PART I: The Re-Emerging Nuclear Dimension in Russian-European Relations

PART I: The Re-Emerging Nuclear Dimension in Russian-European Relations

The following is the first of a two-part series.


Russia is anchored to Europe by so many vital ties that all other frontiers in its vast geography are of only secondary importance. In the course of the new and fast-evolving confrontation between Russia and the West, this interface is distorted by a smoldering military conflict in Ukraine and is affected by expanding sanctions, but remains undiminished. The talk in Moscow about a “turn to the East” cannot alter the fundamental imperative to concentrate political and security efforts on the Western theatre. Key European states may be preoccupied with their particular domestic turmoil, from Brexit to the “yellow vests” to Catalan separatism, but relations with Russia invariably constitute a major entry in their political agendas.

In the multitude of connections between Russia and Europe – from the steady gas flow to the export of corruption – the nuclear one had remained hidden until the shock of October 20, 2018, when President Donald Trump announced at a rally his intention to withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty. Controversy around this pillar of the old arms control “architecture” had been brewing for several years, as Moscow kept countering U.S. accusations of violations with counter-claims, yet its collapse was, nevertheless, bad news for European NATO member-states, which are not formally a part of this bilateral agreement. After some feeble protestations, they had to confirm solidarity with the U.S. decision – and now have to acknowledge the reality of nuclear threats and risks emanating from Russia.

This article argues that the fast development of nuclear capabilities, particularly by Russia, makes it necessary to rethink many propositions of nuclear deterrence so that new risks can be acknowledged and addressed. It suggests that poor compatibility between Russian strategic thinking on making nuclear weapons useful instruments of policy and European aversion to realistic assessment of nuclear risks make this connection especially precarious.

Reconstructing nuclear balance

Russia has invested massively in the modernization of its strategic nuclear arsenal since the start of the decade and is firmly set to sustain this effort despite the stagnant state of its economy. The output of this half-implemented program may be lower than the ambitious plans envisaged, but the Russian leadership still intends to harvest political dividends from this investment. President Vladimir Putin’s high-resonance presentation of six high-tech weapon systems in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly was one attempt at such harvesting, but the impression made on Western commentators was transient. He continued pushing the issue in his 2019 address and praised the test of one of his pet-missiles – the hypersonic vehicle Avangard – as an “excellent New Year gift” to Russia.

In addition to his domestic audience, Putin’s posturing is directed at Trump, but the former’s attempts to impress the latter with Russia’s nuclear capabilities have fallen flat. In the Russian strategic calculus, the primacy of nuclear-strategic matters is taken for granted, but the Trump administration refuses to oblige: it has shown no interest in developing an arms control agenda and hardly any concern about the new weapon systems advertised by Putin. By the start of 2019, the high-level U.S.-Russian dialogue had, for all intents and purposes, been terminated.

This leaves Europe as the second-best target for Russia’s nuclear strategy and diplomacy, even if there are few suitable arms control frameworks for advancing its proposition to make the newly-gained advantage count. None of the profiled weapon systems are designed specifically for the European theater, but the 9M729 Novator cruise missile (SSC-8), tested by Russia to the range exceeding 500 km (and possibly up to 2,500 km) in violation of the INF Treaty, certainly is. Moscow is ready, in military-technical terms, for the disappearance of the ban on the intermediate range missiles, and it has reasons to believe that NATO is not. Indeed, as the discussions at the 2019 Munich Security Conference confirmed, the European politicians have given up on the hope of persuading Russia to return to compliance; however, they do not have a plan for responding to a Russian deployment of new missiles – or indeed an interest in hosting new U.S. missiles.

The lessons from the missile crisis of the early 1980s, when NATO found resolve to respond to the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles with the “double-track” decision that brought to Europe some 570 U.S. missiles, are hardly directly applicable to this new situation [1]. Doubts in European steadfastness aside, there is no workable technical design for a new US intermediate range missile that could counter-balance the versatile Russian Iskander-M platform, which can accommodate the Novator missile. The U.S. Army has not even finalized its requirements for the Precision Strike Missile program, and the prototype DeepStrike missile isn’t as yet tested. It is technically possible to fit the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles for ground launchers, but the current NATO position is that new U.S. missile deployments in Europe are “unlikely,” which reflects deep opposition, particularly in Germany, to partaking in a new missile race.

What could constitute an immediate and efficient response to a probable Russian threat-upping is a strengthening of NATO missile defense capabilities, which can be accomplished at a reasonable cost. New early warning radars and air-based reconnaissance systems would enhance the performance of new batteries of MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles and possible new Aegis Ashore bases. The latter are certain to attract Moscow’s attention: the existing Deveselu base in Romania and the constructed Redzikowo base in Poland are described as major threats to Russia’s strategic deterrence system. Russia has taken major steps in building its own missile defense system by establishing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) “bubbles” over Crimea, the Kaliningrad exclave, and the Kola peninsula [3]. Such an asymmetric missile/anti-missile arms race is certainly not a positive development and generates significant risks, but Russia has already engaged in it, so ignoring the need to respond is a non-option for European NATO member-states.

One essential feature of present-day dynamics is that all nuclear warheads for non-strategic weapon systems are safely locked in special storage facilities [2]. This non-operational posture is prescribed by so-called Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) dating back to 1991, and Moscow insists that these self-imposed rules are followed. Estimates place the number of non-strategic warheads in Russian storages at about 2,000, while only some 200 U.S. nuclear bombs are stored in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. It is counterintuitive that the Kremlin remains content with letting this big advantage remain idle, but this stance can be changed on a short notice. The Russian leadership is perfectly aware of the intense opposition in Europe to modernization of outdated U.S. B61 nuclear bombs and of the temptations in Washington to withdraw these bombs from Turkey.

Numbers in nuclear balance sheets are strongly in Russia’s favor and its leadership is looking for ways to convert demonstrable military superiority into political advantage. Exploiting this position of power means making subtle and overt nuclear threats into common and convincing means of coercive policy.


[1] Adamsky, Dmitry, 2013. “The 1983 nuclear crisis – lessons for deterrence theory and practice,” Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 4-41.

[2] Podvig, Pavel & Javier Serrat, 2017. “Lock them up: Zero-deployed Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” Geneva: UNIDIR Resources.

[3] Sukhankin, Sergey, 2018. “From ‘bridge of cooperation’ to A”/AD ‘bubble’: The dangerous transformation of Kaliningrad oblast,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol.31, no.1, pp. 15-36.

Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He is also a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution (Washington D.C.), a Senior Research Associate at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (IFRI, Paris), and a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI, Milan). Support for his research from the Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI) is appreciated.