NATO and Russia’s strategy on nuclear weapons are clearly miles apart.
NATO’s current nuclear policy, based on its 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, focuses on credible deterrence and defense in a mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities.
“NATO’s nuclear forces is central to maintain deterrence, which is why safety, security, and effectiveness” is “constantly evaluated in light of technological and geo-strategic evolutions,” NATO states on its website.
In contrast, Russia believes something very different.
Russia has integrated its nuclear arsenal into its military strategy, but NATO views its own nuclear deterrent primarily as a political tool.
For years, specialists who study Russia’s nuclear arsenal have been concerned about the possibility that Russian forces may use so-called tactical nuclear weapons in conflicts in which they are losing because they have shorter ranges and smaller explosive yields.
In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this concern is rearing its head once again.
In 2014, an “escalate to deescalate” or “E2D” policy, started following the release of an official Kremlin document that raised the possibility of a nuclear reprisal to a conventional strike if “the existence of the state itself is threatened.”
NATO, on the other hand, is committed to arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation, so the fundamental security of the alliance is also important.
“Nuclear sharing arrangements play a vital role in the interconnection of the Alliance and remain one of the main components of security guarantees and the indivisibility of security of the whole Euro-Atlantic area,” NATO writes on its website.
The alliance’s nuclear sharing arrangements also support non-proliferation.
For many decades, NATO’s arrangements provided European Allies with an effective nuclear umbrella so to develop the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons, removing incentive for nations to develop their own capability.
If the group’s own nuclear sharing arrangements came to an end, NATO writes on its website, more countries may seek their own nuclear weapons, resulting “in a world this is less safe, not more.”
Irrational Russian nuclear policy is a pattern
Russia’s policy on nuclear weapons is rather irrational, according to many experts.
Russia has frequently poked NATO in order to provoke it, placing nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, roughly 310 miles from Berlin, and has threatened NATO allies, such as Denmark and Poland, with nuclear strikes.
Despite this, which can essentially be described as examples of Russia’s flagrant breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — using the deployment of new intermediate range missile that can reach European capitals with little warning — NATO has made it clear that it has no intention of pursuing its own land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.
The purpose of NATO’s nuclear weapons is not to provoke a conflict, the alliance has said, but to preserve peace, deter aggression and prevent coercion. The alliance has said on numerous occasions that it seeks a world without nuclear weapons, but these conditions don’t exist today, saying on its website that “a world where Russia, China and others have nuclear weapons but NATO has none, is simply not a safer world.”
NATO writes on its website that it “unites democratic nations in defence freedom, liberty, and the rule of law,” but countries continue to threaten it.
Russia’s massive investment in its military
In recent years, Russia has invested significantly in its military capabilities, especially in its nuclear arsenal.
Russian military expenditure has grown significantly over the past two decades, increasing by 30% between 2010 and 2019 and by 175% between 2000 and 2019, according to SIPRI military expenditure data.
Even though Russia’s irrationality recently peaked amid the Ukrainian invasion, it is clearly part of a longstanding pattern.
In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that he considered putting Russia’s nuclear weapons on alert to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia. Former US President Donald Trump’s national security team thought the threat of E2D was serious enough to warrant a mention in the National Posture Review, with the document predicting a scenario in which “limited first use” of tactical nuclear weapons “could paralyze the United States and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”
Russia’s forceful and illegal annexation of part of Ukraine, a country whose borders it had previously committed to respect in return for Ukraine giving up its own nuclear protection, is a perfect example of its irrationality.
In contrast, NATO and its 30 members believe in deterrence, arguing that as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will remain a nuclear alliance, saying on its website that “NATO has the capabilities and the resolve to impose costs on the adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.”
In concrete numbers, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has reduced the number of nuclear weapons in Europe by an incredible 90%.
Russia lowers threshold for use of nuclear weapons
Putin’s announcement on February 27, which put Russian nuclear forces on high alert following the Western response to the conflict in Ukraine, makes it especially clear that the Russian military has come to view itself as having a lower threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
In 2021, NATO reiterated the importance of nuclear deterrence in light of a challenging environment, saying on its website that the goal of the alliance “is to continue to bolster deterrence as a core element of our collective defense and to contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance. In response to the more challenging security environment, NATO has taken steps to ensure its nuclear deterrent capabilities remain safe, secure, and effective.”
In contrast, Russian policy is meant to supplement its military weakness, using nuclear weapons as a deterrence to the supposed NATO threat to Russia.
“The Russians were driven to this … because the current Russian army is, comparatively, a shadow of the Soviet army,” says former US intelligence chief James Clapper, in an interview with Business Insider. If your traditional military is weak, tactical nuclear weapons offer a form of compensation, he added.
Even though NATO is clear in its denial that it has no interest in going to war with Russia amid the Ukraine crisis, the Russians aren’t totally wrong to have concerns.
“There are some concerns on the Russian side that are legitimate,” Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Putin has complained about American offensive missiles on his border that could reach Moscow in five minutes,” although “there are no such missiles there now, but we could certainly have a conversation about missiles.”
“We could talk about conventional forces too,” Pifer said. “But the conversation would have to cover both sides. It’s not clear that the Russians would get what they want.”
The Russian threat could be considered empty, experts say.
“Supreme guarantee of security”
NATO has suggested it has a “supreme guarantee of security.”
“The strategic forces of the Alliance, and particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies,” NATO writes on its website. “The independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the Alliance.”
Despite the fact that US President Joe Biden has downplayed the risk of nuclear war, refusing to respond to Putin’s request, it was clear, at least to some experts, that the threat of the unthinkable was not insignificant.
“It is a risk, or at least more of a risk than it was a week ago,” Clapper said. “The fact that we are even having such a discussion is reflective of the realization that, yes, Putin might do the unthinkable.”
Even though nuclear war is possible, amid the leadership of an irrational person, it’s pretty unlikely. Putin, on the other hand, has been acting rather irrationally lately, as experts have pointed out.
Risk of nuclear war increasing, experts say
Putin warned, with his de facto declaration of war on Ukraine, that anyone who stands in Russia’s way would face “consequences they have never seen.”
Even though Russia has an arsenal of more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, Biden’s decision to ignore Putin’s threat meant he was considering it a bluff, but experts have warned this approach does not appreciate the significance of Putin’s nuke decision, and his threats.
“In the bizarre world of nuclear strategy, removing some of your safeties can make you feel safer,” Pavel Podvig, an analyst in Geneva who studies Russia’s nuclear posture, said in an interview with Business Insider.
The move is still significant — not because it brings the world to the brink of nuclear destruction — but because it is part of a new Russian military doctrine that lowers the threshold for nuclear engagement.
Biden: “No,” Americans shouldn’t worry about nuclear war
It is unlikely that Putin would decide to launch long-range nuclear weapons at NATO members, including the US; Biden confirmed this when asked if Americans should be worried about nuclear war with Russia, responding with an emphatic “no.”
The Cold War doctrine makes it clear: Nuclear war is mutually assured destruction.
A tactical nuclear strike has a “very low probability” of happening, Podvig said. “It would not help the Russian military achieve any of its goals, and the political consequences would be orders of magnitude worse than what we’re seeing now.”
Even if Putin orders a nuclear strike, it is possible his own military might refuse to comply.
During the Soviet Union, Russia came close to launching two nuclear strikes that were halted at the last possible moment. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, officer Vasili Arkhipov decided to defy leaders and refuse to launch an attack, a heroic move that saved more lives that can be imagined. After a military computer falsely warned of a US strike on Russia, Stanislav Petrov also decided to defy leaders and refuse to launch attacks in 1983.