Poland says it has asked to have US nuclear weapons based on its territory, amid growing fears that Vladimir Putin could resort to using nuclear arms in Ukraine to stave off a rout of his invading army.
The request from the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, is widely seen as symbolic, as moving nuclear warheads closer to Russia would make them more vulnerable and less militarily useful, according to experts. Furthermore, the White House has said it had not received such a request.
“We’re not aware of this issue being raised and would refer you to the government of Poland,” a US official said.
Duda’s announcement appears to be the latest example of nuclear signalling as the US and its allies seek to deter Putin from the first nuclear use in battle since 1945, while preparing potential responses if deterrence fails that would have maximum punitive impact while containing the risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war.
Previous war games conducted by US administrations have shown that is a fine, and fuzzy, line to tread, given the uncertainty over Putin’s state of mind, and his record of giant miscalculations over Ukraine.
Duda’s remarks on basing nuclear weapons followed changes in the constitution of neighbouring Belarus that would allow Russian nuclear weapons to be based on its territory.
The Polish president said there was “a potential opportunity” for Poland to take part in “nuclear sharing”, by which pilots from the host country are trained to fly missions carrying US nuclear bombs, which are stored on their territory.
“We have spoken with American leaders about whether the United States is considering such a possibility. The issue is open,” Duda told Gazeta Polska.
Moving US nuclear weapons into Poland could be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Nato-Russia Founding Act in 1997, after the end of the cold war in which Nato stated it had no plan to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Russia has meanwhile violated its own commitments under the act.
Nuclear experts also added it made little strategic sense for Poland or Nato.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates the US has 100 nuclear weapons left over in Europe in the aftermath of the cold war, spread among the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
They are all B61 bombs which had been seen as militarily obsolete with no mission in the event of a war with Russia. Arms control experts have long called for them to be removed from Europe.
However, they have been modernised as the B61-12, with fins that allow its fall to be guided, which is expected to enter service this year. The bombs have also been designed to be carried by new F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter jets, which would potentially make it part of the active US nuclear arsenal.
Hans Kristensen, director of FAS’s nuclear information project, said the B61-12 storage sites in Europe are being upgraded and strengthened.
“The reason they’re doing that is to protect that force against what they consider the growing threat from Russia’s conventional missiles, so it would be an extraordinarily strange development if Nato therefore decided to move nuclear weapons closer to the Russian borders,” Kristensen said.
Poland has raised the issue at a time when the prospect of nuclear weapons use is higher than at any time since the cold war, and arguably since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago this month.
Putin has threatened to use all means at his disposal to defend Russian territory at the same time as declaring the annexation of four more Ukrainian regions. He made the declaration as Russian troops were in retreat in the face of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The White House has warned of “catastrophic consequences” if Putin did resort to using nuclear weapons, but did not specify what those would be. It has said it has warned Russian officials privately, but it is not clear how much more specific those warnings have been.
Zbigniew Rau, the Polish foreign minister, said last week the consequences should be non-nuclear but “devastating”. David Petraeus, who was formerly the head of US Central Command and CIA director, said on Sunday that one possible response would be US-led Nato conventional strikes on Russian forces inside Ukraine and even the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
In reality, Nato is unlikely to be part of any response, as it would require agreement by its 30 members. More likely it would involve Washington and its closest allies like the UK.
“There are ongoing discussions and have been for a while about various scenarios and how we might react,” an official in Washington said. US European Command is also doing scenario planning, the official said, adding that “there is no concrete set of actions” planned.
The dilemma facing the military planners is how to act in such a way that Putin does not benefit militarily from using a nuclear weapon, but not so forcefully that escalation spins out of control and leads inexorably to nuclear war between Nato and Russia.
Much would depend on what Putin did. The Russians could stage a “demonstration” nuclear detonation over the Black Sea, or a high-altitude airburst that generates an electromagnetic pulse that fries the electricity infrastructure of any city below.
Those actions, however, would cause international outrage with little if any effect on the course of the war. The use of a nuclear weapon against Ukrainian military targets or a city, with the aim of shocking Kyiv into surrender or acceptance of partial Russian occupation would represent a far greater transgression.
The range of responses in that case would include further sanctions, including secondary sanctions targeting anyone or any country buying Russian oil. Stepping up arms supplies to Kyiv, including longer-range missiles and jets the Ukrainians have been demanding, is another option.
Actual Nato strikes against Russian military targets in Ukraine, would represent a huge leap, turning the conflict into a war between Russia and Nato, something policymakers have spent nearly 80 years trying to prevent.
“The reaction to nuclear use would be just as important as the nuclear use itself,” Mariana Budjeryn, senior research associate at the project on managing the atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre.
“If it does force Ukraine into some kind of settlement and the allies think we’re throwing in the towel on this, then it does show that, hey, nuclear arms really get you what you want,” Budjeryn said.
“If nuclear weapons are used, and that only makes everyone a lot more upset and hardens the resolve and somehow stops Russia in its tracks, then it’s a different story.”