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Enhancing European Security: Reasons for Phasing NATO’s Nuclear Weapons out of the Region

Maryia Hushcha, RAUN 2016 Award Recipient
Maryia Hushcha, RAUN 2016 Award Recipient

Maryia Hushcha, a master student of International Relations at the Comenius University in Bratislava, was one of the award recipients of the 2016 Regional Academy on the United Nations (RAUN) presented at the January 2016 ACUNS-Vienna Annual Conference held in Vienna, Austria. Within the framework of RAUN Maryia co-authored a best-paper entitled “No Progress Tomorrow” or ‘Non-Proliferation Treaty? Analysis and solutions to a number of NPT problem areas’.  As a result, RAUN award recipients were invited to submit essays for consideration of publication on the VCDNP website.

Ms Hushcha authored the following essay in June 2016. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the VCDNP.


It has become quite common among politicians, academics and journalists to refer to the strained relations between Russia and Europe as a new Cold War. One of the reasons for drawing such a parallel, among others, is renewed attention to nuclear weapons in the rhetoric and actions of Russia, as well as Western decision-makers. The following few examples, if put in the context of the current Russia-West relationship, indeed justify these comparisons. Last year NATO conducted a military exercise in Estonia. Russia immediately responded by carrying out their own military training, just on the other side of the Estonian border.[1] In May 2015 a Russian nuclear-capable bomber flew close to the British air space zone scrambling the Royal Air Force fighters.[2] In November 2015 NATO member states discussed the relevance of resuming certain kinds of nuclear exercises,[3] and on the last day of that year President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s new National Security Strategy that has placed an even greater emphasis on the role of Russia’s nuclear deterrent as a mechanism for conflict prevention. Finally, NATO’s large-scale military exercise “Anaconda” in Poland, conducted on the eve of the Alliance’s summit in Warsaw, further indicates the seriousness of the security situation in Europe. These developments could indeed evoke forgotten fears of the past among older generations and cause confusion among young people, who have so far considered the nuclear threat and the East-West conflict to be a relic of the past.

Tense security relations with Russia will become one of the central themes at the NATO summit in Warsaw this July. Despite the attempts of certain NATO Member States to achieve withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from Europe, both the 2010 and 2012 NATO summits only reasserted NATO’s nuclear status quo, hardly ensuring consensus within the transatlantic alliance.[4] The pledge to consider further reductions of NATO’s nuclear stockpile if Russia was willing to do the same[5] was probably one of the few positive signals that were made at the 2012 summit with regard to nuclear disarmament. However, considering the current NATO-Russia relations, any such reciprocity can hardly be expected. As Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams have noted, waiting for reciprocity “is a recipe (…) for forcing NATO to continue spending money on anachronistic nuclear weapons”.[6]

NATO’s nuclear reductions in Europe seem even less likely, given the opinions voiced by the Lithuanian and Polish presidents at the Munich Security Conference this February indicating that the Central European states will advocate for ever stronger NATO presence on the eastern flank of the Alliance.[7] The Eastern European members of NATO desire a firm response to Russia which is expected to take into account the transatlantic alliance’s nuclear capabilities. Undersecretary of State in Poland’s Ministry of National Defense Tomasz Szatkowski, writing for the Atlantic Council special project ‘Alliance at Risk’, calls for modernization of NATO’s TNW and even for stationing elements of the US nuclear early warning system in Poland.[8] While Poland and other Eastern European countries’ concerns about Russia are understandable, renewed attention to the nuclear deterrent is not an adequate way to de-escalate the conflict. Mirroring Moscow’s actions will not bring more stability but rather further destabilize the situation in the region. On the contrary, NATO’s commitment to reduce its nuclear stockpile in Europe would be a smart and responsible move.

Increased reliance on nuclear weapons by any party deeply undermines the essence of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Under Article VI of the NPT states pledge to pursue in good faith complete nuclear disarmament. Such developments as Russia’s modernization of its nuclear capable Borei submarines[9] or US plans to replace its Europe-based B61-3 and B61-4 nuclear bombs with a more advanced B61-12 version[10] clearly contradict these commitments. Although some might argue that weapons modernization is not in conflict with the NPT, as it does not imply increases in a nuclear stockpile, John Mecklin has aptly noted that “weapons innovation is to become the new mode for arms competition”.[11] In fact, a number of nuclear experts have warned that more sophisticated nukes considerably increase the likelihood of the actual use of the weapon.[12] Regardless of the number of warheads a state possesses, making them stealthier, more precise or enhancing their destructive power can hardly be called a commitment to nuclear disarmament. Given that the credibility of the international treaty has already been undermined by the lack of consensus at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, further weapons’ modernization as well as renewed emphasis on the nuclear deterrent in Europe could further deteriorate an already gloom environment surrounding the global non-proliferation regime.

In a recently published book, ‘The War That Must Never Be Fought’, Isabelle Williams and Steven P. Andreasen persuasively argue that huge amounts of money spent by NATO on maintenance and modernization of its nuclear weapons could instead be invested in enhancing the Alliance’s conventional capabilities.[13] While some experts and diplomats argue that US nuclear weapons in Europe guarantee the security commitment of the United States to their allies,[14] neither the status quo nor strengthening NATO’s nuclear presence would make Europeans more secure. A risk of nuclear confrontation with Russia is extremely low and US TNW stationed in Europe play more a psychological than an actual military role.[15] To provide real protection it would be more reasonable to phase out American TNW from Europe and pour the freed-up resources into NATO’s conventional capabilities[16] instead of indulging in the cold-war thinking about the advantages of a nuclear deterrent. While the argument put forward by Camille Grand about the risk of an unintended crisis being caused by Russia’s demonstrative flights involving nuclear-capable aircraft[17] is a legitimate one, it is not a reason for NATO to stick to its current nuclear status quo. The most secure way to lower the risk of a nuclear conflict is to eliminate U.S. nuclear weapons from the European continent. NATO would act as a responsible global actor if it followed this logic that has been advocated for a long time by some of its member states. Hopefully, the voices of those traditional opponents of the nuclear arms in Europe will not be silenced at the upcoming NATO summit by the demands of Central Europeans to protect them by all means. This is not to say that the concerns of Central Europe should be ignored. However, investing in nuclear weapons would in no way provide for more security in the region.

NATO’s tit-for-tat strategy towards Russia in nuclear matters is exactly how Moscow expects the Alliance to respond, fulfilling the Kremlin’s hopes that its nuclear weapons will guarantee that Russia maintains its global power status. In his book Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, David Campbell suggests that in order for a state to create an identity it needs to construct an external danger.[18] For example, the Cold War was crucial for the formation of an American identity as a democratic capitalist state, as opposed to an authoritarian communist Soviet Union.[19] While the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, this mechanism of creating dangers remains the same. Today the external dangers the United States fights include other threats, such as terrorism, human trafficking or drug use.

The same logic of self-identification can also be applied to Russia. Although the identity of any state cannot ever be fully determined, Russia’s self-description seems to be particularly confusing today taking into consideration its country-specific interpretations of democracy, market economy, freedom of speech or international law. However, out of the many identities Russia has assumed over the course of its history, it has always desired to possess one quality: the identity of a great power. The acquisition of nuclear weapons during the Cold War era helped Moscow achieve this status. However, after 1991 nuclear weapons lost their central standing, and economic rather than military might has become a defining feature of a world power. The fall of oil prices in 2014 and subsequent collapse of the Russian economy have already seriously undermined Russia’s global standing, with experts predicting that even worse times are still to come.[20] Intervention in Ukraine and military involvement in Syria coupled with the strong rhetoric and frequent references to Russia’s nuclear capabilities have also served as a tool in attempts to regain Russia’s prestige by utilizing methods that proved effective in the past. The National Security Strategy supports this argument as it declares Russia’s national priority as “the strengthening of its status as one of the leading world powers”.[21]

By responding to Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling with the modernization of NATO’s TNW in Europe and maintenance of the nuclear status quo, NATO would prove that these methods indeed work. However, as another international relations scholar Erik Ringmar noted, “the West has much more influence over a future Russian identity than it is commonly assumed”,[22] as what has been important for Russia when constructing its identity was its recognition by the West as an independent cultural entity. Europe, while perceived by Russians as a major competitor in military, economic, and cultural terms, has also been seen as a subject of admiration since the times of Peter the Great. “The West cannot tell Russia what to be”, Ringmar writes, “but what the West can do is to use its power to grant or withhold recognition for the self-descriptions that the Russians themselves come up with”.[23] Therefore, arguments claiming that Russia would interpret US nuclear withdrawal from Europe as a sign of weakness might be misleading. By diminishing the role of US nuclear weapons and ultimately phasing them out of the region, NATO would demonstrate its refusal to recognize Russia’s nuclear muscle-flexing as a sign of an existential threat or a legitimate means of conflict regulation in the twenty-first century. A change of perceptions about the role of nuclear weapons in the West would gradually lead to a similar change in Russian perceptions. Thus, the response of the transatlantic alliance to Russia’s renewed emphasis of its nuclear capabilities could potentially be indicative of whether it is indeed a new Cold War that we are entering.

[1] ‘Nato and Russia hold rival military exercises on Estonian border’ (The Telegraph, 25 February 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[2] ‘Britain scrambles Typhoon jets to escort Russian bombers’ (Reuters, 14 May 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[3] Kingston Reif, ‘NATO Weighs Nuclear Exercises’ (Arms Control Association, November 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[4] Oliver Meier ‘NATO Sticks with Nuclear Policy’ (Arms Control Association, 31 May 2012) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams ‘The problem with NATO’s Nukes: Time to Rid Europe of its Cold War Legacy’ (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2016) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[7] Matthew Bodner ‘European Divisions Drive Munich Conference, While Russia Circles’ (DefenseNews, 18 February 2016) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[8] ‘Alliance at Risk’ (Atlantic Council, February 2016) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[9] ‘Russia Modernizing Fourth-Generation Borei-Class Nuclear Subs ’ (Sputnik, 18 December 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[10] ‘U.S. Nuclear Weapons on the Territories of 5 NATO States’ (NTI, 16 July 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[11]John Mecklin, “Disarm and Modernize” (Foreign Policy, 24 March 2015) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[12] See, for example William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, ‘As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy’ (New York Times, 11 January 2016) < 2016/01/12/science/as-us-modernizes-nuclear-weapons-smaller-leaves-some-uneasy.html?_r=0> accessed June 30 2016 or Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams ‘The problem with NATO’s Nukes: Time to Rid Europe of its Cold War Legacy’ (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2016) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[13] Isabelle Williams and Steven P. Andreasen ‘The Debate over Disarmament within NATO’ in James Goodby and George Schulz (eds), The War that Must Never be Fought (Hoover Press 2015)

[14] Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams ‘The problem with NATO’s Nukes: Time to Rid Europe of its Cold War Legacy’ (Foreign Affairs, 9 February 2016) <> accessed 30 June 2016

[15] Nikolai Sokov ‘The “Return” of Nuclear Weapons’ (oDR, 28 November 2014) < > accessed 29 February 2016

[16] Isabelle Williams and Steven P. Andreasen ‘The Debate over Disarmament within NATO’ in James Goodby and George Schulz (eds), The War that Must Never be Fought (Hoover Press 2015)

[17] ‘The Salience of Nuclear Weapons after Ukraine: Camille Grand’ (IISS, 12 November 2015) <> accessed 29 February 2016

[18] David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 1992)

[19] Ibid.

[20] Pavel Koshkin, Ksenia Zubacheva, ‘The worst of the Economic Crisis Lies Ahead’ (Russia Direct, 22 January 2016)
<> accessed 30 June 2016

[21] Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 31.12.2015 № 683 “О Стратегии национальной безопасности Российской Федерации” (Official Portal of Legal Information, 31 December 2015) < > accessed 29 February 2016

(the author’s translation to English)

[22] Erik Ringmar ‘The Recognition Game: Soviet Russia Against the West’, (Cooperation and Conflict: Journal of the Nordic International Studies Association, 2002) Vol. 37(2): 115–136.

[23] Ibid.