Many people in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands wonder why there are still US tactical nuclear weapons on their soil. These B-61 nuclear gravity bombs were stationed in Europe during the Cold War to deter the Soviet threat, but while this may (or may not) have once made sense, most pundits nowadays agree that at least from a military point of view, the weapons are irrelevant.
Or should I say "agreed?" Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionist policy over recent months is not of much help to those who would like to see the B-61 bombs withdrawn. “Prospects for nuclear reductions in Europe are bleak," as Polish expert Lukasz Kulesa recently wrote. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, Eastern European NATO members, and especially the Baltic states, resisted withdrawal. The issue was at the heart of the internal deliberations of the NATO Deterrence and Defense Posture Review in 2011-2012. At that time, Germany asked for the warheads to be withdrawn, while the Baltic states (supported by France) preferred the status quo. Others held in-between positions.
With the crisis in Ukraine, opponents of withdrawal appear at first glance to have been right. Russia's invasion of Crimea and its provocations in the eastern part of Ukraine prove that the threat has not gone, and that Russia should be contained and deterred, just like during the Cold War—or so the argument goes. The deterrent should include a nuclear component, some argue, preferably as close as possible to the Russian border. For those in Western Europe who had already been skeptical of the idea of withdrawal out of solidarity with their eastern neighbors, the issue is dead.
They may be wrong. The cost-benefit calculus over whether to keep these Cold War weapons in Europe has not fundamentally changed, even after the crisis in Ukraine. In fact, the only political argument of the last couple of years in favor of keeping the nuclear warheads deployed—that doing so was necessary to reassure the Baltic States—has failed dramatically with the recent crisis. Despite the remaining US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the Baltic states do not feel reassured at all. Though they are NATO members, protected by the organization’s security guarantee, they constantly seek clues that the guarantee will actually be honored if their territory is attacked. Apparently, these three states are unconvinced that NATO's nuclear umbrella "works."
The reaction by the West to the crisis and to the demands of the Baltic States shows that these nuclear weapons are indeed irrelevant.
Useless weapons.Over the last couple of weeks NATO has positioned not nuclear missiles but conventional troops and planes in the Baltic states. On May 19, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen even explicitly excluded the option of stationing nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, upholding the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Furthermore, nobody believes that NATO is going to use nuclear weapons, even in the extremely unlikely case that the Baltic states are overrun by Russia. And if nobody believes in their use, their deterrent effect is non-existent.
Nuclear weapons are defense instruments of the past. Of course, the nuclear weapon states do not admit that and act as if it is not the case, as demonstrated by ongoing modernizations in all of them to the tune of billions of dollars. But those upgrades have more to do with satisfying nuclear labs and politicians than actual defense policy. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are becoming more and more delegitimized, both outside and inside the nuclear weapon states.
There is first of all the nuclear taboo, or the belief that nuclear weapons are simply too destructive to be used. This norm is growing over time. Every day that nuclear weapons are not used (despite the United States losing wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the USSR losing Afghanistan and the Cold War), the harder it becomes for somebody like US President Barack Obama or French President François Hollande to use this specific category of weapons. It is not by chance that atomic weapons have not been used since 1945. They are unlikely to be used again, at least in an authorized way.
Second, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2015 will again make clear how frustrated the non-nuclear weapon states are with the state of nuclear disarmament. A pile of 17,000 nuclear weapons—representing the arsenals of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—is hard to reconcile with the legally binding promise of nuclear elimination that was made 45 years ago. Because the traditional arms control approach does not seem to work, middle powers like Switzerland, European Union member Austria, and NATO member Norway are in the forefront of a new disarmament track, the so-called humanitarian approach towards nuclear weapons. This approach aims to make clear to each state and its citizens that any use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic, and that the only way to prevent their use is to abolish them. This new political process aims to educate public opinion and stigmatize those states that hang on to these weapons of mass destruction. Most likely, this approach will result in a nuclear weapons ban, just like those forbidding landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical and biological weapons. New global nongovernmental organizations like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Global Zero see the light, and attract a different audience than the classic peace movements.
The nuclear weapon states and their allies call this new approach "a distraction." The odds, however, are that at least some of these nuclear weapon states, and their allies, will—under pressure from public opinion—question these inhumane weapons and agree to a ban. This may lead to a domino effect, leaving states that do not agree behind as nuclear pariahs.
Third, there is a growing feeling in some of the nuclear weapon states that keeping nuclear weapons is not in their national interest. That was the message of a 2007 op-ed by former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and others, as well as of the speech Obama delivered in Prague in April 2009. The same message has been heard in London and Edinburgh. Recently even Putin made a statement in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons, saying: "My personal position is that at some point, humanity must renounce nuclear arms."
Little reassurance. Back to the Baltic States. Given their proximity to Russia, and with two of three spending less than 1 percent of GDP on defense, they feel threatened, or at least much more so than those living in Berlin or Brussels. But it is extremely unlikely that the three countries, which are now part of NATO (and the European Union) and therefore covered by NATO security guarantees, will be attacked by Moscow. Georgia and Ukraine are different in that they do not belong to NATO. Their perceptions, however, do count. But to reassure the Baltic states, NATO and its members must use credible instruments, and nuclear weapons are anything but. The Baltic states deserve better.
Far from serving as justification for keeping nuclear warheads in place, the crisis in Ukraine should encourage withdrawal, because it has shown just how useless nuclear weapons in Europe were in reassuring the Baltic States.
It is highly unlikely that non-nuclear states like Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium will be able and willing to deliver military support to Eastern European NATO members in the form of air support, sending troops, or building infrastructure, and at the same time continue to support a nuclear mission that is both unpopular at home and apparently regarded as insufficient reassurance by the supposed beneficiaries. If, in addition, the host nations have to contribute financially to the modernization of B-61 nuclear bombs——as the fiscal 2015 US defense appropriations bill recommends they do—then their last domestic resistance to withdrawing the weapons may disappear.