“Everyone is aware of what the use of nuclear weapons would entail, but mistakes can be made, especially should a war scenario spiral out of control while power is in the hands of a reckless leadership. Stefano Silvestri, scientific advisor of the IAI think-tank (International Affairs Institute) and editorial director of AffarInternazionali, warns that, following the withdrawal of the United States and Russia from INF, the historic treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) on nuclear weapons signed on December 8, 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Michail Gorbačëv, “the risk of the military use of nuclear weapons is real and is on the rise”
Why did the USA withdraw from the treaty?
The treaty prohibits land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Russia tested a cruise missile that exceeds these limits, and the US had raised objections to which Russia did not respond within the 60 days timeframe that had been granted. Thus, ending the treaty became inevitable. Moreover, Russia accuses the US of wanting to turn the anti-missile shield in Poland and Romania – which is also a medium range installation and therefore in violation of the treaty – into a hostile installation.
Trump’s decision follows a well-defined diplomatic line…
The US administration was not keen on the treaty, nor is it fond of arms control treaties or multilateral treaties in general. After leaving the Iranian nuclear agreement and now ending the treaty with Russia, it remains signatory to the strategic weapons treaty which should be renegotiated in the coming years.
China has stated that this decision “could trigger a series of adverse consequences”.
Russia was the country most affected by the lack of development of medium-range nuclear weapons because, unlike the USA, it is surrounded by a large continental landmass. As for China, it means that now Russia can develop weapons that potentially threaten all of its territory.
The treaty does not concern weapons on airplanes nor ships, so the US had no particular interest in keeping it in place.
The US had signed the treaty at the request of the Europeans; the weapons were not an issue for the US because geographically it never faced a continental threat. Should they want to use this type of missile to threaten China, the US would need to launch them from the territory of allied countries such as Japan or Korea or from the island of Guam, but these scenarios are highly unlikely. China fuels the US arms control controversy but, in reality, it does not fear these kinds of weapons.
What will Europe do?
There are US strategic weapons in place in Europe, but these should also need to cover a regional threat and it is a complicated situation. There are also French nuclear weapons, but they are limited to the defense of the national territory. Other European countries are now more exposed to a Russian threat, which the US should respond to with greater commitment; but this is troublesome, in view Trump’s opinion of NATO.
European countries are those most threatened by the end of the treaty.
Is there a real risk of a new arms race?
A new medium range arms race is unlikely, because it should be a US or European initiative; but the former is not interested in land-based nuclear weapons, while the latter is politically divided. There will also be separate reactions to possible Russian threats:
there is no European solidarity.
Pope Francis has sounded the alarm<https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2017/december/documents/papa-francesco_20171202_viaggioapostolico-bangladesh-voloritorno.html>: “We are at the limit of what’s licit in regard to having and using nuclear weapons. Why? Because today, with so sophisticated a nuclear arsenal, we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least of a large part of humanity.”
In a situation in which treaties are wrecked or judged to be non-credible, the risk of using nuclear weapons at regional level increases. In the Middle East for example, this is a dangerous possibility. I hope that we do not reach a breaking point, as we have managed to avoid until now. But the risk is real.