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Germany walks fine line on nuclear weapons

March 24, 2023

Germany is not a nuclear power, but it is part of US nuclear strategy. In light of the war in Ukraine and the undoing of Cold War-era arms control, the country's balanced approach is coming under more pressure.

a beach illuminated by a mushroom cloud resulting from a nuclear explosion
A nuclear explosionImage: McPHOTO/M. Gann/picture alliance

If the Cold War had gone nuclear, it would have likely begun on German soil. Geographically, Germany sat between the United States and its NATO allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries on the other. Politically, the country was split between West and East. Strategically, that was where the US and Soviet militaries faced off — on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Germany was therefore a nuclear tripwire between the enemy superpowers, and the country both benefits from the supposed safety of the US nuclear umbrella, and still faces the direct risk of nuclear escalation. Former West Germany has been home to a strong pacifist movement, while many in former East Germany hold a less hostile view of Russia.

These factors help make the issue of arms control a particularly sensitive one in Germany.

"Germany remains clearly committed to its engagement in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, even given the changed conditions," an official from the German Federal Foreign Office told DW.

That is a reference to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which some military analysts fear could lead President Vladimir Putin to break the "nuclear taboo," if his conventional forces continue to struggle on the battlefield.

"The federal government, with its partners, unequivocally opposes any softening of the taboo," the German government official added, referring to an unwritten understanding not to use nuclear weapons ever since the US did twice against Japan, ending the Second World War in 1945.

Protesters holding up a sign that reads "Only those who want to murder masses own nuclear weapons"
"Only those who wants to murder masses own nuclear weapons." Büchel, Germany, regularly sees demos against the stationing of US nuclear weaponsImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture alliance

Nuclear balancing act

Germany's opposition to nuclear weapons competes with the expectation that it supports the security status quo. NATO nuclear sharing — the US-led military alliance's long-standing policy that permits the stationing of US nuclear weapons on non-US territory — means German warplanes could carry them in the event of nuclear war.

As many as 20 such warheads remain at the Büchel Air Base in western Germany, according to an estimate by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The think tank, based in Washington, DC, counted some 130 others at the Ramstein Air Base, until they were removed between 2001 and 2005.

The nuclear balancing act adds tension both to German domestic politics as well as to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Any disagreement, however, has taken a back seat after Russia's war in Ukraine.

Some politicians in the Green Party, traditionally one of Germany's more fierce critics of nuclear weapons, have also been among the country's most vocal supporters of Ukraine. NATO officials, meanwhile, take every opportunity to show that Russia's efforts to divide the alliance have failed.

"Clearly, we are at something of an inflection point," John Erath, Senior Policy Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told DW. "One of the means Russia has chosen to accomplish its end is to make threats of the use of nuclear weapons."

Nuclear brinkmanship, past and present

That end — taking control of Ukraine, and breaking US and NATO support — has so far not come to pass. However, using nuclear weapons as a "diplomatic tool," Erath said, has been somewhat effective at moderating that support. The US has been careful to avoid escalation that could draw it into direct conflict with Russia, and German officials have often expressed their concern about crossing a line that would make Germany an official party to the war.

"The real danger lies in if this conflict concludes with Russia perceived as succeeding, and this tool being perceived as being effective. Because that opens the floodgates," Erath said. Other nuclear-armed states, such as North Korea, could make bolder threats with their own arsenals.

Such nuclear diplomacy has precedent. In the 1980s, new deployments of Soviet nuclear forces prompted NATO to respond in kind. Widespread protests, especially in then-West Germany, pressured the government to oppose the stationing of more US missiles on its soil.

By NATO's own account, it was a "difficult period for West Germany as well as NATO." The alliance, however, held. A "double-track" compromise was reached, which saw more deployments, but also negotiations to reach a deal with the Soviet Union on arms control.

"Differences in nuclear risk tolerance among NATO allies can be a pressure point for Russia to exploit," Jonas Schneider, an international security associate at the Berlin-based security think tank SWP, told DW. "Overall, Germany has staked out a more cautious positioning when it comes to nuclear risk."

How Russia's war is testing NATO's resolve

The other 10%

Arms control in terms of treaties is at its nadir, now that Russia has suspended — but not withdrawn from — New START, the last major agreement limiting Russian and US nuclear systems. In the near term, at least, security analysts like Schneider are relatively sanguine. 

"In all, I don't see an increase in the nuclear risk as a result of what's happened to New START," he said.

That is partly because treaties are just one element of arms control. Transparency, dialogue, and data collection through both public and clandestine means are others. Nuclear weapons are expensive and conspicuous, making changes in numbers or deployment fairly easy to spot.

The treaties have also only covered Russian and US forces. While they control about 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, including first-strike capability, the absence of China from these treaties is a bigger worry.

There are several small and midsize nuclear-armed states, but Erath said it is China "where things are changing in the nuclear world." Moreover, the US lacks the awareness and lines of communication of the kind built up with Russia over decades.

"If there were to be a crisis over Taiwan, it's a little bit harder to get that direct line to Beijing," he said.

Most countries do not possess nuclear weapons, and 92 of them have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Without any of the world's nuclear powers on board, however, the agreement is largely symbolic.

Germany, which supports the abolition movement but is beholden to US nuclear doctrine, finds itself trying to do two things at once. Germany attended a treaty meeting in 2022 in Vienna as an observer — a reflection of anti-nuclear aspirations competing with real-world nuclear commitments.

Edited by Ben Knight

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