Back in May of 2012, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization published its “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review,” stating that the Alliance would work towards creating conditions permissive of further non-strategic force reductions in Europe. At the same time, however, nuclear weapons remained a “core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence.” The crisis in Ukraine, aside from seemingly invigorating NATO, has brought nuclear weapons in Europe – and therefore NATO’s nuclear weapons – back into the spotlight. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday that Russia’s activities in Crimea will likely affect arms control efforts, and pleaded with European Allies to increase their overall defense spending. This, in combination with the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands taking place yesterday and today, suggests that now is a prime opportunity to review NATO’s nuclear reality.
First and foremost, let’s get something straight: Russia’s activities in Ukraine are not a sign of NATO’s failure to deter (although it does not bode particularly well for the Alliance either). Ukraine is not a NATO member and does not officially (or implicitly) fall under its Article 5 mutual defense umbrella. Even the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which specifically concerns respecting Ukraine’s national borders, does not require the United States and the United Kingdom – whom you might call NATO princelings – to respond militarily to a violation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Ultimately, Russia has never launched a conventional or nuclear attack against a NATO Member (although some accuse the Kremlin of perpetrating the massive wave of cyber attacks Estonia experienced in 2007). So NATO’s deterrence has not failed.
And yet, the great curse of deterrence is that we cannot truly know if it has succeeded, either. How do you explain a nonevent? Did Russia plan to invade Poland in 2002, and then give up that program in the knowledge that it would trigger a nuclear response? Or perhaps Russia is simply uninterested in Poland (admittedly, this seems unlikely if you take a long view of history and Russia’s tendency to expand outwards in pursuit of security and the Russian exceptionalist dream). It’s nearly impossible to say either way.
There are other problems with NATO’s deterrence posture. For one thing, its development of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability flies in the face of traditional deterrence theory (which is no doubt part of why Russia objects so strongly to it). One of the cardinal rules of deterrence is that both sides (whomever they may be) must have an assured second-strike capability that will inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy in retaliation for launching an initial attack. BMD capabilities reduce the likelihood that unacceptable damage will be inflicted – meaning that your opponent will not be deterred from launching an initial strike. While NATO’s BMD is not truly directed against Russia and is not truly even oriented around deterring nuclear attacks, on the whole missile defense does not – theoretically, at least – work very well with a deterrent posture (hence the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed by the U.S. and the USSR back in 1972, and from which the U.S. withdrew in 2002). This issue has been a huge source of tension between the Alliance and it’s Partner for Peace to the east.
Another challenge – this one common to all states possessing nuclear weapons – is credibility. Deterrence does not simply mean having enough weapons to inflict unacceptable damage: Your adversary must believe that you have the capability as well as the will to use it. Would NATO – all 28 Members – ever be able to agree on launching a nuclear response, especially to a non-nuclear attack against one Ally? The Alliance does work to ensure that all member nations participate in planning and in command, control, and consultations regarding nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Planning Group allows nuclear and non-nuclear Allies to help develop NATO’s nuclear policy and posture. The question of whether the Alliance would actually resort to using nuclear weapons, however, remains unanswered. It is not implausible to argue that the stigma surrounding nuclear weapons (and especially their use) may discourage Allies from viewing them as a true option.
Finally, some have expressed exasperation with the fact that NATO’s nuclear deterrence capabilities have proven insufficient to stop Russia from interfering in the internal affairs of Alliance hopefuls. The 2008 war between Georgia and Russia is held up as a prime example of this. NATO had promised Georgia eventual membership during its 2008 summit, but the latter’s war with Russia in August of that year essentially froze momentum. Some have linked Russia’s decision to act directly to Georgia’s “flirtation” with the Alliance. Although there had been no direct overtures between Ukraine and NATO directly preceding this more recent crisis, the argument that protesters’ EU-preferences are suggestive of a desire to join the Alliance are not completely absurd (especially since Allies did agree at that same 2008 summit that Ukraine would eventually become a Member). This represents a legitimate criticism of the Alliance’s deterrence posture, but only if one assumes that it’s nuclear policies extend beyond actual membership to potential, future Allies. That assumption is questionable
An even more important question for NATO today, however, is which of its abilities (or combination thereof) actually bears responsibility for deterring Russian activity against actual Allies (keeping in mind the fact that NATO capabilities are not officially directed against any particular adversary – potential or current). During the Cold War, the Soviet Red Army’s vast conventional superiority meant that nuclear weapons were pretty much all that stood between the USSR and a Soviet European continent – at least in the minds of the West. That is no longer the case. Despite declining defense spending over the past decade in Europe (military budgets have shrunk by 10-15%), NATO has a significant degree of conventional superiority over Russia (in terms of capabilities, if not willingness to use them). Perhaps, then, a nuclear deterrent against Russia is not truly necessary (especially considering the fact that Russia maintains some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, NATO is estimated to have between 160 and 200 gravity bombs in Europe).
Of course, all of this is not to recommend that NATO entirely abandon its nuclear weapons. If nothing else, maintaining a minimal deterrence force will help ensure that the Alliance is not subject to nuclear blackmail, even if that force is not solely responsible for preventing Russian (or other) aggression. In addition, the weapons have a great deal of symbolic significance that may only become more important in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At the same time, NATO and especially its eastern Allies need to recognize (as they have in the past) that playing chicken with Russia is not a good idea. While the argument that Russia has a right to a buffer zone against the Alliance is tired, NATO should recognize that some neutral(ish) space between them might be just as much in its interest.