NATO Must Make a Nuclear Deal With Russia

NATO Must Make a Nuclear Deal With Russia

The specter of nuclear war is closer than ever in the Ukraine conflict.


NATO’s 75th anniversary might seem to some like a good opportunity for the alliance to double down on its core mission: deterring and, if necessary, defending member states from Russian aggression. But increasing defense capabilities alone isn’t enough to reduce the risk of conflict with Russia. NATO, and especially the United States, should consider negotiations with Russia to reduce the dangerous nuclear risks that have been exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict.

This task is particularly salient with the recent addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO—two countries in Russia’s vicinity that abandoned neutrality for the U.S. security umbrella, which now runs from the High North to the Black Sea. Moscow will have to rely even more on its nuclear arsenal to compensate for conventional military inferiority relative to NATO. Nuclear weapons will feature prominently in future crises as a coercive tool to convince adversaries to settle disputes on Moscow’s terms. Indeed, Russian nuclear threats have, so far, successfully deterred NATO from directly intervening in Ukraine. They have given Russia a competitive risk-taking advantage in a conflict where its interests are inherently greater than those of NATO and the U.S.

Russia’s nonstrategic, or “tactical,” nuclear weapons provide its political leadership with flexible and discriminate strike options, such as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and gravity bombs. According to the latest assessment from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Russia’s nuclear arsenal includes more than 1,500 nonstrategic warheads that can be delivered by air, land, and sea platforms, almost all of which are dual-capable. Though these warheads are kept in storage, the FAS assessment noted that “many regional storage sites are located relatively close to their launcher garrisons and in practice warheads could be transferred to their launch units on short notice.”

With significantly lower yields than strategic warheads, Russia could conduct a “limited” nuclear strike that leaves room for further escalation unless its opponent settles on terms acceptable to Moscow. Options for a limited strike include attacking Ukrainian military logistics hubs, concentrated defensive positions, or military-industrial facilities. Another low-yield “nuclear shock” option available to the Russian political leadership is a demonstration test—a measure that multiple high-profile Russian analysts have argued will stop NATO from further escalating the war.

Russia’s nuclear threats should not be dismissed as empty signaling. The Russian Defense Ministry has held several exercises with its strategic nuclear forces since the war began. For the first time last month, Russia announced it was conducting drills for “the preparation and use of non-strategic nuclear weapons” with Kinzhal and Iskander missiles in the Southern Military District bordering Ukraine. Both missile systems have been used extensively in Ukraine with increasing lethality. Notably, Russian officials said the latest drill was a response to statements from France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the United Kingdom’s Foreign Minister David Cameron that NATO forces might intervene if Ukrainian lines collapse, and Ukraine could use British-supplied weapons to strike targets in Russia.

The drills aren’t for show. They reinforce the combat credibility of Russia’s nuclear forces by serving as a concrete reminder that it can execute tactical strikes. Consider that the United States routinely tests its nuclear forces for the same reason: “to demonstrate the readiness of U.S. nuclear forces and provide confidence in the lethality and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.”

Another worrying sign that the Ukraine conflict has worsened nuclear security in Europe was the deployment of dozens of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in March. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian officials have framed the deployment as a response to NATO’s military buildup in Eastern Europe. In tandem with Russia’s tactical nuclear exercise, last month Belarus held drills involving Iskander missiles and dual-capable fighter jets.

Analysts correctly point out that Belarus’s hosting of nuclear weapons doesn’t increase the material threat to NATO since the missiles and bombs deployed there could still hit allied territory if launched from Kaliningrad or Russia proper. But the option to launch an attack from Belarus provides the Russian political leadership with more flexibility on the escalation ladder. For instance, if NATO intervened directly, Moscow could launch a limited attack against Ukraine using nuclear weapons based in Belarus. Since the attack originated from Belarus this would lower the risk of a retaliatory NATO strike against Russia that would surely lead to a more violent nuclear response.

Russia’s increased reliance on nuclear weapons won’t change with a political settlement in Ukraine; NATO will remain a conventionally superior opponent. But the Russia–Ukraine war is the most likely reason nuclear weapons could be used in Europe, a prospect that President Joe Biden equated with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the possibility of “Armageddon.”

Still, NATO and the United States should work toward an agreement with Russia that eliminates the most immediate pathways for nuclear escalation. This would involve a commitment to keep Ukraine out of NATO and NATO forces and infrastructure out of Ukraine—a policy directly in line with the U.S. interest of avoiding a war with Russia. Instead, a posture of armed neutrality would help Ukraine defend itself against renewed Russian aggression without running the risk of a direct NATO–Russia war.

NATO has accepted an uncomfortably high risk of nuclear escalation in Ukraine for too long. On its 75th anniversary, the alliance should not court the same fate it prudently avoided throughout the Cold War.

The post NATO Must Make a Nuclear Deal With Russia appeared first on The American Conservative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *