Debate to relocate US nuclear weapons to Poland irks Russia

Ambassador of the United States of America to Poland, Georgetta Mosbacher, speak to Polish troops in Nowy Glinnik, Poland, 05 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/GRZEGORZ MICHALOWSKI]

Some US officials are eyeing Poland as a new home to the US nuclear arsenal in Europe, after German Social Democrats reopened the debate about whether the country should remain under Washington’s protective nuclear umbrella. And the latest twist has already displeased Russia, Poland’s mighty eastern neighbour.

Germany should “exclude the stationing of US nuclear weapons in the future,” demanded in early May Rolf Mützenich, Social Democrat leader in the German Bundestag, prompting a backlash from coalition partners and German foreign minister Heiko Maas.

Mützenich’s plea was largely supported by party leaders, who saw the pacifist drive as a possible trump card for next year’s parliamentary elections, as the party is also opposing the purchase of US-made F-18 fighter planes capable of transporting nuclear warheads, one of the conditions for Germany to maintain its nuclear capacity after 2030.

SPD leadership reignites German debate on US nuclear weapons

Germany should “exclude the stationing of US nuclear weapons in the future,” Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Bundestag, has demanded. Foreign minister Heiko Maas has hit back, but other Socialist politicians intend to question Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear strategy.

Richard Grenell, US Ambassador to Germany, accused the German government of not doing its part for NATO’s policy of nuclear deterrence, and the US Embassy issued a statement reminding Berlin that it had pledged to contribute to NATO capabilities and suggesting that “if Germany seeks to be a true power for peace, now is the time for solidarity”.

“Will Germany bear this responsibility, or will it sit back and simply enjoy the economic benefits of security provided by its other Allies?” the statement read.

It was also a reminder of the 2016 Warsaw Declaration in which NATO leaders stated that “the fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression.”

During the latest debate, German security experts have described the domino effect of the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany.

“Germany can abandon nuclear deterrence. This forces Poland to rethink the issue of nuclear deterrence. And this motivates Russia to intensify its strategy of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The result: more conflict in the East, Europe weakened,” Ulrich Speck, Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, commented on Twitter.

Poland as substitute?

US Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, upped the ante and suggested that in the event that Germany should attempt to “reduce its nuclear potential and weaken NATO”, “perhaps Poland, which pays its fair share, understands the risks and is on NATO’s Eastern Flank, could house the capabilities”.

Although Warsaw has not officially sought such a solution, the possibility has been discussed since December 2015 by the then deputy defence minister and Poland’s current Ambassador to NATO, Tomasz Szatkowski.

However, the relocation of US nuclear weapons to Poland would be “expensive, militarily unwise because it would make the weapons more vulnerable to preemptive attack, unduly provocative, and divisive within NATO,” warned Steven Pifer, former US diplomat in Poland and a current non-resident fellow at Brookings’ Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative.

According to him, such a move would require the construction of a special infrastructure that would ensure the security of the equipment and specially isolated air bunkers that would have to be built in Poland.

It also would make Poland more vulnerable to being targeted and could divide NATO allies, as some members may not agree to transfer nuclear weapons to Poland.

“This was a tweet best not sent. The one thing it does do, however, is give Mr Mützenich a new talking point for removing the bombs from Germany; citing Ambassador Mosbacher, he can claim: “We can send them to Poland,” Pifer concluded.

Russia not amused

Mosbacher’s statement about the possibility of deploying US nuclear weapons in Poland drew a harsh rebuke from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Russian MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Mosbacher wants to “talk about the possibility of bringing nuclear weapons and their infrastructure closer to the Russian borders.”

This would constitute “a violation of one of the key provisions” of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act.

The act – a political agreement, not a legally binding treaty— committed NATO to carry out its collective defence and other missions by “ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territories of the former Warsaw Pact states.

“We hope Washington and Warsaw are aware of the dangerous nature of this kind of expression,” Zakharova said, adding that such declarations “are still exacerbating relations between Russia and NATO, which are already going through a bad time” and “threaten the material basis of European security.”

Instead, security could be strengthened by “taking American warheads back to US territory.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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