NNext week fourteen NATO countries will break through enemy air defenses over the North Sea to drop a nuclear bomb. In parallel, the Russian nuclear forces could launch an ICBM. Both are just exercises, they are called “Steadfast Noon” and “Grom”.
And yet this year there can be no talk of routine. For the first time, both sides are testing and demonstrating their nuclear capabilities, while the Russian President openly threatens to use these weapons. This is precisely why one must now be steadfast and under no circumstances should the maneuver be called off, argued Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the Alliance. It sounded as if some had considered such a thing – even if this is firmly denied at NATO.
Alliance defense ministers met Thursday morning for a meeting of the Nuclear Planning Group. This is the body where the Alliance analyzes the nuclear threat and discusses its deterrence strategy. This was certainly not a routine meeting either. Discussions are now taking place in a “radically changed context,” said one diplomat.
Petrified expressions at the N-word
However, this means that the representatives of the Member States are even more tight-lipped than usual when it comes to this issue. This time, NATO did not even allow ministers to walk past journalists on their way to the conference room; the zone for the short comments in front of the press called doorsteps was blocked without further ado. And even in the deepest background, the faces of the people you were talking to petrified as soon as you put the N-word in your mouth.
It has been heard that the most recent comments by the American President have gone too far for some states. Joe Biden warned of a nuclear “Armageddon” last week, comparing the current situation to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was indeed on the brink of superpower nuclear war.
The iron rule applies in the alliance that one only talks about nuclear issues in stamped formulas. The standard phrase, which Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeated at every opportunity for many years, has been: “NATO will take all necessary steps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness and security of the nuclear deterrent mission.” More recently the formula was added that a Russian nuclear strike would have “serious consequences”.
Would the alliance support blows against Russia?
In particular, the allies must consider how they would respond to the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine. While this would not be an alliance case, the US government is nevertheless considering retaliating with heavy conventional strikes against Russian targets in Ukraine. Would the allies get involved? And what if Russia continued to escalate the war anyway? All of this requires considerations that have not been necessary up to now and that have not yet been completed. It is very important to take the Russian threats seriously, said Federal Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht in general. “We are prepared,” claimed the SPD politician. “The use of such weapons transcends all limits.”
Like Stoltenberg, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made it clear that Russia’s nuclear forces were under 24-hour surveillance. So far there are no signs that an operation is actually being prepared. In the next few days, however, the picture of the situation could become more difficult. At the end of October, beginning of November, Russia usually holds its “Grom” nuclear exercise. Then troop units and abilities are set in motion that cannot otherwise be observed. How is preparing for an exercise different from preparing for a nuclear strike?
On Thursday, the ministers also dealt with the covert war that has already begun and behind which everyone actually suspects Russia: attacks on critical infrastructure. The alliance has doubled its presence in the Baltic and North Sea after the leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines, as Stoltenberg announced. More than thirty naval vessels are now deployed there, supported by sea reconnaissance aircraft and submarines. Of course, everyone is aware that all-round protection is impossible: between Norway and the United Kingdom alone there are 8,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines on the seabed.
States are less powerless when it comes to their own procurement of armaments. The Alliance is entering a new four-year planning cycle that will determine the capabilities needed and the contributions of member states. They want to learn lessons from the Ukraine war. On the one hand, the long-term support of the state should be included in the planning. On the other hand, the alliance wants to jointly procure, store, and maintain more equipment – while sometimes adhering to its own standards. It was only in the Ukraine that it became apparent that Dutch shells for the Panzerhaubitze 2000, NATO caliber 155, could not be fired with the same German systems. The software had to be reprogrammed for this.