All eyes are on Russia’s next moves in Ukraine, and Crimea in particular, with news outlets reporting a strengthened Russian military presence on the peninsula. A referendum proposed by members of the Crimean parliament is set to take place in Crimea this Sunday, 16th March, to choose its future as part of either Ukraine or the Russian Federation, a move that could irreversibly deepen the crisis. The referendum has been called illegal by Ukraine and many states outside the region. Leaders in Europe and the United States have been calling for calm and a diplomatic solution to the evolving crisis.
Developments in the region over recent weeks have been shocking in and of themselves, raising difficult questions about international mechanisms, sovereignty issues, regional relationships and self determination. But there are also questions to consider about the impact these developments may have on the wider nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament debate.
Rumblings about the implications for U.S.- Russian engagement on the arms control agenda are already starting to emerge - whether they bear out or not remains to be seen. Negotiations for the renewal of an agreement on the security of nuclear materials - the Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement, which was established 20 years ago, expired in June 2013 and is still to be renewed - have already stalled, and recent developments look likely to push discussion back further. While President Obama’s goal of further reducing nuclear arsenals by a third, as set out in his 2013 speech in Berlin, should not need to rely on the relationship with Russia to be achievable, it is starting to look less domestically plausible as Russia’s actions in the region are perceived by many to be aggressive and expansionist. Russia had already been giving US suggestions of renewed negotiations the cold shoulder, and see little reason to even talk about the possibility of transparency and confidence-building measures, let alone enter into negotiations.
Thankfully, so far at least, the talks around Iran’s nuclear programme appear to have been insulated by these broader developments. If officials involved can maintain this distance, so much the better.
The 1994 agreement between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and United Kingdom that formalised the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukrainian soil involved strong security assurances from all three countries to the newly independent country in return. If the Russians now appear to be ignoring those assurances, and the two other states party to the agreement recognise they have limited ability to enforce it, where does this leave confidence in the security assurances that the international community so often call for when strategic matters are discussed? Negative security assurances form a major part of the strategic declaratory policies of nuclear weapon states in their nuclear diplomacy within the non-proliferation regime. Does this experience have an impact upon their credibility?
How these developments affect confidence among NATO countries - particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe - in respect to their own (positive) security assurances to each other is another obvious question. It is broadly accepted that NATO’s remaining nuclear weapons in Europe - 200 B61 bombs - are unlikely to be used in conflict and are not critically relevant to extended deterrence capabilities. Their primary purpose is not one of military utility. Rather, the role they have been playing for a number of NATO allies is one of political reassurance - a way of demonstrating that NATO allies will protect their interests in the case of foreign aggression. This is set out in Article 5 of the NATO Charter:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Ukraine’s neighbours to the West may be feeling particularly vulnerable as they watch recent events unfold in the region, and draw the conclusion that Ukraine is being left to the mercy of the Russians. Several contain sizable ethnic minority Russian populations that some believe could be used as a pretext for intervention. Reassuring them will be challenging, and there will be those who look automatically to the B61s as the solution. The Obama Administration, in a move not directly related to the current crisis, has recently asked Congress for an increase in the US nuclear weapons budget - primarily for the Life Extension Program for the B-61s (which, incidentally, came with a corresponding drop in funding for non-proliferation programmes). Some will argue that longer term assurance of NATO partners is an important justification, and the current crisis in Ukraine is likely to make opposition to this move in Washington all the more difficult.
However, we need to take a longer term view of the issue: our policies cannot be based simply on crisis response. Relying upon a weapon system that has highly dubious utility and is at best unusable (and from the point of view of NATO cohesion, rather a liability), is not only dangerous in terms of crisis stability because it could encourage the Russians to call NATO’s bluff, but could also be a dangerous illusion for NATO’s eastern members that could distract from more effective means to ensure their security. Of course, what those means would be and how they might impact on strategic relationships ought to be the subject of reasoned argument within NATO, if it were to start taking a more forward-looking, strategic view.
The situation in Ukraine is an opportunity to think about the question of reassurance differently. As Ukraine’s allies in the West push for diplomatic, economic and political solutions to the crisis, this may be a way of demonstrating that NATO allies are able to provide reassurance, without the need for nuclear weapons. That, in the face of complexity, it is not these ageing political symbols that provide the reassurance, but rather the relationships and the conventional cooperation that stand front and centre.
As work is done to consider the future role of NATO, it would be valuable to bring the question of reassurance to the fore, and asking what this means in practice. The Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs last week announced that it was partnering with Global Zero to set up a task force looking at how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in Europe. Its first formal meeting was in London today, and was chaired by one of the co-chairs of the Trident Commission, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Likewise, the Atlantic Council is also running a project looking at NATO in an era of global competition. And BASIC has itself led initiatives to explore these questions, involving numerous roundtables across Europe and in Washington over the last four years. As we look forward, the question of responsible reassurance should be central to how we reassess our likely strategic responses to emerging threats.
~The views expressed belong to those of the author.