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Commentary | 12 November 2015

Updating NATO’s nuclear posture: Necessary? Feasible? Desirable?

Deterrence NATO Nuclear Weapons Global Security

Does NATO’s nuclear policy need an update? The recent commentary by Jacek Durkalec for the ELN made the case for an adaptation. Five years ago, the proponents of nuclear reductions by the Alliance were the ones who asked this question. Today, it is the advocates for an increased reliance on nuclear deterrence who doubt whether NATO’s nuclear posture is still adequate.

This turnaround reflects the dramatically changed circumstances of the debate over NATO’s nuclear policy. In 2009, President Barack Obama pushed for a world free of nuclear weapons. Now, the U.S. administration sees arms control merely as an instrument to improve strategic stability. Even before the current crisis, in 2013, Moscow withdrew from the discussions on nuclear issues in the NATO-Russia Council. Since then, Russia’s nuclear posturing during and after its annexation of Crimea has put an end to efforts by NATO to engage Russia on non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

There is no doubt that nuclear deterrence in Europe is back on the agenda. Nevertheless, those who want to open “Pandora’s Box” and revise NATO’s nuclear doctrine need to answer the same three questions that were put to arms control advocates five years ago: Is it necessary to update nuclear policies? Is a new consensus feasible? And most importantly, would greater reliance on nuclear weapons improve European security?

Regarding the purported necessity for an update, the case for revising NATO’s nuclear policy rests on the stated need to deter further Russian aggression. It is argued that NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not credible because the Alliance has not been able or willing to send collective nuclear messages. This is an exaggeration. In fact, NATO has already begun to adjust its nuclear practices.

Since the Ukraine crisis, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group has met twice at the level of Defence Ministers and decided to review the practice of nuclear exercises. Involvement of Central European Allies in NATO’s nuclear exercises has reportedly increased.

Moreover, NATO doctrine states that the “supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States.” Therefore, recent nuclear exercises and redeployments by the United States can also be considered as a part of the Alliance’s nuclear messaging.

Addressing the question of the feasibility of changing the Alliance’s nuclear consensus, it seems that the key allies do not have much appetite to engage in a debate about more far-reaching revisions. Any such move would require reopening the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review report (DDPR), which states that the Alliance’s nuclear forces meet “the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture.” At the 2014 Wales summit, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Allies could only agree to disagree over how to address the future of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. Thus, they let this first opportunity to change NATO’s nuclear posture pass.

The July 2016 Warsaw summit will provide the next political opportunity to initiate a review of NATO’s nuclear policy. Yet, it is not clear why the mood in Warsaw should be any more conducive for such a debate than in Wales, given that Russia’s military presence in Eastern Ukraine has decreased since last year and consultations and cooperation with Moscow over Syria and Iran have increased. Germany, for example, has already put down one marker, stating that it does not want to revise the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Proponents of an update should be careful what they wish for. A debate which highlights the differences, rather than the commonalities among Allies’ positions on nuclear weapons could undermine the credibility of NATO’s deterrence posture.

The toughest question to answer is whether greater reliance on nuclear weapons would increase European security. Many options are on the table. The modest end of the spectrum covers an update of NATO’s declaratory policy and more assertive nuclear messaging. Some have argued that the United States should deploy new nuclear assets in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF). Termination of the Founding Act, also hinted at, would pave the way for the deployment of nuclear weapons closer to the NATO-Russian border.

The core purpose of these proposals is to prevent, deter and counter Russian attempts to politically “use” its nuclear weapons to intimidate and divide NATO allies. As the argument goes, deterring Russia during a nuclear crisis would increase the Alliance’s freedom of action. One often-cited scenario involves Russian aggression, backed up by threats of nuclear escalation, against one or several Baltic states. Leaving aside the question of whether Russia is able and willing to attack NATO directly, deterring “hybrid warfare” by nuclear means would be inherently difficult. Unconventional warfare is designed to stay below the threshold of triggering direct military responses. Introduction of nuclear options under such circumstances could complicate a unified response by the Alliance. It also increases the likelihood of mishaps or misunderstandings and, thus, risks of involuntary escalation or incidents. Looking beyond the hybrid warfare scenario, a direct attack by conventional or nuclear Russian forces on NATO territory or forces would trigger Article 5 consultations among NATO members. In such a case, existing nuclear sharing arrangements provide a well-established mechanism to assess whether a nuclear response by the Alliance would be desirable.

Thus, increasing reliance on nuclear weapons to counter Russia’s more aggressive policy does not appear necessary, feasible, or desirable. Rather than getting ahead of itself on how to react to Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship, NATO should embark on a comprehensive, open-ended and inclusive dialogue about its future deterrence and defence posture.

A prerequisite for an informed debate is a shared understanding among allies of the rationale behind Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship. Even well-informed observers disagree on whether Russia’s nuclear policy reflects a coherent, long-term strategy by the Kremlin or whether it is the outcome of ad hoc decision-making.

Such a dialogue would not necessarily have to lead up to a new Strategic Concept or a DDPR 2.0, but it should address all aspects of deterrence, not only options to increase the role of nuclear weapons. The debate should also evaluate the impact of the nuclear agreement with Iran on NATO’s missile defence plans and provide an opportunity to discuss the implications of modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

In the run-up to the adoption of the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Alliance embarked on an unprecedented process of involving stakeholders from parliaments and think-tanks in the debate. Building on such a process and broadening participation would greatly enhance the legitimacy of a new deterrence posture.

Meanwhile, NATO should continue to try to engage Russia in a dialogue to avoid accidents and incidents as well as better understand its nuclear policy. A range of proposals have been developed by experts, including by the Deep Cuts Commission and a track II dialogue sponsored by the Centre for International and Security Studies.

A discussion on the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture needs to be started again. But Allies should avoid jumping to conclusions about the need to put more emphasis on nuclear deterrence. NATO should exhaust all constructive options in responding to Russian activities before rattling its own nuclear sabre.


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’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.