By Stefan J. Bos
Russian and American negotiators made only carefully scripted comments as they arrived for nuclear weapons control talks at a palace adjoining Austria's Foreign Ministry in Vienna. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea suggested the negotiations would include replacing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START. That expires in February.
Asked whether what he expected to come out of the meeting, the U.S. envoy only said: "We'll see." His Russian counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov only added: "Let's see, let's see. We are always very hopeful."
But that sentiment isn't shared by everyone.
International security expert Jim Walsh doubts whether the talks will lead to a new deal this year. Walsh has monitored the nuclear wrangling as a Research Associate at the Security Studies Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "At the end of the day, the parties can get themselves a break and just say: 'We'll extend the deadline in order to negotiate a follow-on or an extension of the treaty. But right now I don't think it looks very good. It requires political will and enough time to do it. And I don't see either of those things," Walsh said.
Referring to previous President Barack Obama, he added: "This is an Obama treaty, New START is an Obama treaty." Current U.S. President Donald Trump, "has said he wants to do something in the nuclear arena. But he doesn't seem particularly motivated on it," Walsh stressed.
"And frankly, I think he is completely focused on his reelection campaign. So not much has happened. And despite some occasionally good words, mixed in with some bad words, I don't expect much to happen between now and the end of the year," the expert warned.
The New START agreement under review imposes the last remaining limits on U.S. and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear arms to no more than 1,550 each. It can be extended for up to five years if both sides agree.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is ready to extend. But U.S. President Donald Trump isn't in a hurry to make a final decision. Instead, Trump demands that China joins the United States and Russia in talks on an agreement to replace New START. But China has rejected Trump's proposal.
Heard, through an interpreter, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying explained: "China's nuclear power is not on the same order of magnitude as that of the United States and Russia."
She added: "It is not yet the right timing for China to participate in nuclear disarmament talks. The U.S. time and again drags China into the New START extension issue between the U.S. and Russia. It is the same old trick whenever it seeks to shift responsibility to others."
China has an estimated 320 nuclear weapons, which experts suggest is less than a twentieth the size of the U.S. or Russian arsenal.
However, U.S. officials say it is crucial that China, as the world's second economy and rising military power, participates in a broader arms control treaty. That would cover non-strategic weapons and even more stringent verification.
Experts say, however, that any such changes would require months, if not years, to achieve.
There is now international concern that the current New Start agreement between the U.S. and Russia will expire without a deal.
Critics say that would make the world even more unsafe. That's because there would be no remaining agreed limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for the first time in nearly half a century.