Nuclear arms and the Ukraine crisis
Russische militaire kolonne
As a result of the war in Ukraine, nuclear weapons have come to prominence again. A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, President Vladimir Putin announced that he had ordered nuclear weapons to be placed on ‘special alert’ status. Russia has a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons that are designed to be used on the battlefield, against troops or military installations.
In the same week that president Putin made his threat, a referendum in Belarus resulted in the country’s non-nuclear status being buried. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Moscow, warned US/NATO that he could open his country up to new nuclear weapons: “If you transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions”, said Lukashenko. At the time of the Soviet Union, there were nuclear weapons in Belarus, which were handed over to Russia following an agreement in 1994.
The danger of a new nuclear arms race in Europe seems to become reality. For example, official documents from the US indicate that the UK is named as an additional site for the deployment of US B61 nuclear bombs within the framework of NATO’s nuclear sharing. At the beginning of April 2022, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Polish Deputy Prime Minister, stated that his country was open to the possibility of deploying US tactical nuclear weapons.
Regardless of whether president Putin is playing bluff poker and the risk of nuclear war has actually increased, his multiple nuclear threats are an illustration of how dependent we are on the whims of a small group of rulers, their missteps, miscalculations and emotions in times of crisis. They are a confirmation of the weaknesses of the idea of ‘deterrence’ attached to most nuclear doctrines. Dan Ellsberg, who played a central role in US nuclear planning in the 60’s, showed in his book ‘The Doomsday Machine’ (2017), that the doctrine of nuclear deterrence is nonsense. He listed 25 cases of US plans for a first use of nuclear weapons, from Presidents Truman to Clinton. Shortly after his book appeared, Trump also threatened to launch a nuclear attack to “completely destroy North Korea” in the summer of 2017.
NATO as a nuclear alliance
Nevertheless deterrence was and still remains the main argument in the US/NATO doctrine for maintaining and upgrading nuclear arsenals.
Although nuclear weapons are not mentioned in the NATO Treaty, they have played a role in the military strategy since the establishment of the military alliance in 1949. This was limited in the beginning. That changed towards the end of the 50’s. The US concluded several secret cooperation agreements with NATO allies for the deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory, without parliamentary knowledge or approval. Due to this secrecy, which is maintained up to now, it is impossible to have a democratic debate. Governments of nuclear sharing countries invariably reply that they ‘neither confirm nor deny’ the existence of US nuclear weapons.
After the Cold War, the importance of nuclear weapons decreased and there were large reductions in the arsenals. But two decades later, NATO declared suddenly to be a ‘nuclear alliance’ at the Lisbon Summit (2010).
There was a political reason for that. Nuclear solidarity within NATO was under pressure, after the foreign ministers of Germany, the Benelux and Norway sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Rasmussen in early 2010 asking him to question NATO’s nuclear policy. US foreign minister Hillary Clinton immediately made it clear that this was out of the question and responded with nuclear collectivisation of NATO to undercut the potential for intra-alliance resistance to nuclear arms. Calls for nuclear disarmament could thus be countered as anti-NATO.
The nuclearization of NATO as an organizational identity also allowed pro-nuclear actors to justify costly nuclear modernization programs and nuclear deployments as contributions to alliance “solidarity” and “cohesion”.
Nuclear sharing became a core component of NATO’s strategy. Of the three nuclear powers in NATO (France, the United Kingdom and the United States), only the United States has nuclear arms in other member states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Currently, the US has about 100 or more tactical B61 gravity bombs deployed in those countries. They have to be mounted into (not in Turkey) dual capable aircraft (DCA) in war time. This can be considered as a transfer or control by non-nuclear states of nuclear arms which is in breach with the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) of 1970. The NPT prohibits the direct or indirect transfer or control of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states.
These bombs will soon (2024?) be replaced by new B61-12 bombs. They are equipped with an electronic tail kit that can guide the bomb to its target. They have also lower yield options. The mixture of both, precision and lower yield options make them very dangerous. They could be seen by war planners as more ‘useable’. The new B61-12 will increase the danger of a war with nuclear weapons eroding the concept of ‘deterrence’ even more.
The USA is by far the country with the largest investments in its nuclear arsenals (half of the $ 73 billion of worldwide investments). It is estimated that over the next 30 years the US will spend between $ 1.300 and 1.700 billion! The US Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 called for investments in ‘low-yield nuclear weapons’, also known as tactical nuclear weapons, as a “flexible” nuclear option. The US has approximately 500 nuclear weapons that can be configured as ‘low’ yield weapons. But these have still the destructive capacity of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima
In the light of current events, it is important to outline the role of the development of a missile shield by the US and NATO as a source of tensions with Russia.
President Bush announced in December 2001 that the US would withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The effective withdrawal a half a year later marked the beginning of tensions with Russia. In 2004, the US began developing an ABM-system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defence System (GMD). It was his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who initiated 1997 a programme for a National Missile Defence. In 1999 US Congress passed the National Missile Defense Act (1999) to “deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack”. At the end of 2018 the total cost of the GMD-national missile shield was estimated at $68 billion (44 interceptors)
Parallel to the development of a National Missile Shield, the US start planning an extension of the missile shield in Europe. Under President Obama the US launched the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a combination of an ‘AEGIS’ missile shield at sea and on land. When it appeared that warships in the Black Sea would be equipped with the system, Russia protested. Nevertheless, Romania and Poland agreed to deploy SM-3 interceptors (as part of the missile shield) on their territory with a radar installation in Turkey. Spain would host four US AEGIS warships. The European missile shield is commanded from the airbase in Ramstein, Germany. The NATO summit in Lisbon (2010) decided to integrate this missile shield with the NATO missile shield (‘Teater Missile Defense’), launched in 2005 to protect NATO troops against short-range missile attacks on the battlefield.
The Kremlin reacted angrily to the development of the various missile shields. In his infamous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Putin expressed his displeasure. The implications of the development of various missile defense systems were important. In 2018, President Putin legitimised investments in all kinds of weapon systems, including ‘Hypersonic’ weapons, by referring to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty
According to the military Russian doctrine, “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, and also in case of aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.”
In practice, the Russian nuclear arsenal is also used for threats and blackmailing. In 2015, Moscow issued warnings, threatening to nuclear attack a Danish warship that was supposed to be integrated in the missile shield. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia issued several nuclear warnings. Russia’s nuclear arsenal, in this case, seems to be designed to prevent foreign interference in a regional conflict, rather than to ensure Russia’s survival (existential threat).
President Putin also made serious threats on the evening of the Russian invasion. Russia will immediately respond against all parties that would interfere or stand in Russia’s way with consequences of a nature “such as you have never seen in your entire past.” A few days later, Putin announced that the deterrent forces were placed in combat mode because “Western countries are not only taking unfriendly economic sanctions against our country, but because the leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country.” Russia warns as well that it will install nuclear and hypersonic weapons in Kaliningrad if Finland and Sweden join NATO.
As of 2022, Russia still has a total of almost 6.000 nuclear weapons. 1500 of them are obsolete and awaiting dismantling. Of the weapons that have been kept operational, one third are deployed on strategic carriers such as intercontinental missiles (812), missiles on nuclear submarines (576) and probably some 200 intended for strategic bombers. Russia also possesses almost 2.000 tactical weapons of various types: cruise missiles, torpedoes, supersonic cruise missiles, etc.
What is striking about Russia’s nuclear arsenal is that it has far more ‘tactical’ systems than the US. These serve as a counterweight to the much stronger conventional power of NATO and China.
Common security and nuclear disarmament
Unfortunately, it seems that the US and NATO are not interested in a quick end of the violence and in stead are pursuing the weakening of Russia with heavy arms supplies and a protracted war in Ukraine. Ukraine’s military encouragement complicates the conclusion of an agreement. We must be aware that such a policy could lead not only to the weakening but also to the destabilization of Russia, a major nuclear weapons power. That is not in the interest of Europe.
The danger of a nuclear war in Europe underlines the absolute need for de-escalation and the creation of diplomatic space to negotiate a political settlement based on the principles of a common and indivisible security (between US/NATO and Russia) and the Minks agreements (between Russia and Ukraine).
In every crisis there is an opportunity. The recent nuclear threats may set people in motion for nuclear disarmament. When hopefully the war in Ukraine can soon be ended, Europe’s political world needs to reflect on lessons learned. One of these lesson’s should be that we need to get rid of the threat of a nuclear Armageddon. That’s why we’ll have to re-establish a constructive political environment in which negotiations towards European nuclear disarmament are possible for all nuclear weapon systems in Europe. This is achievable if we rebuild relations with Russia, based on mutual respect based for each other’s security interests and confidential building measures. As was agreed in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 that helped to create the conditions for several disarmament agreements.
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