US Foreign Policy

Baltic Nuclear Free Zone Would Further Reduce Risk Of NATO-Russia Nuclear War

A regional war in the Baltic between NATO and Russia using only 20 nuclear weapons risks leaving nearly 1 million dead with long-lasting impacts on the region’s environment, economies, and health, a new report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center finds. The report “Reducing the Risk of Nuclear War in the Nordic/Baltic Region,” examines two hypothetical military scenarios between NATO and Russia in the Baltic region that escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. It finds that while the likelihood of a nuclear conflict is small, two policies would reduce risk further: Strengthening NATO’s conventional military capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat any Russian incursion into the Baltic region and a diplomatic dialogue on a Baltic Nuclear Weapon Free Zone led by the neutral states in the region. The report release comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today during a time of heightened political tensions, military incidents, and nuclear rhetoric between East and West.

“While the risk of a nuclear war between NATO and Russia is small, the long term consequences and lives lost would be devastating,” said report co-author Alex Bollfrass, a Nonresident Fellow at Stimson. “It behooves all responsible governments to do whatever they can to ease their rhetoric, reduce tensions, and avoid military incidents.”

The report offers two recommendations to further reduce the risk of conflict escalating into nuclear war in the Baltic:

1)  Strengthen NATO’s conventional military capabilities to defend the Baltic nations so as to deter Russia from intervening in those nations – By strengthening the conventional military capabilities NATO is able to move quickly into the Baltic region, Russian leaders would be unlikely to believe they could seize Baltic capitals so quickly that NATO would be unable to respond. For instance, equipment for an armored brigade could be pre-positioned in each Baltic nation and battalions rotated through on temporary deployments for joint exercises. A U.S. division headquarters also could also be established in Poland, along with support units, to provide coherence to the Baltic brigades. Additionally, full NATO fighter squadrons could be rotated through the Baltic nations and other nearby NATO nations on a near-continuous basis.

2)  Initiate a diplomatic dialogue about creating a Baltic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone – Implementing a Baltic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone would necessitate removal of Russian nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad if, indeed, they are already there and NATO nuclear weapons from Germany. All other nations bordering the Baltic are already nuclear free. Establishment of this zone would not imply any change in the U.S. nuclear commitment to NATO.

“A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone encompassing all nations bordering the Baltic Sea, including Kaliningrad, would be a pragmatic step to further reduce the risk of nuclear war,” said report co-author Laicie Heeley, a Fellow for Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense at Stimson. “While such a step may not be politically viable today, beginning a diplomatic dialogue about the creation of such a zone could help to deescalate tensions, offsetting the current trend of inflammatory nuclear rhetoric in the region.”

The Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through a unique combination of rigorous analysis and outreach. Stimson is celebrating more than a quarter-century of building effective security solutions through pragmatic research and innovative analysis.

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