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Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Negotiations resumed in Vienna this week on a top Trump priority and potential election year twist: a U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement.

Why it matters: In the next several months, President Trump and Vladimir Putin could either sign a framework for the future of arms control or put the last major treaty constraining the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals on course for expiration in February.

  • Trump has had a striking number of calls with Putin recently, and speaks often of wanting to avoid an "arms race."

What they’re saying: The man tasked with delivering a deal, U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, spoke with Axios shortly after returning from Vienna.

  • Billingslea presented Russia with America's conditions for a deal, based on a “clear mandate” from Trump.
  • Now, Billingslea says, “the ball is in Russia’s court.”

The big picture: The Russians want to extend the 2011 New START treaty. The Trump administration is "ambivalent" about its looming expiration, Billingslea says, but will agree to an extension if Russia signs onto its ambitious framework for a future nuclear treaty.

  • That treaty must enable more stringent inspections and, unlike past treaties, cover all nuclear weapons, including Russia’s new shorter-range systems.
  • Crucially, in Billingslea’s view, it must constrain China, which is currently building up its far smaller arsenal.
  • “The New START treaty is the last nuclear arms accord that can be conducted with the Cold War, bipolar mindset,” Billingslea says. “That approach is no longer applicable in a world where the Chinese Communist Party is arms racing.”
Data: Federation of American Scientists; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Driving the news: The Trump administration has abandoned its demand that China be involved in any nuclear talks. It's now aiming to reach a political accord with Russia, and then pressure China to join talks and eventually a treaty.

  • “There has been a shift,” Billingslea acknowledges.
  • It's been driven in part by Trump’s conversations with Putin, and perhaps by his desire for a nuclear summit before November — something national security adviser Robert O’Brien recently confirmed was a possibility.

Where things stand: Any deal appears a long way off. While Billingslea says the only question is "political will in Moscow," his Russian counterpart says the sides' priorities "differ significantly.”

  • For one thing, Russia wants France and the U.K. involved in future multilateral talks, not just China.
  • Billingslea also confirms that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but says Moscow's non-nuclear concerns — missile defense, NATO activities — aren't on the table for this particular deal.

What to watch: The Russians will likely come back with counterproposals, says Rose Gottemoeller, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator on New START.

  • There can be complications on the U.S. side as well. Gottemoeller notes that the Air Force and Navy both expressed concerns during the New START process about allowing inspectors the sort of access Billingslea seems to be proposing.
  • And while Billingslea says he'll only bring a good agreement back to Trump, it's clear the president wants a deal. “At some point, Trump might just say, 'get it done, you don’t have any more time,’” Gottemoeller says.

Worth noting: Joe Biden has said he'd extend New START if elected. Billingslea says that's no surprise, and he denies that it weakens his negotiating position.

  • Any future administration will have to face the same reality, he says: “China is surging … and a bilateral nuclear arms accord does nothing to tackle that problem.”

Go deeper: The arms control era may be ending

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
Nov 10, 2020 - World

As Trump fights the transition in D.C., the world moves on to Biden

"Next." Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Governments around the world are preparing to work with President-elect Biden — but they still have to navigate what could be a bumpy final 10 weeks of President Trump.

Split screen: Around the time Biden was holding his first call as president-elect with a foreign leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump was firing his secretary of defense, Mark Esper.

Mike Allen, author of AM
30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Fauci's offensive against "craziness"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

After becoming a top punching bag for the right, Dr. Anthony Fauci is defending himself with a sharp new edge, arguing that an attack on him is an attack on science.

What he's saying: In comments to Kara Swisher on her New York Times "Sway" podcast, shared first with Axios, Fauci says: "It is essential as a scientist that you evolve your opinion and your recommendations based on the data as it evolves. ... And that's the reason why I say people who then criticize me about that are actually criticizing science."

Afghanistan's president coming to Washington on Friday

Ashraf Ghani, left, president of Afghanistan, and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As the U.S. troop withdrawal accelerates, President Biden will welcome Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, at the White House on Friday.

Our thought bubble: Axios politics editor Glen Johnson, who traveled to Afghanistan while working for Secretary of State John Kerry, said inviting both Ghani and Abdullah to Washington shows the administration’s respect for the delicate balance of power in the country.