By Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden's administration said on Thursday it cannot hold talks with Moscow on a treaty to replace the last U.S.-Russian pact limiting strategic nuclear arms until inspections of the two countries' nuclear weapons sites, which are currently paused, resume.
"The first step is to resume inspections under the existing New START Treaty and we have been trying to work with the Russians toward that end," a spokesperson at the White House National Security Council said in an email to Reuters, referring to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty the two countries signed in 2010.
A State Department spokesperson made a similar statement in a separate email.
The sides agreed in March 2020 to halt inspections of each other's strategic nuclear weapons sites because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talks for the last year on resuming inspections have failed to produce an agreement, amid tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine which has taken relations to their iciest level since the Cold War.
The U.S. spokespersons were responding to state-run Russian news agency reports this week quoting Russian officials as saying the sides were discussing a possible meeting of a consultative commission in which they discuss issues involving New START.
The United States is prepared to work with Russia within the commission "to resolve implementation issues" and sees "no reason that these issues cannot be properly resolved," the NSC spokesperson said.
The world's biggest nuclear powers have said they are open to talks on a follow-on "framework" to New START, the last accord limiting deployments by the sides of strategic nuclear warheads and the missiles, aircraft and submarines that deliver them.
Shortly after taking office last year, Biden agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the treaty, which was due to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, for another five years.
Under the treaty, the United States and Russia committed to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and a maximum of 700 long-range missiles and bombers. Both sides met those commitments by a 2018 deadline.
Each side can conduct up to 18 inspections every year of strategic nuclear weapons sites to ensure the other is complying with the treaty's limits.
Russia last month said U.S. sanctions imposed because of the invasion of Ukraine have prevented its inspectors from obtaining U.S. visas and Russian aircraft from flying to the United States.
"There are no similar obstacles to the arrival of American inspectors in Russia," said a Russian foreign ministry statement. "The Russian foreign ministry raised this issue with the relevant countries, but did not receive an answer."
Without directly responding to Russia's claim, the State Department spokesperson said: "Inspections were paused for COVID reasons. Both sides can safely resume inspections and the United States is prepared to work with Russia in the New START Treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission to achieve that end."
Biden reiterated in a statement on Aug. 1 that his administration was ready to negotiate a replacement for New START.
"But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith," Biden said, referring to the sides' "shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability." Despite Putin's "brutal and unprovoked" invasion of Ukraine, Russia should show it is "ready to resume work on nuclear arms control," Biden said in the statement.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Matthew Lewis)