Putin’s nuclear rhetoric before and during the ongoing war against Ukraine has put renewed emphasis on the role of nuclear deterrence in NATO’s collective defence. Yet the recent Russian nuclear intimidation is but one of many nuclear challenges that Europe and its partners face. Other relevant developments include the expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal – with profound consequences for US extended deterrence commitments worldwide – the continuing advances of the Iranian nuclear programme, North Korea’s nuclear tests and the delicate balance between India and Pakistan. In addition, the breakdown of the arms control regime is threatening Europe in particular. The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty heralded the return of Russian missiles specifically designed to hit European targets. The nuclear multipolarity that is emerging implies that nuclear deterrence will remain critically important to European security in the coming years and decades.
The return of the nuclear threat to Europe
When Putin declared the start of his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, he issued an implicit nuclear threat: “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside […] they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history”. On 27 February, this veiled threat was followed by action, as Putin ordered the strategic deterrence forces of Russia “on high combat alert”. Then on 20 April, Russia conducted a successful test with its new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). All these events must be seen as deliberate steps designed to deter outside intervention in Ukraine. In this context, Russian options are not limited to the extreme case of initiating a full-blown nuclear exchange with NATO. Other steps on the nuclear escalation ladder range from increasing the alert level further and conducting more nuclear exercises to moving tactical low-yield nuclear warheads out of storage in central Russia and potentially conducting a nuclear demonstration or even a limited strike on a Ukrainian target.
In addition to such nuclear signalling, Moscow has issued explicit nuclear threats warning Sweden and Finland about possible consequences of their NATO membership applications. These included simulating launches of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles from Kaliningrad. On 25 June President Putin stated that Russia would deliver such dual-use missiles to Belarus as a reaction to the “aggressive” policy of the West. Russian nuclear coercion is thus not limited to Ukraine but has an impact on the entire European continent. As a result, NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture is again becoming critically important for the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. It is the only defence shielding most European states (apart from France and the UK) from nuclear blackmail.
On the renaissance of NATO as a nuclear alliance
Across many European states, the tendency exists to cling to a status quo on nuclear matters that is fundamentally inadequate. This status quo relates to (1) the widespread preference to focus on hybrid threats and conventional deterrence issues, (2) the overwhelming concern with arms control and disarmament when nuclear security is discussed and (3) the insistence to isolate nuclear policy from other security policy discussions. The net result is a stark compartmentalisation of European strategic thinking into different stovepipes. Taken individually – or even together but without due integration – these three preconceptions are not suited to address current and future nuclear challenges. The preference for remaining mostly silent on nuclear deterrence cannot be reconciled with the fact that all plans for defending Europe by conventional means fundamentally rest on the assumption that nuclear deterrence must hold.
NATO’s new Strategic Concept provides a unique opportunity to address this inadequate European strategic culture and cement the foundation for NATO’s renaissance as a nuclear alliance. What guidance could the Strategic Concept provide? First, it can consolidate the evolving nuclear language from recent summit declarations into a coherent declaratory construct. Second, NATO leaders could commission a cross-domain deterrence review to expand on the Strategic Concept acquis. Third, the existing nuclear sharing arrangements warrant an in-depth update to reflect the changing security environment. Fourth, the Strategic Concept can fulfil a critical role in the deterrence education that is needed for enabling future decision-making. Fifth, the Strategic Concept can sustain and communicate NATO’s willingness to engage in arms control discussions on a reciprocal basis, however distant such aspirations may appear today.
The extensive modernisation of the Russian nuclear arsenal, in combination with the aggression against Ukraine and the nuclear rhetoric that has accompanied it, demonstrates that nuclear deterrence will remain of critical importance to European security for years and probably decades to come. In addition, the dramatic expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and developments elsewhere underscore the fact that a third and multipolar nuclear age is emerging. This is a reality to which both the US and its allies in Europe and Asia need to adapt. It implies that long-held assumptions about deterrence in the European theatre must be re-examined. European states have a well-defined interest not to leave these matters to the nuclear weapons states alone. By making full use of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group as a forum for multilateral nuclear policy debate, they would do well to reflect on all the requirements of NATO’s deterrence and defence mission – including those resulting from the delicate interplay between the nuclear and conventional dimensions. As such, the new Strategic Concept lays the foundation for a renaissance in European strategic thinking.
This opinion constitutes an abridged version of an earlier policy brief published by the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance.