Published: June 23 2005
Fifteen years have passed since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, but thousands of US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons built for possible use on the European battlefield remain. Now is the time for Nato’s leaders to pave the way for an agreement with Russia to account for and verifiably eliminate tactical nuclear weapons by withdrawing the remaining weapons of this kind deployed by the US in Europe. Such an accord would strengthen efforts to fight the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and rogue states.
The gradual withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe and a phasing out of Nato’s remaining tactical nuclear missions would close a dangerous chapter of European history. It would confirm the changed role of the alliance in a post-cold war world.
During the nuclear stand-off between east and west, the alliance deployed thousands of tactical nuclear weapons to fight advancing columns of Soviet tanks in central Europe. Many have been withdrawn but not all. Today, some 400 tactical bombs remain on air bases in Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Under Nato nuclear sharing arrangements, about 180 of these could be used by Nato allies during war.
Nato maintains that these weapons are a token of alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention. Such statements sound archaic at a time when this solidarity is tested daily in combat with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Nato soldiers stand united against a resurgence of violent nationalism in the Balkans.
With the Soviet threat gone, US tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe no longer serve any meaningful military role in the defence of Europe. It is hard to imagine that the leaders of the 26 Nato member countries would be willing to cross the nuclear threshold and use such nuclear weapons, given the humanitarian disaster that would follow. Nuclear weapons are incompatible with Nato’s new role as a global organisation for conflict management and prevention.
Worse still, these dangerous cold war relics are a security liability because they impede progress on an agreement with Russia on the control and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia still clings to at least 3,000 of these smaller, more portable but still devastating weapons. They could be a target for terrorists attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Russia’s nuclear command and control systems, as well as its weapons transportation practices, are inadequate and vulnerable to infiltrators.
When asked what the most serious nuclear threat is, a senior US non-proliferation official told Congress on May 24: “In my mind, a lost nuclear warhead because that is ready to use . . . an artillery shell or something that is a man-portable nuclear weapon. That’s a very low risk, high consequence event. The Russians provide better security for warheads than they do for bulk materials in most cases. So it is a lower risk but the consequence is high.”
Removal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe would remove Moscow’s main excuse for delaying negotiations on reducing its own tactical nuclear arsenal. Clearly referring to the remaining US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, Sergei Ivanov, Russian defence minister, said on June 2 that Moscow was “prepared to start talks about tactical nuclear weapons only when all countries possessing them store them in their territory”.
While the Bush administration is interested in better accounting and control of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, it is unlikely to initiate changes in Nato policy that improve prospects for such an outcome. US officials say they would welcome a discussion of Nato’s nuclear policies if any alliance member initiated it. It will be up to Europe’s leaders to push Washington to remove the remaining US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and to push Russia to agree to meaningful talks on verifiable tactical nuclear weapons reductions. Their next chance comes this week on the margins of the Group of Eight summit.
The decisions we take now will help determine the safety of the world we bequeath to our children. The task of dealing with this dangerous legacy of the cold war will not be simple but it must be done, and soon.
Robin Cook was UK foreign secretary 1997-2001 and Robert S McNamara was US secretary of defence 1961-1968