Could the renewed focus on non-strategic nuclear weapons signal a new era in Euro-Atlantic security?

It is 22 years since the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives were announced soon after the fall of the Berlin wall. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev declared massive unilateral cuts to their holdings of short range tactical nuclear weapons, and their militaries set about the task of dismantling them.

Unlike other arms control arrangements, there was no transparency, and no verification. The two sides were left to trust that the other was getting on with it. And the issue slid into obscurity. The fact that today the issues of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe are now to be included in bilateral U.S. – Russian arms control talks will provide for an important exercise which will contribute to enhancing trust and stability on the European continent.

Given that Russia and the U.S. still collectively possess more than 90% of global nuclear arsenals, the onus remains with them to maintain momentum in moving toward multilateral nuclear disarmament. This will continue to be a challenge for the former adversaries since further reducing numbers will require major changes to their doctrines and targeting policies, strategic/conventional force postures and greater and more open discussion around the development of ballistic missile defences. It will require increased transparency around the capabilities from both parties, as well as measures to deepen trust related to intentions.

Despite positive cooperation between Russia, United States and NATO on issues such as terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program, operations in Afghanistan and progress on agreements over strategic nuclear systems, the strategic defence policy documents of each country send at best mixed signals to the other as to the status of their relationship, fuelling mistrust and preventing constructive thinking on win-win scenarios to improve relations.

Recent developments have opened the opportunity to transform trust between the parties, potentially setting the scene for a comprehensive dialogue on arms control issues in Europe.

The announcement by Vice President Biden of the Obama Administration’s intention to reset relations with Russia in a February 7, 2009 speech to the Munich Security Conference was a signal of Administration’s desire to reverse the negative trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations throughout the Bush Administration’s terms of office. The subsequent ratification and implementation of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States cemented some improvement. Also more recently, the U.S. announcement in April of its intention to cancel deployment of phase IV of the U.S. European Phased Adaptive Approach to Missile Defence potentially provided further reassurance to Russia of the current intentions from the Obama Administration.

Distrust, of course remains. First and foremost, the Russians fear the inexorable development of U.S. technical capabilities, the expansion of its sphere of influence around Moscow, and the possibility that a future U.S. President could use these emerging capabilities in a more aggressive and hostile posture towards Russia. Already, they perceive, U.S. actions internationally show a greater disregard for Russian interests. Strongly attached to traditional concepts such as balancing of power, many Russians see a need to maintain overall strategic stability by matching preponderant U.S. capabilities with an effective Russian strategic deterrent.

In particular, the dialogue has until now excluded a vital element: the non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. These weapons are a true relic of the Cold War, whose sole purpose was to determine outcomes over territorial combat operations in Europe, has been overtaken by political and strategic transformation. Their maintenance sends a negative message to countries like Japan and South Korea that the presence of nuclear weapons is required to ensure extended deterrence, and that a nuclear umbrella is still required in the post-Cold War era.

The issue of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe is likely to be more difficult to negotiate than the strategic reductions given the difference in roles that U.S. and Russia assign to their non-strategic arsenals in their overall defence and deterrence postures.

In the changing international security environment the United States has expanded its conventional capabilities to a formidable size providing for a credible, alternative form of defence and deterrence. It has become a common view among senior political and military officials that nuclear weapons hosted in Europe play a largely symbolic role of U.S. commitment to the security of NATO allies.

Although Russian strategy documents refer to nuclear weapons as having a dual mission of strategic deterrence and limited use in response to a large-scale overwhelming conventional attack, they do not provide specific guidance on the role of non-strategic weapons. Russia is trying to offset its conventional inferiority by modernising its nuclear forces while conducting simulated nuclear attack exercises on targets in Europe.

Security strategies based on such dissimilar roles for nuclear forces provide a difficult background to opening negotiations with a view to achieving reciprocal steps, not to mention the numerical disparity that exists between the U.S. and Russia. Furthermore, taking into consideration the broader security perceptions of NATO allies in Europe, and their strong and varying perceptions of the significance of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed on their territories, the issue becomes even more complex.

NATO’s policy on nuclear weapons provides for another complicating factor. The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept confirmed the nuclear status of the alliance but it did not close down the debate. The subsequent discussions during the Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, whilst coming up with a text that unified the allies, were equally inclusive in closing down the longer term debate. The contradiction that the DDPR makes by assigning the role of a binding force to the non-strategic nuclear weapons (general assurance) while also positioning them as a bargaining chip in discussions with Russia (leverage over unlinked capabilities) provides a problematic setting for future bilateral negotiations.

President Obama could provide leadership and strengthen the cohesion of the Alliance by proposing the removal of these weapons from Europe in principle while working with allies on concrete policy steps that could be taken to more credibly reassure them about Alliance’s capability to defend them. A good forum for that seems to be the newly created NATO Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee, which will allow the allies to articulate their own policy proposals on transparency and confidence-building measures with Russia.

The transparency necessary to underpin the forthcoming arms control talks would contribute to enhancing trust between parties. If the United States were to lead in that process by declaring numbers of deployments, that would pressure Russia to follow with their own declaration. Achieving reductions in non-strategic systems would be a vital and unique contribution to the process of escaping Cold War military postures, a wish expressed in the latest Berlin speech.

This sensitive dialogue on non-strategic nuclear weapons, heavy on symbolism and light on credible deterrence, will be central to the reset project. Like any confidence-building mechanism, it requires transformative steps away from cautious suspicion towards trusting partnerships with enhanced understanding of mutual security concerns and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. In light of the emerging new security challenges and shifting global distribution of power, the time to take these steps is now.

A U.S. B-61 Bomb:

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