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Commentary | 1 June 2020

Playing Warsaw against Berlin on nuclear weapons

The German domestic dispute about its future role in NATO nuclear sharing is heating up again. But the discussion took a new turn when in May 2020 US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher tweeted “If Germany wants to diminish nuclear capability and weaken NATO, perhaps Poland – which pays its fair share, understands the risks, and is on NATO’s eastern flank – could house the capabilities.” How much merit does this “perhaps” have?

NATO nuclear sharing is an arrangement in which the United States deploys about 150 nuclear free-fall bombs in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey, of which about 80 are for delivery by European NATO aircraft. Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Amsterdam possess nuclear-certified planes and train their pilots on the nuclear mission, while several other Allies, including Poland, would support NATO nuclear operations with conventional air tactics (SNOWCAT).

In December 2015, asked if Poland would want to join NATO’s nuclear sharing program, Deputy Defence Minister Tomasz Szatkowski said, “concrete steps are currently under consideration.” The interview stirred confusion. The Polish Ministry of Defence rectified that it was not working on Poland’s accession to the program. It pointed out that Szatkowski’s statement should be read in the frame of the then on-going international discussion about widening allied participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing. It also made clear that Warsaw did not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and that any form of Polish participation in NATO nuclear sharing requires domestic and allied political arrangements. Yet since the interview, rumours that Poland is interested in joining NATO’s nuclear sharing have become prevalent.

Limited technical merit

Poland does not host American nuclear weapons. It does not have the necessary infrastructure to do so, nor does it possess aircraft certified for the nuclear mission. Poland participates in SNOWCAT and observers spotted Polish F-16 aircraft supporting NATO’s nuclear strike exercises in 2013, 2014 and 2017. Warsaw has recently ordered 32 F-35A aircraft with the first anticipated for delivery between 2025 and 2026. The United States certified the F-35 to carry tactical nuclear weapons. Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands already procured or ordered the jets to replace their ageing dual-capable aircraft prescribed to NATO’s nuclear mission. While the Polish procurement of the F-35 could be interpreted as building readiness to receive weapons, it should be remembered that other NATO allies with no roles in nuclear sharing (like Denmark and Norway) also bought F-35.

Legal uncertainty

Moving American nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland and Polish participation in NATO nuclear sharing is not a clear-cut matter legally either. Poland is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article I of this treaty, applicable to nuclear-weapons states, prohibits the transfer of “control” of nuclear weapons “to any recipient whatsoever.” While some experts view existing NATO nuclear sharing arrangements compatible with the NPT, others voice scepticism.

Questionable militarily benefits

A potential relocation raises plenty of questions on its military necessity, advantages and risks. What has changed in NATO’s nuclear capabilities or security environment that the bomb requires deployment closer to the Russian border? If a closer deployment is necessary, what does it say about the credibility of nuclear weapons stationed deeper in Western Europe? What added value to the credibility of NATO nuclear deterrence would such a move bring?

That a relocation of nuclear weapons to Poland would outrage the Russian Federation is certain. Warsaw would need to expect increasingly threatening rhetoric and additional political and military responses. Russia currently claims to deploy its non-strategic nuclear warheads in central storages; neither mounted to nor stationed next to delivery means, but could change its policy and move nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad. Would deployment of American nuclear weapons on Polish territory offset any existing or additional threat layers Russia would impose?

Vague political benefits

Poland is widely considered a “true believer” in nuclear deterrence. The recent National Security Strategy envisions active Polish participation in shaping NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and enhancing NATO’s deterrence and defence.

Domestically, nuclear weapons lack political or societal attention. No political powers question NATO nuclear sharing and whilst this gives the Polish government an almost free hand on nuclear weapons policy, it does not necessarily guarantee social indifference. In general, younger Poles voice more support for nuclear weapons. A 2015 poll indicates that about six out of ten Poles aged between 14 and 20 feel that nuclear weapons make them safe. But half of the Polish respondents of a 2016 poll would not agree to NATO nuclear weapons deployments in Poland, with only about one in four supporting such a move. Public sentiment aside, given that no anti-nuclear organisations like ICAN or Global Zero are active in Poland, any debate on nuclear stationing would most likely take place in a small expert circle.

Internationally, many NPT member states, especially those belonging to the Group of 77, would inevitably criticise such a relocation. This would add to the anger of those who feel that nuclear-weapon states do not deliver on their promise to disarm, and could result in further destabilising the NPT.

And while experts argue that the deployment of American nuclear weapons on European soil gives hosting states some leverage on US nuclear policy, there is not much evidence to back this up.

A clear breach of political commitments

However, a relocation would constitute an act against a political commitment NATO made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. There, NATO allies stated having “no intention, no plan, and no reason” to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, including Poland. Yet due to the many instances in which NATO assesses Russian behaviour to have deviated from the shared values, commitments and norms of behaviour enshrined in the act, Allies are divided on whether it is still effective or not.

The merit

The United States never publicly offered Poland to become a host state. In October 2019, when the US government was reviewing plans for evacuating its nuclear weapons from Turkey out of political concerns, no US government representative openly suggested relocating these weapons to Poland. Ambassador Mossbacher seems to have simply instrumentalised Poland, playing Warsaw against Berlin.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN aims to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: U.S. Air Force Photo by Lorenz Crespo