Trump Risks 'Nuclear Blackmail' Unless He Extends New START Deal With Russia, Arms Control Negotiator Says

The White House is risking a fresh nuclear arms race by delaying a decision on whether to extend the New START treaty with Russia, which expires next year, according to a former ambassador who negotiated the original START accord.

Ambassador Richard Burt told Newsweek there is little to be gained from allowing New START to lapse next year and warned that some within President Donald Trump's administration may be slow-rolling the debate for ideological reasons.

"The stability that we've learned to take for granted in the nuclear realm seems to be drying up," Burt—who also served as ambassador to Germany under President Ronald Reagan—explained.

Allowing New START to end would be akin to "removing the nuclear guardrails," Burt said. "Failing to expand this would be a giant step backwards."

New START came into force in 2011 as an extension of the START agreement, signed in the early 1990s. New START limited the number of American and Russian accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1,550.

The deal also capped the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers used for nuclear missions at 700. The total allowed number of deployed and non-deployed assets is 800.

The agreement will lapse in 2021 if the two signatories do not agree an extension. Russia has said it is willing to extend the deal on its current terms but the Trump administration has delayed a decision.

Burt is among the arms control experts and diplomats warning that a New START lapse may result in a costly and dangerous new arms race between the U.S. and Russia.

Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev warned last year that New START is the last surviving part of the "three principal pillars of global strategic stability" after Anti-Ballistic Missile and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties collapsed.

Arms control treaties mandate the kind of transparency that helps de-escalate diplomatic tension and soothe military paranoia, Burt said. Without them, nations will be forced to plan for worst scenarios and try to maintain a nuclear edge.

"People are once again going to worry about the possibility that somebody could be tempted to engage in nuclear blackmail—threatening the use of nuclear weapons—to get their way," he explained.

A State Department official told Newsweek last month that the administration is considering ways to include both Russia and China in the next stage of nuclear arms control, but Burt argued that this is not feasible. Newsweek has contacted the State Department to ask whether the administration has updated its plans.

"The idea of bringing the Chinese right into the process now is a non-starter," Burt argued, noting that Chinese officials have already dismissed the possibility.

Ultimately Burt acknowledged that China will have to be addressed, noting there exists a school of thought that Russia does not have the economic strength nor the technological base to compete with U.S. nuclear capabilities in the long term.

"I think at some point the Chinese are going to need to enter the negotiating process, but this is not the time," he said.

Some within the Trump administration won't want the treaty extended, Burt explained, believing that Cold War-era arms controls are holding the U.S. back from their "dream of a world of American nuclear superiority."

Some in the administration remain "suspicious" of restrictions and believe the U.S. would be "safer with stronger nuclear defenses" not currently allowed under New START, he said.

Richard Burt, New START, Donald Trump, Russia
This file photo shows former Ambassador Richard Burt at the CONSIUSA Biennial Conference on June 8, 2012 in Venice, Italy. Marco Secchi/Getty Images/Getty