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U.S., Russia close to a deal on nuclear arms control, says special envoy

The U.S. and Russia say they're close to a major agreement on arms control. The world’s largest nuclear powers are discussing extending the last remaining nuclear treaty, which is currently scheduled to expire in February, and freezing the total number of nuclear warheads. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control, about the negotiations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. and Russia say they are close to a major agreement on arms control. The world's largest nuclear powers are discussing extending the last remaining nuclear treaty, currently scheduled to expire in February, and freezing the total number of nuclear warheads.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ten years ago, the U.S. and Russia signed The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which caps the number of U.S. and Russian warheads deployed on long-range systems, intercontinental ballistic missile, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.

    And it includes verification measures, such as movement notifications and on-site inspections.

    Today, Russia released a statement agreeing to a one-year extension and separately to — quote — "assume a political obligation to cap the total number of nuclear warheads, as the U.S. has requested."

    But Russia has not publicly agreed to U.S. demands for additional verification.

    Joining me now is Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control and the lead U.S. negotiator.

    Marshall Billingslea, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Bottom line, do you have an agreement on a one-year New START extension and a one-year cap on all nuclear warheads?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    We don't have an agreement yet, 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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Russian statement today does move closer to where you have been.

    But it also suggests they will not agree on additional verification that you have said is required to enforce a new warhead cap. So, what is that additional verification you're asking for, and has Russia agreed to it?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Well, so, that's one of the areas that we're going to really need to sit down and work together to finalize.

    Russia has said that they will not agree to additional add-on measures. But I would simply say that verification is not an add-on when it comes to arms control. It's an intrinsic part, a fundamental part of any arms control deal, always has been.

    So, of course, there's going to have to be effective verification associated with this warhead freeze, this warhead cap. And we will work with the Russians to make sure it's a mutually agreeable solution, but that is something that we're certainly looking for and intend to have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To verify the cap, the aspects of that, as you know, have to include a stockpile declaration. You have to have additional monitoring. And you have to have an agreement on what a warhead is, what you're actually counting.

    It doesn't seem like you have any of that yet, so why do you think the Russians will agree to this, when you have actually accused them of cheating in previous agreements?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Well, 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.

    But let me also say that verification historically has been something that the Russians also have wanted. And the idea of verification is actually in the materials that the Russians have proposed to us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We have seen previous agreements that have had verification for missiles, of course. And that's existed for decades now.

    But we're talking about verification on warheads, which are much smaller. Is that something that you believe Russia is willing to do, to allow the U.S. to inspect, to the point where you can find warheads, which some experts I'm talking to, can be quite difficult to actually see?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Well, they can.

    And that's historically been one of the big challenges associated with this kind of approach. And we do believe, and I firmly believe, based on working with our experts at the Department of Energy and the national weapons laboratories, that a mix of technology and procedural solutions are available, probably best applied outside the production complexes, to make sure that we're not producing an excessive number of warheads compared to those that come in for dismantlement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Would you agree to extend the separate New START Treaty by itself?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Well, the national security adviser has made crystal clear that that's a nonstarter.

    But here's why. The New START treaty constraints 90, 92 percent of the entire U.S. arsenal, of our deterrent. It only covers 45 percent or less of the Russian arsenal, and the Russians are building up in all of these capabilities, these missiles and these theater-range, short-range nuclear weapons that are focused at NATO.

    And, of course, the New START treaty does nothing and covers no — not a single Chinese warhead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's only two weeks from Election Day, and Vice President Biden has made it clear that, if he wins, he would extend New START for five years without any kind of warhead cap.

    Is that reducing your leverage?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    No, not in the least.

    First of all, the president, by signaling his intention to pursue this historic approach, and with the Russians now agreeing in principle, that now sets the floor for future arms control discussions. So, the Biden camp would have to rethink their entire approach, were they to take office.

    But they're also going to need to be exposed to the kinds of information that we have, particularly the alarming intelligence we have regarding the secretive Chinese nuclear buildup.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When you began these negotiations — you have mentioned China a couple of times — you demanded that China sign onto a multilateral agreement, and you also demanded a significant increase of verification before extending New START.

    Have you failed to achieve some of your initial goals?

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    No.

    Well, first of all, we have been consistent and very clear all along that the next treaty must be trilateral. It must include the Chinese. By the way, the Russians have said exactly the same thing or very close to the same thing.

    The Russians have said the next treaty must be multilateral. And, of course, they would also include the British and the French in their formulation. So, we have been consistent on that front. We're not talking about a treaty at that stage. What we're talking about is a political agreement that we would then, over the coming year, move to translate into that treaty.

    And, by that point, we will expect the Chinese to be a participant in that process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Marshall Billingslea, thank you very much.

  • Marshall Billingslea:

    Thank you, Nick. Good to be with you.

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