- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
The research conducted for this article was supported by the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies (CNS) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are of the author, and do not represent the CNS’s position. The author is grateful to Miles A. Pomper for feedback on the earlier versions of this draft.
The US administration under President Joe Biden has been looking to initiate a new round of negotiations with Russia on reducing non-strategic nuclear warheads (NSNW). However, Russia’s willingness to engage remains uncertain, and such negotiations have the potential to open up simmering tensions between the US and its European NATO allies. Against this background, this article reflects on several rounds of interviews conducted with Baltic security experts and government officials in 2021, and previously in 2015. Engagement with and understanding of nuclear weapons in defense, deterrence, and arms reduction remains limited in the Baltics, but there is broad support for the postures that the US and NATO choose to articulate. Given considerable changes in the global — and European — strategic environment, the relatively limited shifts in the Baltic region’s nuclear positions are noteworthy.
Strategic US policy decisions, especially in the nuclear realm, have regularly been criticized for their unilateral nature. The spat with France over the US and the UK sharing nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia is but the latest example — toning down European expectations of multilateralism previously associated with the Biden administration. Furthermore, it is worth noting the deepening schisms between Western and Eastern European nations on security and defense matters in general, and regarding nuclear weapons-related issues more specifically. For instance, the French preference for continued military presence in the Sahel and relative nuclear independence from NATO stands increasingly in contrast to the German and Scandinavian approach to security through development assistance and work toward global nuclear disarmament — which differs further from the Eastern European hawkish stance against Russia and expressed desires for greater Western military presence in the region.
Nuclear arms control efforts between Russia and the US have traditionally focused on strategic weapons — given the difficulty of defining, and the controversy of verifying, the size and location of other types of stockpiles. The latest agreements — such as the New Start treaty of 2010, and the Trump-Putin nuclear talks — have also left out non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), such as submarine-launched missiles, air-to-surface missiles and bombs, or artillery shells. Nevertheless, over the last decade negotiations over NSNW were seen by the US as a desirable next step in arms control with Russia — especially given the large Russian numerical advantage in this domain. Meanwhile, Russia has sought to steer any prospective NSNW talks towards the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, further stoking the aforementioned divisions within NATO. In addition, Russia’s technological modernization has increasingly moved towards making its aerial and ground launch platforms dual-capable — further leveraging the tactical ambiguity afforded by its NSNW capabilities.
Attempts to take into account Eastern European partner positions in conducting strategic nuclear talks with Russia pose a two-fold problem (at least). On the one hand, Baltic allies are consistently vocal about the looming threat from Russia, advocating an overall stricter deterrence posture through nuclear and conventional military and non-military means. On the other hand, the region entirely lacks historical experience in nuclear policy decision-making, as it was kept out of the loop during the Soviet period when Moscow was deciding on such strategic matters without consulting other USSR member states. Since regaining their independence in the 1990s, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have gladly outsourced nuclear deterrence matters to NATO’s nuclear member states, supporting the alliance’s posture du jour without much questioning (in contrast to the Global Zero or anti-nuclear-weapons-hosting movements in Western Europe). Thus, engaging Baltic allies remains problematic: 1) Nuclear arms control is not a priority agenda item, yet there is always a preference for a stricter posture vis-a-vis Russia; and 2) the countries hold or host no nuclear weapons themselves, but oppose any unilateral NATO reductions. On an expert and policy-maker level, this can make the NSNW negotiations somewhat less complex, with the US keeping Baltic allies abreast of the progress in nuclear arms control talks, while potentially also offering some additional conventional security assurances. However, in terms of actively engaging the public, or even members of parliament, talking about nuclear reductions can prove rather puzzling: There is a consistent desire to see an increasingly stricter Western posture towards Russia — any negotiation, almost regardless of the subject, is seen as an undesirable potential softening. Moreover, the lack of familiarity with classical Cold War nuclear discourse makes it difficult for the Baltic public to see how arms control could complement — rather than detract — from deterrence, or to meaningfully assess the weight of strategic versus tactical nuclear uses and implications.
In 2015, following Russia’s blatant violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces’ (INF) Treaty and the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, a series of interviews with security experts and government officials was conducted in Lithuania and Estonia — countries among the most ardent Russia critics. The intent of the interviews was to go beyond official policy positions to better understand prevalent views and reactions to the changing nuclear landscape, and how it might factor into the broader local security contexts. In 2021, another round of interviews was conducted in Lithuania and Latvia, specifically focusing on prospective views on and interests in NSNW negotiations. The insights reported below highlight prevalent Baltic institutional thinking on nuclear security and negotiations.
Overall, there is lasting unease over the growing asymmetry of Russia-NATO nuclear capabilities, and categorical opposition to any unilateral nuclear reductions initiated by NATO as a potential confidence-building measure. In 2015, experts and officials articulated a strong preference for a greater conventional ground force presence of Western allies in the region. With the deployment of four NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalions, that wish came true. At that time, Baltic experts approved of NATO’s nuclear posture (almost as an afterthought), with some concerns over the ability of NATO and the US to credibly signal to Russia their readiness to use nuclear capabilities. In previous NATO summits, proponents of a nuclear posture review advocated for reductions, and around 2015, the appetite seemed to grow for a more aggressive nuclear posture and more expansive nuclear sharing (with Poland as the leading voice). However, these discourse shifts did not permeate interviews with Baltic experts. In 2021, the discourse among Baltic experts and officials has since shifted towards looking for an “appropriate mix” of nuclear and conventional deterrence capabilities.
Another interesting finding concerns the nature of Russia’s nuclear posturing. In 2015, Baltic experts seemed to view Russia’s deployments of dual-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems to Kaliningrad as largely empty posturing, rather than nuclear escalation — a signal, perhaps, from the Cold War nuclear playbook seemingly crafted for interpretation by American counterparts. Experts from Lithuania (which neighbors Kaliningrad) have consistently expressed the view that all Russian nuclear weapons are strategic, and equally threatening. Meanwhile, the Latvian government’s official position had generally not been as active to press its views on either Russia or its nuclear weapons in the international arena in 2015. However, Latvian experts interviewed in 2021 expressed more concern over NSNW than strategic nuclear weapons (fearing tactical nuclear use as practiced in recent Russian military exercises), and called Russia’s deployment of the dual-capable missile systems unprovoked escalation.
Interviews with experts and officials in 2021 regarding potential NSNW negotiations are also illustrative of broader Baltic thinking on nuclear matters, which is colored primarily by the Baltic countries’ familiarity with — and animosity towards — Russia, and a lack of appreciation for the global nuclear armaments’ context. Though those interviewed noted that Russia would use a bilateral negotiation format as a global power status symbol indicating its equivalence to the US, experts still expressed a strong desire to keep such negotiations in a bilateral context between the US and Russia. While this reasoning certainly has multiple explanations, among them was certainly a desire to avoid elevating the status of other regional states by inviting them to this table. Similarly, experts and officials expressed a clear belief that Russia would seek to leverage such talks to sow divisions inside NATO and seek to get the US to move its nuclear forces out of Europe. Some noted that British and French participation in a parallel track of talks with Russia would be desirable and increase the anti-Russian coalition at the table. However, both France and the UK have been strictly against any such involvement, and getting them to the table in this manner has been one of Russia’s goals as a way to see NATO’s nuclear capabilities further reduced.
A new theme that surfaced in interviews in 2021 was the desire to see the US take China’s growing significance in nuclear matters into account. Indeed, the Baltic states seem more attuned to China’s role and posture than to other NATO nuclear states; they indicated concern about the capabilities of US nuclear adversaries, rather than being aware of — and looking for ways to constructively engage — potential allies in Europe with nuclear capabilities. Lithuanian experts expressed support for recognizing China as a global power to be reckoned with by involving it in NSNW talks — should the US extend such an invitation to Beijing. Latvian officials saw China’s engagement as a way to strengthen the global message of arms control and nuclear reductions. Furthermore, experts considered China unlikely to subsequently sign on to an agreement it wasn’t invited to draft initially, which was seen as a potential long-term loss to NATO’s strategic interests. Given US security concerns with China over the past several years — particularly pertaining to limited European support on the matter and Eastern Europe’s preoccupation with Russia — this shift should be particularly welcome in the US, even though additional efforts to shape the allied agenda would likely be required. Notably, Lithuania’s new official stance, increasingly critical of China and supportive of Taiwan, seems to have already earned it significant dividend with the Biden administration.
These conceptual gaps are particularly significant to understand if the US moves towards a more multilateral and inclusive approach to arms control. Given the Baltic tendency to broadly support US and NATO nuclear policies, there is a risk of the US either missing the conceptual gap in the Baltics or attempting to fill it in a manner that is seen as paternalistic. Namely, the absence of explicit Baltic posturing (in contrast to the otherwise prominent anti-Russian rhetoric) and limited desire to be involved in efforts associated with prospective NSNW talks can obfuscate the differences in the Baltic vs. US understanding of the forthcoming regional security implications. Yet, US attempts to on-board Baltic allies must be carefully calibrated and appropriately targeted.
Against this background, the principal policy recommendation for US engagement with Baltic allies would be to demonstrably link the nuclear agenda to the overall collective deterrence posture. Although the awareness of nuclear-weapons-related concepts is gradually improving, sponsorship or direct provision of seminars and/or workshops on classic deterrence logic (e.g., general vs. immediate, conventional vs. nuclear, direct vs. extended, adversary signaling vs. alliance entrapment, etc.) would be a welcome channel to engage the non-governmental stakeholders (e.g., academics, journalists, general public etc.). In terms of decision-maker engagement, demonstrable new Western commitments in the conventional forces’ realm (by either the US or NATO) would likely be expected to make any reductions in the nuclear realm palatable. In addition, with the seemingly growing importance of NSNW in Russia’s military doctrine, there is an acute need for greater alliance posture convergence concerning tactical nuclear weapons. This could potentially be achieved through dialogue between US and regional ministries of defense decision-makers, or otherwise informal talks that include substantial sharing of historical background from the nuclear weapons’ states of the conceptual development of these doctrinal notions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 For a comprehensive discussion of the findings reported at the time, see Egle E. Murauskaite and Miles A. Pomper, (Sep 17, 2015), “NATO and the Baltics: Regional Views on Deterrence Needs,” Danish Institute for International Studies, https://www.diis.dk/sites/diis.dk/files/media/migrated/nato_and_the_baltics_final_single.pdf.