Thursday 4. June 2020

Nuclear arms control in Europe: growing risks

Forty-six years on from the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, humankind is still a long way from a world without nuclear weapons. Thomas Hoppe warns of a renewed increase in the influence of nuclear weapons, even in Europe.

A breakthrough in nuclear arms control was achieved in 1987 with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) on the removal of all land-based intermediate-range nuclear systems in Europe. Not only had a whole category of weapons been “negotiated away” for the first time, but this was one which had had a decisive impact on the climate of deterrence between East and West.


Removal of crisis instability


On both sides these were ultra-modern capacities for which extremely realistic options for intended use existed should deterrence fail. Therefore the “zero solution” for intermediate-range weapons had the drawback of a destabilising effect: , The existence of high-precision, rapid reaction nuclear weapons that were nevertheless vulnerable to opposing strikes generated military contingencies which enhanced the probability that a serious political crisis would escalate into nuclear war, even though no one had any desire to trigger such a catastrophe.


During the 1980s, several situations arose that led to the brink of a nuclear war, due to either technical breakdowns or chains of misunderstandings or incorrect assumptions about the intentions of the opposing side. Two such situations cropped up in the autumn of 1983 alone.


Ethical and strategic rationality


The INF Treaty therefore took into account that both ethical and strategic rationality demanded a reduction in the nuclear armament capacity which threatened to make the outbreak of war more probable instead of preventing it. The risks of armament measures that were counterproductive to peace were to be reduced, although to date it is true to say that there has not been a fundamental renunciation of the strategy of mutual nuclear deterrent. Rather, the risks of a proliferation of nuclear technologies with the potential for military deployment are increasing worldwide. The consequence of this growing instability is that no nuclear state is currently prepared to reduce its own capacities any further by any substantial extent.


Increasing significance of nuclear armaments


Meanwhile, over the intervening years there have been growing reasons to fear that a renewed increase in nuclear arsenals could arise, even in Europe. The USA and Russia are each accusing the other of an infringement of the 1987 INF Treaty, and this undermines the current stability of this arms control regime. This has been caused in particular by further development in arms technology, mainly on the Russian side; the USA is afraid that the provisions of the INF Treaty are being circumvented.


Especially in the context of the relations between Russia and the West deteriorating over the past few years, Russia sees the deployment of American missile defence systems in Romania as a threat to its own military capabilities, upon which its agreement to the INF Treaty once rested. The role of tactical nuclear weapons in a deployment scenario for a possible war with NATO is more clearly under the spotlight than in the past. This reflects the changed ratio, unfavourable to Russia, of conventional weapons (where, it should be added, there is currently no adequate system of arms control), as well as the huge superiority in tactical nuclear weapons on the Russian side.


Consequences for the EU


The European Union recently put forward its “Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy” in which it clearly indicated that it would be relying more strongly than ever on cooperation with NATO in its military defence provisions. By doing this, the EU is directly affected by all stability risks in the military sphere, but its influence there will only be very limited from now on. As far as possible, the EU should contribute to developing political approaches which are able to prevent any failure of the INF Treaty with the probable consequences of a new, dangerous arms race.


Moreover, the EU should pursue the objective of reducing the incentives for nuclear arms proliferation and continue to develop a targeted non-proliferation regime. Finally, it is a matter of strengthening “nuclear safety” worldwide, above all to prevent such capabilities from getting into the hands of those who could use them for the purpose of terrorist blackmail, let alone actually deploy them.


Thomas Hoppe

Professor at the University of the German Armed Forces, Hamburg and member of the German Bishops’ Conference Research Group on International Church Affairs


Translated from the original text in German



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