America Is Risking a Nuclear 'Free-for-All' by Delaying New START Extension With Russia: Former National Security Official

Uncertainty still looms over the New START treaty, a major nuclear arms control accord between the U.S. and Russia set to lapse in 2021.

The agreement—an extension of the original START treaty signed during the Cold War—has been described by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the "three principal pillars of global strategic stability," and the only one still in operation.

Russian officials have repeatedly said the Kremlin will back an extension of the agreement with no pre-conditions. But President Donald Trump's administration has delayed a final decision. According to Lynn Rusten—a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation for the White House National Security Council—the delay represents a major long-term security risk.

New START capped the number of accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550 for both the U.S. and Russia. It also limited the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers used for nuclear missions to 700. The total allowed number of deployed and non-deployed assets is 800.

The U.S. has voiced concerns that Russia is currently developing weapons that may one day violate the treaty, but Rusten—now at the Nuclear Threat Initiative—told Newsweek there are no grounds for such worries and that the alternative is much worse.

Extending New START means "an environment where we're maintaining limits and verification on the other country that has, with us, 90 percent of nuclear weapons in the world," she said. The alternative "in the near term it is a free-for-all," Rusten added. "It's hard to argue why a free-for-all is in our interest."

It would ultimately mean that for the first time in 70 years, there would be "no mutual regulation between the United States and Russia on their massive nuclear arsenals," Rusten added.

Though there is still a year before the agreement expires, Rusten said any delay makes the situation worse. Some administration officials, she suggested, think "that there's some added leverage that they're getting by delaying, but I would say I think that's unwise."

Others might be delaying for political reasons. "I think there are some people in the administration who are just ideologically opposed to treaties," Rusten said.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the U.S. "remains committed to effective arms control that advances U.S., Allied, and partner security, is verifiable and enforceable, and includes partners that comply responsibly with their obligations."

The spokesperson said the administration is "taking into account the threats we face today, the changing security environment, and Russia's statement that it has no preconditions to extension" while considering the extension.

The Trump administration has also suggested it might like to set New START aside in favor of a new deal which also includes China. Beijing has pumped huge sums into its military in recent decades, seeking to build a potent modern force capable of local dominance and force projection.

The State Department spokesperson said Trump has directed officials "to think more broadly than New START and include both China and Russia in our next steps. We stand ready to engage with both Russia and China on arms control negotiations that meet our criteria."

But Rusten said this is wishful thinking. "Most experts understand that it's not a realistic short-term prospect," she said.

"If you bring China you're talking about a new treaty and a new negotiation," Rusten explained. "That will take a lot of time to negotiate. And so the obvious logical thing is to maintain the limits and the verification on U.S. and Russian strategic forces by extending the New START, and then seek to build on that."

Negotiating a new agreement would be a significant burden on an understaffed State Department already grappling with potent diplomatic challenges across the world. Rusten noted concerns regarding the "functioning and capacity of the inner agency and the discipline to do this kind of work."

Diplomacy is not one of the Trump administration's strong points. With North Korea, Iran, China, Venezuela and others, the White House has been unable to make progress through bilateral negotiations. There appears to be a similar trend with nuclear arms control. Indeed, the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty has already collapsed.

"It's hard to get anywhere when we haven't figured out what it is we want to do," Rusten continued. "I don't see the evidence that we have, whether it's extending New START, having a serious proposal for something in addition or instead... There needs to be content."

As Gorbachev said last year, New START is the last survivor of what he considered the three key U.S.-Russian arms control treaties. The INF treaty collapsed last year when the U.S. withdrew, accusing Russia of developing weapons that violated the deal. The U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty during President Geroge W. Bush's tenure.

Rusten suggested people should be worried by the bigger picture. "We're seeing a collapse of the entire fabric and structure of arms control regulatory agreements that have managed competition between the United States and Russia," she said. "Everything that was built up over the Cold War and the end of the Cold War is coming unglued."

Combined with a dearth of dialog between the U.S. and Russia—both diplomatically and militarily—this creates a global situation fraught with danger. Meanwhile, a new nuclear arms race would mean a heftier burden on U.S. coffers, exacerbating the runaway deficit that has emerged under Trump, Rusten said.

Russia, missiles, ICBM, New START, nuclear weapons
This file photo shows a Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on May 9, 2015. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty