WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Although the Hanoi summit failed to achieve a historic deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and sign a peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea, relations between the two nuclear states have improved since last year, when war seemed imminent.

And with the Trump administration recently announcing the cancellation of another series of planned sanctions against North Korea, it’s safe to say that impending nuclear war is far from the minds of most Americans. 

But tensions are rising steadily with another longtime U.S. foe and nuclear rival: Russia. Both the U.S. and Russian governments have announced their intentions to suspend the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty after accusing each other of treaty violations. 

The treaty had been signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, banning the testing, production, and deployment of short and medium range nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that could hit targets within 500 to 5,500 km (approximately 310-3,100 miles). 

At the time, the INF treaty was considered a first step toward the U.S. and Russia decommissioning their nuclear arsenals and ending the specter of nuclear world war.

With both Russia and the U.S. modernizing their nuclear arsenals, relations are now at their worst in the post-Cold War period. A Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe Russia poses a “critical military threat” to the U.S., and a record 73 percent of Americans have a negative view of Russia — the highest rate recorded since 1989.

Amid these rising tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in February that his country can now station submarines off the U.S. coast armed with hypersonic nuclear weapons that can strike U.S. military facilities within five minutes of launch, and is developing undersea nuclear drones that could devastate both naval bases and coastal cities.

Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and creator of the nuclear weapons effects simulator NUKEMAP website, told Angelus News that the U.S. and Russia’s decision to walk away from the INF treaty makes it seem like both nations are headed into a new nuclear arms race. 

Even more troubling, Wellerstein added, is that neither nation seems to understand each other’s concerns in a bid to acquire more nuclear options.

“A lot of these dynamics are a failure to show how the other side thinks,” he said.

The U.S. is now the biggest conventional military power in the world, and the Russians have been modernizing their nuclear forces to increase the threat to U.S. military command and control centers on the U.S. mainland, “because they fear conventional losses.” 

They cannot match NATO tank for tank, and are far outstripped in warships.

“The Russians’ reliance on tactical nuclear weapons is a sign of weakness,” he said.    

“They are looking for ways to offset us.”

The decision to abandon the treaty follows moves by the Trump administration to strengthen the U.S. nuclear “triad” (land-based missiles, long-range bombers, and submarines that could deliver a nuclear response) by adding more options for delivering “low-yield” nuclear weapons that could be deployed in a battlefield situation in a conflict with the Russians.

Wellerstein said his concern is that the U.S. is lowering its own threshold for using nuclear weapons by envisioning a scenario where it could use a low-yield nuclear weapon as a tactical response to Russian aggression.

A wake-up call 

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF treaty has rattled his European and NATO allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reached out to China to join the INF treaty negotiations in a bid to save it. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has also ruled out deploying any short or intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe.  

“The era of Trump is one of unpredictability and disruption,” Mary Ellen McConnell, a professor of law and international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, told Angelus News. 

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands before their one-on-one meeting at the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/LEAH MILLIS, REUTERS)

McConnell said Europeans had been complacent about nuclear weapons, because they trusted U.S. presidents like Barack Obama to be predictable and make rational, informed decisions with them.

“The Europeans do not want to see the INF treaty terminated and that is what the U.S. is doing,” she said.

McConnell said Trump’s unpredictability may get Europe to take denuclearizing the planet seriously again.

“I don’t think disrupting some of this complacency is bad,” she said, explaining that the situation was fraught with “risk” but also “opportunity.” The situation creates buy-in for the European nations to raise their voices and insist on arms control treaties, and for the U.S. to have a national conversation about its own leadership in working toward a nuclear free world.

Both the U.S. and Russia account for the vast majority of the world’s stockpile of 14,000 nuclear weapons. Despite his rhetoric in favor of a world free of nuclear weapons, Obama had refused to commit the U.S. to join a global treaty banning nuclear weapons.

“This definitely is sending a wake-up call to the complacent,” she said.

What to do about INF?

A new strategic framework may be needed to address not just nuclear proliferation, but also other global threats, such as cyber and anti-satellite warfare, according to Frank Rose, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who focuses on nuclear security and strategy.

“We are not going to save the INF treaty,” he said, explaining that a new arms control framework should try to address all those possibilities.

Rose told Angelus News that the Russians offered the U.S. to mutually withdraw from the INF treaty in 2005, driven in part by concerns over China. Russia has had military conflicts with China before, and China is armed to the teeth now with intermediate range missiles since it is not a party to the INF treaty.

“We’re seeing a return to great power competition,” he said.

Because the Russians cannot compete with U.S. and NATO conventional weapons, he explained, Russia has invested in new weapons to neutralize potential threats from the U.S. with their own asymmetric military responses.

McConnell said the INF treaty, like other treaties between nations, are “living documents” that need to be maintained with “constant attention and good diplomats.”

However, treaties require nations to honor and respect international law, which McConnell indicated the U.S. has often failed to do since the early 1990s. 

While President George H.W. Bush promised post-Soviet Union Russia that the U.S. would not humiliate Russia, but would be committed to multilateralism and the equality of states on the world stage, McConnell said the Clinton administration pushed a foreign policy that had the U.S. act without regard to international law. 

For Russia, the turning point was Kosovo, when the U.S. and NATO bombed Serbia, Russia’s ally, humiliating Russia because it exposed how impotent and decrepit their military had become.

“We attacked their fellow Slavs and they could do nothing,” McConnell said, adding that Putin has referenced Kosovo when he invaded Ukraine in February 2014 and annexed Crimea.

“Since [Kosovo], the Russians have been building up their forces and putting pressure on their neighbors not to join NATO,” McConnell said. U.S. further violations of international law, particularly during the Obama administration, reinforced the message to Russia and China that great powers act independently of international law, and have set the stage for further conflict.

Whither the Catholic voice?

In the midst of last year’s crisis over North Korea’s successful test of ICBMs that could deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the U.S., Pope Francis condemned as immoral the “very possession” of nuclear armaments, and not only “the threat of their use.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a canon lawyer and former naval officer who is president of Donnelly College, told Angelus News that the “INF treaty” was a major victory, which “outlawed a particularly pernicious type of missile.” 

With these missiles, he said, both sides in the Cold War had just minutes to evaluate whether they faced a full-scale invasion or nuclear onslaught and how to respond.

“The quicker you make decision times in the whole apparatus of deterrence the more dangerous it is,” he said.

Pope Francis greets attendees at a conference on building a world free of nuclear weapons, at the Vatican in 2017. The conference brought together 11 Nobel laureates, top officials from the United Nations and NATO, diplomats from around the world, experts in nuclear weapons and the disarmament process, scholars, activists and representatives of bishops' conferences. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Catholic teaching states clearly that even if a nation has a just motive to defend itself with warfare, it does not teach that a nation can use whatever means necessary. 

The Church teaches that for justice in warfare (“jus in bello”), the use of weapons has to both be “proportionate” in stopping the threat from an unjust aggressor, and “discriminate” between combatants and noncombatants.

Swetland said based on those principles, the destructiveness of nuclear weapons to human populations and the lasting effects they leave on the environment, make them nearly impossible to use morally under any scenario.

“You can’t threaten to use weapons that are immoral to use,” he said, adding that the U.S. attitude toward nuclear weapons is deeply utilitarian. The U.S. is the only nation that has ever used them, devastating two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It still reserves for itself the right to deploy nuclear weapons in a first strike, and is planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade and maintain them.

“We are wasting resources, everything from money to scientific know-how on weapons that we can never really use,” he said. “And if we do use them, you know we’ve already lost.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, and a frequent contributor to Angelus.

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!