Taking a Russian Nuclear Threat on the Chin

Image by Dmitry Terekhov

Image by Dmitry Terekhov

In light of wider Danish strategic priorities, Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard’s restrained reaction to Russia’s decision to target Danish military frigates with nuclear weapons was understandable.

In a recent op-ed piece for the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, wrote that Danish warships would “become targets for Russian nuclear missiles” should the small Scandinavian country commit to its decision to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) missile defence shield. Vanin was referring to the Danish government’s decision last August to install special radar systems on some of its military frigates as part of NATO’s European missile defence shield.

Needless to say, Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard was not happy. Two days later, he told reporters that Ambassador Vanin’s comments were “unacceptable” and that Russia “knows full well that NATO’s missile defence is defensive and not targeted at them”. Notably, he went on to say that he “would not over-dramatise” the Russian ambassador’s words. Stating that Denmark and Russia cooperate on meaningful issues, he emphasised that “it is important that the tone between us does not escalate”.

While the Foreign Minister’s call to not “over-dramatise” may be surprising – imagine a British Foreign Minister responding to a public Russian nuclear threat against the United Kingdom – it was understandable. The lack of real threat behind the ambassador’s words and Copenhagen’s wider strategic considerations obligated Lidegaard to act with restraint. Denmark’s membership of NATO means that Russia is unlikely to ever deploy a nuclear weapon targeting Danish frigates, while its strategic interests in the Arctic region require a minimum of good relations with Russia.

Indeed, Denmark’s status as a NATO member affords it a safeguard against Russian nuclear forces regardless of whether they are aimed at Danish targets or not. Nuclear logic dictates and nuclear history indicates that an intentional nuclear strike against a NATO member is highly unlikely regardless of a particular adversary’s targeting posture.

Going back to the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a nuclear posture that foresaw using nuclear force against an array of strategic military targets and urban-industrial population centres in NATO member states. The same was true for NATO member’s nuclear postures. The United States’ primary nuclear strategy document, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), outlined a lineup of similar targets within the Soviet Union.

Despite these postures, no Soviet or NATO member nuclear weapon was ever launched against its designated target. For good reason: neither side would have gained anything from launching a nuclear attack. The Soviet Union and NATO had massive nuclear stockpiles and both sides could destroy each other regardless of who struck first. “Mutually assured destruction” severely constrained the two blocs from engaging in direct conflict with each other.

While the Cold War ended in 1989, its nuclear logic lives on today. Denmark is not a nuclear power, however it falls under NATO’s nuclear umbrella by virtue of its NATO membership. Attacking Denmark with a nuclear weapon would cause a nuclear retaliation by NATO. For all its adventurism and rhetoric, Moscow understands this. Taken in this light, its decision to target Danish frigates does not entail an increased level of threat for Denmark and does not therefore require a strong retaliation from Copenhagen.

But while Russia does not threaten Denmark in with its new targeting posture, it does challenge Denmark’s strategic interests in the Arctic region. In 2008, a US Geological Survey assessment estimated that the area north of the Arctic Circle contained around 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. Not surprisingly, countries bordering the arctic region, including Russia and Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), have claimed sovereignty over various Arctic territories. Until recently, the claims process has been a more-or-less civilized affair with all Arctic countries (Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, and Denmark) settling their respective border disputes.

However, in December 2014, Denmark filed a claim of sovereignty to the UN over 900,000 square kilometres of the Arctic region north of Greenland. Under international law, a country can file a claim to extend its sovereignty beyond 200 nautical miles from its natural borders if it can prove that the claimed territory lies on its continental shelf. Denmark’s claim, which is still under review, overlaps with Russian territorial claims in the region. In all likelihood, the two countries will have to negotiate bilaterally over their respective claims to settle the dispute.

Of course, any bilateral talks necessitate a minimum level of good relations between Copenhagen and Moscow. Considering that Denmark’s membership of NATO and its decision to join the alliance’s missile defence shield have already cooled relations between the two countries, Denmark must ensure that the relationship does not freeze. Taken in the context of the Russian ambassador’s relatively non-threatening nuclear comments, the strategic imperative demanded a restrained response. Foreign Minister Lindegaard’s cool and calm reaction met that demand.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Terekhov




About Alexander M. Pearson

Alexander M. Pearson is a freelance writer from the United Kingdom set to start a master’s degree in Washington, D.C. in the fall. He has worked in Washington, D.C., Brussels, and Berlin and written on a variety of issues related to nuclear security, arms control, and US defence policy.

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