As nuclear tensions rise between Russia and NATO, time to reach for the diplomatic toolbox

Dr. Ian Davis and Paul Ingram

14 May 2024

The threat from nuclear weapons is ever more uncomfortable today, more so than it has been for several decades. It arises from a collective failure to maintain arms control, and an attitude that has arisen on all sides that supports confrontational approaches to international relations. It appears that leaderships are destined to fall into these traps again and again ad infinitum, committing to increases in military spending and blaming other states, whilst failing to recognise the trap of the security dilemma – that arms build-ups and aggressive postures simply trigger one’s opponent to match. Even in the height of the Cold War when there was a belief in an existential ideological threat emanating from the other side, belligerents were able to come to agreements that managed the worst excesses. Trust in agreements now seems to be at rock bottom. We face a stark choice between helping each other out of these traps through negotiation or racing towards an ever-spiralling crisis. 

In June 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia had sent tactical nuclear arms to Belarus, which borders Ukraine and Poland, in a move apparently designed to match existing NATO deployments. Poland has repeatedly indicated that it is keen to host nuclear weapons under the NATO nuclear sharing programme. Last month Polish President Andrzej Duda said that Poland was ready to host nuclear arms if NATO decides to deploy the weapons in the face of Russia reinforcing its armaments in Belarus and Kaliningrad. 

President Putin made another veiled threat to use nuclear weapons against Western states during a commemoration of Russia’s World War II victory in Moscow on the 9 May. He said “Russia will do everything to prevent a global clash, but at the same time, we will not allow anyone to threaten us. Our strategic forces are always in a state of combat readiness”. The comments came just days after Russia announced it would conduct military exercises to prepare for the use of so-called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’, which it is claimed are designed for attacks on soldiers rather than population centres. NATO also conducts a similar annual exercise. The reality, however, is that any use of such weapons by any party would cause indiscriminate and widespread destruction, violate international humanitarian law, and likely constitute a war crime. The US State Department called the Russian move “reckless” but suggested that it did not anticipate any short-term use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

NATO nuclear sharing 

While three NATO members are officially nuclear weapons states—the United States, the United Kingdom and France—five others host about 100 US nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Host countries’ military forces train for nuclear missions and maintain the aircraft that would deliver the weapons, although Washington retains custody over the weapons deployed in peacetime.

While Warsaw claims to have been in talks with Washington for some time about Poland hosting US nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO remain hesitant since moving nuclear warheads to Polish soil would greatly intensify the already high nuclear tensions. Indeed, at a press conference in Poland together with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 23 April, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said "There are no plans to expand NATO sharing arrangements, no plans to deploy any more nuclear weapons in any additional NATO countries".

The Polish president is the military’s supreme commander, but he lacks the political power to decide whether the country joins international military programmes. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose centrist coalition opposes President Andrzej Duda and the Law and Justice party that backs him, was more cautious. “I care greatly about Poland’s security, about it being as well-armed as possible. But I would also like that potential initiatives are, above all, very well prepared by the people who are responsible for them” Tusk said during a press conference on 22 April.

Seven members of NATO—Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and the United States—currently have dual-capability aircraft that can carry conventional bombs or nuclear warheads, and Poland is currently acquiring such a capability. In January 2020, Poland agreed a deal worth $4.6 billion to acquire 32 F-35A Lightning II combat aircraft from the United States. The first six of the ordered F-35A aircraft will be delivered to a US air base in 2024-25, and they will be used to train Polish pilots. The new aircraft will begin to be delivered to Poland in 2026 in batches until 2030. 

Europe and the bomb

NATO nuclear sharing was created in the 1960s to reassure US allies about the credibility of the US ‘nuclear umbrella’, and to commit them to actively participating in NATO’s strategy of nuclear deterrence. However, as a result of Russia’s recent battlefield successes in Ukraine and bellicose nuclear rhetoric, together with the prospect of a second Trump presidency, European analysts are increasingly debating what a future European nuclear posture might look like in the closure of the US nuclear umbrella. President Emmanuel Macron in late April suggested that French nuclear weapons could provide an umbrella for the European Union. “I’m in favour of opening this debate, which must therefore include missile defence, long-range weapons and nuclear weapons for those who have them or who have American nuclear weapons on their soil”, he said. The French president added, “Let’s put everything on the table and see what really protects us in a credible way”. Similarly, in Germany, the debate has seemingly shifted away from the doves calling for the removal of US nuclear weapons to the hawks supporting their continued deployment, with some even pushing for a German bomb.

Russia and NATO are inching closer to a direct war. Gradual moves that aim to deter the other party are instead resulting in an escalation spiral. Hawkish elements in the West and Russia are pressing their leaders to take bold steps that were once viewed as likely to result in highly undesirable further escalation. The UK Foreign Minister David Cameron, for example, recently declared that he had no issue with Ukraine using British weapons to strike Russian territory, to which Russia predictably responded by threatening retaliation against UK military targets. Similarly, President Macron has suggested that France could send its own troops into Ukraine, raising the spectre of direct war between two nuclear-armed states. Russia responded by promising to attack any French troops that appear on the frontline. 

More war or intensive diplomacy?

Instead of continuing with the failed approaches that have only exacerbated global risks, more intensive diplomacy is required both to end the Russia-Ukraine war and to find new nuclear arms control solutions. The aim of a new diplomatic push should be an immediate ceasefire. It is often said that a ceasefire now would favour and embolden the Russians. But the belief that continuing conflict could benefit the Ukrainians is based upon wishful thinking. 

The ceasefire could be accompanied by the establishment by the UN Security Council of a 5km demilitarized or buffer zone along the more than 1,000km-long current frontline in the war. The buffer zone should be patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force. To gain the necessary support in the UN Security Council, including that of Russia, the BRICS countries need to be an integral part of the diplomacy. Similarly, any UN peacekeeping force could involve mainly BRICS countries with a strong track record in UN peace operations, such as China, India and South Africa. The demilitarization zone could be achieved without formally settling any respective territorial claims, enabling key aspects of the conflict (such as the status of Crimea) to be resolved peacefully via further diplomatic dialogue, by an international court or by a recognised plebiscite overseen by the United Nations.

Dr. Ian Davis is the founder of NATO Watch, the Executive Editor of the SIPRI Yearbook and an Associate Senior Fellow within Conflict and Peace at SIPRI.

Paul Ingram is an independent analyst focused on nuclear deterrence and disarmament policies. He is a research affiliate at the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and former Director of BASIC.