MOSCOW (AP) - A senior Russian diplomat said Tuesday that Moscow's decision to declare a freeze on U.S. inspections of its nuclear arsenals under a key arms control treaty was triggered by Washington's push for a quick visit by inspectors.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S. demand for Russia to immediately allow an inspection trip under the New START treaty looked like an "open provocation" amid the current U.S.-Russian tensions.
"A notice about the U.S. intention to perform an inspection on our territory in the nearest days became a trigger," Ryabkov said in a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website.
The ministry responded Monday by announcing a temporary halt on U.S. inspections. It argued that the sanctions on Russian flights imposed by the U.S. and its allies, visa restrictions and other obstacles effectively have made it impossible for Russian military experts to visit U.S. nuclear weapons sites, giving the U.S. "unilateral advantages."
The Biden administration had no immediate public response to the move, which came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia's military action in Ukraine.
While Russia and the U.S. have suspended mutual inspections under the New START since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moscow's move raised new uncertainty about the pact's future.
The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the freeze is temporary, noting in Monday's statement that Moscow "highly values" the New START and adding that inspections could resume after the problems hampering them are solved.
The New START treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.
Just days before the New START was due to expire in February 2021, Russia and the United States agreed to extend it for another five years.
Ryabkov said that Russia has been open to discussions about the resumption of inspections, but emphasized that it should be done on the basis of parity and equality. He charged that instead of negotiating mutually acceptable arrangements for inspectors' trips, "Washington decided otherwise and engaged in an unfounded and unnecessary exacerbation of the situation."
"We are calling on the U.S. to renounce counterproductive actions ... and continue close cooperation for the sake of the soonest resumption of inspections on a realistic and equal basis," he said.