Discorso “Nuclear security”

CFPA, Paris, 6 June 2016


A Fourth Nuclear Age?

Attempts have been made to categorize nuclear history after 1945 into temporal blocks. The most interesting was perhaps the categorization made by Paul Bracken. He argued that the Cold War was the “first nuclear age”, governed by a strategic balance between the two superpowers.

A“second nuclear age “was triggered by the spread of nuclear weapons and their technologies to the Third World for reasons other than the Soviet American competition.

The third “nuclear age” has  followed at the end of the XX Century, with increasing challenges to the pre- existent nuclear order, namely:

  1. expansion of the “nuclear club” and failure to stop dissemination of forbidden weapons and technologies;
  2. concerns on the true viability of nuclear deterrence , given the asymmetric strategies of Nuclear States , and their impact on arms race;
  3. explicit nuclear overtones in crises management and international disputes, over the last few years.


Starting with this decade, a “fourth nuclear age” seems to have begun. Its  problematic trends  are, in my view:

  • weakening of the multilateral framework anchored to the NPT and other instruments, such as the CTBT and the FMCT;
  • nuclear proliferation in regions already destabilized by the Sunni-Shia clash within the muslim world; by regional ambitions of emerging powers; by “proxy wars”;
  • uncertainties concerning the future of the JCPOA between the “5+1” and Iran, linked to Iranian behaviour and to possible changes  after the Obama Administration;
  • “fading away” of the US-Russia “reset”, putting an end to a promising season initiated with the signature of New Start Treaty. An ominous development was the 2014 breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurances and territorial integrity of Ukraine, signed by the US, Russia, UK, and confirmed at the time of the New Start Treaty. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was denounced by western powers as a blatant violation of assurances given to Kiev in order to get its consent to nuclear disarmament and removal of 1,800 strategic warheads, 176 long-range ballistic missiles, and 42 strategic bombers. However, according to Moskow “the security assurances were given to the legitimate government of Ukraine but not to the forces that came to power following the coup d’etat.” This precedent raises two serious issues. The first one concerns nuclear disarmament. From now on, which other country in the world would ever accept to trade off its nuclear weapons in exchange of “security guarantees” provided by nuclear States-think not only of DPRK, but other proliferators as well? The second issue is even more troubling: according to customary and conventional international Law obligations willfully udertaken bind States, not only Goverments. If the opposite were true, at every change of government anywhere on the Globe all agreements should be completely renegotiated and agreed again.

Other problematic trends of this “nuclear age”are:    

  • clouds over the INF Treaty. Already in 2007 the Russian Military warned that Moskow could pull out of the INF, depending on US actions with its proposed missile defense. In 2012, the United States complained about Russian violations with their new cruise missiles and short range ICBMs.Then,in 2014 they notified Russia of a breach. Russians called the Treaty unsuitable because Asia had already such new weapons without beeing covered by a Treaty, and in any case  US drones for the “Prompt Global Strike”were also violating the INF;
  • spending spree in modernising arsenals. China, India, Pakistan and Russia are all following the US lead. In a move aimed at Congress acceptance of the New Start Treaty, President Obama authorized a $1tn, 30 year upgrade of the US nuclear force.While officially meant to conserve the existing arsenal, program’s ambitions go beyond. Whole classes of warhead will be replaced and alert warnig times shortened. Recently, President Obama visited Hiroshima, and manyy media recalled his 2009 speech in Prague: “We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without” nuclear weapons, althoug he acknowledged that it is unlikely to happen soon. Has that vision run aground? Faultlines emerge between the US and Russia; the US senate opposes the CTBT; Pakistan has blocked the FMCT negotiations; Japan has stored 47 tons of separated plutonium tha could be used for thousands of nuclear weapons.

On the plus side:

  • When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world after Russia, the United States and Ukraine. This arsenal included 104 ICBM, 40 Tu-95 strategic bombers with approximately 1,410 nuclear warheads. Kazakhstan’s government decided to renounce nuclear weapons, and, by April 1995, it had transferred all of its warheads to Russia. Kazakhstan has since become a very active promoter of anti-proliferation and arms control. The country is now a party to the NPT, CTBT, START-I. It signed the Additional Protocol with the IAEA, it is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, of Conventions  for supression of nuclear terrorism,and for protection of nuclear material.
  • Washington has chivvied other nuclear countries to reduce uranium stockpiles and improve safety. Nuclear Security Summits have since 2010 raised awareness of this threat and driven many tangible, meaningful and lasting improvements in nuclear security architecture at national, regional and global levels, including through broadened ratification and implementation of international legal instruments.
  • We should also consider that the current debate is different from the earlier ones. Because of its truly global nature, the power to shape the future now lies in the hands of a mix of global stakeholders, governments, NGO’s and groups like the New Agenda Coalition, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, along with State and non State actors –including the very bad ones, like Daesh-actors which will increasingly influence arms control and disarmament agendas.


In the present “age” nuclear weapons are making their way back to the center of the political agenda. Pronouncements by some Leaders and threaths against neighbours may convince the public that the world is coming dangerously close to  the nuclear precipice.

Every effort should be made to reintroduce predictability and stability. Modernization of Russian, American and Chinese arsenals has also reopened the Pandora box of a possible “first use” of nuclear forces. Is ”deterrence by punishment” becoming an alternative to the concept of “deterrence by denial”? Did the end of the ABM Treaty  bring about an “open space “ for every sort of dangerous innovations?


Italy’s experience. All along the Cold War, Italy – as member of the Atlantic Alliance-  has fully supported  Nato’s  nuclear strategy. The  nuclear component of the Alliance has been and will remain an integral part of the Italian Defence. My country has agreed even in very difficult times to share the burden of Nato’s nuclear deployments. However, the political implication of accepting that responsibility are heavier for a Nato member with cannot show to its public opinion to be a partner with equal rigths in the decision making process, not beeing a member of the Nuclear States club.

Half a century ago, when the NPT first appeared on the horizon it was extremely difficult for Italy to accept a  decision to give up all rights to become a recognized nuclear power.

In fact, the American proposals negotiated with the Soviet Union and discussed during the Fall 1966  between Rome and Washington were considered by the Italian Government critically unbalanced on a number of counts.


  • First, for their negative impact vis a vis European integration: by isolating Uk and French nuclear status and responsibilities from those of all other EU and Nato countries the American proposals were undermining all future chances of an European Defence.
  • Second, because Moskow would have added recognized legitimacy to its power over all Warsaw Pact members.
  • Third, the Treaty did further discriminate between the 5 nuclear States, Permanent Members of the UNSC, and the rest of the UN membership.
  • Last but not least , there was a feeling in Italy and in Europe that Washington was first and foremost interested in a “package deal” with the USSR: american concessions to the soviets were to be over the shoulders of European security , in order to achieve a “détente” with Moskow badly needed by the US in South East Asia. Not surpirsingly, Italy did eventually ratify the NPT. But it did so only in 1975, six year after signing it.


From then on, Italy’s foreign and defence policies have continued to be strongly supportive of the non proliferation regime. All Italian governments have kept striving for the most scrupolous implementation of the NPT, and fo  effective recognition of all rigths and obligations contained in the Treaty. We must admit however that the NPT record is increasingly mixed. It has significantly contributed to global security, through safeguards, verifications, and IAEA’s role. But NPT results ,  especially in the area of nuclear disarmament, have been disappointing. Its shortcomings have damaged the credibility of  the Nuclear States , giving way to criticism from a wide number of countries. Many non- nuclear States appear less interested now in stepping up their anti-proliferation efforts.


NPT Review Conference, May 2015. The 2015 Ninth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended withouth any substantive agreement. The failure to produce a consensus document was attributed to the unresolved issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East . The point was originally contained in the resolution adopted at the 1995 NPT Review Conference. The US criticized the inflexibility of the Arab League on the subject, singling out Egypt. Egypt – as well as Russia and the Non-Aligned Movement – blamed the obstructionism of the Americans, British, and Canadians.

The controversy over the Middle East effectively marks the end of the renewed effort undertaken at the previous Review Conference to implement the 1995 resolution. Since the Treaty’s indefinite extension in 1995 would have been a much more arduous process without the Middle East resolution, at least some among the NPT signatory Parties may be tempted to put into question  the validity of the “indefinite extension”decided in 1995. In fact, as the 2015 Conference fell apart, Egypt bitterly pointed to the “fallacious nature of the 1995 process.”

At the same time, the emphasis on the Middle East zone belies the myriad disagreements that arose during the month-long 2015 Review Conference. Several Delegations underlined its shortcomings. The draft text essentially reiterated the conclusions and recommendations of the 2010 outcome document, offering only minimal advancement of its 64-point action plan, and devoting little space its implementation.


Major gaps were noted in three areas:

  1. a) effective measures towards nuclear disarmament;
  2. b) humanitarian aspects of nuclear weapons use;
  3. c) reporting by recognized nuclear-weapon states.


Notably, the rejected document sidestepped each of these issues. A divide therefore  remains between the nuclear weapon states – the P5 of the UN Security Council – and the other parties to the treaty. South Africa even talked of “apartheid “.

The Review Conference didn’t look good for the future of the NPT. For some, it may remain business as usual. It was argued that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached with Iran and the “5+1” could bolster the IAEA safeguards undergirding the treaty, and allow the international community to focus more on North Korea. For others, the Iranian nuclear issue is all but resolved: the quick decision reached for political considerations last December by the IAEA Board of Governors to “clear” all outstanding and unresolved problems with Teheran , and may add to the uncertainties on the NPT future.

The 2015 Review Conference felt like an opportunity squandered. With reverberations across the nuclear landscape, as evidenced by the Austrian-led Humanitarian Pledge for “effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” This fragmentation is an obstacle also for other targets which should be reached: the entry into force of comprehensive safeguards and additional protocols; implementation of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, negotiation of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.


Nuclear security in today’s international context. From a geopolitical and strategic point of view, the nuclear security situation  can be summarized as done at NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting  last 19/20 May 2016.Vis a vis Russia the Alliance continues to pursue a dual-track approach: Defence/Deterrence on one side; political Dialogue  on the other. The Ministerial Meeting underlined that there is no contradiction between a stronger defence and dialogue. Secretary General Stoltenberg reiterated that predictability and firmness are the best foundation for political engagement. For the time beeing practical cooperation is suspended. But NATO-Russia Council remains the main platform for risk reduction, to avoiding situations spiralling out of control. Prevention is especially needed after the downing of a Russian plane over Turkey, unsafe behaviors of Russian planes in the Baltic, increased presence in a Black Sea which has almost become a Russian lake, in the Mediterranean.

At NATO Ministerial, the EU’s High Representative Mogherini spoke about sanctions renewal.Those who were foreseeing divisions in the European Union were wrong. The EU managed to build and keep its unity. At the same time the Minsk process needs to go ahead. Allies face a more dangerous environment now: an assertive Russia in the east has illegally annexed Crimea and is destabilising eastern Ukraine. Ther is turmoil in the south, in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa.

In their meeting in Antalya earlier this month, Nato Defence Ministers heard from the supreme military commander that Russia is using a threatening rhetoric about nuclear weapons, to intimidate the West.

It’s a move designed, according to Fmr Saceur Gen. Philip Breedlove, “to give pause to NATO’s decision making”. He also recalled that Moscow had considered “the possibility of moving nukes into certain areas, or employing nukes if something had not gone correctly in Crimea.”

Moscow has in recent years sharply increased and intensified deployments of nuclear platforms,it has singled out countries like Denmark for nuclear threat ; it has signaled readiness to employ nuclear weapons to try to force NATO to back down in the event of war. And to put credibility into its chilling scenarios, Russia has conducted exercises aimed at proving its ability to use nuclear weapons against NATO—exercises that have included simulated nuclear attacks on Poland.


The Alliance has instead spent the past 20 years largely relegating nuclear planning to the basement. Most NATO discussions on nuclear weapons have focused on whether the alliance should get rid of them. Now there are indications of a tide reversal. The alliance may, and for some analysts should, rethink its nuclear-deterrent doctrine and give the Russian nuclear threat a serious political and strategic response.

Moscow’s nuclear challenge doesn’t derive so much from the probability of an apocalyptic strike leading to mass destruction, the kind of scenario people associate with Cold War. Rather, the real peril comes from Russia using strategic arms in a limited conflict with NATO. Moscow could use its impressive capabilities to force NATO to back down, affecting the alliance’s core interest: protecting the territorial integrity of its member states.

In a contest over the Baltics, for instance, Moscow might seek to use its “little green men” and its advantages in conventional weaponry to create a fait accompli in eastern Estonia. Having bitten off a chunk of NATO territory, Moscow might then state that any NATO attacks on Russian sovereign territory would constitute unprovoked escalation and threaten a nuclear reaction should NATO respond.

In such a scenario, which may sound a bit far-fetched but not impossible, the Russian air defense and other military systems that NATO would need to attack in order to dislodge Russian forces from Estonia could easily be operated from within Russia’s own territory. If unprepared, NATO might find itself unwilling to countenance precisely the kind of escalation it would need to undertake to eject Russian forces from the territory of a member state. A failure could precipitate the collapse of the Alliance, with the gravest consequences for Western security.

As Elbridge Colby – Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)- recently noted, the Kremlin wants to re-establish its sphere of influence in its near abroad, possibly including the Baltics, and it wants to push back and divide NATO. Russia has the conventional capabilities to invade sovereign states and shift borders, as we have seen in Ukraine. The Russian army today is well-trained, well-equipped and professional. A great deal of attention has been given to nuclear forces and how to use them for strategic and political effect. The Kremlin has evinced particular interest in the notion of “escalating to de-escalate”—the idea of conducting a dramatic nuclear, or lapel-grabbing nonnuclear attack to spook the other side into backing down.

NATO and Western powers have largely neglected such contingecies since the end of the Cold War. The Western alliance gave scant thought to defending the Baltics until recently. It marginalized and demoted consideration of nuclear-weapons policy in favor of arms-control and disarmament.

This might have been wise in the placid ’90s, but it is dangerous today. The problem must be acknowledged. Gen. Breedlove’s comments represent a step in this direction. More needs to be done. Allied governments, and particularly the Western nuclear powers, should consider very seriously how they would respond to a Russian attempt to leverage its conventional and nuclear strengths to bite away part of the alliance. NATO’s options cannot boil down to suicide or surrender.

The aim is not to make more likely nuclear war, or any kind of war. Rather the opposite. The premise of NATOs strategic concept is that security comes from strength. There is instead a dangerous vulnerability to a State that has made very clear it will take advantage of such openings. The best way to persuade such a power that it shouldn’t do so is to make it clear that it will lose out from any such aggression.

In practical terms, as suggested by Keith B. Payne- National Institute for Public Policy, Missouri State University-that could be translated as follows:

  • we must recognize that post-Cold War expectations about Russia do not reflect reality and adjust NATO countries policy accordingly. Confident claims that serious crises and possible conflict with Russia were a thing of the past have proven overoptimistic, as has the assumption that Russia would continue to comply with arms control treaties;
  • reinvest in intelligence capabilities to better understand contemporary Russia, including its nuclear developments. After nearly two decades of treating Russia as a potential ally, the intelligence community needs to adjust becausewe didn’t have the partner we thought we had;
  • Western declaratory policies must be clear and coordinated to help ensure that President Putin understands that any use of nuclear weapons always would be the worst of all Moscow’s possible options;
  • re-establish the credibility of Nato deterrence and red lines, particularly against nuclear first use. NATO capabilities must help to deny Moscow’s apparent confidence that the West would be compelled to concede following a Russian nuclear first use. That gap in deterrence capabilities must be closed;
  • NATO’s political will and conventional capabilities must be sufficiently united and robust to deny Russia’s claim that its Army could be in five NATO capitals within two days. That is a tall order, but given Moscow’s revisionist foreign policy and nuclear threats, perceptions of NATO disunity and conventional weaknesses are highly provocative and destabilizing.


Current efforts should be directed towards avoiding both escalation and mere containment, and working instead towards a pragmatic partnership, centered on the NATO-Russia Council. The once so dense network of contacts is not going to be reactivated in the foreseeable future but precisely in times of crisis, communication must be maintained in order to keep possibilities of deescalation open.

Even if the political blockade continues, practical technical steps can be agreed to:

1)    avoid unintentional military escalation and make use of a military-level crisis contact mechanism. An agreement between Moscow and NATO on rules of behaviour for the safety of air and maritime encounters would also be useful

(2) revive classical arms control to stem the erosion of existing  agreements. In the first place, by preserving the Vienna Document, as the most important current OSCE package on conventional arms control.








©2024 Giulio Terzi

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