According to sources at the organization, NATO is set to reconsider its nuclear weapons strategy.
Concerns over the use of nuclear weapons by Russia mean that NATO chiefs are anxious to reconsider their own strategy, writes Ewan MacAskill for The Guardian.
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Nuclear weapons important issue between NATO and Russia
Tensions with Russia continue to worsen due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and nuclear weapons have become an increasingly important part of the escalating situation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Moscow would acquire 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, and NATO officials are equally concerned by the involvement of nuclear weapons in Russian military drills. Increasingly aggressive rhetoric on the willingness to use such weapons has been emanating from Russia in recent months, and NATO officials see a need to take action.
A NATO diplomat said: “There is very real concern about the way in which Russia publicly bandies around nuclear stuff. So there are quite a lot of deliberations in the alliance about nuclear [weapons], but it is being done very slowly and deliberately. We need to do due diligence on where we are.”
Nuclear discussions to be brought forward
Any update to the NATO nuclear policy is dependent on discussions between member states, and the issue is being discussed at a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels, which began on Wednesday. Although the issue is not officially on the table this time around, the United States is pushing for its inclusion on the agenda for a meeting of NATO’s ministerial nuclear planning group later this year.
Discussions about a new nuclear doctrine were not expected to take place so soon, but recent events have given a new sense of urgency to the talks. It is thought that ministers will discuss a greater role for nuclear weapons in NATO drills and how to better interpret Russian rhetoric on the issue.
NATO politicians are currently confused by the Russian rhetoric, and British defense secretary Michael Fallon claimed that Moscow’s “nuclear messaging is not helpful” but later claimed that “it is important we understand its implications for the alliance.”
Arsenals vastly reduced since Cold War
Both the U.S. and Russia currently possess far fewer nuclear warheads than at the peak of the Cold War. Russia has 1,582 strategic warheads deployed on 515 missiles and bombers, and the U.S. has 1,597 on 785.
So far NATO has made no indication that it would return to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and the return of cruise missiles to Europe has been ruled out by the United States.
Despite the unwillingness to return to the Cold War way of thinking, concerns have been raised that NATO’s nuclear policy still reflects the decade-old idea that Russia could be a potential partner. Recent events have drastically changed this view, and NATO believes that its nuclear policy should provide greater readiness and more training exercises involving nuclear weapons given the heightened possibility of conflict.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told the press that caution was paramount.. “The nuclear activities, the investments of Russia in new nuclear capabilities, and the exercise activities by Russia in the nuclear domain is part of the global picture where we see a more assertive Russia,” he said.
For his part the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, told journalists that both the U.S. and NATO were assessing “all the possible implications of what Russia says about nuclear weapons, its doctrine and so forth, its pronouncements, its rhetoric, and what we actually see on the ground in terms of development and deployment.”
Lack of trust evident
Russia regularly criticizes NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, and claims that it violates previous agreements. Such moves are seen as aggressive in Moscow, and an attempt to curtail Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.
A NATO official would not provide further details on nuclear strategy. “Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities is a core element of our overall strategy. We cannot go into detail on our nuclear discussions. These are internal, sensitive and classified matters.” he said.
Another official claimed that “the Russian leadership is rhetorically lowering the threshold when it comes to nuclear weapons and this is something which should not be done. It largely wasn’t done even during the cold war.”
The lack of trust between NATO and Russia cannot be blamed entirely on either side, but it is provoking an escalation of rhetoric and military exercises, and as such increasing the risk of conflict. Until the fundamental issue of trust can be resolved, it appears that the situation between NATO and Russia will continue to deteriorate.
It is difficult to see how trust can be improved when Putin consistently lies about Russian involvement in Ukraine, and disrupts Western attempts at diplomacy.