WASHINGTON -- Defense and foreign-ministry officials from NATO’s 28 member nations are meeting in the capital of Slovakia this week to quietly explore how they will pursue nuclear deterrence policies embraced last May at an alliance summit in Chicago.
The two-day, closed-door meeting beginning on Thursday comes as alliance leaders and member nations weigh prospects for engaging Russia on sought-after reductions in its mammoth, domestic-based arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons.
To date, Moscow has shown little interest in pulling back or dismantling its tactical atomic arms, despite a widely held view that the warheads have little or no battlefield utility. Nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons are typically short-range arms, such as land-based missiles with ranges of less than 300 miles and air- and sea-launched weapons with ranges of less than 400 miles.
NATO this week declined to release an agenda or participant list for the Bratislava forum. Those taking part, though, are senior diplomatic, civilian, and military officials with nuclear policy responsibilities in their member-nation governments or at NATO headquarters, Global Security Newswire has learned.
Several alliance officials and other sources spoke on condition of not being named in this article because they were not authorized to address the matter publicly.
The annual NATO Nuclear Policy Symposium is expected to be little more than an airing of national positions about lingering concerns, as member states wrestle with a pair of competing perspectives laid out at their Chicago meeting, these sources said.
On the one hand, NATO signaled after the May summit that, for now, it would maintain the status quo in its nuclear forces, which it said combine with conventional arms and missiles defense to “meet the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture.”
On the other hand, the alliance professed a readiness “to consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons assigned to the alliance.”
The allies said they would contemplate such tactical nuclear reductions “in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” NATO drew some barbs for this new proviso, with critics charging the organization had effectively ceded to Russia veto power over how the alliance would manage its own nuclear force levels.
Some longstanding NATO members appear ready to move toward denuclearization, while some newer alliance states do not. Several Baltic and Central European nations are arguing that U.S. nuclear forces in Europe continue to play an important role in warding off threats, and NATO’s consensus-based decision-making process has amplified their voice.
The disparity in views reflects varying levels of confidence among Eastern and Western European allies as to whether NATO conventional forces alone represent a sufficient political and military deterrent to the possibility of a resurgent Russia. Countries closest to Russia’s borders tend to sense most keenly their potential vulnerability.
If NATO takes concrete steps to reduce its reliance on tactical nuclear arms based in Europe -- a possibility the alliance said in Chicago its political body would now study -- the North Atlantic Council must grapple with how member nations would divvy up the resultant burdens for defense, said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.
No one is expecting that this week’s confab will come anywhere near resolving internal differences over such weighty questions. So Washington’s interest is in nudging along the discussion and, to a certain extent, allowing all sides to vent steam, a number of issue experts said.
On the sidelines of the conference, though, NATO could make some real headway on a proposed diplomatic package aimed at engaging Russia on tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, according to sources.
Alliance officials appear interested in teeing up proposal specifics for approval by NATO defense ministers during their next gathering in Brussels on Oct. 9 and 10, and by foreign ministers at their next meeting slated for Dec. 4 and 5, also in the Belgian capital.
The focus is on a draft set of transparency and confidence-building measures that NATO intends to propose to Russia that could lend each side greater insight into the other’s tactical nuclear weapons posture in Europe, issue experts said this week.
For the time being, this would be in lieu of negotiations aimed at actually reducing a lopsided standoff in Europe, seen by many in the alliance as a remnant of the Cold War.
Following a number of unilateral reductions over the years, the United States today maintains nearly 200 nonstrategic nuclear-armed B-61 gravity bombs at six bases in five nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons at bases within its own borders, according to independent tallies by nuclear experts Kristensen and Robert Norris.
For its part, France has resisted calls for alliance-wide tactical nuclear reductions, seeking to avoid any uptick in international pressure to cut its own national arsenal of 300 nuclear arms. In the run-up to the Chicago conference, the French government succeeded in limiting the scope of pondered alliance reductions in the organization’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review to “nuclear weapons assigned to NATO,” or, in other words, U.S. nuclear arms.
As part of a bid to reduce its defense spending, the United Kingdom in June unilaterally committed to chopping 40 warheads from its nuclear stockpile, leaving it with 180 weapons, 120 of which would remain active.
The Kremlin’s limited interest in tactical nuclear reductions stems largely from its reliance on atomic weapons to offset technological and numerical advantages in NATO's conventional military posture, according to officials and experts.
“Since neither side wants to reduce its nonstrategic forces because of disparity or to compensate for conventional inferiority, NATO is now limiting itself to pursuing softer issues such as transparency and confidence-building measures,” Kristensen said at a recent conference in Switzerland. “These are important and worthwhile steps but they will not in and of themselves result in reductions of nonstrategic nuclear weapons.”
Proposed transparency efforts might include declarations of the atomic arms that NATO and Russia have fielded on the continent, as well as possibly their storage locations, according to expert assessments.
Confidence-building steps under possible consideration could include dialogue about nuclear doctrine or perhaps even unilateral actions to relocate or dismantle some of these arms, issue specialists say.
NATO nations have decided, though, that they will not publicize their proposed list ahead of sharing it with the Kremlin, said Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution. Rather than attempt to score political points, the intent is to discuss the list with Russian leaders in a quiet diplomatic effort to explore which, if any, specific initiatives might be feasible.
The Atlantic partners have decided they do not want to “put the Russians in a corner,” but rather would pursue in good faith the potential for a new cooperative regime, Pifer said in a Tuesday interview.
On the thornier issue of negotiating reciprocal reductions to NATO and Russian nonstrategic nuclear forces, the alliance in 2010 laid the initial groundwork for its own arsenal cuts when it “cleaned out” of its “Strategic Concept” prior references to the tactical warheads as “an essential political and military link” assuring Washington’s commitment to Europe’s defense, Kristensen said.
NATO should not make too much of the Kremlin’s rejection to date of discussing tactical nuclear arms reductions, said Pifer, citing a quip he heard recently: “The Russians are going to say no until they say yes.”
Internal alliance debate continues over whether NATO should accept Moscow’s desired restrictions on its missile defense plans in exchange for pullbacks or reductions in tactical atomic arms.
“I think the Russians are playing a waiting game,” the former U.S. ambassador said, noting that Washington’s plans for ballistic missile defenses could change significantly if Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the November election.
In casual remarks heard on a live microphone in Seoul, South Korea, President Obama last March told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to discuss potential missile defense options “after my election” in November. Former Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin succeeded Medvedev as president in May.
Whether any future arms control deal on missile defenses – viewed unlikely until early next year at the soonest -- might also include nonstrategic offensive weapons has yet to be determined.
Issue experts differ on whether any such grand bargain would be a good idea for the United States and its allies, even if Russia were willing.
“I do not support the U.S. modifying its missile defense plans in Europe to achieve a reduction in Russian [tactical nuclear forces] because I don’t think that gambit is worth it or that it will work,” said Frank Miller, a former Defense policy official now at the Scowcroft Group.
At the same time, he said, “it would take a political decision in Moscow that they want to take a new tack.”
Meantime, NATO is not constrained from taking whatever action it deems necessary, in Miller’s view. The alliance statement about “reciprocity” does not actually preclude the alliance from making any unilateral changes to its deployed atomic forces as it sees fit, rather than await action from Moscow, he said in an interview.
“Do the Russians really care about reciprocating? No,” Miller said. “Do the Russians really care about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe? No.”
Miller also said the Kremlin is unlikely to be drawn into an agreement in which it would significantly cut its nonstrategic atomic weapons.
“Will Russia be magnanimous and volunteer to reduce [its] forces by 50 percent?” he asked. “No.”