Russia would still do a deal with the Trump Administration to extend the New START nuclear arms-control treaty, but a five-year extension would be best, because negotiating a follow-on treaty will be very difficult, the Russian ambassador said Wednesday in a webcast hosted by a D.C. think tank.

“If anybody can call me now from [the] State Department or White House, I’m ready to come. I’m ready to continue such negotiations,” Anatoly Antonov said at a virtual discussion with the Brookings Institute. But “we can see that the next round of negotiations will be very difficult because we have to take on board many issues.” 

This fall, ahead of the presidential election that Trump eventually lost, the U.S. and Russia tried and failed to reach an accord about a one-year New START extension. 

Asked by moderator Frank Rose, a former assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance in the Obama administration, what Russia wants in a follow-on New START treaty, Antonov said that Moscow wants essentially the same things it wanted 11 years ago, during New START negotiations. 

Back then, “there was a lot of questions regarding new technology, regarding missile defense, regarding strategic offensive arms in non-nuclear configuration, regarding disbalance in conventional arms and many, many other issues, and … we failed to find an answer to all questions,” Antonov said. Today, “[t]he situation is the same.”

Antonov also repeated Russia’s desire to constrain the British and French nuclear arsenals in a New START follow-on treaty: something those nations oppose as much as China has opposed U.S. overtures to come to the table for talks about a New START successor. 

New START limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on a total of no more than 700 fielded intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and heavy bombers. 

The Chinese foreign ministry has refused to join nuclear arms control talks, saying the U.S. and Russia have much larger arsenals, even under New START, than China does. 

On Wednesday at Brookings, with an anecdote very similar to one shared a day before by a U.S. Senator, Antonov told a story about the Trump administration’s desire to involve China with a future nuclear-arms treaty.

“I raised a question many times to my colleagues [in the Trump administration],” Antonov said. “[W]hat do we want from China? Do we want to invite China to get the same ceilings that [the] United States and Russia have now? Or [say] the United States and Russia are ready to reduce the quantity of warheads and nuclear … delivery vehicles to the level that China has now?

“There was no answer from my American friends on this issue,” Antonov said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told almost the same story at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on Tuesday.

“I asked the [Trump] administration a number of times, but I asked them publicly last year when Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state, was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ‘so what is your vision here? Is your vision, your game plan, that you want Russia and the United States to come down to the levels that China has, or is your argument you want to give China permission to come up to the level of Russia and the United States?” Merkley said. “[T]heir answer was, ‘well, we haven’t figured that out yet.’”