Russia’s Actions Resolve NATO Nuclear Dilemma — For Now

NATO Nuclear Dilemma: NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels 2010

NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels 2010

Nikolai Sokov
Miles Pomper
September 2, 2014

NATO leaders meeting in Wales September 4-5 face calls to alter the alliance’s nuclear policy in the wake of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Still, practical realities and military logic are likely to limit the chances of a major change in the foreseeable future and appear virtually inconceivable for the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency. Rather, changes to the alliance’s defense posture are more likely to involve a strengthening of its conventional deterrent.

The End of Uncertainty about US Nuclear Deployment in Europe

The ripple effect of Russia’s actions has ended a period of uncertainty concerning NATO’s nuclear posture. As Obama was calling for moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons in his 2009 speech in Prague, Germany led a push by several NATO states—including some that host US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW)—for their withdrawal. That push was opposed by other, newer members of the alliance from Eastern and Central Europe, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Poland. Seeking to paper over this crack in the alliance, NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR) effectively maintained the status quo: the numbers and locations of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe remained unchanged. Further reduction, the DDPR said, could only come in the context of an agreement with Russia on TNW, which, the DDPR made clear, had to be asymmetric, given the massive Russian superiority in that category, with the balance commonly assessed as 2,000 vs. less-than-200 US weapons in Europe and less than 500 worldwide. Or, as the DDPR stated, “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles …” [1] The use of word “reduction” clearly suggested that, even under the unlikely scenario of some sort of an agreement with Moscow, a portion of US TNW would remain in Europe.

After that, uneasy calm descended on NATO’s nuclear policy. DDPR effectively amounted to compromise language that did not fully satisfy any member state, but was acceptable to all of them as the lowest common denominator. It was a “satisficing” solution to the underlying political tensions that the Obama administration had to address. With its pivot to Asia and NATO deployments to Afghanistan, the administration had chosen to draw down US forces in Europe and had also sought a “reset” in relations with Russia. Coming in the wake of the 2008 Soviet invasion of Georgia, these changes raised fears among Russia’s NATO neighbors that alliance security guarantees might ring hollow. In this context, the retention of relatively inexpensive, existing nonstrategic weapons was a much cheaper price to pay—in both economic terms and diplomacy with the Kremlin—than the kind of conventional forces that would actually have provided a stronger military deterrent to Russia.

Still, the DDPR did not resolve key issues, such as the multibillion dollar expense of maintaining this capability in the future, which will require replacing the aging nuclear gravity bombs and dual-capable aircraft (DCA) to drop them (and which can also carry out conventional missions).

Moreover, the talk about a dialogue with Russia on TNW reductions was doomed from the beginning: Moscow made it clear that it was not interested in a separate deal on TNW, which, they felt, had to provide for the complete withdrawal of US TNW from Europe and address precision-guided conventional weapons and missile defense as well. It seemed that a new stage of debate on nuclear policy was looming on the horizon and one could only hope that the next round would bring greater clarity about the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s security policy and in its nuclear posture.

That moment came earlier than anyone could anticipate. Two issues will dominate the nuclear agenda at the Wales Summit.

The first is the unfolding crisis in Ukraine: first and foremost, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian support for the rebellion in two eastern regions of Ukraine. Several of the Central and Eastern European members of the alliance are concerned that Moscow could apply the same tactics toward them, which they regard as a direct threat to their security. Consequently, they insist on strengthening NATO’s deterrence capability; for some of them, this includes an enhanced role for nuclear weapons. Even states that are apparently less alarmist see Russian behavior as detrimental to the network of European security regimes and view Moscow’s actions with great concern; they will advocate a strong response, although not necessarily in the nuclear area.

The second issue is the alleged Russian violation of the INF Treaty, which bans land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with the ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Reportedly, Russia has tested a new cruise missile with the range well in excess of 500 kilometers, and there are reasons to believe this is intended to be deployed on land. There is also a concern about a new ballistic missile, which is certainly not a violation of the INF in the legal sense, but which apparently has an intermediate-range capability.

The range of options available for NATO is quite narrow—it can reaffirm the present policy, limit policy change to a rhetorical statement, withdraw from the “three no’s” policy set in the 1997 US-Russia Founding Act[2] and deploy TNW in the territory of new members of NATO, or—the least likely option because of high financial costs and risk of destabilization—decide to develop and deploy a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles effectively reproducing the stand-off of the 1980s which led to the INF Treaty.

Regardless of the choice, there is little doubt that US TNW will remain in Europe for the foreseeable future. In the wake of Russian action, calls for their withdrawal have lost much of their appeal, even in states that advocated the withdrawal or had intense debate about the wisdom of the presence of these weapons in their territories. While opposition to continued deployment of TNW and, in general, reliance on nuclear weapons will continue, it will hardly have a noticeable effect on the policy of NATO or of individual members of the alliance. This situation will likely remain unchanged through the end of Obama’s term. Predictions beyond that point, given potential changes in US politics and budget realities in Europe and the United States, are more difficult to forecast.

Have Nuclear Weapons Become More Relevant?

In Wales, the central issue that leaders will need to address is whether the current mix of nuclear, conventional, and defensive weapons is still “appropriate” (as the term was used in the 2012 DDRP) or if more emphasis needs to be placed on the nuclear component. While the summit, for all practical purpose, is likely to rule out reducing the role of nuclear weapons, the wisdom of moving in the opposite direction will be contested.

Underlying this question—and defining the answer—is the nature and extent of the perceived Russian threat to members of the alliance in East/Central Europe following the crisis in Ukraine. Some will undoubtedly argue that the new level of Russian assertiveness and the demonstrated willingness to use military power to achieve political ends amount to a radical increase in the level of threat; this point of view assumes Russia’s offensive use of military power, which might not stop at Ukraine unless balanced with credible military options. Others will likely say that the use of military power was intended to maintain a sphere of influence and prevent the eastward progression of the European Union as well as—eventually—enlargement of NATO; viewed through these lenses, Russian behavior is largely defensive and results in a major destabilization in Europe, but does not constitute necessarily a new threat to NATO.

In either case, nuclear weapons do not represent an adequate and reasonable military response. The only difference between the two perspectives is that the perception of Russian behavior as offensive will make it politically easier to make an argument in favor of greater reliance on nuclear weapons. Yet in terms of possible nuclear missions, the crisis in Ukraine has hardly changed anything. The tactics used by Moscow in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine have relied on pro-Russian sentiment of a significant section of the population in the target country; troops come later, whether overtly or covertly, and then only in limited numbers and with limited missions.

Among East/Central European members of NATO, only the Baltic states can, to some extent, be vulnerable to such tactics, but the Russian communities there can hardly play the same role—the majority of Russian-speakers who wanted to leave have already left, and among those who remain, a very large portion appreciate living within the European Union with all the travel and other opportunities EU membership confers on them. Domestic disturbances could only become possible—and even then to a limited extent—if the Baltic states decide to take “preventive measures” against Russian-speaking residents and citizens and thus provoke them.

In any event, nuclear threats can hardly be credible to deter Russia from exercising the same scenarios as were used in Ukraine. These weapons are, after all, only fit to deter a major aggression—something that is hardly in the cards in the foreseeable future. Any change of NATO nuclear policy can only amount to a political message rather than a substantive response to a perceived higher level of threat.

Paradoxically, almost any option that NATO can take with regard to nuclear weapons (or any other option that enhances its defense posture) will benefit the Russian government. Even the most modest of them—the decision to maintain the existing nuclear posture and allocate funds to replace DCA in the coming years—will nonetheless be used by Moscow as evidence that its earlier assessments that NATO constituted a threat to Russia (made in the 2000 and 2010 Military Doctrines, among other documents and statements) were justified. This rhetoric will certainly be primarily intended for the domestic audience, which is the only audience that matters for the Kremlin today. The Russian reaction to even the smallest change in NATO’s nuclear policy can be readily gauged from the response to a reported proposal by Baltic states and Poland to reorient the alliance’s future missile system toward Russia: Moscow’s reaction amounted to “we always knew it was against us, now NATO admits that publicly.”[3]

A decision to revoke the promise made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act not to deploy nuclear weapons in the territory of new members, while making sense from a technical perspective (if deployed in Eastern and Central Europe instead of Western Europe, DCA would not need to refuel to reach Russia), would contribute even more to the anti-Western rhetoric of Moscow and provide strong justification for the possible additional deployments of nuclear weapons, of both strategic and nonstrategic range.

When NATO leaders meet in Wales, they will face a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, they cannot afford to forgo reacting to Russian behavior in and toward Ukraine—at least, the United States and an increasingly vocal group of alliance members in East/Central Europe will insist on it; “old” members also take an increasingly strong line toward Moscow. On the other, almost any NATO reaction could trigger a Russian counterreaction. The scale and nature of the Russian response will be primarily determined by its intentions vis-à-vis Ukraine and the West in general: if Moscow decides to wrap up the conflict using a face-saving solution, Russian response to NATO will be limited to rhetoric; if, however, it wants a justification to change its own military posture, it will use almost any decision in Wales toward that end.

In the end, the prospect of a heightened military stand-off to the north of Ukraine (North-Western Russia, Baltic states, and Poland) as well as between Russia and the United States is largely out of NATO’s hands as it will be primarily determined by Moscow’s decision to either up the ante or wind down the confrontation. The only element that NATO can influence is the nature of that stand-off. It can be kept non-nuclear if the alliance continues with a limited deployment of conventional forces (along the lines of rotational deployments as well as a base—probably in Poland—for equipment and supplies to facilitate fast deployment of troops if necessary) and equally limited adjustments to missile defense posture. If, however, the alliance changes its nuclear posture or undertakes a major conventional deployment (and especially if this involves long-range high-precision strike weapons), the Russian counterresponse could be elevated to the nuclear level.

Thus, the parameters of the NATO response appear tight. The safest option at this stage seems to be a symbolic response that does not change the substance of the alliance’s defense posture or strategy. These could be further modified at a later date depending on Russia’s behavior in the coming several months—whether it decides to de-escalate the conflict and search for a compromise negotiated solution, which will effective freeze the conflict for several years, or escalates it further. It can be said that the Wales summit is badly timed for deciding on NATO’s nuclear response; three or four months from now, the situation should be considerably more definitive and could give the alliance greater clarity with regard to its options.

The INF Dilemma

Another issue pertaining to nuclear policy that the Wales summit will need to address is the status of the INF Treaty, which banned all US and Soviet land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and possible reaction to the US statement that Russia has violated it. According to the 2014 Compliance Report issued by the Department of State, “the United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations” under that treaty. The report clarifies that the accusation refers to tests of an intermediate-range cruise missile, which is believed to be ground-launched. Technical details of the system in question or the specific nature of concern were not disclosed, but apparently the missile was tested in a manner which is not consistent with the exception the Treaty makes for flight tests of sea- or air-launched cruise missiles from land (it was reported that Russia unofficially explained these involved a new sea-launched cruise missile).

It is well known that the INF Treaty is not held in high regard in Russia and many have advocated withdrawal from it; in fact, withdrawal could have happened at any moment in the last seven or eight years. Paradoxically, the US accusation makes withdrawal more difficult for Russia: it is one thing to withdraw from a treaty that is outdated and no longer perceived to be in national interest (as the United States claimed when withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002) and quite another to withdraw after being caught cheating. The Russian agreement to hold a high-level meeting to discuss compliance with the INF after several years of refusing to hold such a meeting suggests that Moscow takes its reputation seriously and feels bound to attempt to clear its record. Whether it decides to withdraw after resolving the current allegations (or an unsuccessful attempt, which will take time and effort) remains unclear, but withdrawal is certainly less likely in the near future.

The list of concerns about the status and future of the INF treaty is not limited to the suspected intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile. There are also concerns about a new strategic missile, R-26, which was tested several times at an intermediate distance. Legally, this is not a violation because that missile classifies as strategic, since it was at least once tested to a range above 5,500 kilometers, but some suspect that the true mission of that missile is for substrategic ranges (on the other hand, the flights to shorter distances could have been simply intended to test missile defense penetration capabilities). Regardless of the legal status of the issue, that missile could also become a subject for discussion in Wales.

Furthermore, there are suspicions that the new tactical missile system, Iskander, which can use both ballistic and cruise missiles, might have a range longer than allowed under the INF Treaty. Some studies have claimed that the ballistic missile version of Iskander could have the range of 700 kilometers; the maximum range of the cruise missile version is unknown, but it is widely believed that its design is based on a sea-launched cruise missile, which has the range of 2,000 kilometers. There is no legal case against this system, but these suspicions will certainly contribute to a discussion of whether and how NATO should react to the apparent unraveling of the INF Treaty.

Whether the high likelihood of eventual Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the suspicions about intermediate-range capability of its new tactical missiles warrant a change in NATO’s nuclear posture remains to be seen and could become a subject for a serious discussion at the summit. Any response will have to take into account financial and political limitations: a decision to develop and deploy new intermediate-range missiles would involve high costs, which the alliance probably cannot afford at the moment. Moreover, convincing European publics to accept a new deployment of nuclear weapons was difficult enough in the 1980s when the United States successfully used this plan to leverage Russia into withdrawing its own intermediate-range forces. This is virtually impossible to imagine today, not to mention that carrying out such a step could revive the very dangerous missile stand-off of the 1980s, which the INF Treaty resolved. In short, new NATO deployments of the systems INF bans do not seem likely in the current circumstances.

Commentaries and analysis by American nongovernmental experts have almost uniformly argued against deploying new missiles. In the end, the United States and its allies still have unquestionable superiority in long-range conventional strike assets, in particular in air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, which are not subject to the INF Treaty. Thus, escalation to the nuclear level will be not only dangerous and expensive, but also unnecessary, especially since conventional assets are more usable and thus more pertinent than nuclear ones. There are also reasons to believe that Russia is also shifting emphasis to long-range conventional weapons.

Under normal circumstances, the likelihood that the United States and NATO would assume a cautious attitude and refrain from an immediate reaction to concerns about Russian behavior with regard to intermediate-range missiles would be high. Of course, the crisis in and around Ukraine changes much in this regard. It is much more difficult to advocate caution while some alliance members will likely demand a substantive response to the perceived new challenge. Financial constraints remain the strongest obstacle to any change of posture to counter Russian INF developments.


The Wales Summit will most likely mark the end of debates about retaining US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Proponents of the continued presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe were strengthened by Russian actions in Ukraine and in regard to the INF Treaty.

The stability of NATO nuclear policy will probably last for a number of years. If it is shattered, the jolt may come from a less-discussed direction: Russian efforts to acquire a modern long-range conventional precision-guided capability. Russia already has some capability in that area—Iskander tactical missile systems as well as air- and sea-launched cruise missiles—and many other weapon systems, as well as targeting, command and communication systems, are still under development. These efforts will hardly succeed before the end of this decade, or even early in the next. If Russia acquires that capability, NATO’s nuclear policy might have to change again. Conventional weapons are perhaps less glamorous or scary than nuclear ones, but they are more usable and in this sense might represent a more dangerous development. It will be difficult to predict whether NATO will decide to counter in kind—i.e., with conventional weapons—or by enhancing its reliance on nuclear capability, and will likely depend on the vision of the next US president as well as the budget realities of the day.


[1] “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review,” North Atlantice Treaty Organization, May 20, 2012,
[2] In that document, NATO declared it had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members” or construct new or adapt old nuclear weapons storage facilities; NATO also said its collective defense mission will not include “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the territories of new members. “Founding Act,” North Atlantice Treaty Organization, October 12, 2009,
[3] Yuri Gavrilov, “NA TO i Tselilis [That Was the Original Target],” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 26, 2014,

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