on sites with only nondeployed strategic systems.
For the treaty's proponents, verification is one of the biggest reasons it should be preserved.
"The treaty provides an extraordinary level of detail about the Russian strategic forces that we can't get from other means," Lynn Rusten, a former top White House and State Department arms-control official, told RFE/RL in an interview in June. "Each side exchanges an incredible about information about all the systems detailed under the treaty."
"We don't make these agreements with the Russians because they are our friends, we do them because they are in our interest," she said.
As the clock has ticked down to the New START expiration in February 2021, President Donald Trump's administration has also demanded that the treaty be broadened to include other nuclear powers, China first and foremost.
Beijing, however, has ignored the U.S. calls, and Moscow, while not rejecting them outright, has said that question should be addressed at a later date.
As for tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has a far greater arsenal of these, which are smaller, easier to conceal, and intended for more local battlefield use. In a conflict with NATO, that would mean using them on European territory.
Tactical nuclear weapons are not covered under New START, but experts said the Foreign Ministry statement from October 20 appeared to crack the door to that possibility.
At the same time, Russia's long-standing reluctance to reveal details about its arsenal of these shorter-range weapons could potentially make any dispute over verification thornier.
"My take is that Russia just sees this whole talk about nonstrategic weapons as an unnecessary and unproductive distraction and doesn't want to go there," Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based researcher of Russian nuclear weapons, told RFE/RL earlier this week. "It is possible that Russia was prepared to make some sort of a political commitment not to increase the number of (deployed) weapons, whether strategic or not, knowing full well that this kind of commitment would not be really verifiable."
Adding a twist to any further talks, and uncertainty to the future of New START, is the U.S. presidential election.
The November 3 vote is less than two weeks away, and New START is due to expire just over two weeks after the winner -- Trump or his Democratic rival, Joe Biden -- is sworn in for a four-year term.
Trump has repeatedly criticized New START, but his administration has allowed its representatives to push forward in negotiations with Moscow. Biden, meanwhile, has said he supports a full five-year extension of the pact.