With the new START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review accomplished, the Obama administration has an enormous opportunity to capitalize on its momentum. It should propose that NATO negotiate with Moscow to reduce the number of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Under NATO, there are only about 200 air-delivered short-range nuclear weapons. Russia has more than 5,000 short-range nuclear weapons, which pose a serious proliferation risk even inside Russia, being smaller, more easily portable and with fewer security protections than strategic nuclear forces.
NATO maintains its significantly smaller arsenal in five European countries. However, since the end of the Cold War, the NATO alliance has reduced its nuclear arsenal by around 90 percent. NATO’s unilateral reductions are a good-news story that NATO countries have done too little to publicize. Russia, on the other hand, has failed to make reductions. It’s time to do something about this. NATO should propose an arms-reduction negotiation with Russia on these tactical nukes in the ideally suited NATO-Russia Council.
We don’t propose that NATO eliminate its European-based nuclear stockpile. On the contrary, we believe that the alliance will need to maintain some forward-deployed nuclear capabilities for the foreseeable future. Sharing the risk of nuclear stationing and participation in nuclear missions reinforces the commitment – the promise – between Europe and the United States. It tells Americans that Europeans remain involved in the dangerous and difficult work of defending freedom. It tells Europeans that Americans will not let European security be separated from America’s own, even if it puts our homeland at greater risk. These commitments will be less robust without European involvement in nuclear deterrence.
We do propose instead that NATO and Russia agree to cut their short-range nuclear weapons by some mutually acceptable common percentage. The alliance will need to decide how deep its reductions could be; this undoubtedly will be tied to progress in conventional-force improvements and progress in missile defense. And, as the Nuclear Posture Review makes clear, any changes are for NATO to decide, taking account of the security needs of all of its members. But the need to work this out is not a reason for delaying an offer to begin talks with Russia on nuclear reductions in parallel.
Some in the administration may be hesitant to undertake negotiations on short-range nuclear forces, concerned it might slow START ratification or bog down over difficult verification issues. (Counting launchers won’t work for short-range systems, inspectors will need access to weapons stockpiles, given the portability of these systems.) We think this logic is topsy-turvy: Russia’s enormous stockpile of short-range systems is a legitimate concern when reducing strategic weapons to low levels. Seeking to constrain Russian short-range systems through negotiation should increase support for START ratification.
While dealing with reducing short-range nuclear forces will involve dealing with truly difficult issues (verification being one of the hardest), these difficulties do not need to be resolved in advance of proposing such a negotiation to the Russians. We believe the U.S. administration and the alliance should capitalize on the momentum of the START agreement to demonstrate – before the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference this May – our continued willingness to reduce our nuclear arsenal as we have committed to doing in the NPT. Reducing Europe’s exposure to more than 5,000 short-range nuclear weapons would be a genuinely important achievement, which would reinforce our alliance.
NATO foreign ministers will meet in Talinn, Estonia, on April 24 and 25. Short-range nuclear forces are already on the agenda. We strongly recommend the administration work intensively with its NATO allies to make an offer of short-range nuclear-weapons reduction negotiations with Russia.
Joe Ralston is the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; George Robertson is the former NATO secretary-general; Frank Miller is a former senior Defense Department and National Security Council official; Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. This essay previously appeared in the Washington Times. Photo credit: Getty Images.