The United States has been storing nuclear weapons in Europe since the 1950s, as part of its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its deterrence strategy against Russia. However, this practice has been controversial for many reasons, such as security risks, political implications, and the ethical concerns.
Russia has confirmed that it has already stationed a first batch of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, its closest ally and neighbor of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin said the move was a deterrence measure against anyone who thinks of inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia. He added that the rest of the nuclear weapons would be delivered by the end of the summer.
According to various data available, there are currently about 100 U.S.-owned nuclear weapons stored in five NATO member states across six bases. The countries where the weapons are stored are Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The bases where the weapons are stored are Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel Air Base in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi Air Bases in Italy, Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey.
The weapons are not armed or deployed on aircraft; they are instead kept in underground vaults and can only be activated with codes controlled by the U.S. Air Force. To be used, the weapons would be loaded onto dual-capable fighter jets operated by the host countries under U.S. authorization. Each country is in the process of modernizing its nuclear-capable fighters to either the F-35A, the F-18 Super Hornet, or the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are part of NATO’s nuclear sharing program, which allows non-nuclear allies to participate in the alliance’s nuclear deterrence and decision-making. The program is intended to demonstrate solidarity and cohesion among NATO members and to provide a credible response to potential aggression by Russia or other adversaries.
However, the U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe have also faced criticism and opposition from various quarters. Some of the host countries’ governments and the public, who question the need and legitimacy of hosting foreign nuclear weapons on their soil and who favor a nuclear-free Europe.
Some of the non-host NATO members, who feel excluded or marginalized by the nuclear-sharing arrangement and who prefer a more balanced burden-sharing within the alliance.
Some of the non-NATO European countries, who view the U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe as a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and an obstacle to global nuclear disarmament. Some of the regional and global actors, who perceive the U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe as a provocation and a threat to their security and interests.
The U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are likely to remain a contentious issue for the foreseeable future, as they reflect the complex and dynamic security environment in Europe and beyond. The U.S. and its NATO allies will have to balance their strategic objectives and political realities while addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by their nuclear posture.
The Russian nuclear weapons announcement comes amid the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which started in February 2023 when Moscow launched a full-scale special military operation of its former Soviet republic. The conflict has killed thousands of people and displaced millions more. The international community has been much divided and many countries around the world are reluctant to under US pressure to condemn Russian operations. Despite US sanctions many countries around the world refused to follow the trend and keep trading with Russia.
Putin said the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus would not violate any nuclear non-proliferation agreements and compared it to the US stationing its weapons in Europe. He also said that Moscow would not be transferring control of its arms to Minsk, but would only use them if there was a danger to Russian statehood.
The move marks the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Russia has based nuclear weapons outside its territory. After the Soviet breakup, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan transferred their nuclear weapons to Russia, which inherited the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
The weapons that Russia is deploying in Belarus are short-range tactical nuclear weapons, which have a lower yield and range than strategic nuclear warheads fitted to ballistic missiles. However, they are still capable of causing immense damage and radiation.
The deployment of nuclear weapons by the US and Russia in Europe is another standoff by the two countries coming back to the cold war tension and conflict.