NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence, and Alternative Security Arrangements
Simon’s Foundation & Project Ploughshares
Ottawa, September 28-30, 2000

Options for Change

NATO, Russia, Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Disarmament

Otfried Nassauer



I. Introduction

During the Washington Summit in April 1999 NATO committed itself to review the Alliance’s arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament policies. While public interest in this review concentrates on the nuclear field, the process itself does not. By December 2000 NATO Foreign Ministers are expected to discuss an initial report on future options.

The scope of the review undertaken by the Alliance has been and still is somewhat controversial. While some Alliance members prefer a more limited approach, others would like to see this process become a full scale review of the Alliance’s nuclear policy and posture. However, any review of substance will eventually lead towards renewed efforts to discuss the Alliance’s (nuclear) strategy and posture. Even more, there is a need for such a discussion as the Alliance’s 1998/99 strategy review on the one hand felt victim to the Kosovo war and thus did not produce much of the necessary debate. On the other hand, it produced a debate whether the role of NATO’s nuclear arsenal should be widened to cope with all WMD threats.

NATO’s members are facing an important choice. On the one hand they can help to make progress possible towards future steps of nuclear disarmament and thus help to safe-guard and strengthen the existing non-proliferation regimes. On the other hand they can fail to do so and thus strengthen trends to give nuclear weapons a wider role for the future and eventually give priority to fighting the results of proliferation by military means over preventing proliferation to occur.

This paper concentrates on some options for NATO and its member states to strengthen the Alliance’s contribution to the future of nuclear arms control and to safe-guard the non-proliferation regimes. In addition, in some aspects it looks beyond the nuclear issue.


II. NATO’s Nuclear Arms Control Options

NATO is neither a nuclear power nor a state party to existing arms-control agreements or involved in any negotiations that might lead to future arms-control treaties. The Alliance’s room to manoeuvre is thus limited on the one hand and dependent on nuclear member states’ actions on the other hand. However, three of the declared nuclear weapon states are members of NATO, two are involved in formulating the Alliance’s nuclear policy and thus there is no other multilateral institution which could hypothetically influence the future of nuclear arms-control to the same degree as NATO could. NATO is also unique in binding together several nuclear and several non-nuclear weapon states within one alliance. This gives NATO’s deliberations on the future of nuclear arms-control a very specific role.

In its current review the Alliance should concentrate on a limited number of changes that, however, could make a real difference. This paper makes five specific suggestions:

  1. NATO should strengthen its commitment to include sub-strategic nuclear weapons into arms-control regimes. The Alliance should commit itself to support negotiations and the conclusion of a START-III treaty, equivalent to a Comprehensive (nuclear) Arms-Reduction Treaty (CART) at the earliest date possible. Such a treaty should build on the results of the 1997 Helsinki Summit 1 and set a single upper limit for all nuclear warheads allowed for the future. "All" should indeed mean "all" and thus encompass strategic as well as non-strategic warheads, regardless whether they are active, hedge or reserve. Both, Russia and the United States should have a "freedom to mix" their remaining warheads from different categories, when accounting against this single upper limit2. The limit itself could be set anywhere between 1.500 – 2.500 warheads.

  2. The Alliance should not exclude the option of conducting unilateral initiatives in support of reaching such a bilateral agreement. It should adopt a number of confidence and security building measures and initiatives which might ease the achievement of the goal described in the first suggestion. Among the steps that might prove helpful are:
    a)a major initiative to increase transparency on sub-strategic nuclear weapons, their deployment and nuclear doctrine, possibly conducted under the auspices of the PJC;
    b) an offer to Russia indicating that sub-strategic nuclear weapon deployments in Europe might no longer be necessary once this category of nuclear weapons becomes subject to nuclear arms control;
    c) an indication to the Russian Federation that the same is true for sea-based sub-strategic nuclear weapons currently deployed in the US but retained in active status;
    d) some strengthened NATO commitment to permanently ban the deployment of sub-strategic nuclear weapons on the territories of all new members to NATO;
    e) Finally, NATO should approach Russia over her reluctance to discuss sub-strategic weapons which in part could result from Russian fears not to possess all details necessary for a data-exchange likely to be part of any treaty that includes these weapons. An offer allowing for consecutive but narrowing error margins throughout a sequence of data exchanges could meet this concern, if it indeed exists3.

  3. NATO should consider to reintroduce the Alliance’s 1990 London language perceiving nuclear weapons as "weapons of last resort". To make the meaning of this term perfectly clear, it should be defined as "an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a (member) State would be at stake"4. This language is modelled after the single case of nuclear use or threat, which was not declared illegal by the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996. In addition, the Alliance might consider issuing a Negative Security Assurance of its own to non-nuclear states. It is crucial that the Alliance makes clear that there is no role for nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s nuclear doctrine to threaten the use or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

  4. NATO should consider to announce a review of the Alliance’s 1992 Glenneagles "Political Principles for Nuclear Planning and Consultations" to the effect of reducing the military and strengthening the political role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance strategy;

  5. Finally, the Alliance members should initiate a substantial program to assist Russia in dismantling her arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. This might include financial as well as technical assistance. However, all precautions should been taken so that this program does not become subject to the same type of Russian suspicions that the US Co-operative Threat Reduction program became subject to. This may require that the program be handled and supervised not by NATO as a whole, but by one or several non-nuclear NATO nations.

In addition, NATO should clearly declare its support for the 2000 NPT-Review Conference’s program of strengthening nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It should explore options for co-operation with Russia in strengthening existing non-proliferation regimes and thus reduce the demand for both wide area theatre ballistic missile defences as well as national missile defences.


III. NATO’s Non-Nuclear Weapon States

There is one specific option some of NATO’s non-nuclear weapon states might consider as a contribution of their own to support the above mentioned proposals.

Those countries that have the technical capability to employ US sub-strategic nuclear weapons under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements should consider to individually or collectively declare their preparedness to give up this capability. This would support a US-Russian agreement on tactical nuclear weapons and would strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Such a step would have a wide range of advantages in a number of different contexts. Among them are

  1. In the future, all non-nuclear NATO members would contribute in the same way to NATO’s nuclear strategy. NATO’s internal debate over different classes of membership and different levels of security would finally come to an end once all members would agree to accept the same level of involvement in Alliance nuclear affairs that NATO’s new members had to agree to when accepted to NATO.

  2. The reasoning behind the deployment of sub-strategic nuclear weapons in European non-nuclear weapon states thus would be much reduced; support from influential quarters in the US military and defence establishment can be expected, but opposition is likely to come from civilian defence officials and the Department of State.

  3. The initiative would function as a substantial confidence building measure towards Russia.

  4. It would eliminate the origins of all claims and suspicions that NATO’s nuclear sharing violates the spirit or the letter of the NPT and thus strengthen the Alliance’s overall commitment to the non-proliferation regime.

  5. Finally, such a step might help to create a common understanding among all non-nuclear weapon states in NATO on the future role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance strategy and thus ease a review of the Alliance’s nuclear strategy as well as the consultation and decision-making process on nuclear weapons.


IV. Looking at Russia

Most Western analysts agree that Russia does not show any serious interest in reducing or eliminating tactical nuclear weapons. They present the following reasoning:

  1. Russia has widened the role of nuclear weapons in the countries’ military doctrine and perceives tactical nuclear weapons as a means to counter her opponents conventional superiority as well as a regional deterrent;

  2. Russia cannot maintain the number of strategic nuclear weapons she is allowed to keep; a high number of number of non-strategic weapons is perceived as some counterweight;

  3. Russia does not want to enter another costly disarmament agreement. There are much higher ranking priorities for government spending.

This author believes that Russia must have a serious interest in tactical nuclear reductions. Russia is not able to maintain her non-strategic nuclear arsenal. It is deteriorating quickly; there are no resources at hand to either keep it operational or modernise it. There is no reason to believe that the situation will improve any time soon. However, the Russian military and MINATOM do not yet see any good reason to publicly admit Russia’s weakness in respect to the country’s non-strategic nuclear posture and thus prefer to signal disinterest.

Some of these concerns can be met and incentives can be developed to ease the reluctance on the Russian end. Offering the elimination of the US European based nuclear weapons eliminates them from the Russian strategic equation. The same is true for SLCMs which are still considered an additional tool in NATO’s nuclear posture in times of crisis and war. Both steps would reflect a long-standing Russian interest. A freedom to mix strategic and non-strategic systems when accounting for warheads against a future START-III/CART upper limit increases Moscow’s capability to economically and technically cope with a higher total number of warheads allowed and when thinking about the overall nuclear balance. It also allows for a quicker retirement of Russian nuclear systems that otherwise need costly maintenance or even upgrades. It provides Russia with an option to compensate with non-strategic systems for strategic systems which she can no longer maintain. Finally, an offer to assist Russia with the dismantling of her tactical nuclear weapons could meet Moscow’s concerns about the countries’ financial constraints and priorities5.

This leaves Russia – beyond the nuclear theatre - with two major questions when it comes to the countries’ overall perception of strategic stability: The conventional balance and new concerns resulting from missile defences.


V. Beyond Nuclear Arms Control

Superior Western conventional forces and NATO enlargement have caused Russian concerns about the overall strategic stability in the European region. Russia began to mirror NATO’s cold war doctrine of flexible response, which compensated numerical conventional inferiority by reliance on tactical nuclear weapons and a first use doctrine. In order to change the Russian perception, the basics of the CFE-process must be reassessed.

CFE is in a crisis. No single signatory has ratified CFE-2 since it was signed almost a year ago. The guiding principle for CFE-2 became "flexibility" for reinforcements as opposed to stability (i.e. avoiding sudden force concentrations capable to attack) in CFE-1. In addition, CFE-2 does not truly reflect the changes to the European political geography that came about with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. The Russian South is Moscow’s greatest concern since the limitations of CFE flank agreements forced Russia to agree to a flexibility oriented approach while national interest would have dictated a stability oriented approach.

NATO could make a substantial contribution to the future of European security by rethinking the basics of CFE. The Alliance has been deeply involved in framing the existing agreements. It is in a very advantageous position and should be able to rethink both the numeric limitations imposed and the geographic outline underlying the treaty. A commitment to consult with Russia for the ideas for changes necessary could prove helpful and represent a confidence building measure..

The other non-conventional issue of concern to Russia is NMD. Here again, the Alliance has no direct, but an indirect say. NATO is not a party to the ABM treaty. However, it has become very clear that Russia fears that strategic stability (i.e. deterrence based on the capability for mutual destruction and the combination of rough parity and mutual vulnerability) is coming under severe pressure from the combination of developing US missile defence capabilities and increasing first-strike capabilities resulting from the modernisation of the US Trident fleet.

While NATO does not have a say over the national US decision on whether and when to deploy missile defences, the Alliance could

  1. undertake an in depth analysis of the consequences of missile defences for strategic stability, the future of bilateral and multilateral arms control as well as for the future of the existing non-proliferation regimes;

  2. seriously consider the consequences of indicating a (gradual) shift in priorities from prohibiting proliferation towards militarily fighting its consequences; and

  3. explore the option for joint initiatives with Russia to effectively strengthen the non-proliferation regimes and allow for the postponement of the decision in principle on whether to give up the ABM treaty or not.


VI. The ”Next Presidency” Aspect

NATO’s arms control and non-proliferation review will not be finalised until a new American administration comes in. Indeed, the next US President will have already been elected when NATO discusses the interim report. A new presidency might mean changes to the US policy in NATO. Many arms-control minded analysts and scholars express deep concerns over the possibility of an incoming Republican administration and the consequences that might result for the future of nuclear arms control, non-proliferation politics and the future of multilateral arms control negotiations.

The author of this paper shares these concerns as far as the future of multilateral arms control is concerned. Multilateral arms-control is likely to suffer from a Republican administration. However, he does not fully share the concerns in respect to the general future of nuclear disarmament.

  • A Bush Administration might be prepared to begin unilateral (reciprocal) steps in nuclear disarmament, cutting much deeper into current nuclear arsenals than might be expected of a Gore administration. Even more important, a Bush Administration might be able to mount the necessary congressional support to allow for the necessary change in US policy, while a Democratic administration might be hampered by the same blockades erected during the Clinton administration;

  • One should not take it for granted that a Bush Administration would hurry into NMD deployment and immediately scrap the ABM Treaty. It might well choose instead to increase research and development funding for those elements of a national missile defence that received only limited funding during the Clinton years, namely technologies for space based elements, naval missile defence and for boost-phase intercept technologies.

If so, those interested in the future of arms control and non-proliferation would need a strategy on how to deal with the new situation. Three initial steps can be named that might prove helpful:

  1. Osgood’s GRID-concept of gradual unilateral reciprocal disarmament and its derivatives should be revisited when developing options for dealing constructively with unilateral initiatives possibly taken by a Republican administration;

  2. Research into developing intelligent options and increased pressure for binding a Republican administration’s unilateral steps of arms-control into strategies that support multilateralism should be conducted. A clear-cut NATO statement in support of the results of the recent NPT Review Conference might prove a useful initial tool having this effect; and

  3. Research also needs to be done on the thinking as well as policy record that future core members of a Bush Administration’s defence and foreign policy team had during their years in government under the previous Bush Administration.


Otfried Nassauer is Director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS)



1 The Summit committed both sides to prepare for a START-III treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons to 2.000-2.500 for both Russia and the US. It was also agreed to discuss tactical nuclear weapons as well as verified warhead dismantlement

2 For a more detailed description of this proposal and the incentives involved for both sides, see: Oliver Meier and Otfried Nassauer: Next START by CART: Breaking the disarmament deadlock, BITS Policy Note 97.1, Berlin, March 1997 based on a presentation delivered at a December 1996 Pugwash workshop in London and for a very similar idea Ashton Carter and John Deutch: No nukes, Not yet, Wall Street Journal March 4, 1997)

Beyond the arguments developed in the referenced sources, the suggested treaty would ease the inclusion of arrangements for verified warhead dismantling as well as preparing for the future inclusion of smaller nuclear powers into this bilateral treaty: Verification of dismantling would be eased since this approach allows for a non-intrusive verification system modelled after the "warhead-container in – pit container out" logic and thus reduce the need to develop various verification options allowing to distinguish between all different types of warheads. The future inclusion of lesser nuclear weapon states would be important, since the British nuclear posture, consisting of sub-strategic and strategic Trident systems only could be coped with much easier.

3 It is not clear whether Russia seriously does have such a concern. However, given the withdrawal of thousands of weapons removed at high speed from CEE as well as the CIS republics from 1990 onward, there realistically might be such a concern resulting from discrepancies or gaps in the records of those days. One indication for the problems Russia had in that period became visible when Russia continued to store nuclear weapons in Eastern Germany even after reunification.

4 The Advisory Opinion of the International Court Of Justice is reprinted in: IALANA (ed.) "Atomwaffen vor dem Internationalen Gerichtshof", Lit-Verlag, Münster, 1997, pp.69-111. The quote can be found on p.104

5 The financial constraints have to be taken seriously. The Russian Federation’s proposed 2001 total budget ($ 40 bn) is smaller than the inner-German transfer from the old laender into the new laender (more than $ 45bn), less than one fifth of the German budget and less than one seventh of the US defence budget. For nine years Russia had to live from its substance, while not investing in the countries’ infrastructure. For the years to come, infrastructure investments, such as into gas and oil pipelines, lines of communications etc will require every single ruble available.