Taking stock of the Ukraine crisis’ impact on the prospects for nuclear disarmament in Europe and wider arms control processes.


The crisis in Ukraine and its peculiar nuclear dimension has come to epitomise the features of the strategic politics in Europe. From the violation of Ukrainian national borders, to the breach of the Budapest memorandum, through to Putin’s ominous August rhetoric reminding Western leaders of Russia’s status as a strong nuclear power, events in Eastern Europe have led to worsening of an already difficult climate for discussions on the issue of removal of American B61 gravity bombs deployed in five European states. These events also undermined the hopes for broadening the dialogue to include entire arsenals of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which were suggested in President Obama’s Berlin address in June last year. As a result, existing defence and deterrence mechanisms, international legal and allied security guarantees and assurances, and their viability and effectiveness, have been subject to renewed examination. The basis of peace and stability in Europe has also been questioned, against the background of an ambitious foreign policy of a neighbouring state.

Against such a climate of uncertainty, insecurity and confrontation, it is difficult to imagine a serious consideration of prospects for nuclear disarmament in Europe by political leaders from NATO member states. However, one area where work cannot stop, and should in fact be intensified to ensure that there are mechanisms which would help to shield us from the risk of an unintended limited future arms race resulting from political tension, is arms control. Effective arms control comprises many elements. These can include arrangements for greater transparency of deployed weapons, developing understanding of common technical concepts and arrangements for operational readiness, and exploring the practicality of existing verification mechanisms. Such activities offer an opportunity to develop the nascent residual capacity and steps towards it, which have already been taken as part of track II dialogues or exchanges within the NATO-Russia Council. For these to succeed, however, leaders on both sides of the European continent will need to understand what the Ukraine crisis tells us about the nature of relations between the two and what elements of strategic politics in Europe and approaches to arms control and disarmament will have to be rethought to move forward.

The Ukraine crisis has fed into the non-strategic nuclear disarmament process in Europe in several ways outlined below. Remaining mindful of them is particularly important as we approach the 10th NPT Review Conference, and the evolving security challenges, like that posed by ISIS, that threaten to overshadow the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis and the issues it highlights.

The discussions between NATO and Russia on possible transparency and confidence building measures were intended to pave the way for a long-term understanding over reductions in non- strategic nuclear weapons. As slow and sometimes fruitless those discussions were, they offered hope that when the right time comes the two will be able to move beyond some of the Cold War posturing. The long-term benefits of reducing nuclear risks in Europe are well understood by European leaders, and they would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that nuclear weapons are being withdrawn from military inventories and their role is diminishing. Notwithstanding that, for NATO to make a decisive move in devaluing and reducing non-strategic nuclear weapons would require an alliance-wide consensus that this is in the best interest of all allies.

Now, however, it would be particularly problematic given that allied thinking is partially influenced by Russian behaviour that was intertwined with thinly veiled nuclear threats, and consequently have complicated the nature of the conflict and possible responses that could have been issued.

Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has changed the geopolitical landscape in Eastern Europe, consequently dashing hopes for near future close cooperation on arms control. The breakdown in relations between Europe and Russia is a result of an aggregation of events and provocations of which Ukraine is the pinnacle. The 2007 and 2013 Russian military exercises simulating nuclear strikes on Poland, or the five-day war in 2008 which resulted in stripping Georgia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are other nominal events which contributed to fraying of relations. The Georgia and Ukraine interventions conducted by Russia under the auspices of protecting the Russian ethnic population abroad have understandably awoken old fears of a resurgent Russia who might attempt to reverse the history that destroyed the once-powerful Soviet Union. It is therefore not surprising that Baltic NATO members who have sizeable Russian minorities might feel threatened that they are next in line for a Russian intervention. Hence, they have turned to NATO for reassurance and protection. They have seen an important role for NATO in deterring Russia from pursuing hostile actions against them.

That role is realised through NATO's mixture of conventional and nuclear capabilities. NATO operates a robust deterrence system which is underpinned by the Article V clause on assisting allies if they become victims of an aggression. An important element in their motivation to apply to join the Alliance was the nuclear umbrella which would shield their territories from adversaries who they believe respond to nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is certainly important to Russia, which considers its own nuclear capabilities to be of ultimate importance to its national security and a useful ‘de-escalating’ tool for conventional conflicts. It has embarked on a fully-fledged arsenal modernisation and qualitative expansion programme, which is very problematic when combined with the apparent violation of the INF treaty. These developments, and President Putin's recent nuclear rhetoric testify to the relevance and importance of nuclear deterrence in the conduct of Russian strategic politics. This also underlines the relevance of NATO’s extended nuclear deterrence arrangements, in the sense that these deter a nuclear threat or challenge. However, reduction in the reliance on nuclear deterrence is necessary to create an environment amenable to nuclear disarmament. This will be difficult if the states are unsure that borders will be respected during what is supposed to be a peacetime.

Furthermore, the calls for a world without nuclear weapons by many high-ranking officials from across the world talked not only about reductions in nuclear arsenals, but also made reference to creating conditions for a world in which nuclear disarmament would become much more likely and desirable. The two conditions of peace and stability have been significantly undermined following the destabilisation of Ukraine and by extension, of the Eastern Europe. Therefore, before the dialogue on disarmament can resume, our European confidence will have to be improved that no more conflict or armed aggression will affect states in Europe or their neighbours. For states to support arms control initiatives there has to be a clear benefit to their national security coming out from their participation in relevant processes. Also, to advance unilateral attempts at changing the status of B61 deployments would risk worsening the divide within NATO which has to date characterised intra-alliance exchanges on the issue. Such attempts would also contribute to fuelling the suspicions of some member states that their security concerns are being ignored by other members further from the source of threat.

The Deterrence and Defence Posture Review was a missed opportunity to shift the focus to a broader consideration of capabilities and policies comprising NATO’s deterrence and defence posture and move past the historically entrenched sentiments that have surrounded the B61s. The clarity of thinking and a more solid consensus that would result from a well-executed and inclusive exercise would more effectively demonstrate the strength of NATO’s resolve in dealing with regional challenges and in opening new avenues in the dialogue on nuclear reductions.

Trust that parties will respect the treaties or security guarantees agreed is also vital to successful close cooperation on arms control. When Russian military convoys crossed the Ukrainian border, Russia not only violated Ukrainian sovereignty, but it breached the 1994 Budapest memorandum. This is not to say that if nuclear weapons remained in Ukraine it would not have been invaded. But it clearly undermines the value of other security guarantees issued by Russia and will have a direct impact on the credibility of any future assurances or even legal guarantees.

The geopolitical events of recent months have demonstrated how regional insecurity can affect arms control processes and undermine our path towards disarmament. They also have highlighted several important ingredients that will determine the success of a lasting and sustainable disarmament process in Europe. States engaging in nuclear disarmament talks need to be confident that reductions and subsequent devaluing of nuclear weapons will positively contribute to their security, and that they will not become victims of a surprise aggression. They need to be confident that the climate for these discussions is positive and that the stability of their own countries or their neighbourhood will not be negatively affected once binding decisions are made. Another vital ingredient is the need for trust that states are genuinely committed to the disarmament process and that they will not renege on their declaration halfway through the process, and that they will honour the provisions set out in the resulting legal documents. All these factors are necessary for a comprehensive and lasting disarmament outcome. If we remove one of these factors the relevant processes will begin to erode, and so will the political will to continue with the process. These observations are equally valid for both European and global disarmament efforts.

These many challenges on the way to a world without nuclear weapons can be managed and alleviated. Smaller, incremental steps can begin to rebuild those missing elements of confidence and trust. When they fall prey to regional political struggles we can turn to the experience with comprehensive arms control tools at the heights of the Cold War, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that constrain the worst excesses, enshrines our commitment to peace and security, and recognises the destructiveness and counterproductive character of relying on nuclear weapons for national security.

About the author(s)...
  • Anna Sliwon, EU Non-Proliferation Consortium Researcher Anna joined BASIC in June 2015 as a researcher through the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium.
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