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

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

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

Reinventing Extended Deterrence

Many European politicians find conceptual luggage from the Cold War era both awkward and inappropriate in the evolving new confrontation with Russia. Yet, they struggle to invent a new discourse that is comprehensible for their constituencies and useful for both engaging Russia in a dialogue and justifying efforts to contain its aggression. The concept that remains valid but invites doubt is extended deterrence, which used to signify the U.S. readiness to use nuclear weapons in response to a Soviet nuclear strike on a European NATO member-state. This readiness to execute such a strike in response to a conventional attack was left undefined as a part of the ambiguity characteristic of a “flexible response” strategy.

The present-day grand-strategic outlook is radically different from that of the mid-1980s: the USSR had the high-readiness grouping of half a million troops in East Germany, while Russia has problems concentrating a grouping ten times smaller on the borders of Ukraine. It is in the Baltic theater that NATO faces the most difficult challenge, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are perceived as indefensible. Yet, Russia’s capacity for a massive and swift offensive aimed at capturing this part of the former USSR and re-connecting with Kaliningrad is far from certain. It is useful to remember that the “peaceful” conquering of these three states in 1940 was accomplished by moving in some 400,000 troops, an effort far beyond the reach of Russia’s present-day severely reduced mobilization potential. Military technology has vastly improved, but occupation can only be effectuated by “boots on the ground,” and the Russian army does not have them aplenty.

NATO, on the other hand, has developed plans for reinforcing its symbolic forces stationed in the three Baltic states and is generally on track to build containment capabilities sufficient to neutralize Russian threats of an irresistible projection of conventional power. Moscow, however, has implicitly indicated readiness for a non-strategic nuclear strike in support of a conventional offensive. Thinking about operations on a nuclear battlefield has not as yet progressed to training, and it is notable that, in the Russian military-strategic discourse, the topic of conventional deterrence – popular between 2014 and 2016 – disappeared in 2018, when the emphasis on nuclear capabilities was strongly reinforced. Western experts engage in exploratory research on dissuading Russia from “de-escalating” tactical nuclear strikes, but NATO as an organization remains reluctant to start serious planning for such scenarios [1].

The situation in the Black Sea theater looks both more favorable for Russia and less dangerous for NATO. Moscow has turned the annexed Crimea into a formidable military bastion but has refrained from deploying any nuclear munitions there. The air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile (Kh-47M2), advertised in Putin’s 2018 address, is experimentally deployed with a MiG-31 squadron based in the Southern Military District, but it has no nuclear role and its usefulness for a strike on U.S. missile defense assets is uncertain. Russia’s limited and indecisive aggression against Ukraine may – and is even expected to – take new turns and forms, but they would remain conventional, even if Putin claimed that nuclear options were considered in decision-making on the annexation of Crimea. Russia may opt to replay the August 2008 offensive against Georgia, but NATO is under no obligation and cannot master sufficient political will to protect this vulnerable partner.

The Barents region in the vast Arctic theater is the part of the NATO-Russia interface where nuclear interactions are most intense. There is a strong lobby in Northern Europe arguing to exempt this region from the general pattern of confrontation, and Moscow is eager to play along with the discourse on “Arctic – territory of dialogue.” However, Russia has, in fact, been investing heavily in building up its military capabilities in the High North since the start of the decade, prioritizing the naval leg of its strategic triad, which depends upon the construction of Borei-class submarines. In order to protect submarine bases on the Kola peninsula, the newly-created 45th Air & Air Defense Army deploys most modern S-400 surface-to-air missiles in combination with other assets upgraded for the extreme cold conditions. This A2/AD “bubble” covers a significant part of Scandinavia and provides effective cover for the Northern Fleet’s operations directed at projecting power on shore.

NATO has recognized this maturing threat, and the unprecedented in scale Trident Juncture exercises in November 2018 demonstrated that it was taken seriously. Russia, which had held massive Vostok-2018 exercises two months prior, responded with higher than usual aggressiveness, not only staging missile tests inside the NATO exercise area but also resorting to jamming GPS signals over the Barents area. This escalation of tensions shows that it is in the European sector of the High North that the conceptualized barrier between conventional and nuclear warfare is extremely low. It is tempting for Moscow to exploit its presumed position of power over NATO in the Barents region, where Finland and Sweden still prefer to remain neutral, but, at the same time, it is acutely worried about the safety of its nuclear assets concentrated on the Kola peninsula.

The Russian leadership assumes that effective deterrence requires demonstrated readiness to take significantly higher nuclear risks than the risk-averse Europeans are prepared to accept. In the leadership of European NATO member-states, there is neither confidence in the reliability of security - and, in particular, nuclear guarantees - provided by the Trump administration, nor is there a consensus on the desirability of a reinforced nuclear “umbrella.”


Russia has a wide variety of assets for engaging in nuclear bargaining and blackmailing with Europe, and it has invested so much in modernization of these assets that not engaging in such a game is a non-option. The breakdown of the traditional arms control “architecture,” namely the INF Treaty, as well as the pronounced lack of interest within the Trump administration in discussing strategic stability matters, make it easier and more important for the Kremlin to focus on Europe. The problem is that, on both sides of the emerging nuclear relationship, views on the usefulness of nuclear instruments of policy and the approaches to applying them are so different that they could turn out to be incompatible.

For President Putin, the Russian nuclear arsenal is a major source of strength. It is a crucial underpinning of Russia’s status as a major global power equal to Europe as a whole and superior vis-a-vis its two nuclear competitors and other key states. This overestimation goes hand in hand with rather crude strategic propositions on deterrence prevalent in Moscow, as well as unsophisticated diplomatic methods for delivering threats and conducting debates. The long experience in managing nuclear crises appears less relevant and informative for Moscow than the presumed success story of nuclear bluffs and rule-breaking authored by Kim Jong-un. President Putin increasingly resorts to shockingly primitive nuclear discourse, like promising Russians a trip to paradise, while his elaborations feature a surprising number of factual errors and propaganda exaggerations.

For the majority of European politicians, nuclear deterrence remains a taboo topic because it upsets and irritates their constituencies. With the notable exception of Poland, there is hardly any support for hosting new U.S. missile bases, and the widespread opposition to increasing defense budgets (often justified as defying Trump’s bullying) makes it difficult to invest in upgraded air defense/anti-missile capabilities. Sincere, even if often misplaced and politically exploitable, public concerns about climate change also cloud many nuclear-related issues and preclude meaningful debates on the reconfiguration of extended deterrence. Lastly, populist movements that portray the EU bureaucracy as the main culprit behind current social and economic problems tend to depict cooperation with Russia as a part of the solution – and to deny the reality of nuclear threats.

Moscow monitors this discord and seeks to deepen it by experimenting with various “hybrid” means, but the outcomes of these interferences are increasingly negative. Indeed, greater subtlety and sophistication are needed in order for manipulations of European elites and their publics’ idiosyncrasies and parochialisms to be successful. Instead, Putin increasingly relies on special operations, corruption, and bragging, and tends to opt for escalating stakes and risks when his bluffs are called. He might even make a decision – entirely unthinkable for most European politicians – to resume nuclear testing on the old Soviet Novaya Zemlya test site. The working assumption for such an as-yet hypothetical decision could be that the damage to the Arctic environment would be minimal and the political resonance from breaking a taboo on testing is certain to be colossal. Such cost-efficiency calculations remain entirely incomprehensible for European political minds, but the Kremlin could very well entertain ideas about playing on new disagreements in the West produced by the nuclear shock.

The basic proposition of a deterrence strategy – mutual rejection of the option of waging a nuclear war – is essentially a matter of rational political choice. The choices made by the authoritarian Russian regime increasingly obsessed with own survival, and the choices over which Western leaders preoccupied with their own divisive political agendas keep agonizing, are based on a different rationality. The Kremlin considers its readiness to play with nuclear risks deemed unacceptable by Europeans as an important strategic advantage. This, in turn, renders the nuclear connection between Russia and Europe increasingly precarious and prone to miscalculations.


[1] Kroenig, Matthew, 2018. “A Strategy for Deterring Russian De-Escalation Strikes,” Atlantic Council Report, Washington DC, April.

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.