Will There Be a Nuclear Buildup in Europe?

October 2, 2023 | 8:30 am
Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
Jennifer Knox
Policy & Research Analyst

The United States and Russia agree: as war rages in Ukraine, only an irresponsible and reckless nuclear power would move nuclear weapons into Europe. Sending such a signal in the middle of an ongoing crisis would heighten tensions and increase the risk of nuclear escalation. The problem? Even as they condemn each other, Russia has already moved nuclear weapons into Belarus, and the United States may be considering a similar course by sending nuclear weapons to the UK for the first time since 2008.  

Russia is conducting a brutal and criminal war in Ukraine, and only Russia is responsible for the ongoing humanitarian crisis it has caused. At the same time, the highest responsibility of both Russia and the United States is to prevent nuclear war. The United States should refuse to follow Russia’s example by stationing more nuclear weapons in other countries.

Will the US station more nuclear weapons in Europe?  

The United States has stationed its nuclear weapons in other countries since the 1950s, though most were withdrawn after the Cold War ended. Currently, the US stores around 100 nuclear gravity bombs in five NATO host countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. According to one report, the United States accelerated its timeline to replace its B-61 gravity bombs in Europe with an upgraded version following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the US has not deployed any additional nuclear weapons in Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, NATO Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg said the alliance has “no plans of stationing any nuclear weapons in any other countries than we already have these nuclear weapons… and they have been there for many, many years.” 

That may change soon. The Federation of American Scientists discovered that the US Air Force has requested funding to build a “surety dormitory” at RAF Lakenheath, a British military base which is shared by the US Air Force. The term ‘surety’ is used by the US government to signify the safety and security of nuclear weapons, suggesting that US nuclear weapons may return to the United Kingdom. RAF Lakenheath hosted US nuclear weapons for over five decades before their removal in 2008; during that time, US forces caused at least two major accidents which almost resulted in the accidental detonation of nuclear weapons.

Pointing fingers at the mirror 

The Russian foreign ministry said it would view the return of US nukes to the United Kingdom as “an escalation,” part of a US and NATO transition to an “an openly confrontational course.” Russia’s warning might carry more weight if Russia hadn’t transferred some of its own nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus just a few months earlier.  

The United States and NATO allies protested Russia’s decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus. A spokesperson for the US State Department called it “the latest example of irresponsible behavior that we have seen from Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.” The EU foreign policy chief described the move as “an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security.”  But Putin shrugged off the criticism by pointing to existing US nuclear weapons deployed in NATO countries. “We are doing what they have been doing for decades,” he said, “stationing [nuclear weapons] in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews.” 

The action-reaction cycle will continue. US nuclear policies embolden Russia and normalize practices that make the ongoing crisis in Ukraine more dangerous. Russia’s aggression and reckless rhetoric push the United States to reassure allies with more nuclear signals. Russia responds with “countermeasures,” and the crisis continues to spiral. Each nuclear power interprets its own behavior as justified, while the same behavior from an adversary is unacceptable. 

Keep your nukes to yourself

It would be wrong to draw a false equivalence between Russian and US activities in Europe. Russia invaded its neighbor despite committing to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia’s brutal and senseless war has created an ongoing humanitarian crisis, displacing millions from their homes and resulting in thousands of civilian deaths. Russia is trying to use its nuclear arsenal to hold the world hostage, while the United States and its allies have so far been calm, firm, and clear in their response to Russia’s nuclear provocations.  

Despite Russian provocations, it would still be a mistake for the United States to move additional nuclear weapons into Europe, just as it was a mistake for Putin to do so. The highest responsibility of the United States and Russia as nuclear powers is to prevent nuclear war. Especially in the midst of an ongoing crisis, any action that increases the risk of nuclear escalation is fundamentally irresponsible, regardless of whether that action is undertaken by a “responsible” or “irresponsible” state.

In remarks to the UN General Assembly, President Biden pledged “to pursue good-faith efforts to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction and lead by example, no matter what else is happening in the world.” Instead of following Russia’s example, Biden can lead on this issue by confirming that the United States has no intention of transferring additional US nuclear weapons to the United Kingdom or any other country.