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In this sense the ability to combine hybrid warfare means, significant offensive strike missiles, and an ability to blend in low-yield nuclear weapons in the mix are designed to give the Russians flexibility in coercing European states. Unfortunately, the current state of much thinking in Europe is that the challenge is to keep legacy arms control in place and to have a slow roll approach to conventional deterrence. Such an environment is an ideal one for the Russian approach to using military power for political gain.

But what might a credible US and European offensive-defensive capability which could leverage nuclear weapons in a crisis look like? Recently, I discussed this difficult question with my colleague Paul Bracken, the author of the Second Nuclear Age , a man whom I met many years ago when he was working for Herman Kahn and I was working for Zbig Brzezinski.

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Bracken started by highlighting what he sees as two baseline realities facing analysis of nuclear deterrence in Europe today. Nuclear incredulity is a key barrier to doing any analysis at all. Such a thought is pushed off into a world of theoretically possible but largely unimaginable contingencies. New artificial intelligence or drone technologies are the focus of attention, rather than the integration of nuclear weapons into the Russian warfighting and political influence arsenal.

We then discussed the return of the nuclear challenge to Europe and what from the US and European side might be the focus of attention. The first alternative posture would be that the US could leverage the current bomber force and perhaps ramp up the new bomber and build out the longer range strike weapons on them, some nuclear but most with conventional warheads. This force could then operate from outside of Europe but affect the battlespace within Europe. The new bomber given the systems onboard the aircraft and its capacity to be highly integrated with the F provides a wide range of contingencies in which the bomber strike force could be used to strike at key Russian choke points or axis of attack on key allies, notably the new European ones.

Modernizing NATO’s Nuclear Weapons

This would be especially important if Germany does not accelerate its ability to provide for credible conventional defense in depth. The second would be to reorganize, restructure and build a new capability for shorter-range battlefield nuclear weapons. This would be a limited arsenal and designed largely to be able to underscore to the Russians that lowering the nuclear threshold which is their current approach makes no sense, because we have a range of options to deny them any combat or political value from a limited nuclear strike in Europe.

The key change agent here is the nuclear equipped F, which can operate with its nuclear weapon inside of the airplane and with decent range to strike inside Russia to affect military capabilities of the Russian forces themselves. Legacy aircraft are much less useful because of their vulnerability in contested airspace whereby the Russians are combining defensive and offensive means for a nuclear tipped tactical aircraft to get through. This option becomes real again with the F and with the various F users in Europe who could continue in the current nuclear sharing arrangements.

The third is to rebuild the maritime strike force to have lower yield nuclear weapons, again useful in limited contingencies to deny the plausibility for the Russians pursuing a low yield nuclear strike designed to have political effect. The fourth option is simply to rely on the strategic triad and to do flexible targeting to achieve the deterrent effect; the difficulty with this option is that the use of the strategic triad is part of a much larger piece of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and may be the equivalent of using a hammer to open an egg.

With the patchwork quilt which NATO Europe is becoming and with the cross-cutting support the authoritarian powers are providing to one another, and with US uncertainties, it is not difficult to envisage a wide variety of crisis scenarios which would rapidly involve the question of how, when and for what purpose the Russians would threaten or use limited nuclear attacks. In short, for the Russians, limited nuclear use can be considered a key part of any crisis management strategy in Europe and is part of a leveraging strategy to further goals of accelerating the disaggregation of Europe.

In looking at a variety of crisis management strategies for the US and its allies, there is a clear need to avoid the fallacy of nuclear denial and to focus clearly on the role of nuclear deterrence from the NATO side with regard to the return of direct defense in Europe.

Disarm and Modernize

Russia is not the Soviet Union and the Cold War is long over. However, despite our best efforts to sustain a positive relationship, Russia now perceives the United States and NATO as its principal opponent and impediment to realizing its destabilizing geopolitical goals in Eurasia.

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Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. During the Euromissile crisis, large demonstrations against the deployment of US nuclear weapons took place on Belgian soil.

This led the government to postpone the installation of the weapons. In principle, Belgium strongly supports nuclear disarmament. However, federal officials believe that a non-nuclear world is currently out of reach: growing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, in Asia, or even in eastern Europe make it difficult, for the moment, to seriously consider the possibility of massive, worldwide disarmament.

The only parties opposed to this view in Belgium have far-left leanings or are Green party members, who currently have very limited influence on policymaking.


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For Belgium, the next steps on nuclear disarmament should be the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the launch of negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Were any form of European deterrence architecture to emerge, France would be its backbone. However, Belgian officials mostly see this as a kind of utopia and, therefore, prefer to resort to NATO when tackling such issues. The management of nuclear waste also figures among its most prominent concerns.

A Matter of Credibility - SWP

Bulgaria perceives Russia as a threat and believes that its status as a nuclear power amplifies this threat. The geopolitical context has brought the general public round to favouring nuclear deterrence — but only in the sense of upgrading Western nuclear weapons. Sofia considers itself to be strongly in favour of nuclear disarmament. For Bulgaria, the next steps on nuclear disarmament should be as follows: the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the launch of negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty; and the adoption of confidence-building measures by nuclear weapons states.

There is no significant debate about the need for a European deterrent. Croatia considers threats such as terrorism, cyber warfare, and intra-state conflicts that could lead to regional destabilisation to be more important than nuclear threats.


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It perceives Russia as a threat irrespective of the fact that it possesses nuclear weapons. The general public does not name nuclear deterrence as an important issue and no significant debate on the topic has taken place in recent years. Croatia subscribes to the international consensus on nuclear disarmament: it is a signatory party to all major international agreements on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms control, and disarmament. It believes that the next step on nuclear disarmament should be a reduction in stockpiles involving all states that possess nuclear weapons.

As a rule of thumb, the Croatian foreign and defence ministries align themselves with NATO and EU positions on nuclear issues, issuing statements that criticise breaches of international law and treaties such as those by North Korea, China, and Iran or supporting EU and NATO decisions on security issues.

Cyprus is very worried about nuclear activities that take place in a non-verifiable and non-transparent manner. Cyprus does not perceive Russia as a threat. Instead, it sees itself as having close historical ties to Russia. In October , the presidents of Russia and Cyprus signed a joint action plan for the period, which covers politics, economics, energy, defence, international issues, and European Union affairs. Cyprus does not regard nuclear arms as a threat, and engages in no significant public debate on nuclear-related issues. Cyprus is strongly in favour of nuclear disarmament and sees the total elimination of nuclear weapons as the ultimate goal of this process.

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It also strongly supports the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and would like the measure to be universally adopted. Cyprus sees French and British nuclear forces as irrelevant to its security. Cyprus is one of the small number of countries within the EU to hold strong anti-nuclear views. The Czech public does not exhibit much interest in topics related to nuclear deterrence or weapons except when there is media coverage of the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. The Czech Republic sees Russia as a threat amplified by its nuclear weapons.

Other experts think that Russia is a responsible and stable nuclear power. There are no public documents or speeches from Czech officials that name Russia as a threat to the country. The possible deployment to the Czech Republic of radar as part of the US missile defence system resonated strongly with the public in the late s. At that time, two-thirds of Czechs were against such a deployment. It thinks that this treaty challenges transatlantic ties and NATO.

The Czech Republic does not believe that nuclear disarmament is achievable and suggests instead focusing attention on the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. Should new steps be taken in the framework of disarmament, the Czech Republic would pursue the following, in priority order: new US-Russia reductions in strategic weapons; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the launch of negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty; advances in the verification of nuclear disarmament; and the adoption of confidence-building measures by nuclear weapons states.

Denmark generally perceives nuclear threats as less important than most other threats. Denmark does not perceive Russia as a threat despite the fact that it possesses nuclear weapons. A large majority of the Danish public is against nuclear deterrence. Since then, Danish policymakers have made efforts to significantly distance themselves from the policies of the s, not least because NATO and the relationship with the US is the fundamental framework for Danish foreign and security policy.

Debate: U.S. Nuclear Weapon Modernization

There is, however, still a strong domestic anti-nuclear sentiment. The issue remains a balancing act for Danish governments, which try to take account of both popular anti-nuclear sentiment and the fact of membership of a military alliance with nuclear capabilities at its core.