More Nukes Not the Answer to Russian Aggression


Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has rightly aroused concern in Western capitals about Moscow’s commitment to international peace and security and a rules-based international order. These concerns are compounded by troublesome Russian behavior in the nuclear arena, such as its testing of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, aggressive nuclear force modernization program, and assertive pattern of nuclear exercising and posturing.

Russia’s belligerence has prompted calls from some in the United States to abandon long-standing bipartisan arms control efforts to reduce the Russian nuclear threat and attempt to increase the credibility of U.S. nuclear forces by augmenting existing capabilities in Europe.

Moscow’s challenge to Europe requires a tough and unified Western response, but the challenge can’t be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or the buildup of nuclear capabilities.

The Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee has attempted to block U.S. implementation of New START every year since the treaty entered into force in 2011, and is sure to resume its effort this year.

Meanwhile, in a January 22 letter to then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL), Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, and Mike Turner (R-OH), Chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, called for the addition of new sites in Eastern Europe for the deployment of U.S. tactical B61 nuclear gravity bombs and their associated short-range dual-capable aircraft.

Heeding these calls would be counterproductive and self-defeating.

First, the current tensions with Russia reinforce the value of arms control agreements such as New START. By verifiably capping U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces, the treaty bounds the current tensions between the two countries.

Blocking implementation of New START would be a major propaganda victory for Moscow and could cause it to renege on its own commitments under the treaty. This would remove the caps on Russia’s deployed strategic forces and compromise America’s ability to verify the size and composition of the Russian nuclear stockpile.

Second, not only would enhancing U.S. nuclear capabilities in Europe be unlikely to deter Russia from continuing to destabilize Ukraine or perhaps pursuing similar tactics against the Baltic States, but it would be provocative, divisive, and expensive.

Moving U.S. tactical nuclear weapons closer to the border with Russia is not a good way to deter the continued use by Moscow of the hybrid warfare strategy it used to annex Crimea or provide additional reassurance to NATO’s easternmost members. The strategy involves tactics that are localized, low-intensity, and do not officially involve the Russian military, thereby putting them below the threshold that makes threatening or using nuclear weapons rational or credible.

In fact, the roughly 180 non-strategic B61s already believed to be deployed in five European states (German, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey) are of dubious military value. When asked in 2010 if there is a military mission performed by U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either U.S. strategic or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: “No.”

Moreover, if there were an imminent Russian threat against NATO territory, the last place NATO military planners would want to move U.S. nuclear weapons would be closer to that threat.

Widening NATO’s nuclear footprint would be highly divisive within the alliance, threatening cohesion at a time when it is vitally important. Many NATO members are skeptical of the continued deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe – to say nothing about moving these weapons eastward. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders recently reemphasized that the Netherlands opposes the deployment of nuclear weapons in new NATO member states.

New tactical deployments would also be extremely provocative. In response, Russia might remove some of its offensive tactical warheads from central storage and mate them with delivery systems closer to NATO borders – for example in the Kaliningrad region bordering Poland or in Crimea.

In addition, building the sites necessary to house, store, and secure B61s and dual-capable aircraft wouldn’t be cheap. At a time when U.S. and NATO defense spending is at a premium, every dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent to provide central and eastern NATO allies with the additional conventional military support that is more relevant to their predicament.

Though the urge to respond in kind to Russian nuclear saber-rattling may be understandable, that does mean that it is wise. As Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon put it last week, the Untied States “need not respond symmetrically to every Russian provocation. In particular, there is currently no need to expand the role for U.S. nuclear weapons, or to change our nuclear posture.”

To deter Russia from considering a Ukraine-style campaign or larger conventional military assault against one of the Baltic States, NATO’s top priority must be to ensure that it has adequate in theater conventional forces capable of quickly and proportionally countering the aggression. If Russia is not deterred from climbing the escalation ladder by such conventional forces, backed up by U.S. nuclear forces based in the United States, then it’s hard to argue that forward deployed tactical nuclear forces would appreciably change Moscow’s calculus.

The Obama administration has already taken many steps to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to NATO’s defense, such as increased U.S. troop rotations, air patrols, training exercises, and contingency planning. It is also calling on Congress to support a European Reassurance Initiative of up to $1 billion to further buttress NATO’s eastern defenses. In addition, NATO is in the process of standing up a rapid-reaction force of 5,000 troops capable of quickly deploying to Eastern Europe.

Such steps, combined with greater investments in defense on the part of America’s NATO allies, are likely to have a more credible impact than placing greater emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons that are of dubious military value and could fracture the alliance.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine should not prompt the United States to take counter-actions that wouldn’t be helpful in addressing the problem and could lead to a dangerous escalatory cycle.


Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction at the Arms Control Association. You can follow him on Twitter @KingstonReif.