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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
NATO Agrees on New Arms Control Body

Oliver Meier

After nine months of negotiations, NATO on Feb. 8 agreed on the mandate of a new arms control body and assigned it the task of preparing a dialogue with Russia on confidence-building and transparency measures on tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia, which possesses more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States, has made any discussion of the issue contingent on a withdrawal of the remaining 180 U.S. nuclear weapons believed to still be deployed in five European countries under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. Moscow also is insisting on a compromise on NATO’s missile defense plans.

Against this background, the allies are currently considering how best to engage Russia in a process of confidence building on tactical nuclear weapons. This could include declarations of weapons holdings and locations, joint visits to storage sites, or agreements to relocate weapons away from Russian borders, diplomats said. At its first meeting, on Feb. 12, the arms control committee discussed such confidence-building measures and agreed that it would build on the work done on the issue under its predecessor, the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Disarmament Committee, the diplomats said.

According to the diplomats, one contentious issue within the alliance is the level of Russian reciprocity NATO will require before it changes its nuclear posture. Some allies prefer a strictly symmetrical approach, while others argue that NATO should be more flexible.

Another topic to be decided is whether NATO should present Russia with a comprehensive package of transparency and confidence-building measures or whether a step-by-step approach would be more promising. Those preferring the latter approach are worried that an elaborate proposal could be “dead on arrival,” leaving NATO with few options for follow-on steps, one of the diplomats said.

Another possibility for the new body is a role in addressing other arms control issues, including a dialogue between Russia and the United States on further nuclear weapons reductions. The committee has been assigned to provide a venue for consultations on the U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear arms cuts. That issue is scheduled to be on the agenda of the committee’s second meeting, on March 5.

The committee has its origins in NATO’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review report, which the allies endorsed at their May 2012 summit in Chicago. A potential role for the committee is to continue unfinished debates from the posture review, but this remains a contentious issue, and the terms of reference are vague on this point, the diplomats said.

NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Dirk Brengelmann chairs the new committee. The United States, however, will assume the chair when U.S.-Russian arms control issues are on the agenda.