A visit to NATO’s HQ in Brussels: Nuclear weapons, fear and blame

By Gunnar Westberg

A memory: Russia as a candidate for NATO membership

Members of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, IPPNW, have for many years regularly visited the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. We also had good contacts with Russian military officers and Foreign Office politicians. In the middle of the nineties members of NATO’s commission on Nuclear Weapons asked if we could arrange a meeting in Moscow, “because we meet the Russians only under very formal circumstances”. Some open discussions over the vodka were hoped for.

We arranged the meeting and got a group of leading Russian military brass and politicians on the participant list. But NATO hesitated. We were told they could not afford the trip… Finally only one officer, a Canadian, came from Brussels. So there we were with a group of disappointed Russian officers. The NATO representative in Moscow showed up for a couple of hours. She assured the meeting that the relationship between NATO and the Russian military leaders was excellent. Actually, she was looking forward to the time, not too far away, when Russia would be a member of NATO.

That was the dream. But more and more countries from the dissolved Warsaw pact became NATO members. And the connections deteriorated step by step.

This year: Fear and blame

Our visits to Brussels and the NATO HQ have continued more or less annually. This year we met (January 26-27) with not only NATO but also the Russian mission to NATO and members of the EU commission.

We were, as always, very well received at the NATO Nuclear Weapons Directorate. I remember how at an earlier meeting we were told that “it is good that you come here, because we rarely meet with anyone who does not share our attitude to the problems”.

Well, the group-think was obvious enough. It seemed that these bright and honest people were living in a bubble of their own. Never did we hear of an attempt to see the problems from the other side. That Russian might feel humiliated or threatened by NATO’s presence at the borders of Russia seemed to be without importance. They mentioned that Russian never came to the meetings Nato arranged regarding disarmament questions. For instance, the work carried out by Norway and the UK on verification of nuclear disarmament would involve espionage, said the Russians.

I was certainly very surprised to hear that “no one here had even considered the possibility of a Russian annexation of Crimea”. We, who try to follow the development in Russia, saw the Russian take-over of Crimea as an anticipated action when Russia thought they had reason to expect a strong involvement or membership in NATO for Ukraine.

In the Russian Mission we met an expert on disarmament questions. Here the attitude mirrored that from NATO: The arguments from NATO are not even worth a discussion. A core question was, as always for Russia, that disarmament of conventional weapons must go had in hand with nuclear disarmament. But at least you could negotiate an end to High Alert, we said. It is absolutely unacceptable that the US and the Russian president has the capacity to destroy the world by pressing a button after a decision made in ten minutes! That does not require a decrease in NATO conventional arms!

The Russian diplomat had no answer here, just as no answer is ever coming from the US on this threat to the survival of mankind.

The missile defence built in Eastern Europe was seen as a serious block to nuclear disarmament. This system would increase the chances for a First Strike capacity for the USA, said the diplomat. If the U.S. did make a surprise attack on Russia, a large majority of Russian nuclear weapons would be destroyed before launching. The few surviving Russian missiles could then be stopped by the Missile Defence. Russian fear of a US First Strike Capacity is often played down in USA, but the fear is real enough in Russia. Russia does not have anything like a First Strike capacity (see note at the end!)

We should have expected this mutual “blaming game”. In the prevailing climate no negotiation initiatives are taken at this level. But, said we, in the 1970es and 80es, when the relations were much worse than today, negotiations were going on…

We were finally promised a great positive surprise from Russia at the upcoming NPT Rev conference in May!

Towards the end of our Brussels visit we had a meeting with the EU Commission group responsible for proliferation and disarmament. The new commissioner on EU foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, who has retained her membership in Parliamentarians for Nuclear Disarmament, leads this group but was not available for our visit. We met with members of her staff. In this group there was insight and involvement. And despair. Because the EU always works with consensus in these questions, no strong and concrete initiatives for disarmament could be supported, for instance the new “Austrian Pledge”. “It is not only the nuclear weapon states of the EU that are blocking decisions”, we were told.

At these three meetings we presented our study “Nuclear Famine, Two Billion At Risk”. This study shows that even a “limited” nuclear war, such a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, would change the world climate seriously and cause a world famine of enormous severity. It seemed that in NATO and maybe also in the Russian mission this was not well known.

These discussions took place before the meetings in Munich and in Minsk. We thus have got some respite. Let us hope the time will be used well.

Note on First Strike capacity.
First Strike Capacity: If one side, e.g. USA, makes a surprise attack with a large part of its nuclear arsenal, most Russian nuclear missiles will be destroyed before they can be launched. The few remaining missiles would then be stopped by a Missile Defence, giving USA a possibility to destroy Russia without itself being too badly attacked.
Russia, on its side, cannot develop this capacity because the US submarines cannot be located and attacked by Russians missiles, while the position of Russian submarines is almost always known to the Americans. The U.S. has a network of listening devices covering almost all oceans, based on the 700 US bases world wide. In general the Russian subs cannot contact the base and receive the order to fire without going up to the surface. The Russian submarines are primary targets for US intercontinental missiles and in general stay close to their bases.

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