Weapons of mass destruction: What will be new in the 2022 NATO strategic concept?

By Rose Gottemoeller | June 27, 2022

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previews the alliance’s upcoming Madrid Summit with POLITICO journalist Lili Bayer. Photo credit: NATONATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previews the alliance’s upcoming Madrid Summit with POLITICO journalist Lili Bayer. Photo credit: NATO

This week’s NATO Summit in Madrid will launch a new Strategic Concept, NATO’s statement of its strategic goals and objectives, its purpose in life. With Russia threatening to use weapons of mass destruction, NATO’s approach to deterring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks will be in the global spotlight. Will NATO have something new to say on deterrence, or stick to the past?

This summit was meant to be many things that it will not. NATO was going to focus its attention for the first time on China, to think through how best to sustain the defense of Europe while the United States pivots to the Indo-Pacific. The defense of Europe, in this setting, would remain important, but more the purview of the European NATO allies, a kind of strategic rear guard against the main action, countering China’s rising influence.

The NATO Summit was also meant to be the celebratory hand-off between Jens Stoltenberg, who has served skillfully as NATO Secretary General for eight years, to a new Secretary General. Perhaps, for the first time, the person selected would be a woman.

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine undid both these scenarios. Stoltenberg was extended in office for a year, and the hunt for his successor was suspended. Instead of focusing on China, NATO is helping Ukraine to fight for its life against Russia, defending the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, self-determination, and independence. These are the principles that underpin the post-World War II system, designed to render impossible the emergence of another murderous tyrant in Europe. Sadly, they are again under attack in Ukraine.

The stage is thus set for the summit in Madrid, where the allies will issue the new Strategic Concept. It will be the first since 2010, when the Euro-Atlantic area was “at peace and the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory … low.”[1]

This statement already rang hollow when the Russians seized Crimea and destabilized the Donbas in 2014, but instead of redoing the Strategic Concept, the alliance focused at that time on restoring its deterrence and defense capabilities, putting in place battle groups in the Baltic States and Poland and renewing its ability to reinforce rapidly and efficiently.[2]

Now, however, a new Strategic Concept is vital as a statement of the overarching strategy that will take NATO forward. Since the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace, and the threat of conventional attack against NATO is not low, what will the alliance stand for? What will its strategic vision be?

A focal point of the new Strategic Concept is bound to be weapons of mass destruction, because of Russia’s frequent chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats during the current crisis. In the first days of the invasion, Russian troops occupied Chernobyl and attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.[3] These adventures and Moscow’s early efforts to establish the conditions for chemical or biological “false flag” operations in Ukraine drew a direct reproof from NATO leaders at their special summit in Brussels on March 24:

“We … condemn attacks against civilian infrastructure, including those endangering nuclear power plants. We will continue to counter Russia’s lies about its attack on Ukraine and expose fabricated narratives or manufactured “false flag” operations to prepare the ground for further escalation, including against the civilian population of Ukraine. Any use by Russia of a chemical or biological weapon would be unacceptable and result in severe consequences.”[4]

A particular question is whether NATO nuclear policy will undergo any changes under the current circumstances, when Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian leaders have been rattling the nuclear saber.[5] They were doing so even before the invasion of Ukraine, so allies must consider whether nuclear weapons use is now more likely. If this extraordinarily dangerous circumstance is arising, what must NATO members do to deter it?

The 2010 Strategic Concept addressed nuclear policy as a matter of direct deterrence capabilities, the ability to respond to a nuclear attack with a decisive military response. As the allies emphasized,

 …an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance…

We will ensure that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations. Therefore, we will … maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces.[6]

Nowadays, in the light of Russian nuclear threats, allies have very different views about the utility of nuclear weapons in wartime, with some long-standing members continuing to pair the necessity of nuclear deterrence with necessity for dialogue—that is, the continuation of nuclear arms reduction negotiations after the Ukraine crisis abates, with the goal of eventual nuclear disarmament.

Why the West should take Russia’s nuclear threats more seriously

Other newer members, however, are looking for a more robust nuclear stance from NATO and have even argued for the demise of the three “no’s” first articulated in the late 1980s to reassure Russia about enlargement: NATO has no intention, no reason, and no plan to station nuclear forces on the territory of its new members. As longtime NATO official and chronicler Simon Lunn has said, “The more recent members note these declarations were signed without them and effectively prohibit their participation in the existing Alliance arrangements.”[7] Poland has been particularly articulate in this regard, stating that it would be willing to host nuclear weapons on its territory.[8]

Bridging these two points of view, particularly during a hot conflict when nuclear weapons are being brandished, will not be easy. For that reason, NATO will most likely leave its core 2010 declaratory language intact and look for other ways to convey a bolstered nuclear deterrent. The core language should stand in any event, because it conveys a clear message of deterrence by threat of harsh retaliation.

But what more can NATO do to deter threats not only of nuclear use, but also of chemical, biological, and radiological attacks? Here the alliance will probably resort to beefing up the language in the Strategic Concept regarding resilience. On this score, the 2010 document said only that the allies would “further develop NATO’s capacity to defend against the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.”[9]

By March 24, when the special summit took place to address the Ukraine crisis, NATO leaders had expanded on the topic: “We are increasing the resilience of our societies and our infrastructure to counter Russia’s malign influence… We will enhance our preparedness and readiness for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. We will take further decisions when we meet in Madrid.”[10]

As preparations for Madrid accelerated in April and May, it became clear that resilience to WMD threats would indeed be front and center: “NATO Allies are constantly working to bolster their defensive capabilities against WMD and strengthen their resilience to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats, including from terrorism and warfare.”[11]

This emphasis on resilience is not loose talk but in fact is born of tough experience during the Ukraine crisis. In response to Russia’s threats, NATO activated its Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, which is comprised of a CBRN Defence Battalion and CBRN Joint Assessment Team. The battalion is trained and equipped to deal with CBRN attacks against NATO populations, territory, or forces. The assessment team analyzes the full spectrum of CBRN threats in operational settings and provides advice to commanders.[12]

Although the task force has been called upon to provide support to civilian authorities to address natural disasters and health crises—it was an important player in NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic—the March 2022 activation was the first time it was called for in a deterrence and defense setting.

NATO leaders seem set on making resilience against nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological attacks a centerpiece of alliance declaratory policy in the new Strategic Concept. In this way, they will add deterrence by denial to the alliance’s considerable capacity to deter by threatening retaliation.

NATO, in brief, will resume the two-pronged approach to deterrence that it pursued during the Cold War: denying the enemy the ability to achieve its war aims by ensuring that NATO forces, populations, and territory will survive an attack (deterrence by denial), and threatening overwhelming retaliation against an attack (deterrence by punishment).

This two-pronged deterrence approach is sensible at a time of heightened chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, but it is difficult and expensive to accomplish for both military forces and civilian populations, especially when civilians might be skeptical of the need to pursue burdensome defense measures. Israel has not had difficulty getting its citizens to wear gas masks, but people in Europe might behave differently. So NATO countries will have to pay careful attention to investing in capabilities and educating their publics in a smart way, if they are to achieve a credible deterrence by denial posture.

One other vital nuclear policy issue will be on the table: the willingness of the NATO allies to continue to pursue nuclear arms control and nonproliferation cooperation with Russia. The aforementioned split between allies—with some members considering dialogue a vital aspect of NATO policy toward Russia and others considering it a lost cause—no doubt means that difficult debates are going on behind the scenes as NATO finishes work on the Strategic Concept. However, going into the summit, NATO continued to evince a willingness to pursue arms control and nonproliferation diplomacy:

Why the West should take Russia’s nuclear threats more seriously

As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO Allies will continue to maintain nuclear forces as a core component of the Alliance’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence. That said, since the end of the Cold War, Allies have dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and their reliance on nuclear weapons in the NATO strategy. No NATO member country has a chemical or biological weapons programme. The Alliance is committed to arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction.[13]

In the face of Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine, there is no way that Russia and NATO countries will be returning to the negotiating table any time soon. That goes for multilateral talks on European security and WMD constraints, as well as bilateral talks between the United States and Russia to replace the New START Treaty.

However, the notion that NATO would abandon negotiated restraint on weapons of war is also highly unlikely, because of NATO’s firm and long-standing commitment to a dual-track approach, combining deterrence and defense with détente and dialogue. Even the dialogue doubters among NATO member states would be unlikely to embrace a policy depending on deterrence and defense alone; it would doom NATO to being unable to change the status quo except by resort to the use of force.[14]

Indeed, a comprehensive study by the Middlebury Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at Monterey found that NATO members from east to west understand the need for a dual-track approach. Some resist the idea in the light of Russian bad behavior, but they reluctantly accept that dialogue can be useful and necessary when well prepared and timely. The CNS study also found that allies generally agree on the need to prepare, to do necessary homework, even when negotiations are not immediately feasible for political, military, or technical reasons.[15]

At the end of the day, then, the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept will no doubt have something to say about the continuation of efforts to constrain nuclear and other weapons at the negotiating table. As difficult as such talks are to imagine at this moment, NATO will want to prepare itself for an eventual return to negotiated restraint on weapons of mass destruction.


[1] “Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Lisbon, 19-20 November 2010, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf, p. 10.

[2] Rose Gottemoeller, “NATO Is Not Brain Dead,” Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2019-12-19/nato-not-brain-dead and

Ivo Daalder, “Responding to Russia’s Resurgence,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2017-10-16/responding-russias-resurgence.

[3] Katherine Lawlor, Kateryna Stepanenko, “Warning Update: Russia May Conduct a Chemical or Radiological False-Flag Attack as a Pretext for Greater Aggression against Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 9, 2022, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/warning-update-russia-may-conduct-chemical-or-radiological-false-flag-attack-pretext

[4] Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government, Brussels, March 24, 2022,  https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_193719.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[5] Liviu Horovitz, Lydia Wachs, “Russia’s Nuclear Threats in the War against Ukraine,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, April 20, 2022, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/russias-nuclear-threats-in-the-war-against-ukraine

[6] NATO 2010 Strategic Concept, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf, pp. 14-15.

[7] Simon Lunn, “NATO Nuclear Policy: Reflections on Lisbon and Looking Ahead to the DDPR,” https://media.nti.org/pdfs/NTI_Framework_Chpt1.pdf.  Lunn’s article is an excellent commentary on the status of NATO nuclear policy at the time when the 2010 Strategic Concept was issued.

[8] Shane Croucher, “NATO’s Poland ‘Open’ to Hosting U.S. Nuclear Weapons,” Newsweek, April 3, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/natos-poland-open-hosting-us-nuclear-weapons-1694540.

[9] NATO 2010 Strategic Concept, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20120214_strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf, p. 16.

[10] Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government, Brussels, March 24, 2022,  https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_193719.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[11] NATO Backgrounder, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 8 April 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_50325.htm.

[12] NATO Backgrounder, “Combined Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Task Force,” 22 April 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49156.htm.

[13] NATO Backgrounder, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 8 April 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_50325.htm.

[14] I am grateful to Jamie Shea, former NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges, for articulating so clearly this trade-off. He has described its inception in the 1967 Harmel Report. See Jamie Shea, “How the Harmel Report Helped Build the Transatlantic Security Framework,” Atlantic Council, The Atlanticist, 29 January 2018. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/how-the-harmel-report-helped-build-the-transatlantic-security-framework/

[15] Miles Pomper, et. al., “Everything Counts: Building a Control Regime for Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” CNS Occasional Paper #55, May 2022, https://nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/op55-everything-counts.pdf.

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