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Russia’s role in Afrin depends on Turkey’s true intentions

The embattled Syrian province has become a thorny issue as Turkey and the Kurds struggle for control

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(Al-Monitor) – Turkey’s offensive into the northern Syrian province of Afrin has been underway more than a week, raising concerns that Ankara will open a new full-fledged front in Syria with potential implications for the region’s overall security. During a Russian Foreign Ministry briefing Jan. 25, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova defended Russia against the Kurdish assertion that Moscow is siding with Turkey in Afrin.

“Does Russia have to bear responsibility for Turkey’s actions?” Zakharova asked. “We have [our own] foreign policy, and a clear attitude toward engaging Kurds into the political process [in Syria].”

A Kurdish reporter said it’s hard to believe a resolution to the Syria crisis can be near, when Turkey just “launched a long-term operation.” The reporter said, “Could you ask your partner, Turkey, to address these issues differently with the Kurds?”

In response, Zakharova alluded to the challenging nature of discussions between Moscow and Ankara on the issue. “You know we’ve just climbed out of the crisis [with Turkey],” she said, referring to recently thawed relations after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. “You don’t need to tell us how difficult a partner Turkey is. It’s a country with its own interests, which don’t always coincide with ours. … Our goal, however, is to find areas of common interest with any partner regardless of how difficult they are. It’s not easy to do even at the bilateral level, let alone in the Syrian settlement.”

For Russia, the issue of Kurds in Syria has at least three facets: relations with Turkey, with the Kurds themselves and with the United States. At this point, all three areas have to be squared with what Moscow now sees as its primary task: convening the Syrian National Dialogue Congress this week in Sochi, which Moscow hopes will jump-start negotiations toward a political settlement that can then be turned over to Geneva.

Moscow’s stance on Afrin is in line with its stance on all of Syria and with its broad Middle East policies: Steer away from crises where Russia’s own security interests are not directly at stake. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s a very fine line to tread, but as long as Turkey and Russia continue to maintain military, intelligence and presidential channels, Moscow is unlikely to meddle in what’s seen as a bigger security concern for Turkey than for Russia.

Besides, as an Al-Monitor article reported earlier this month, after the Syrian National Dialogue Congress from Jan. 29-30, it will be of principal importance to Russia to maintain the support of Iran and Turkey and to keep the trio more or less united on major issues. Turkey has recently been pivotal to Russia in hosting the Sochi congress and letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces take control of parts of Idlib. By and large, Ankara has been constructive regarding Russia’s “go-to” role as a contact to important Syrian opposition groups. Moscow has no reason to upset the fragile balancing act with Ankara at this critical moment.

Yet Turkey’s military solution for Afrin is an option Moscow has sought to dodge. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rejected Russia’s proposal to let Syrian government forces take control of Afrin. The plan was designed to address Ankara’s concerns about the Kurds controlling a corridor of land along Turkey’s border and to give Assad control of more Syrian terrain. But that idea didn’t sit well with Kurdish demands of autonomous rule. Russia was first to propose the concept of including Kurdish autonomy in a new Syrian constitution, which, back in the day, perturbed Turkey and excited the Kurds. Russia believes the issue of Kurdish autonomy should also be negotiated.

Therefore, the popular line of criticism about “Russia betraying the Kurds” doesn’t seem to bother Moscow on its merits. Some of the Kurdish groups have been in contact with Russian authorities at the Khmeimim-based Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria. Russia had no formal commitments to the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has long played its own game between Ankara and Damascus and has ultimately opted to work with the United States rather than Russia. Turkey considers the PYD to be associated with terrorist groups.

“The Kurdish factor, of course, has been played out by our Western partners for several years, but not in the interests of the Kurds,” said Zakharova at the briefing. “[Russia] was at the basis of political involvement of Kurds into the Syrian settlement process. … [Russia] was urging Western and regional colleagues to include [the Kurds] into different negotiations formats. When we all had a chance to stop the bloodshed and form a broad coalition to unite Syrian opposition, the West was telling the Kurds to ignore it. Ask yourselves whose interests were being served by this. And then see how consistent our own position [on Kurds] was.”

Moscow has repeatedly called Washington’s move to set up a border force with militants from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) an attempt to “insulate Kurdish-dominated regions,” which would flare tensions. Russian criticism, however, has a dual purpose: Pin the blame for any breakout of hostilities in Afrin on the United States and send a signal to the Kurds for failing to have chosen the “right” partner.

Once Washington encountered a harsh response from Turkey and faced the potential implications of a broader regional crisis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backpedaled on the decision a few days later, saying Jan. 17: “The entire situation has been misportrayed. … We are not creating a border security force at all.” The statement didn’t stop Turkey from proceeding with its Afrin offensive Jan. 19 or change Russia’s belief that the United States plans to divide Syria using the SDF and its affiliates.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, who heads the Moscow-based Institute for the Middle East and is known for his ties with Russian security, argued that Russia’s stance in Afrin ultimately plays well with both Ankara and Washington. “The US has been training SDF forces for an offensive on Idlib and hoped to make it there before the Russian-supported Syrian government forces. Given the radical Sunni Arab composition of the Idlib area, all Arab tribes and groups would have risen against the Kurds. … The Arabs already suspect that the Americans want to create in Syria an analog of the Iraqi Kurdish semi-state enclave, thus warming up the mood of the Kurds in favor of the “Great Kurdistan.”

He added, “The Americans probably hoped Russia would impede Turkey from the military operation. But the offensive may also drag Erdogan into a long-haul conflict. Even if Turkish forces eventually occupy Afrin, they will get a protracted guerrilla resistance and further complicate their relationship with Kurds. This, in turn, will distract much of both SDF and Ankara’s combat force.”

The “failed expectations” the Kurds may have had regarding Russia’s position on the Afrin offense stem first from the PYD leadership miscalculating its own resources on the ground; second, from overestimating the scale of American support and commitment to their force and political cause; and third, underestimating the importance of the Sochi congress in Russia’s game plan for the Syrian settlement.

The Kurdish forces have proved to be skillful fighters and have contributed immensely to the defeat of various radical forces, including the Islamic State, but their leadership’s strategic hopscotching — be it in Iraq or Syria — so far has served their cause poorly. Major regional and international powers have figured this out, some sooner than others, and have learned to exploit these gaps to push their own interests.

Russia’s relations with the PYD are likely to be sour, at least in the short term. The Kurds are disappointed with Moscow. The Kurds’ emotional decisions — such as blaming Russia for the trade-off, threatening to review their Russia policies and declining to attend the Sochi conference — won’t alter Russia’s agenda.

Moscow believes that without influential Kurdish groups attending the congress at Sochi, deals can still be made there, but might not hold. For the short term, Russia is savvy enough to figure out a way to get some Kurds to attend and package whatever decisions are made as representing Kurdish interests. As for not having the PYD in attendance, Moscow doesn’t see that as its own failure, but rather expects the PYD’s absence to create a long-term problem for itself.

“We sent our invitation to the Kurdish representatives. The ball is now on their side not only to accept it but to play an active role in this format,” Zakharova stressed at the briefing.

Early on the first day of the Sochi meeting, some Kurds were present, but it was difficult to tell how many or what groups they represented.

Moscow also still believes there are options for settling the Afrin crisis. One such option echoes the initial Russian proposal and involves Syrian government forces entering the Kurdish-controlled area and creating joint local governance institutions. This ups the ante of risking the Syrian and Turkish armies confronting each other in direct fighting. But it may also be a way to end the fighting in Afrin and adjacent areas, as long as Turkey receives guarantees of a 20-mile-deep “secure zone.” In this case, Turkey would want to have the United States end its military support to the YPG. Russia, in turn, would want to see the United States not impede the Kurds from joining the Moscow-led political settlement.

Recently, Kurdish authorities in Afrin issued a letter urging the Syrian government “to undertake its sovereign obligations to protect its borders [from the Turkish offensive].” Though the letter doesn’t mention whether Kurdish officials see passing Afrin to Damascus control as an option, it might be a sign that a reality check is pushing the Kurds to consider options they previously resisted.

If, however, the crisis continues and the operation takes longer than originally planned, the Turkish military might continue to expand its presence and never agree to leave. Even if it would agree, it would be more of a “Russian-style departure,” where significant combat forces remain. This would create more political and on-the-ground challenges for Russia’s Syria policies.

In the meantime, Moscow will move cautiously in Afrin, keeping an equal distance from what it sees as “radical demands” of Turkish and Kurdish parties.

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High-ranking Ukrainian official reports on US interference in Ukraine

It is not usually the case that an American media outlet tells the truth about Ukraine, but it appears to have happened here.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The Hill committed what may well have been a random act of journalism when it reported that Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Hill.tv’s reporter John Solomon that the American ambassador to that country, Marie Yovanovitch, gave him a “do not prosecute” list at their first meeting.

Normally, all things Russia are covered by the American press as “bad”, and all things Ukraine are covered by the same as “good.” Yet this report reveals quite a bit about the nature of the deeply embedded US interests that are involved in Ukraine, and which also attempt to control and manipulate policy in the former Soviet republic.

The Hill’s piece continues (with our added emphases):

“Unfortunately, from the first meeting with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, [Yovanovitch] gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute,” Lutsenko, who took his post in 2016, told Hill.TV last week.

“My response of that is it is inadmissible. Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor our ambassador, will stop me from prosecuting whether there is a crime,” he continued.

Indeed, the Prosecutor General appears to be a man of some principles. When this report was brought to the attention of the US State Department, the response was predictable:

The State Department called Lutsenko’s claim of receiving a do not prosecute list, “an outright fabrication.” 

“We have seen reports of the allegations,” a department spokesperson told Hill.TV. “The United States is not currently providing any assistance to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), but did previously attempt to support fundamental justice sector reform, including in the PGO, in the aftermath of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. When the political will for genuine reform by successive Prosecutors General proved lacking, we exercised our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer and redirected assistance to more productive projects.”

This is an amazing statement in itself. “Our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayer”? Are Americans even aware that their country is spending their tax dollars in an effort to manipulate a foreign government in what can probably well be called a low-grade proxy war with the Russian Federation? Again, this appears to be a slip, as most American media do a fair job of maintaining the narrative that Ukraine is completely independent and that its actions regarding the United States and Russia are taken in complete freedom.

Hill.TV has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for comment.

Lutsenko also said that he has not received funds amounting to nearly $4 million that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was supposed to allocate to his office, saying that “the situation was actually rather strange” and pointing to the fact that the funds were designated, but “never received.”

“At that time we had a case for the embezzlement of the U.S. government technical assistance worth 4 million U.S. dollars, and in that regard, we had this dialogue,” he said. “At that time, [Yovanovitch] thought that our interviews of Ukrainian citizens, of Ukrainian civil servants, who were frequent visitors of the U.S. Embassy put a shadow on that anti-corruption policy.”

“Actually, we got the letter from the U.S. Embassy, from the ambassador, that the money that we are speaking about [was] under full control of the U.S. Embassy, and that the U.S. Embassy did not require our legal assessment of these facts,” he said. “The situation was actually rather strange because the funds we are talking about were designated for the prosecutor general’s office also and we told [them] we have never seen those, and the U.S. Embassy replied there was no problem.”

“The portion of the funds, namely 4.4 million U.S. dollars were designated and were foreseen for the recipient Prosecutor General’s office. But we have never received it,” he said.

Yovanovitch previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia under former presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan under Bush. She also served as ambassador to Ukraine under Obama.

Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who was at the time House Rules Committee chairman, voiced concerns about Yovanovitch in a letter to the State Department last year in which he said he had proof the ambassador had spoken of her “disdain” for the Trump administration.

This last sentence may be a way to try to narrow the scope of American interference in Ukraine down to the shenanigans of just a single person with a personal agenda. However, many who have followed the story of Ukraine and its surge in anti-Russian rhetoric, neo-Naziism, ultra-nationalism, and the most recent events surrounding the creation of a pseudo-Orthodox “church” full of Ukrainian nationalists and atheists as a vehicle to import “Western values” into a still extremely traditional and Christian land, know that there are fingerprints of the United States “deep state” embeds all over this situation.

It is somewhat surprising that so much that reveals the problem showed up in just one report. It will be interesting to see if this gets any follow-up in the US press.

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President Putin signs law blocking fake news, but the West makes more

Western media slams President Putin and his fake news law, accusing him of censorship, but an actual look at the law reveals some wisdom.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The TASS Russian News Agency reported on March 18th that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new law intended to block distorted or untrue information being reported as news. Promptly after he did so, Western news organizations began their attempt to “spin” this event as some sort of proof of “state censorship” in the oppressive sense of the old Soviet Union. In other words, a law designed to prevent fake news was used to create more fake news.

One of the lead publications is a news site that is itself ostensibly a “fake news” site. The Moscow Times tries to portray itself as a Russian publication that is conducted from within Russian borders. However, this site and paper is really a Western publication, run by a Dutch foundation located in the Netherlands. As such, the paper and the website associated have a distinctly pro-West slant in their reporting. Even Wikipedia noted this with this comment from their entry about the publication:

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, The Moscow Times was criticized by a number of journalists including Izvestia columnist Israel Shamir, who in December 2014 called it a “militant anti-Putin paper, a digest of the Western press with extreme bias in covering events in Russia”.[3] In October 2014 The Moscow Times made the decision to suspend online comments after an increase in offensive comments. The paper said it disabled comments for two reasons—it was an inconvenience for its readers as well as being a legal liability, because under Russian law websites are liable for all content, including user-generated content like comments.[14]

This bias is still notably present in what is left of the publication, which is now an online-only news source. This is some of what The Moscow Times had to say about the new fake news legislation:

The bills amending existing information laws overwhelmingly passed both chambers of Russian parliament in less than two months. Observers and some lawmakers have criticized the legislation for its vague language and potential to stifle free speech.

The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”

Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.

As is the case with other Russian laws, the fines are calculated based on whether the offender is a citizen, an official or a legal entity.

More than 100 journalists and public figures, including human rights activist Zoya Svetova and popular writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, signed a petition opposing the laws, which they labeled “direct censorship.”

This piece does give a bit of explanation from Dmitry Peskov, showing that European countries also have strict laws governing fake news distribution. However, the Times made the point of pointing out the idea of “insulting governmental bodies of Russia… including Putin” to bolster their claim that this law amounts to real censorship of the press. It developed its point of view based on a very short article from Reuters which says even less about the legislation and how it works.

However, TASS goes into rather exhaustive detail about this law, and it also gives rather precise wording on the reason for the law’s passage, as well as how it is to be enforced. We include most of this text here, with emphases added:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law on blocking untrue and distorting information (fake news). The document was posted on the government’s legal information web portal.

The document supplements the list of information, the access to which may be restricted on the demand by Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies. In particular, it imposes a ban on “untrue publicly significant information disseminated in the media and in the Internet under the guise of true reports, which creates a threat to the life and (or) the health of citizens, property, a threat of the mass violation of public order and (or) public security, or the threat of impeding or halting the functioning of vital infrastructural facilities, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industrial or communications facilities.”

Pursuant to the document, in case of finding such materials in Internet resources registered in accordance with the Russian law on the mass media as an online media resource, Russia’s Prosecutor General or his deputies will request the media watchdog Roskomnadzor to restrict access to the corresponding websites.

Based on this request, Roskomnadzor will immediately notify the editorial board of the online media resource, which is in violation of the legislation, about the need to remove untrue information and the media resource will be required to delete such materials immediately. If the editorial board fails to take the necessary measures, Roskomnadzor will send communications operators “a demand to take measures to restrict access to the online resource.”

In case of deleting such untrue information, the website owner will notify Roskomnadzor thereof, following which the media watchdog will “hold a check into the authenticity of this notice” and immediately inform the communications operator about the resumption of the access to the information resource.
The conditions for the law are very specific, as are the penalties for breaking it. TASS continued:

Liability for breaching the law

Simultaneously, the Federation Council approved the associated law with amendments to Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which stipulates liability in the form of penalties of up to 1.5 million rubles (around $23,000) for the spread of untrue and distorting information.

The Code’s new article, “The Abuse of the Freedom of Mass Information,” stipulates liability for disseminating “deliberately untrue publicly significant information” in the media or in the Internet. The penalty will range from 30,000 rubles ($450) to 100,000 rubles ($1,520) for citizens, from 60,000 rubles ($915) to 200,000 rubles ($3,040) for officials and from 200,000 rubles to 500,000 rubles ($7,620) for corporate entities with the possible confiscation of the subject of the administrative offence.

Another element of offence imposes tighter liability for the cases when the publication of false publicly significant information has resulted in the deaths of people, has caused damage to the health or property, prompted the mass violation of public order and security or has caused disruption to the functioning of transport or social infrastructure facilities, communications, energy and industrial facilities and banks. In such instances, the fines will range from 300,000 rubles to 400,000 rubles ($6,090) for citizens, from 600,000 rubles to 900,000 rubles ($13,720) for officials, and from 1 million rubles to 1.5 million rubles for corporate entities.

While this legislation can be spun (and is) in the West as anti-free speech, one may also consider the damage that has taken place in the American government through a relentless attack of fake news from most US news outlets against President Trump. One of the most notable effects of this barrage has been to further degrade and destroy the US’ relationship with the Russian Federation, because even the Helsinki Summit was attacked so badly that the two leaders have not been able to get a second summit together.

While it is certainly a valued right of the American press to be unfettered by Congress, and while it is also certainly vital to criticize improper practices by government officials, the American news agencies have gone far past that, to deliberately dishonest attacks, based in innuendo and everything possible that was formerly only the province of gossip tabloid publications. The effort has been to defame the President, not to give proper or due criticism to his policies, nor credit. It can be properly stated that the American press has abused its freedom of late.

This level of abuse drew a very unusual comment from the US president, who wondered on Twitter about the possibility of creating a state-run media center in the US to counter fake news:

Politically correct for US audiences? No. But an astute point?

Definitely.

Freedom in anything also presumes that those with that freedom respect it, and further, that they respect and apply the principle that slandering people and institutions for one’s own personal, business or political gain is wrong. Implied in the US Constitution’s protection of the press is the notion that the press itself, as the rest of the country, is accountable to a much Higher Authority than the State. But when that Authority is rejected, as so much present evidence suggests, then freedom becomes the freedom to misbehave and to agitate. It appears largely within this context that the Russian law exists, based on the text given.

Further, by hitting dishonest media outlets in their pocketbook, rather than prison sentences, the law appears to be very smart in its message: “Do not lie. If you do, you will suffer where it counts most.”

Considering that news media’s purpose is to make money, this may actually be a very smart piece of legislation.

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US continues to try to corner Russia with silence on Nukes

Moscow continues to be patient in what appears to be an ever more lopsided, intentional stonewalling situation provoked by the Americans.

Seraphim Hanisch

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TASS reported on March 17th that despite Russian readiness to discuss the present problem of strategic weapons deployments and disarmament with its counterparts in the United States, the Americans have not offered Russia any proposals to conduct such talks.

The Kremlin has not yet received any particular proposals on the talks over issues of strategic stability and disarmament from Washington, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS on Sunday when commenting on the statement made by US National Security Adviser John Bolton who did not rule out that such talks could be held with Russia and China.

“No intelligible proposals has been received [from the US] so far,” Peskov said.

Earlier Bolton said in an interview with radio host John Catsimatidis aired on Sunday that he considers it reasonable to include China in the negotiation on those issues with Russia as well.

“China is building up its nuclear capacity now. It’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at strengthening our national missile defense system here in the United States. And it’s one reason why, if we’re going to have another arms control negotiation, for example, with the Russians, it may make sense to include China in that discussion as well,” he said.

Mr. Bolton’s sense about this particular aspect of any arms discussions is correct, as China was not formerly a player in geopolitical affairs the way it is now. The now all-but-scrapped Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, was a treaty concluded by the US and the USSR leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, back in 1987. However, for in succeeding decades, most notably since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been gradually building up weaponry in what appears to be an attempt to create a ring around the Russian Federation, a situation which is understandably increasingly untenable to the Russian government.

Both sides have accused one another of violating this treaty, and the mutual violations and recriminations on top of a host of other (largely fabricated) allegations against the Russian government’s activities led US President Donald Trump to announce his nation’s withdrawal from the treaty, formally suspending it on 1 February. Russian President Vladimir Putin followed suit by suspending it the very next day.

The INF eliminated all of both nations’ land based ballistic and cruise missiles that had a range between 500 and 1000 kilometers (310-620 miles) and also those that had ranges between 1000 and 5500 km (620-3420 miles) and their launchers.

This meant that basically all the missiles on both sides were withdrawn from Europe’s eastern regions – in fact, much, if not most, of Europe was missile-free as the result of this treaty. That is no longer the case today, and both nations’ accusations have provoked re-development of much more advanced systems than ever before, especially true considering the Russian progress into hypersonic and nuclear powered weapons that offer unlimited range.

This situation generates great concern in Europe, such that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on both Moscow and Washington to salvage the INF and extend the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, or the New START as it is known.

“I call on the parties to the INF Treaty to use the time remaining to engage in sincere dialogue on the various issues that have been raised. It is very important that this treaty is preserved,” Guterres said at a session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Monday.

He stressed that the demise of that accord would make the world more insecure and unstable, which “will be keenly felt in Europe.” “We simply cannot afford to return to the unrestrained nuclear competition of the darkest days of the Cold War,” he said.

Guterres also urged the US and Russia to extend the START Treaty, which expires in 2021, and explore the possibility of further reducing their nuclear arsenals. “I also call on the United States and the Russian Federation to extend the so-called New START Treaty before it expires in 2021,” he said.

The UN chief recalled that the treaty “is the only international legal instrument limiting the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals” and that its inspection provisions “represent important confidence-building measures that benefit the entire world.”

Guterres recalled that the bilateral arms control process between Russia and the US “has been one of the hallmarks of international security for fifty years.”

“Thanks to their efforts, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are now less than one-sixth of what they were in 1985,” the UN secretary-general pointed out.

The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (the New START Treaty) entered into force on February 5, 2011. The document stipulates that seven years after its entry into effect each party should have no more than a total of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and strategic bombers, as well as no more than 1,550 warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and strategic bombers, and a total of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and strategic bombers. The new START Treaty obliges the parties to exchange information on the number of warheads and carriers twice a year.

The new START Treaty will remain in force during 10 years until 2021, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement. It may be extended for a period of no more than five years (that is, until 2026) upon the parties’ mutual consent. Moscow has repeatedly called on Washington not to delay the issue of extending the Treaty.

 

 

 

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