In a troubling political signal amid the tensions of the Russo-Ukraine war, the Russian government has just installed tactical (“theater” or “battlefield-usable”) nuclear weapons in underground bunkers in Belarus.

Is this legal, or is Vladimir Putin burnishing his image as a serial rogue violator of international law? The answer to that question depends on whether you believe the plain wording of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or think the United States’ cynical interpretation of the Treaty should be honored. 

U.S. nuclear weapons have been deployed in Europe since the mid-1950s, stored at allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bases for use against the Soviet Union (now, Russia). NATO officially owns no nuclear weapons. Nowadays perhaps 180 bombs are kept under U.S. Air Force guard at six airbases in five European countries, ready to be loaded onto NATO fighter-bomber planes and dropped on targets. 

Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s and the advent of globetrotting ballistic missile-launching submarines, NATO’s arsenal consists of air-dropped tactical – “theater” or ”battlefield” nuclear bombs supplied by the United Kingdom and U.S. pursuant to Article V of the NATO Treaty

The five non-weapons countries who share nuclear weapons are Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Up to 180 B61-10, B61-11 and B61-12 freefall bombs can be installed on fighter-bomber aircraft on short notice and sent on missions which are cooperatively planned by the air forces of the U.S., UK, France and the five non-weapons countries. They collectively assign targets, select the yield of the warheads for the targets, and plan specific bombing missions.

Though NATO’s nuclear response plans might be authorized under the NATO Charter, they are legal under the Non-Proliferation Treaty only because of a ruse. NATO maintains that the sharing of nuclear weapons does not occur while the United States keeps the bombs locked up on European bases, but only happens when they are loaded onto foreign planes ready to take off. When a bomb is loaded onto a plane, the correct Permissive Action Link code is entered by U.S. soldiers. That is considered by NATO as the point at which control over the respective weapon(s) transfers from the U.S., a nuclear weapon state, to non-nuclear weapon states. The U.S. interpretation is, if war has begun and nuclear weapons are about to be used, the NPT has failed and has been voided and no longer governs the behavior among nations regarding use of nuclear weapons. This interpretation certainly violates the spirit if not the plain meaning of Articles I and II of the NPT.

Article I of the NPT by its plain language prohibits nuclear weapon states that have signed the NPT from sharing their weapons with nonnuclear states: Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices. Also, NPT Article II contains a parallel commitment on the part of non-nuclear states parties not to receive nuclear weapons:

Each non-nuclear weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. 

At the time of negotiating the NPT in the 1960s, many countries were not told that the U.S. interpreted nuclear sharing to be legal under the NPT. They believed that clear wording forbade it. The U.S. quietly circulated this interpretation to only a few NATO members and the Soviet Union: the NPT bans non-weapons states from having nuclear weapons only until the moment a “war” commences in which NATO is involved. At that moment, the U.S. deems the NPT to be violated because it has not prevented war from breaking out, and so the U.S. is supposedly justified in making nuclear weapons-possessing states out of its NATO allies by giving them nuclear bombs to drop. Most non-weapons countries that signed onto the Treaty were kept ignorant of this U.S. slickery until after signing on. 

The U.S. has never sought to have its interpretation to be made a formal part of the NPT; the U.S. interpretation only came out in Senate hearings when the NPT was ratified by the U.S. Since the U.S. interpretation appears nowhere in the treaty itself, it certainly doesn’t reflect a common understanding among nations and is not enforceable by the UN Security Council. 

Mission creep has enshrined this trickery into NATO’s institutional operating practice. NATO’s warfighting strategy has blurred the limitations on nuclear weapons, which are treated in the “NATO 2022 Strategic Concept” as “tools” of deterrence: NATO’s deterrence and defence posture is based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities. It is defensive, proportionate and fully in line with our international commitments. We will employ military and non-military tools in a proportionate, coherent and integrated way to respond to all threats to our security in the manner, timing and in the domain of our choosing.

As official policy, NATO appears willing to invoke the nuclear option to “defend” against, not just other countries’ nuclear weapons, but also to be used against gas and cyber warfare threats: We will individually and collectively deliver the full range of forces, capabilities, plans, resources, assets and infrastructure needed for deterrence and defence, including for high-intensity, multi-domain warfighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitors.

The United States’ corrupt interpretation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in effect says that the Treaty collapses at the moment it is most needed, when the nuclear weapons are about to become airborne. The overwhelming majority of the 191 nations that have signed the NPT certainly intended nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, by institutionalizing nuclear sharing in 5 non weapons countries in Europe; by providing those countries the fighter-bomber planes to deliver nuclear bombs; by training their pilots; and by jointly planning for the event of nuclear war, the U.S. has seriously undermined the credibility of a major treaty that requires the nations of the world to disarm. Thankfully, and hopefully, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons became effective in 2021 and, as it is ratified by more countries, is closing the loophole created by the corrupt US interpretation of the NPT may finally be closed. But NATO’s illicit weapons sharing, and now, Russia’s, continue.

So, is the Russian government violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by stationing nuclear bombs in Belarus?  Yes! But is NATO also violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by stationing nuclear bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey? Yes

And so Cleveland Peace Action says “No Nukes In Europe! All Russian, U.S., and British Nukes Out of Europe!

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