31 May 2015

NATO Needs a Nuclear Strategy Update

May 27, 2015

Moscow is ready to use its arsenal to deter pushback against its aggressions. NATO needs a plan for how to stare down such threats.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers meeting in Antalya, Turkey earlier this month heard from the alliance’s supreme military commander that Russia is using threatening rhetoric about nuclear weapons to intimidate the West. It’s designed “to give pause to NATO’s decision making,” said Gen. Philip Breedlove. This has included not only general references to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the general pointed out, but also Moscow referring specifically to “the possibility of moving nukes into certain areas or employing nukes if something had not gone correctly in Crimea.”

This is part of a pattern in which Moscow has in recent years sharply increased and intensified deployments of nuclear platforms, singled out countries like Denmark for nuclear threats and signaled a readiness to employ nuclear weapons to try to force NATO to back down in the event of war. And to put credibility into its chilling threats, Russia has conducted exercises specifically practicing its ability to use nuclear weapons against NATO—exercises that have, for instance, included simulated nuclear attacks on Poland.

At the same time, the alliance has spent the past 20 years largely relegating nuclear planning to the basement. Most NATO discussions on nuclear weapons in recent years have focused on whether the alliance should get rid of them. But now there are indications that the alliance is rethinking its nuclear-deterrent doctrine.

This is fortunate because the Russian nuclear threat demands a serious strategy in response. Moscow’s nuclear challenge doesn’t derive so much from the threat of an apocalyptic strike leading to mass destruction, the kind of scenario people associate with the Cold War. Rather, the real peril comes from Russia using strategic arms to decisive effect in a limited conflict with NATO. Moscow could use its impressive capabilities for controlled nuclear use to force NATO to back down in the event of war, including in situations affecting the alliance’s core interest in protecting the territorial integrity of its member states.

In a contest over the Baltics, for instance, Moscow might seek to use its “little green men” and its advantages in conventional weaponry in the immediate area to create a fait accompli in, for instance, eastern Estonia. Having bitten off a chunk of NATO territory, Moscow might then state that any NATO attacks on Russian sovereign territory would constitute unprovoked escalation and threaten a nuclear response should NATO respond.

In such a scenario, the Russian air defense and other military systems that NATO would need to attack in order to dislodge Russian forces from Estonia could easily be operated from within Russia’s own territory. If unprepared, NATO might find itself unwilling to countenance precisely the kind of escalation it would need to undertake to eject Russian forces from the territory of a member state. A failure in such a contingency could precipitate the collapse of the alliance, with grave consequences for regional security and world order.

This scenario may sound a bit far-fetched, but it isn’t impossible.

The Kremlin wants to re-establish its sphere of influence in its near abroad, possibly including the Baltics, and it wants to push back and divide NATO. We know that Russia has the conventional capabilities to invade sovereign states and shift borders, as we have seen in Ukraine. Many Westerners today imagine the Russian military as the hobbled, drunken giant of the 1990s. In fact, at least a good chunk of Russian forces today are well-trained, well-equipped and professional.

Russia, moreover, has been giving a great deal of attention to its nuclear forces, including to how it can use these forces for practical strategic and political effect. The Kremlin has evinced particular interest in the notion of “escalating to de-escalate”—the idea of conducting a dramatic nuclear (or lapel-grabbing nonnuclear) attack to spook the other side into backing down.

NATO and the Western powers, meanwhile, have largely neglected such scenarios since the end of the Cold War. The Western alliance gave scant thought to defending the Baltics until recently, and it marginalized and demoted consideration of nuclear-weapons policy in favor of arms-control and disarmament measures.

This might have been defensible in the placid ’90s, but it is irresponsibly dangerous today. The beginning of wisdom and safety on this point is acknowledging the problem, and Gen. Breedlove’s comments represent an important milestone in this direction. But more needs to be done. Allied governments, and particularly the Western nuclear powers, must consider seriously how they would respond to a Russian attempt to leverage its conventional and nuclear strengths to bite away part of the alliance. NATO’s options must never boil down to suicide or surrender.

The reason to do this isn’t to make nuclear war, or any kind of war, more likely, but rather the opposite. The premise of NATO is that security comes from strength. The alliance is now demonstrating a dangerous vulnerability to a state that has made very clear it will take advantage of such openings. The best way to persuade such a power that it shouldn’t do so is to make it clear that it will lose out from any such aggression.

Mr. Colby is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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