Scope for Nuclear Weapon- Free Zone in Central and Eastern Europe

Savita Pande,Research Fellow,IDSA


The idea of a Central Europe free of nuclear weapons, says Michael Weston, "has its roots, of course, in the end of the cold war and the break-up of the former Union. These historical developments created the necessary conditions for the Lisbon Protocol, the successful withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as well as these countries' accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty."1 He, of course admits that even before these steps had been achieved, Belarus had put forward the nuclear-free zone initiative at the United Nations General Assembly in 1991.

Like all the other nuclear weapon-free zones, existing or potential, a proposal for such a zone entails that it be analysed in the context of its political environment, regional specificity as well as the role, and implications of the relevant outside powers. These include Warsaw Pact dissolution and its impact on control of tactical nuclear weapons as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO's) expansion eastwards. It is equally important to look at the issue in the context of its history, or, in other words, the past attempts.

Past Proposals

Interestingly, Europe was one of the areas where initial moves for regional denuclearisation were made. In 1956, the USSR attempted to open discussions on the possible restriction of armaments, inspections, and the prohibition of nuclear weapons within both the German states and some adjacent countries. The proposal was discussed in the Disarmament Sub-committee of the United Nations, but it got no further. But later, the Foreign Secretary of Poland, Adam Rapacki, took to the twelfth session of the UN General Assembly a plan to outlaw both manufacture and harbouring of nuclear arsenals in all territories of Poland, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal German Republic. The Czechoslovaks and East Germans quickly endorsed the suggestion.2 Under the Rapacki Plan, the proposal had to be ratified by all the relevant governments. Enforcement was to be supervised by a commission drawn from NATO countries, Warsaw Pact adherents, and non-aligned states. Subject to this supervision, neither nuclear weapons, installations capable of harbouring or servicing them, nor missile sites, would be permitted in the entire designated area. Nuclear powers were thereupon expected to agree to not use nuclear weapons against a denuclearised zone, and not to deploy their own atomic warheads with any of their conventional forces stationed within it.

The plan was rejected by the NATO powers, on the grounds, first, that it did nothing to secure German reunification and second, that it failed to cover the deployment of conventional armaments. In 1958, therefore, Rapacki returned with modified proposals. Now he suggested a phased approach. In the beginning, nuclear stockpiles would be frozen at their existing levels within the zone. Later, the removal of these weapon stocks would be accompanied by controlled and mutually agreed reductions. This initiative too was rejected. In 1962, the Polish government offered yet another variation of the Rapacki Plan, which maintained its later note of phasing, but which would now have permitted other European nations to join if they wished to extend their original designated area. In the first stage, existing levels of weaponry and rocketry would be frozen, prohibiting the creation of new bases. Then as in earlier versions, nuclear and conventional armaments would be progressively reduced according to a negotiated time-table. The rejection of this 1962 version was the end of the Rapacki proposals, but they were followed in 1964 by the "Gomulka Plan," which was designed to affect the same area but offered more restricted goals.3

Although the main NATO powers displayed no real interest in these efforts, they did arouse some real concerns and sympathy in Scandinavia. As early as October 1961, the Swedish government tabled what came to be known as the Unden Plan (named after the Swedish Foreign Minister) at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. This supported the idea of nuclear-free zones and a "non-atomic" club and advocated their general acceptance. Some of its proposals, concerning non-proliferation and testing, were adopted by the General Assembly but the Unden Plan was never realised, because the United States and others maintained that a nuclear-free zone was an inappropriate approach to disarmament, which would only be agreed in a comprehensive "General and Complete" decision.

In 1963, President Kekkonen of Finland called for reopening of talks under the Unden Plan. Finland and Sweden were both neutral already, he said, while Denmark and Norway, notwithstanding their membership of NATO, had no nuclear weapons of their own, and deployed none of those belonging to their alliance. Although this constituted a de facto commitment, it would, he held, be notably reinforced by a deliberate collective decision to confirm it as an enduring joint policy. The Norwegian Premier responded to this proposal by calling for the inclusion of sections of the USSR in the suggested area.

In 1957, Romanian Prime Minister K. Stoyka, proposed a project to denuclearise the Balkans. It aimed at making the Balkans a region without foreign military bases. Although nuclear weapons were not directly mentioned, there was an affinity to the idea of a Balkan nuclear weapon- free zone because, it was believed removal of US bases from the Balkans would be tantamount to making the region free of nuclear weapons.4 This plan was reiterated in 1968, and again in 1972. In 1959, Nikita Khruschev had suggested a Nordic nuclear-free zone, but no approach was made by him to suggest if the USSR was willing to underpin such a project. However, while this argument was unfolding, again in 1963, Khruschev launched a similar proposal, for a nuclear-free Mediterranean. The fall of Khruschev took much of the steam out of such diplomatic forays, even though new proposals continued to emerge at intervals.

In the beginning of the 1980s, the initiative for a nuclear weapon-free zone was taken by the private peace organisations like the Russell Foundation, CND, Pak Christi, and the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace.

Emphasising the importance of turning the Balkans into a nuclear-free zone, in October 1981, the State Council President of Bulgaria, T. Zhikov, proposed a "meeting of the leaders of the Balkan states to be held as early as next year to discuss this problem. The turning of the Balkans into a nuclear-free zone would correspond to the interests of our peoples. It would be a substantial contribution to the improvement of the international climate, to the gradual transformation of Europe into a continent free of nuclear arms; it would be one more victory for peace."5 It was at this time that Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme made his proposal of a tactical nuclear weapon-free zone in Central Europe.6 During the Cold War Balkan hegerogeneity, Yugoslavia was a non-aligned Communist state; Albania had its own version of Marxism-Leninism as a guiding principle; Bulgaria was a Warsaw Treaty member; Romania and Greece aspired for greater independence with their defence alliances; while rival NATO members Turkey and Greece experienced troublesome relations with one another as well as with their patron, the United States. This made political cooperation itself a difficult objective to realise. To this were added factors of mutual distrust, strategic interests and historical bilateral disputes which meant that questions involving multilateral defence agreements entailed greater uncertainty, caution and risk. In view of these and other constraints, the creation of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Balkans was generally regarded by most realists as "a distant ideal to emerge."7

End of Cold War and After

After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, there were no agreements on non-stationing of nuclear weapons of the kind signed by East Germany, which dissolved stationing of nuclear weapons even though that part of unified Germany would also become an integral part of the territory of NATO.8 While all states were non-nuclear weapon states under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nothing prevented stationing of nuclear weapons there. Even though all nuclear weapons that were stationed outside the Russian Federation have been withdrawn to Russia, and no nuclear weapons remain on the territories of any of the states which are declared or potential candidate members of NATO, nevertheless, there exist no legal barriers to prevent the reintroduction of another state's nuclear weapons into their territories, should they agree to such a deployment. It is in this context that the nuclear weapon-free zone proposed by Belarus in Central and Eastern Europe assumes significance.

It is worth noting that all the prospective zonal states are non-nuclear weapons states signatories to the NPT. Although the security assurances under the NPT depend on whether and under what conditions a country is in alliance with a nuclear weapon state, it is inapplicable to the prospective countries as yet because none of them are part of any alliance. Whatever the Commonwealth of Independent States was intended to be, it is not a military alliance as yet.9

Several bilateral arms control agreements which look conducive to the idea of nuclear weapon-free zones include the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter range missiles—Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) concluded in December 1987. The treaty entered into force in June 1988. By May 1991, missiles within the range of 500 to 5,500 km were eliminated under the treaty and a verification regime established to ensure they were not reintroduced. A second agreement is the treaty between the USA and USSR on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START 1), agreed in July 1991. Together with its May 1992 Lisbon Protocol, this is now in force and, as a consequence, the strategic nuclear weapons formerly deployed in Belarus and Ukraine have been withdrawn to Russia.

Under unilateral declarations made by the President of the United States in September 1991 and the President of the USSR on October 5, the two sides pledged to withdraw all land-based sub-strategic nuclear weapons from their theatres of deployment, all non-strategic nuclear weapons from naval vessels, and either to dismantle them or keep them in centrally located storage facilities.10 Of course, these commitments are not legally binding and are, therefore, reversible.

The combined effect of the INF, START I and the unilateral declarations, is that the proposed zonal area has no nuclear weapons deployed within its boundaries.

As stated above, the roots of the current proposal date back to 1991 when Belarus put forward the proposal for a nuclear weapon-free Central and Eastern Europe in the General Assembly: "At that time, the initiative was formulated in such a way as to create a non-nuclear belt from the Nordic states to Bulgaria.11 In the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference of the parties, Belarus put forward the proposal for a nuclear weapon-free zone "in the centre of Europe" ostensibly as an alternative to the eastward extension of NATO. Making a plenary statement in April 1995, the Foreign Minister of Belarus, referring to the issue of nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZs), said, "It would be recalled that Belarus mentioned the possibility to create this kind of zone in the centre of Europe as far back as 1990. Today, with Ukraine's recent decision on being non-nuclear, one could speak of specific grounds for implementation of this idea. We are somewhat concerned, however, about possible risks of more and more places in Europe being used for nuclear weapon deployment in case of NATO's geographical expansion."12 This proposal was repeated in the subsequent General Assembly session by the representatives of Ukraine and Belarus. In July 1996, President Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Udoveko separately sent letters to the NATO Secretary General and a number of Foreign Ministers on their proposals for a Central and Eastern Europe nuclear weapon-free zone.13

Geographical Area

The exact parameters of the boundary line and formal negotiations of a nuclear weapon-free zone in Central and Eastern Europe "from Baltic to Black Sea" would be a matter to be decided by the regions constituting the zone and, therefore, immediately, affected by it. Its military objective would be to separate permanently those nuclear forces remaining in Europe. Basically, the proposed zone could be organised along the lines of the Central European corridor free of tactical and battlefield weapons as proposed in 1982.14 Speaking at a seminar, the Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations, talked in terms of nuclear weapon-free space in Central and Eastern Europe. The word "space" was used instead of zone to give flexibility to the concept, allowing the potential participants and all interested states to engage in the discussions of the legal and political grounds required for the idea without being constrained by the stereotypes related to a nuclear weapon-free zone.15 According to him, there would be several groups of states in that space. The core group would include Belarus, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria. These countries would have specific responsibilities, discussed later. The second group could include Sweden, Finland and Austria, states of the former Yugoslavia and Albania. These states could shoulder those obligations of the first group which meet their respective interest. The third group of states could include Norway, Denmark and Germany. These states could make a valuable contribution to a nuclear weapon-free space through the specificity of their legislation and international agreements on nuclear weapons of the "Transatlantic Alliance and the Allied Obligations."16

To be meaningful, the zone has to encompass all land territories, internal and territorial waters and airspace of participating states. A special issue is the possible inclusion in the prospective zone of the Russian enclave of Kalingrad Oblast, which is surrounded by Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. The territories which are dependencies of extra-zonal states are involved. The Tlatelolco Treaty, the Rarotonga Treaty and the Pelindaba Treaty all include special protocols to be signed by extra-zonal states having dependencies inside the zone area, committing them to observer provisions of the treaty in the territories of the dependencies. Thus, the territory, territorial waters and airspace of former GDR now part of unified Germany, though nuclear weapon-free by the treaty as stated before, might be included in the zone through some similar special protocols as in the other treaties.


Like the geographical area, the precise obligations will have to be evolved by those affected most and in line with regional realities. The suggested obligations include:

1. To decline to produce, to acquire, to hold or to control any kind of nuclear explosive devices within their territory or beyond it.

2. To decline to seek and get any assistance in the production and acquisition of any kind of nuclear explosive devices.

3. The participating state should not provide special fissile materials nor any equipment or materials that are specifically meant for processing, utilisation or production of fissile material for peaceful purposes to:

-- non-nuclear weapon states, except under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guarantees in accordance with the NPT.

-- nuclear weapon states, except under IAEA guarantees.

4. Prohibition of stationing nuclear explosive devices.

5. The states must also decline to use nuclear weapons or threaten to use them on the entire territory.17

These could be the subjects to evolve into agreements of finer details, say on stationing of nuclear weapons (whether it should mean warheads only or include means of delivery also), rights of nuclear weapons transit, etc.

These standard parameters could be supplemented by the following:

* Universal rules and practices of handling nuclear wastes.

* Cooperation in enhancing the safety of nuclear reactors.

* Regional measures to prevent illegal proliferation of radioactive materials and to increase the efficiency of the export control system.18

Also, issues that will generate debate in this context would be the fact that such a zone would have coasts in both the Baltic and Black Seas as does one of the nuclear weapon states, Russia. But there seems to be little reason to include international sea areas in the zone. The nuclear weapon states would point out that the there is little reason to include enclosed sea areas, the entrances to which are considered historical straits, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with rights of transit through them being based on international treaties of longstanding.

An equally potentially controversial issue would be the military bases of the extra-zonal states that are situated in the zonal territory, and their status in relation to the host state and the zone.

NATO Expansion

One of the "key ingredients" behind the Central European nuclear weapon-free zone proposal was clearly NATO's plans for enlargement.19 NATO enlargement did raise the potentiality, at least in theory, for other countries in the region to emerge as nuclear weapon states. The nuclear weapon-free zone proposal was seen essentially as preventive in nature. Its proponents hoped that not only would Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan divest themselves of nuclear weapons and exclude all possibility of reversing the decision in the future, but also that other states in Central Europe would do likewise; this would not exclude them from joining or entering into association agreements with NATO. The NATO enlargement will be formalised in April 1999 with the addition of three new members--Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.20 This was unanimously decided by the leaders of NATO in their summit meeting held on July 7-8, 1997, in Madrid. The main hurdle in the process of NATO expansion was removed when in May 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and leaders of NATO signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. President Yeltsin had little choice in the matter because President Clinton had decided to go ahead with the expansion, the Russian opposition notwithstanding.21 The Russians have time and again criticised NATO expansion, expressing apprehensions about the impact on their security.

Under the Founding Act, the members of NATO retiterated that they had "no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, nor any need to change any aspects of NATO's nuclear posture or nuclear policy--and do not foresee any future need to do so. This subsumes the fact that NATO has decided that it has no intention, no plan, and no reason to establish nuclear weapon storage sites on the territory of those members, whether through the construction of new nuclear storage facilities or the adaptation of old nuclear storage facilities."22

In July 1997, leaders of the 16 NATO countries decided to expand NATO by three countries at their summit meeting in Madrid. The question of additional membership would be reassessed at the next summit in 1999 "taking account of the positive developments towards democracy and the rule of law in a number of southeastern European countries, especially Romania and Slovenia," said the summit statement. In all, 12 countries had applied for NATO membership: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Macedonia, Albania, Slovakia and Bulgaria.23

In September 1997, Russia offered security guarantees to the Baltic states to prevent them from joining NATO. Speaking at a summit meeting on security and stability in Eastern and Central Europe in Vilinius, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin offered a package of measures, including a hotline between Russia's Kalingrad military command and the Baltic states, mutual notification of large scale military exercises in the region, mutual naval visits, limits on naval exercises, and a Russian promise to hold only one defensive exercise in the Kalingrad region. Chernomyrdin said Russia would oppose inclusion of former Soviet republics in NATO, adding, "Russia feels alarmed by the fact that the states of the Baltic region are mentioned in the Madrid declaration, even though they are mentioned in connection with future stages of expansion."24 Speaking at the UN General Assembly later in the same month, Russian Defence Minister Primakov said that NATO enlargement, "on the one hand, absolutely does not proceed from the existing reality and, on the other hand, is fraught with creation of new division lines." Repeating the earlier Russian offer of guarantees, he said, "Such guarantees could be given in the form of our obligations confirmed by an agreement on good neighbourliness between Russia and Baltic countries. Such an agreement would be a sort of a pact of regional security and stability."25 The Baltic states' response to Russia's attempt to keep them away from NATO was unenthusiastic. Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said, "The Baltic states cannot accept this. It could lead to a second annexation of Baltics by Russia."26

The relationship between NATO expansion and establishment of the nuclear weapon-free zone would depend on the way the enlargement and consequent integration take place. So far NATO expansion has been discussed in terms of admitting new states as members. This implies that they would adhere to the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 as full and equal partners; assume all its obligations; and receive the full security benefits of membership.

On March 10, 1998, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Yuli Vorontsov, stated in an article that Russia was still "unequivocally opposed to NATO expansion." He said that since NATO was a military alliance, Russia had to be concerned about NATO forces moving closer to Russian borders, especially since NATO expansion is being justified on the grounds that "there's still doubts regarding the future of Russia."27 Vorontsov argued that NATO expansion had led to new dividing lines in Europe. "NATO expansion," he said, "is a serious attempt to achieve political dominance of the Alliance in Europe--to create a NATO-centrism, so to speak, backed by a military force unparalleled in the world."

In an interview to the British newspaper, Guardian, in May 1998, President Yeltsin hoped that NATO would not offer membership to the Baltic states. He said, "On NATO expansion there is a red line for Russia which should not be crossed. Otherwise, European stability might not withstand the new strain."28 A communique for the North Atlantic Council, however, reaffirmed that "the door remains open to NATO membership...we will continue our intensified dialogues on an active basis with those nations that aspire to NATO membership or otherwise wish to pursue a dialogue on membership questions."29

An equally important part of the proposal to the zone as such has to be assurances from extra-zonal states, particularly Russia and NATO alliance members. Counter-balancing of assurances would be assured by the simple fact that violation by one extra-zonal state would be a challenge not only to the member states, but also to other extra-zonal supporters.


If a proposal such as the one suggested by Belarus or even similar to it were to materialise, the states of Central and Eastern Europe would establish their own security structure, designed to meet their own specific security needs. It might also help foster closer ties with the European Union, apart from closer integration between themselves. All prospective countries of the region are parties to the document adopted by the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) including the agreement on confidence and security building measures. All but three Baltic republics are parties to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) which entered into force in November 1992, and to the Concluding Act of Negotiations on Personnel Strength of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Apart from helping to create a regional security structure with far-reaching implications, the proposed zone might also help in resolving border disputes and other outstanding matters between the potential zonal states as well as between those states and their neighbouring states.

For Russia and NATO, the proposed zone would prevent either of them being confronted with the possibility of an adversary military power with nuclear weapons as its immediate neighbour across a common line of demarcation. The US criterion of supporting nuclear weapon-free zones as long as they do not disturb the existing security arrangement and abridge the inherent right of collective self-defence as guaranteed by the UN Charter, may pose no legal hurdles but may create political problems. Three prospective Nordic zonal states, Denmark, Iceland and Norway, were, and are, members of NATO and Alliance agreement on their participating in such a zone was not forthcoming.30 However, others, like Australia and New Zealand, although members of a defence alliance with the United States, adhered to the South Pacific nuclear-free zone.

It is difficult to say how realistic this proposed zone could be, keeping in mind that in order not to risk the delays in acquiring its full membership, the potential new member states to NATO seem unwilling to discuss either the conditions for the proposed nuclear weapon-free zone or any ideas linking the membership of the Alliance with that of a nuclear-free zone in Central and Eastern Europe. They may be unwilling to accept the deployment of weapons on their territory, but would prefer to say so after they accede to NATO formally. There are countries in NATO that have made declarations to the effect of non-stationing of nuclear weapons on their territory in peace-time. These include Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Spain. Since this is an accepted policy within the Alliance, it could be a way out. Keeping in mind the above stated declarations by NATO regarding non-stationing of nuclear weapons (as a way of assuring the Russians), this seems the most plausible way of handling the issue. As long as there are no legally binding instruments of NATO's "no intention or no plan" to deploy nuclear weapons, it is difficult to say if there would be a serious move towards establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in Central and Eastern Europe, NATO's assertion that such a binding declaration would create a second class of NATO members notwithstanding. The fact is that as long as deterrence remains the guiding principle of NATO's nuclear strategy, a nuclear weapon-free zone can at best be only a remote possibility.



1. Michael Weston, "A Possible Nuclear-Free Zone in Central Europe," in Pericles Gasparini Alves and Daiana Belinda Cipllone eds., Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones in the 21st Century, (United Nations, New York, Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 1997, p. 75.

2. Ken Coates, "For a Nuclear-Free Europe" in David Pitt and Gordon Thomson ed., Nuclear-Free Zones, (Croom Helm, 1987), p. 82.

3. Ibid., pp. 82-83.

4. Nansen Behar and Ivan Nedev, "The Balkan Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone," in Joseph Rotblat and Alessandro Pascolini, eds., The Arms Race at a Time of Decision, Annals of Pugwash 1983 (Macmillan, 1984), p. 142.

5. J. Evensen, "The Establishment of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones in Europe: Proposals on a Treaty Text," in S. Lodgard and M. Thee eds., Nuclear Disengagement in Europe (London: SIPRI, Taylor and Francis, 1983), p. 172.

6. Behar and Nedev, n. 4, p. 141.

7. Peri Pamir, "The Quest for a Balkan Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone," in David Pitt and Gordon Thompson eds., Nuclear-Free Zones, (Croom Helm, 1987), p. 95.

8. Treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany, September 12, 1990, Article 5:3.

9. V. Barnovsky "Conflicts in and Around Russia," World Armaments and Disarmament, SIPRI Yearbook, 1996, (Oxford University Press), 1992, pp. 269-277.

10. SIPRI Yearbook, 1992, (Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 85-92.

11. Ibid., p. 76.

12. Cited in Jan Prawitz, "A Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in Central and Eastern Europe, Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation" (PPNN) Issue Review, no. 10, February 1997, p. 1.

13. UN Document A/51/708.

14. Palme Commission Report on Disarmament and Security Issues (New York: Simson and Schuster, 1982), p. 147, UN Doc A/CN.10/38.

15. Alyaksandr Sychou, "Status of the Initiative to Create a Nuclear Weapon-Free Space in Central and Eastern Europe" in Pericles, Gasparini, Alves et al eds., n. 1, p. 70.

16. Ibid., p. 72.

17. Sychou, n. 15, pp. 70-71.

18. Ibid., p. 72.

19. Weston, n. 1, p. 76.

20. According to the Polish Defence Minister, the accession ceremony may take place in January 1999 to facilitate Yeltsin to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations to be held in Washington in April 1999. Yeltsin would find it difficult to attend if both are held simultaneously. See Arms Control Reporter, 1998, p. 402. B 371-372.

21. Arms Control Reporter, 1997, 402B1.22.

22. Text, Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and Russian Federation, May 26, 1997, see section 4, Military Dimension.

23. NATO Press Release, July 8, 1997.

24. Jane's Defence Weekly, September 10, 1997.

25. FBIS-SOV, September 23, 1997.

26. Arms Control Reporter, 1997, p.402.B-1.31.

27. Washington Post, March 10, 1998, cited in Arms Control Reporter, 1998, 402.B.366.

28. FBIS-SOV, May 21, 1998, cited in Arms Control Reporter, 1998, p. 402.B.370.

29. Text of communique from NATO Press Release, May 28, 1998.

30. Prawitz, n. 12, p. 5.