Should NATO consider withdrawing nuclear weapons from Europe in exchange for peace in Ukraine?

27 July 2022

By Paul Ingram and Ian Davis

In an article in the US newspaper The Hill on 19 July Nobel Peace Laureate and former president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, and Jonathan Granoff of the New York-based non-governmental organisation, Global Security Institute, proposed using US nuclear weapons in Europe as a key bargaining chip to achieve a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine. Arguing that a “dramatic gesture” is required to bring both sides into dialogue, Arias and Granoff proposed that “NATO plan and prepare for withdrawal of all US nuclear warheads from Europe and Turkey, preliminary to negotiations. Withdrawal would be carried out once peace terms are agreed between Ukraine and Russia”.

NATO includes three nuclear powers – France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. London deploys its nuclear arms solely aboard ballistic missile submarines, while France uses both submarines and strategic bombers. The United States wields the full nuclear triad of land-based missiles, bombers, and submarines, including about 150 nonstrategic weapons fielded in Europe. It is these latter US B-61 gravity bombs understood to be fielded in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and (possibly) Turkey that were being proposed as part of the trade for peace in Ukraine.

The proposal seemed to have been ignored by most analysts and commentators until Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker tweeted his support a week later on 25 July, describing it as a “bold idea” to bring the conflict to an end, adding “NATO offers to withdraw nukes from Europe (militarily useless, ineffective deterrents as we’ve just seen, and recklessly dangerous) in return for ending the invasion. Putin gets a ‘win’ which costs us nothing worth having”.

Since then, others have joined in the fray. Nuclear Information Project Director at the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, agreed that this would be “bold indeed”, but was sceptical of the chances for success. He wrote: “I agree US nukes in Europe are a ‘militarily useless, ineffective deterrent’, but NATO didn’t try to deter anything with them in Ukraine and Putin’s invasion is making NATO double down on keeping them. And the nukes are not important enough for Putin to agree to that”.

Kristensen essentially dismisses the idea on two grounds: that US allies would oppose the idea, and that the offer would not be strongly appreciated within Russia. First, most NATO member states, and particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, would attempt to block any discussion about a possible (further) withdrawal of the remaining B-61 bombs from Western Europe. Moreover, some would even like the arrangement to be strengthened in response to Russia’s invasion, via the relocation of selected US tactical nuclear weapons from Western Europe to Poland. Kristensen is right to point out this inevitable reaction, but the responsibility for this situation lies with all NATO states, and the debate needs to be had. If the utility of these systems is questionable (to say the least), and there could be significant security benefits to the proposal, we need to have that discussion.

Second, Kristensen sees the proposal as being of insufficient value to Putin to have the desired impact. This may be because Russia’s existing numerical advantage in tactical nuclear weapons would mean they would not welcome attention on them. They have an estimated Russian 1,900 tactical nuclear warheads retained in central storage. This is an assumption that may not hold. Whilst the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons would not in itself be seen as a major strategic rebalance within Europe, it would still be seen as a move of significant political value and symbolism, and could therefore have some influence on Russia’s calculations.

In any case, hopefully we will at some point soon need moves that could be used by President Putin as symbols of benefit to be sold to his constituencies, even if those symbols have minimal strategic value.

While Kristensen’s tone is sympathetic, other recent comments from proponents of so-called ‘nuclear deterrence’ - a complex and controversial theory that relies upon understanding the motives of potential nuclear-armed adversaries - are utterly hostile. Tom Rogan online editor and foreign policy writer for the US conservative news website Washington Examiner wrote that “The unilateral removal of these weapons from Europe would give Putin a major political and military victory”, adding “It would be the height of folly, sacrificing proven deterrence at the deluded altar of Putin's better nature”. Similarly, US political affairs commentator Ron Nehring described the idea not as “bold” but “stupid”. He criticised the proposal in a post on Twitter for “rewarding aggression”, which he said “only emboldens the aggressor”.

Despite the criticism of the proposal, as Pinker pointed out, strategic compromises will be necessary to end the war, to prevent triggering a wider war with global consequences, and to walk adversaries back away from the brink of a renewed arms race. We stand at a point of inflexion in relation to European and global confrontation. An inflexible aggressive response to Russia without an off-ramp is likely to trigger escalation beyond anyone’s control. The bottom line is that Europe can never be secure while Russia and other states have nuclear weapons. Russia’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons (mirroring former US President Donald Trump’s threat to use nuclear weapons against North Korea) shows that Europe’s safety depends on Russian nuclear disarmament.

It makes sense to start with systems and postures designed for nuclear war fighting. The withdrawal of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons is a win-win move, moving in a rationalising direction for constructive security and opening the door for negotiations involving Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. The weapons people are worried about in relation to Ukraine. The withdrawal of the US tactical nuclear weapons would in turn also make it easier to announce a NATO no first use policy, and for the United States to engage in follow-up New START negotiations with Russia.

Paul Ingram is a Senior Research Associate at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and formerly an Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC, 2007-19).

Ian Davis is the founder of NATO Watch and Executive editor of the SIPRI Yearbook.