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A visit to Brussels: NATO, Russia, and the EU

February 12, 2015

100415a-HQ28-010 NATO Headquarters Brussels.For many years, I’ve joined other IPPNW members on regular visits to NATO Headquarters in Brussels. This tradition continued a week or so ago when some of us returned to Brussels to meet not only with NATO staff, but also with diplomats at the Russian mission and with staff at the EU Commission group responsible for proliferation and disarmament.

At all three meetings we presented IPPNW’s findings on nuclear famine and the climate disaster that would follow a limited, regional nuclear war, whether in Europe or elsewhere in the world. We had the impression that this research was not very well known either at NATO or at the Russian mission.

These dialogues first started in 1994, when 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.” Perhaps they hoped for some open discussions over vodka.

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 somewhat 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. She was even looking forward to the time, not too far away, when Russia would be a member of NATO.

That was the dream. But as more and more countries from the dissolved Warsaw Pact became NATO members, relations with Russia only deteriorated.

This year: fear and blame

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

Well, the groupthink was obvious enough. It seemed that these bright and honest people—yes, they are—were living in a bubble of their own. Never did we hear of an attempt to see the problems from the other side. That Russians might feel humiliated or threatened by NATO’s presence at their borders seemed to be without importance. They complained that the Russians never came to the meetings NATO arranged regarding disarmament questions. Now, for instance, the Russians tell them that the work carried out by Norway and the UK on verification of nuclear disarmament would involve espionage.

I was certainly very surprised to hear that “no one here [at NATO] had even considered the possibility of a Russian annexation of Crimea.” Those of us who try to follow developments in Russia anticipated the Russian takeover of Crimea when Russia thought there was reason to expect that Ukraine might join NATO or become strongly involved in ways just short of membership. How come those in NATO Headquarters did not see this obvious outcome themselves? This is mystifying.

At 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 position for the Russians, as always, was that disarmament of conventional weapons must go hand in hand with nuclear disarmament. But, we said, at least you could negotiate an end to keeping nuclear missiles on high alert. It is absolutely unacceptable that the US and the Russian presidents have the capacity to destroy the world by pressing a button after a decision made in ten minutes! Dealerting should have no connection with issues related to conventional arms.

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

The Russians see the missile defense built in Eastern Europe as a serious obstacle to nuclear disarmament. This system increases the capacity for a first strike by the USA, said the diplomat. The argument is that if the US 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 defenses. Russian fear of a US first strike capacity is often played down in the US, but the fear is real enough in Russia.

Russia does not have anything like a first strike capacity, because nuclear-armed US submarines cannot be located and attacked by Russians missiles, while the position of Russian submarines is almost always known to the Americans through a global network of listening devices stationed on 700 US bases worldwide. In general, the Russian subs cannot contact their bases and receive the order to fire without going to the surface. The Russian submarines are primary targets for US intercontinental missiles and usually stay close to their bases.

In the prevailing climate, negotiations between Russia and the US on new nuclear disarmament initiatives have stopped. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, when relations were much worse than they are today, negotiations went on regularly. Now we have a mutual “blaming game.”

While the overall tone of this most recent meeting was discouraging, we were promised a great positive surprise from Russia at the upcoming NPT Review Conference in May. I have no idea what this might be.

Finally, we met 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 Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), leads this group but was unable to join us, so we met with members of her staff. In this group there was insight and involvement…and despair. Because the EU always works by consensus, there can be no support for strong and concrete initiatives for disarmament such as the new Austrian Pledge. “It is not only the nuclear weapon states of the EU that are blocking decisions,” we were told.

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