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.