The return to the nuclear risk between Washington and Moscow, but also Beijing

The return to the nuclear risk between Washington and Moscow, but also Beijing


Putting their threat to execution, the Americans trigger their withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Moscow at the end of the Cold War. They accuse the Russians of not respecting it any more, but especially want to have their hands free against China. In the wake, Putin did the same.

Euromissile crisis airs between two Cold War superpowers, as US puts last October threat into action by deciding Friday to withdraw from Mid-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). With this effective withdrawal in six months, the geopolitical duel between Moscow and Washington takes a nuclear turn, threatening to weaken the disarmament architecture put in place since the Cold War. But the similarities with this period hide profound differences. The United States especially wants to withdraw from the INF because China is not part of this bilateral Russian-US treaty, which gives it a strategic advantage in Asia. Moscow also decided to withdraw, not because of China, but arguing that Washington had violated the text. Vladimir Putin said he supports his Defense Minister’s proposal to begin the development of intermediate-range supersonic missiles.

The INF Treaty is not so good because, since 1987, it has banned Moscow and Washington from testing, producing and deploying any land-based missile with a range of 500 to 5,500 km nuclear or not. In the 1980s, with the face-to-face of the Soviet SS-20 and the US Pershing-II, the nuclear dimension certainly prevailed. In the same vein, the United States accuses Russia since 2014 of testing a new missile, the 9M729, whose range exceeds 500 km. “If the accusation is not new, there has been a change of method, explains Antoine Bondaz, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS). Obama and his allies wanted Moscow to abide by the treaty, Trump, and perhaps most importantly, his national security adviser, John Bolton, wanted to get out of it. “

US bases in range of Chinese missiles

If the Russians assure that the range of their missile does not exceed 480 km, many experts doubt it. On the Moscow side, the old mistrust dates back to 2001 when the United States unilaterally emerged from another Cold War treaty, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), which limited anti-missile capabilities. of the two superpowers. Since the 1990s, the United States wants to deploy in Europe and Asia a “shield” to protect themselves from states they call “thugs”, such as Iran or North Korea. But Beijing and Moscow have always considered that this shield was also intended for them, which confirms for the first time the American nuclear strategic review (NPR) of 2018. For Russians and Chinese, these US interceptor missiles threaten to reduce the credibility of their nuclear deterrence while their launching pads could also be used to fire offensive missiles prohibited by the INF.

“700 million Europeans will end up with more nuclear weapons above their heads,” said Jean-Marie Collin, spokesperson for the ICAN France campaign, which is campaigning for global nuclear disarmament. We know what happened in the 1980s. We can not relive the story a second time. We may not have the same luck. ” But, unlike the crisis of “euromissiles”, the tussle is also played on the Asian continent where China, which is not bound by the treaty, develops a ballistic and nuclear program that worries Washington. “There is no American willingness to stay in the treaty because Washington wants to have a free hand against Beijing,” says Corentin Brustlein, researcher at IFRI. Already, last October, when he announced that he could withdraw from the treaty, Trump had named Beijing. “The vast majority of China’s ballistic arsenal is made up of missiles that are banned for Americans and Russians under the treaty,” said Antoine Bondaz. This arsenal notably allows Beijing to threaten US bases in the Asia-Pacific region, from South Korea to Guam via Japan. Beijing has also developed ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000 to 4,000 km intended for the anti-ship battle that could threaten the dozen aircraft carriers of the US Navy, on which rests the projection capacity of the Americans.

Europe, big loser

What’s going to happen? “One of the main variables is going to be the Russian attitude. So far, they have tried to hold a line that wants to be diplomatically respectable so that the end of the treaty is not imputed to them, “remarks Corentin Brustlein, referring to a press conference a few days ago, where the minister Russian Defense Ministry presented the characteristics of the offending missile to an audience of journalists. “They could continue to do what they do, that is to say, to produce missiles yesterday banned in a discrete way, by continuing to deny it in order to complicate the American diplomatic maneuver,” says the researcher at IFRI. One certainty for his colleague from the FRS is that “Europe is the great political loser of the withdrawal of a treaty which symbolized for the Europeans the end of the Cold War”.

Strategically it is still too early to say. Will new missiles be deployed in Europe? Would they be American or European manufacturing? Many questions arise, in particular that of the strategic autonomy of Europe, regularly put forward by the European leaders. “We are not there yet, but if the Americans want to deploy new missiles in Europe, one of the difficulties will be finding countries that accept them on their soil. Public opinion will not necessarily be favorable, “adds Corentin Brustlein. The same question will arise in Asia where public opinion, for example South Korea and Japan, are not very favorable to this idea. “It’s the bet of the Chinese experts who consider that the countries of the region will refuse,” abounds Antoine Bondaz.

After the INF, New Start?

Another area of ​​concern is other multilateral disarmament treaties – such as the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – or bilateral treaties between Russia and the United States. “The general context is deteriorating. It is the whole architecture of arms control and disarmament that is weakened, “said Antoine Bondaz, citing the North Korean case. According to the NPT, only five states are supposed to be “endowed” with the nuclear bomb (United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom). In reality, nine have one today (plus Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea).

The fear of a new proliferation notably concerns the Chinese nuclear arsenal, certainly incomparably weaker (about 200 nuclear warheads, a few years ago) than that of the United States or Russia (nearly 1500, each). “Alas, it is not so simple because Beijing has a very opaque arsenal and strong expansion, both qualitative and quantitative,” notes Corentin Brustlein. The Chinese are investing in the field of nuclear submarines and strategic bombers, for which they have so far been seriously lagging behind the Americans and the Russians. Above all, in terms of nuclear deterrence, the Russians and Americans balance each other out with a 2010 bilateral treaty called New Start, which followed the SALT and START treaties. This nuclear treaty delineates the number of vectors – intercontinental missiles (more than 5500 km), missiles fired from submarines, bombers – and nuclear warheads (ceiling of 1550 each).

The ultimate risk would be that after the INF Treaty, the New Start treaty also goes through loss and profit. The treaty expires in 2021 and negotiations must take place between Moscow and Washington to find a successor. “The treaty provides for the possibility of an extension up to five years. But still Moscow and Washington would have to agree, says Corentin Brustlein. Their position is not clear. The Russians said they would like such an extension, but at the same time, Vladimir Putin announced the development of new types of nuclear weapons systems to bypass the US anti-missile defenses. These weapons, for the most part, are not constrained by the New Start treaty. In this context, we still have time and the negotiations do not need to be long in order to succeed, but I am pessimistic about the US willingness to extend the treaty. Bolton had the skin of the INF, he could not stop there. “

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