US, Russia extend New START pact after Biden, Putin phone call

Biden also addressed arrest of Alexey Navalny, Ukraine, and reports of bounties on US soldiers, the White House said.

US President Joe Biden has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since taking office [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press]

Russia and the United States have agreed to extend the New START nuclear arms control treaty, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, a move that preserves the last considerable pact of its kind between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

The treaty, which was due to expire on February 5, limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy.

The Kremlin declared the breakthrough, which was widely anticipated, in a statement announcing that President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden had spoken for the first time since Biden took office last week.

Moscow and Washington had failed to agree an extension under former US President Donald Trump, whose administration had wanted to attach conditions to a renewal that Moscow rejected.

The Kremlin said the two leaders had “expressed satisfaction” that diplomatic notes between the two countries had been exchanged earlier on Tuesday confirming the agreement would be extended.

“In the nearest days, the parties will complete the necessary procedures that will ensure further functioning of this important international legal nuclear arms control tool,” the Kremlin said.

Immediately after the call, Putin submitted a draft bill on the treaty’s extension to the Russian parliament.

The pact’s extension does not require congressional approval in the US, but Russian legislators must ratify the move. Top members of the Kremlin-controlled parliament said they would expedite the issue and approve the extension as early as Wednesday.

“Both houses of parliament will not lose a single minute to extend the treaty,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament.

Signed in 2010, the New START or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is widely regarded as a cornerstone of global arms control. It limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The White House said last week that Biden would seek a five-year extension to New START, something the US disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said would be just the beginning of efforts to engage Moscow. “This extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is not at a good stage,” Wood told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Tuesday.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Gennady Gatilov, said earlier on Tuesday that the pact’s extension would give Moscow and Washington more time to work jointly on other international security issues.

The Kremlin said in the same statement that Putin had told Biden a normalisation of relations between Moscow and Washington would be in both countries’ interests. It said the two leaders had also discussed the US decision – during Trump’s administration – to exit the Open Skies treaty, as well Iran’s nuclear programme and the conflict in Ukraine.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden also raised Russia’s treatment of the Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, who was evacuated to Germany after being exposed to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in Siberia.

The Russian opposition leader was jailed after his return to Moscow last week and the police arrested thousands of his supporters, who took to the streets across the country on Saturday. The US Department of State condemned the arrests earlier this week, prompting the Russian foreign ministry to accuse the US of “meddling” in its internal affairs.

Psaki said Biden also expressed “firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” and raised “other matters of concern” including the so-called SolarWinds hack of US agencies, reports last year of Russia placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan, and Russian meddling in the 2020 election.

“His intention was also to make clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of our national interests in response to malign actions by Russia,” Psaki said.

Biden spoke to Putin shortly after getting off the phone with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Trump had been an outspoken critic of NATO during his time in office, at one point reportedly considering leaving the alliance and maintained that the US was overpaying in its direct contributions to the military alliance.

In the call on Tuesday, Biden sought to repair the strained relations between the US and Europe by stressing Washington would abide by the NATO treaty’s mutual defence pact, the White House said in a statement.

“President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and underscored his commitment to strengthening transatlantic security,” the statement said, referring to the article that says that NATO members will view an armed attack on one member country as an attack against all and will take collective action.

Biden’s phone call with Stoltenberg came a day after he spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The president thanked the [NATO] secretary general for his steadfast leadership of the alliance, and conveyed his intention to consult and work with allies on the full range of shared security concerns, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia,” the White House statement said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies