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Commentary: NATO Must Reopen the Nuclear Dossier

March 9, 2016 (Photo Credit: Staff Illustration)




Months before NATO's Warsaw summit in July, there is hesitance to tackle the issue of nuclear deterrence. Some allies push for clear deterrence messages against a neo-imperial Russia, others try to avoid the issue given the delicacy of nuclear questions in societies.

Still, considering the developments since 2014, the alliance will not be able to dodge the fundamental nuclear question of how to deter whom with what.

NATO’s nuclear consensus, enshrined in the 2012 “Deterrence and Defense Posture Review,” was based on the condition that Russia is a partner of NATO who will not employ its nuclear posture against the alliance. These conditions, plus a number of other basics of the previous nuclear debates, are no longer valid. 

• After the annexation of Crimea, Russia ended its partnership with the alliance. The post-Cold War “European peace order” based on such institutions as NATO, EU or OSCE no longer exists. Under President Putin, who is likely to stay at the helm in Moscow until 2024, a change of Russia’s current confrontational stance should not be expected. Hence, the current realities of the Article-5 world of collective defense with its demands for deterrence are presumably to remain.

On the contrary, Putin seems caught in a “patriotism trap,” which forces him to constantly take foreign policy risks in order to fuel Russian patriotism and preserve his domestic support in light of worsening economic conditions. 

• Russia considers nuclear weapons an integral part of its military power and especially as a way to compensate for its relative lack of conventional forces compared with NATO. Furthermore, nuclear forces are regarded as one of the last remaining elements of the former Soviet superpower status. Meanwhile, Russia increasingly uses its nuclear posture as a means of nuclear messaging. Flying nuclear-capable Bear bombers close to NATO’s borders or simulating nuclear strikes against Sweden or Poland in conventional exercises project are signals of intimidation and nuclear resolve. 

• In light of Moscow’s current nuclear reasoning, nuclear arms control in Europe — i.e. the mutual reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons — is no longer an option. For understandable reasons, Russia will not be willing to give away nuclear weapons it regards as a compensation for its conventional weakness.

Moreover, in December 2014, Russia finally terminated the Nunn-Lugar Act, a pillar of US-Russian nuclear cooperation and a core instrument to help Russia dismantle its excessive nuclear arsenal. 

• North Korea is fervently pursuing its nuclear weapons program, despite international sanctions and distinct criticism of its protector, China. Since China is apparently unwilling to discipline the stone-age leadership in Pyongyang by cutting or at least interrupting the lifelines of money or energy, North Korea’s nuclear stockpile will rise.

In less than a decade, the country is likely to have more nuclear warheads than France or the UK. This could spur neighboring countries to strive for nuclear weapons, further nuclearizing the region. South Korean and Japanese think tanks air these options already. 

• Many nuclear powers never fully subscribed to the idea of a nuclear-free world as proclaimed by US President Obama in 2008. Besides, Asian nuclear powers never experienced a Cuban missile crisis, which prompted the West to reassess nuclear weapons. Thus, nuclear reductions are not regarded as a value in itself in countries like India, China, Pakistan, North Korea or Israel. 

In light of these changes, NATO cannot avoid reopening the nuclear dossier to reassess the needs for nuclear deterrence in the “Article-5 world,” even if some allies hesitate for political and domestic reasons. Given the sensitiveness of the topic, the alliance should proceed in two steps.

At the Warsaw summit, member states should agree on wording that highlights the need for nuclear deterrence against any threat to NATO territory, in order to reassure the allies in Eastern Europe. Given the profound changes ignited by Russia annexing the territory of a sovereign European state, just repeating previously agreed language would not be appropriate. 

After the summit, NATO should initiate a comprehensive nuclear debate comparable to the process that led to the Deterrence and Defense Posture review. This debate should focus on the questions of how to get a consensus in NATO on the future role and relevance of nuclear deterrence.

How can NATO best communicate its nuclear deterrence messages; which signals have to be sent to a potential aggressor? What shall be NATO’s declaratory policy? What does it take to make US extended nuclear deterrence for their European allies credible? Is the deployment of US nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear countries necessary and if so, which hardware (weapons and means of deployment) is required? What is the relation between nuclear deterrence and NATO’s missile defense capabilities? 

Even if some allies don’t like these questions, kicking the can down the road is not an option for NATO.

Karl-Heinz Kamp is the president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin. These views reflect only those of the author.






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