Whether a three-way deal is viable, however, is uncertain at best. Mr. Putin would like to recalibrate the relationship to focus on arms control, but on a one-to-one basis. He has complained repeatedly that Mr. Trump has not responded to his desire to renew the New Start treaty.
“This is where President Putin would like to see this conversation — bilateral conversation — because it is where Russia is of equal strength to the United States,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is a massive space here to think about arms control, yet there is no process that we are aware of.”
Moreover, China has shown no interest in negotiating an arms control treaty, noting that it has a small fraction of the weapons that the United States and Russia have, as well as a no-first-use policy. In addition to his session with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump is meeting in Osaka with President Xi Jinping, but that is already weighted by their tense trade dispute, with more tariffs hanging over the discussion.
Mr. Trump’s advisers said that they had developed options for how such a negotiation could be conducted, and that the president would soon make a determination. In the meantime, Fiona Hill, the president’s top Russia adviser, is leaving at the end of the summer. She will be replaced by Tim Morrison, an arms control expert who oversees policy on weapons of mass destruction at the National Security Council.
Like Mr. Bolton, Mr. Morrison is a skeptic of past arms control negotiations, and Russian officials were unsure whether his selection would encourage progress or not.
Administration officials insisted they were serious about pursuing an agreement. But many harbor doubts. It took Mr. Obama two years to negotiate New Start, and it was, in many ways, a simple, straightforward treaty between two countries that both wanted it and had long experience at making arms control deals. What Mr. Trump’s team is talking about is far more involved, especially if it attempts to bring in China, and there is only a year and a half left in the president’s term.
Some experts suspect talk of a three-way accord is merely a feint to get rid of the New Start treaty. “If a trilateral deal is meant as a substitute or prerequisite for extending New Start, it is a poison pill, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “If the president is seeking a trilateral deal as a follow-on to New Start, that’s a different thing.”