NATO Summit The Return of the Nuclear Option

At the NATO summit in Warsaw, the alliance will be hoping to send Russia’s Vladimir Putin a message not to mess with the West. But the renewed focus on nuclear deterrence poses risks.
Several NATO members have nuclear weapons, including the UK and it's Trident submarine fleet.

When it’s a matter of war and peace, sometimes a free weekend has to be sacrificed.

And so it was last Saturday and Sunday as dozens of senior diplomats met in Brussels, home to NATO HQ, to put the finishing touches on the final communiqué that the Warsaw NATO summit is to adopt this weekend.

The paper includes about 120 points. It deals with Russia, hybrid warfare and cyber warfare, and also addresses Islamist terrorism, the deployment of AWACS aircraft for the surveillance of Syrian airspace and aid to Libya.

An endless and terrifying agenda.

And a subject that for 20 years hardly played a role at the NATO summits has re-emerged and has been gaining prominence in the weeks leading up to Warsaw: the dimension of nuclear deterrence.


The United States isn’t withdrawing from Europe; on the contrary, it is increasing the number of its soldiers. Oliver Meier, Arms-control expert, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

“We are once again confronted with the old issues,” is a statement being heard in the alliance’s Brussels headquarters. Nuclear deterrence – although never given up as a strategic concept – had vanished from the minds, plans and military exercises. Now, it's back.

Deterrence – the word smacks of the Cold War, and after the war ended, it was increasingly out of fashion. Taking its place was a lot of talk of “partnership” between Russia and the West. NATO’s planning was no longer focused on defending the alliance’s territory but instead deploying troops on military missions far beyond its own borders. In Afghanistan, for example. And nuclear weapons were of no help against the Taliban.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Eastern Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea in spring 2014 came as a shock to the alliance.

NATO was once again reminded of its core mission: territorial defense. Meanwhile, the alliance had expanded about 1,000 kilometers further to the east as a result of two rounds of enlargement, and the new partners – especially the Baltic states – feared they, too, could suffer Ukraine’s fate.

So when the NATO heads of state and government last met in September 2014 in Wales, they agreed to measures to “reassure” the new eastern allies. Among the measures were new, swifter deployment forces, including a “spearhead” meant to be ready for action within a very short time frame.

Two years later, NATO is taking a huge step further. “Deterrence” is again taking the place of “reassurance.”

The word in Brussels is that the Wales summit had only been “the initial response.” In the meantime, alliance officials have had to come to the realization that Ukraine was “not a one-off.” So the NATO Council charged the planners in Brussels with rethinking and reformulating the West’s response to Russia’s foreign and defense policies.

We now have the result.

The conceptual basis for the resolutions to be adopted in Warsaw is constituted under the heading, "Principles and Key Tenets of Credible Deterrence and Defense." In the secret paper, NATO planners come to the conclusion that the military presence in the alliance’s east must be considerably and visibly increased to protect alliance members against an attack by Russia.

And that’s precisely what is now happening with the stationing of four multinational battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States will each command a battle group. These battalions, say sources in Brussels, aren’t there on an exercise. “Those are units that can fight, and are meant to fight, should they be attacked.”

The message being sent to Russia is very clear because among the countries in command are Britain and the United States, both nuclear powers – and it could become three if the French also participate with a contingent.

If you look at the number of soldiers, totaling not more than 4,000, NATO is stretching out only a tripwire. But this tripwire, and the warning from Brussels had best be understood this way, is hot-wired.

The Americans are also transferring an armored brigade to Europe. This is in line with the new deterrence strategy. The United States isn’t withdrawing from Europe; on the contrary, America is increasing the number of its soldiers. Russia, in turn, has announced the shifting of three divisions into its western military districts in response to the strengthening of NATO forces in Eastern Europe.

None of this is comforting. “Russia and the West are on the brink of a renewed confrontation," former U.S. defense secretary William Perry recently wrote.

Just in time for the Warsaw summit, the alliance posted an article by Camille Grand, a French expert on the strategic concept, on its online magazine, NATO Review. In the article, he complains that the alliance’s nuclear debate has been confined to the subject of disarmament and that NATO has “risked losing sight of the core purpose of the alliance’s nuclear capabilities.” In summation, Mr. Grand says the 21st century could be more nuclear than expected.

NATO most of all wants to send one message to Mr. Putin in Warsaw: Don’t go too far!

That was also a reason the diplomats were wrestling during the weekend with the question of how clear the language should be about nuclear deterrence, how direct and how specific. The prepared paper read as follows: “The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability remains to preserve peace, deter aggression and prevent coercion. For that political purpose it is in use every day.”

It further states: “The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.” That’s what was also stated in the alliance’s nuclear policy guidelines in 2012. Now, however, the tone is tougher: “But no one should doubt NATO’s resolve if the security of any of its members should be threatened.”

What it means, say officials in Brussels, is: don’t mess with us!

In contrast to Russian military doctrine, NATO strategy has always clearly differentiated between conventional and nuclear warfare. It’s supposed to stay that way.

But in Brussels, officials are deliberating about how they should react if nuclear attacks, which are regularly practiced in major Russian field-training exercises, actually happen. In recent months, the Americans have sent B-52 strategic bombers to maneuvers in the Baltic Sea region. Should the European allies again start exercising more often with bombers that can be equipped with nuclear weapons?

And should that also apply to the German military’s Tornado fighter-bombers, which have taken part in NATO’s operations?

About 20 U.S. nuclear warheads are stockpiled at the German air base in Büchel under a sharing agreement. In about four years, the warheads could be replaced by B61-12 nuclear weapons, which can be more precisely targeted. The German Luftwaffe’s Tornados would have to be modified to carry the weapons, and their pilots would have to undergo further training. Does a successor to the Tornado need to be purchased, such as the ultra-modern F-35? The German government is remaining silent on the matter.

Another question: Alongside adapting the military-exercise program and increasing operational readiness, shouldn't the NATO Council’s decision-making ability be improved too? Officials have also been considering that question in Brussels. For 20 years, little thought had been given to this subject. But now we are hearing it’s a matter of the alliance members “winning back our strategic alertness.”

Independent experts are worried.

“Russia is stressing the role of nuclear arms more strongly than before,” said Oliver Meier, the arms-control expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “Consequently, the issue should be addressed. But one shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to challenge the Russians in an area where we can only lose.”

It already seems clear the Warsaw resolutions will provoke a strong reaction in Russia – from stationing nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the region of Kaliningrad to terminating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

“We are in a new Cold War,” a high-ranking Russian scientist said in Berlin a few days ago. Should the INF treaty break down, “we could experience a repeat of the European missile crisis of the early 1980s.”

It’s conceivable that, in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, NATO wants to draw a firm red line, behind which the West’s territory begins and which Mr. Putin should never cross. But the new rationale of deterrence could become highly dangerous, should the hardliners on both sides have their way.

“Today we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe,” Sam Nunn, a former U.S. senator, recently wrote. Mr. Nunn is a significant strategic thinker and a great champion of disarmament. At the high point of the Cold War, he wrote, the West and Russia maintained strategic stability through an open and direct dialog.

“If we could do it then,” asks Mr. Nunn, “why can’t we do it now?”


This article was originally published in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]