U.S. signals its nuclear arms stay in Europe for now
TALLINN (Reuters) - The United States appeared on Thursday to rule out an early withdrawal of its battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe and said if it cut its arsenal it would want Russia to move its arms further from NATO nations.
The stance sketched out by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to please former Soviet satellites now in the 28-member Western security alliance who view the so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons as critical to deterring Russia.
However, it may frustrate those that regard them as Cold War relics that have little military justification but bring huge risks -- including of accidents or nuclear terrorism -- to the nations that house them.
"As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance," Clinton said in remarks prepared for delivery to NATO foreign ministers.
"As a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities is fundamental," she added in the remarks, which were released by the State Department.
The reference to sharing risks and burdens implied some of the estimated 200 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in five European nations will stay for now. Russia's arsenal is estimated at 5,400 weapons, 2,000 of which are deployable.
Attention has turned to "tactical" nuclear bombs stationed in NATO countries and Russia since Washington and Moscow this month signed a deal to cut the number of deployed long-range, "strategic" nuclear warheads by about 30 percent.
Germany's ruling coalition committed in November to the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory. In February, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and Luxembourg called for a debate about their future in Europe.
However, Russia says it will not start destroying its massive superiority in the weapons until Washington removes its bombs from Europe, a prospect worrying to former Soviet bloc states that are now part of NATO.
Clinton made clear that the United States would be loath to trim its arsenal without some Russian compromises.
"In any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, relocate those weapons away from the territory of NATO members, and include non-strategic nuclear weapons in the next round of U.S.-Russian arms control discussions," she said.
At an earlier news conference, Clinton tried to reassure former Soviet states nervous about Russia.
"Let me be clear: our commitment to Estonia and our other allies is a bedrock principle for the United States and we will never waiver from it," she said in the Estonian capital.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while the Western security alliance must debate the matter, he personally believed "the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent."
Washington and Rasmussen have stressed the need for unity among NATO's 28 members and while no agreement is expected in Tallinn, the alliance aims to set out its nuclear stance in a strategic vision due to be approved at a summit in November.
Analysts say tactical nuclear arms have little military rationale in a post-Cold War world, especially since readiness had been so reduced that they would take months to deploy.
But a key concern is that any move to remove NATO nuclear weapons could prompt Turkey to develop its own deterrent, given its worries about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association nonprofit group in Washington, said he found Clinton's stance "disappointing" and said linking NATO action on its residual tactical nuclear stockpile to Russian action on tactical nuclear weapons was a recipe for delay and inaction.
"NATO must ... recognize that in the 21st century, these smaller, more (portable) nuclear bombs are a security liability not an asset -- they are a target for terrorists, blur the line between conventional and nuclear conflict, and are a drag on global nonproliferation efforts," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach)
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