Commentary: Nunn on the NATO Summit, Russia & Ukraine

Commentary: Nunn on the NATO Summit, Russia & Ukraine

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The NATO Summit in Wales on September 4 and 5 is the most consequential NATO meeting since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Russia looks much more of a threat to NATO today than it did even six months ago.  How NATO responds to this threat is the overriding issue for the summit, and the stakes are significant.

The NATO Summit: Reassurance, Defense and Deterrence

In Wales, the Alliance will need to refocus on its core mission: the defense of NATO member states enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.  NATO must adopt and commit to implement an action plan for improving NATO defense capabilities, for reassuring members of the Alliance—in particular those who share a border with Russia—and for strengthening deterrence against any form of aggression.

The success of this effort is critically dependent on ensuring that the resources committed to in Wales are provided —even at a time when austerity dominates economic debates in almost every NATO member state.  It is clear that in the years ahead, more support will be required from our European Alliance members and Washington to implement the “reassurance” strategy and revitalize NATO defense.

Will all NATO member states fulfill their commitments to spend more on defense?   Will NATO examine its current nuclear posture – including deployments of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe – and move toward a more credible, safer and affordable nuclear capability, where the savings could be devoted to significantly strengthening NATO conventional capabilities?  NATO members need to answer ‘”yes” to these questions in the months and years ahead in order for reassurance to be credible within the Alliance and with Russia.

A powerful signal could be given by President Obama and the bi-partisan leadership in Congress by getting rid of the sequester, which is damaging U.S. military readiness and capabilities.  The current approach to deficit reduction through the sequester’s defense cuts is dangerous; a long-term approach that would make defense spending more efficient would send a strong, positive signal to the global community. 

NATO Members Need Accountability

Going forward, NATO should commit to publicly scoring the contributions and improved military capabilities of its members, as they implement their Wales summit commitments. Then, NATO should review progress every six months.  NATO members have an historic pattern where pledges and promises on necessary military improvements vastly exceed implementation.  NATO member states must be held accountable for meeting their commitments.

Ukraine:  A New Cold War in Europe Is Not Inevitable

While Ukraine is not a NATO member state, the ongoing conflict there threatens security and stability throughout Europe.  NATO and its member states must do their part to work with Ukraine’s leaders and military to stabilize the situation in the heart of Europe and move forward in helping Ukraine with the herculean task of rebuilding its economy.  This will be very difficult to do without the cooperation of Ukraine, Russia, Europe and the United States.  Training and strengthening Ukraine’s defensive capabilities also will be necessary. 

Meanwhile, deeds must match words.  The political leaders across the Euro-Atlantic region who say there can be no military solution to the crisis in Ukraine must work to resolve the crisis through political dialogue.  Without matching diplomacy to reassurance during this difficult period, another generation faces East-West conflict, with no end in sight. 

A new Cold War in Europe is not inevitable, but unless the leadership in Russia, Europe, the United States and Ukraine find a diplomatic and economic approach, we are certainly headed in that direction.  At some point, the Russian leadership must recognize that a failed state on its doorstep will be a serious threat to its own long-term stability.  There will be no winners if the present conflict continues or expands. 

The Stakes for the United States, Russia and Europe

NATO must leave the door open to working with Russia on areas of shared vital interest—such as nuclear terrorism and proliferation—and broader cooperation on Euro-Atlantic security.  It will take time to rebuild trust, but NATO should be clear that it will do its part.

It is important for all leaders to focus clearly on the stakes involved.  Russia remains the only nation that can destroy America and Europe on a 24/7 basis, even at the assured price of its own destruction.  The reverse is also true. This means that we have common vital interests—even when trust is eroded or destroyed.

In my view, without the U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation that we’ve had over the last two decades, there is a high probability that the world would have experienced catastrophic terrorism with a weapon of mass destruction.

In addition, this new cyber world creates new nuclear vulnerabilities. In all nine countries with nuclear weapons, command and control is at risk of being fooled by deliberate false warnings.  Meanwhile, considerable progress has been made in securing and reducing stockpiles of weapon-usable nuclear materials, but the work is not complete.  If the elements of a perfect storm for catastrophic terrorism remain in place, and if cooperation among the United States, Europe and Russia is essential to prevent these catastrophes, all of us have a duty to think carefully about where our current strategies and trajectories are taking us. 

Former British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who serve together on the Nuclear Threat Initiative Board of Directors, recently made four suggestions that in a rational world both NATO and Russia would consider together and quickly:

  • First, leaders should make a concentrated effort to assure military and political restraint outside of Ukraine, as well as inside. 
  • Second, leaders should review military rules of engagement to ensure restraint, and Russia and the West should work to prevent flare-ups in any of the frozen conflicts in the region.
  • Third, leaders should improve military-to-military communication and take every precaution to prevent out-of-garrison troop movements from being mistaken as preparation for a sudden attack.  This would require advance notification of large troop movements and invitations to outside observers.
  • Fourth, Ivanov and Rifkind also raise a question that has baffled me since the Georgia conflict: why, when there is a serious crisis, does the NATO-Russian Council call off meetings and communications when they are most needed? 

Yes, these steps are hard to imagine in today’s poisoned atmosphere.  So were the steps political leaders and military leaders might have taken to prevent World War I.

Finally, four observations for NATO as it considers membership:

  • Russia should not be able to tell a sovereign nation that they cannot join NATO.
  • I strongly disagree with the often-repeated notion that Ukraine or Georgia or any other nation has a “right” to join NATO.
  • NATO must make its own decision on who joins the alliance, and it should be based on the security of the alliance and the region.
  • A fundamental question too often forgotten in recent years by NATO is:  Can the applicant country be defended and are the members of the alliance and the applicant country willing to build the capacity and spend the resources required to do so?  By “defended” I do not mean defended by the early use of nuclear weapons which could destroy much of Europe and probably also escalate to both the U.S. and Russia.

In the first “Cold War movie,” we had several near-misses and luck helped protect all of us, on both sides of the curtain, from a worst-case scenario.  We should not bet our lives on this in the sequel.  


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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


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