In Other News – A View from Abroad – the Nuclear Issue – 11/10/2022

November 10, 2022

A View from Abroad – the Nuclear Issue
Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

The nuclear dimension in European foreign policy is back. Over the past 30 years, after intense debates on nuclear proliferation in the eighties, the nuclear threat in Europe gratefully retreated into the background. Out of the spotlight, the polarization of the previous decades disappeared, and nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties were updated and often concluded. European cooperation with Russia and China on non-proliferation, like with DPRK and Iran, even seemed possible. The existence of nuclear weapons was glazed over with opaque phrases such as ‘NATO as a nuclear alliance’, without an active understanding of what the stakes for using those weapons might be. Instead, leaders paid frequent lip-service to the greater aim of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: full nuclear disarmament.

But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s subsequent nuclear saber-rattling and continued rhetoric – including his unfounded allegations about a Ukrainian dirty bomb – the nuclear threat is now again at the forefront of NATO’s calculus. European leaders are suddenly reacquainting themselves with the language, logic, and inherent dilemmas of nuclear weapons: Mutually Assured Destruction, deterrence, nuclear posture, strategic balance, and strategic ambiguity. This includes an assessment of leaving the opponent unsure of if, when, and how the West would react to Russia using nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, and the unspoken acknowledgement of the presence of US nuclear weapons on European soil.

Washington addresses some of these questions in its latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in its unclassified version in October. In line with previous versions, the latest NPR lists deterrence as the top priority and emphasizes that “The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its Allies and partners.” But the report also maintains that “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.” The stated policy aims to “complicate an adversary’s entire decision calculus” and seemingly acknowledges the multiple variables impacting a nation’s decision about if and how to conduct an attack.

European leaders are also trying to navigate how to respond to the heightened nuclear threat level. In October, Josep Borrell, Foreign Affairs head of the EU, stated that the West’s answer to a potential Russia nuclear attack on Ukraine will not be with nuclear weapons, and French President Macron made a similar comment. These statements could lower the bar for Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, since they diminish the threat of nuclear retaliation and blur the red line for Moscow not to use them. Finland and Sweden, however, recognized the shifting geopolitical reality sparked by Russia’s attack, and they moved to join NATO as a nuclear alliance. Signing the Nuclear Ban treaty has consequently become impossible for these two new NATO members.

The current reality incited by the Russia-Ukraine war is bleak. But when the conflict is finally over, and international relations are allowed some return to normalcy, the crucial international treaties and institutions in the nuclear domain, such as Start I and II, INF, Open Skies, Nuclear Suppliers Group, IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will need to be revived. European politicians can be bolstered by a collective effort to be consistent, rational and engage in non-emotional decision making on nuclear issues. Their choice of messaging will also be critical, as political signaling can readily influence the other side’s mental calculus and inform the global response. But regardless of how exactly they reshape their policies, European leaders can no longer exclude or view the nuclear threat as immaterial– no matter what choices Putin ultimately makes.