NATO’s Post-Ukraine Nuclear Policy: Wales Is the Beginning of a Process, Not the Decision Point

September 4, 2014 Topic: NATOPost-ConflictSecurity Region: UkraineEuropeUnited States

NATO’s Post-Ukraine Nuclear Policy: Wales Is the Beginning of a Process, Not the Decision Point

When NATO leaders meet in Wales, they will face a Catch-22 situation.

In any event, the overwhelming majority of American nongovernmental experts have 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.

Russian Contribution to NATO Debates

Paradoxically, almost any option that NATO can choose with regard to nuclear weapons (or any other option that enhances its defense posture) will benefit the domestic political agenda of 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 NATO constituted a threat to Russia.

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. On the other, almost any NATO reaction could trigger a Russian counter-reaction. The only element of Russian policy NATO can influence is the nature of the emerging standoff. 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 counter-response could be elevated to the nuclear level.

The announcement about an intention to adjust the 2010 Military Doctrine indicates that Moscow has decided to use the opportunity.  The fact that NATO has not yet made any final decisions about its future military posture should not, of course, hinder the Russian response. At the moment innovations will probably involve the conventional side of the Russia-NATO military balance – the ability to hold at risk militarily significant targets, especially in the territory of new members (Poland and Baltic states first of all), which could be used for strikes against Russia. This would be consistent with the increasingly visible trend in Russia’s defense policy of shifting from nuclear to conventional capability. Enhancements to the missile defense capability are also likely and will probably parallel whatever NATO might decide to do in that area.

“Nuclear response” will probably be limited to rhetorical statements: Moscow likes to remind the West that it has nuclear weapons and that any threat of force against Russia is fraught with very grave consequences. In 2000 it adopted the option of limited nuclear use to deter any – including and primarily – conventional attack.[iii]  A whole range of programs (primarily in strategic weapons) is already underway, so there is little need (or the ability) to add to them.

A worsening of the NATO-Russia relationship and especially a NATO decision to increase the role of nuclear weapons in its defense policy could, however, elevate Russian response to a nuclear level. This could involve a range of options, the strongest among them the enhancement of the role of tactical nuclear weapons. Giving Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad nuclear capability, while unlikely in the near future, remains possible and could signal a new, more dangerous phase in the evolving East-West conflict.


The NATO-Russian relationship is increasingly militarized. Decisions are primarily driven by domestic – or, in the case of NATO, alliance – dynamics, which favor conflict over accommodation and compromise. The crisis did not start with events in Ukraine, no matter what some claim today, but has been slowly developing for years: some might point at the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, others at the 2003 war in Iraq, still others – at the decision to enlarge NATO in mid-1990s. Events in Ukraine brought that simmering crisis to the boiling point and also gave a largely geopolitical conflict a pronounced military dimension. A parallel between 2014 and 1914 is growing stale, but it would be nonetheless advisable to keep in mind that a similar dynamic, which put domestic politics in front of international security, resulted in a major war.

Nikolai Sokov is a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation.

Miles A. Pomper is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Image: Flickr/N.A.T.O.