The Future of the Zeitenwende: Scenario 5—Poland Becomes a Nuclear Power
For Poland to seriously consider becoming a nuclear power, its security environment would have to change dramatically. But it’s worth contemplating what the impact of such a scenario would be for Europe.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the nuclear dimension of international politics. Russia, the largest nuclear power in the world, has made active use of its nuclear arsenal since day one of the war. While nuclear weapons have not been detonated over Ukrainian territory, Russia has engaged in extensive nuclear signaling.
If Russia succeeds in achieving some or all of its objectives in Ukraine, this will be in no small part due to its nuclear arsenal. Russia’s nuclear coercive efforts have not been able to starve Ukraine of Western assistance. However, they have proved effective in slowing down crucial weapon deliveries and deterring direct NATO intervention.
The lessons other states draw from the ongoing conflict are clear: nuclear weapons retain a high utility in international politics and war. Already prior to the war, a number of potential nuclear weapon states have emerged. While none of these states were at the verge of becoming a nuclear power—except perhaps for Iran, which has taken steady steps toward acquiring a nuclear capability—nuclear proliferation pressures have been increasing.
One state that has been mentioned as a potential future nuclear weapon state is Poland. While there is no indication whatsoever that Warsaw, which just saw a change of government with Donald Tusk taking over as prime minister in December 2023, has any intention of “going nuclear,” this scenario is explored as it has interesting implications for Germany and Europe.
Polish Defensive Efforts
In the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Poland has increased its defensive efforts like no other state in Europe. Since the start of the war, Warsaw has ordered hundreds of new tanks, self-propelled howitzers, rocket artillery launchers, as well as new fighter aircraft and helicopters, among others. Poland’s strong defense industrial partnership with South Korea and increasing integration with South Korean arms manufacturers has played a key role in this rapid rearmament effort.
Poland’s military recapitalization also includes a desired nuclear dimension. On June 30, 2023, then Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared Poland’s interest in hosting nuclear weapons under NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement. Shortly thereafter, Jacek Siewiera, the leader of Poland's National Security Bureau, expressed Poland's intent to seek certification for its F-35A Lightning II aircraft, scheduled for deployment in 2024-25, to enable the delivery of B61 free-fall nuclear bombs.
At present, five European NATO countries fall under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement, and together they station an estimated 100 forward-deployed American nuclear weapons on their territory. In the case of a warfighting contingency where nuclear use is deemed necessary, these nuclear weapons would be delivered by NATO dual-capable aircraft operated by the host states. These include Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
To date, NATO has not shown any willingness to extend the nuclear sharing arrangement to Poland. If NATO’s restrictive nuclear sharing policy persists but Poland still desires a nuclear capability stationed on its own territory, then the only option for Poland would be a nuclear weapons program with the goal of deploying an independent nuclear deterrent.
When Might Poland Go Nuclear?
Launching a nuclear weapons program with the intent of becoming a nuclear power is a risky business. Proliferating states could become subject to heavy economic sanctions and isolation; they might also experience strong political pressures to reverse their nuclear trajectory. In addition, evidence shows that states with an active nuclear weapons program are more likely to experience war and conflict than states without such a program.
There is a chance that Poland’s conventional forces will overtake their Russian counterparts in some aspects, e.g., tanks and rocket artillery, in the coming years. While Poland acquires large numbers of modern heavy fighting equipment, Russia continues to burn manpower and tanks on the Ukrainian battlefield. At present it is unclear how the war in Ukraine will end. There is little doubt, however, that Russia will constitute a less pressing conventional threat for years to come.
Poland is also in the process of acquiring a number of weapon systems that may, under certain circumstances, effectively substitute for nuclear weapons. Poland’s growing stockpile of long-range strike weapons, for example, allows the country to hold at risk military and civilian infrastructure at operational and strategic depth. This means that in a warfighting scenario with Russia, Poland would have access to a conventional strategic retaliatory capability from day one, providing it and its European allies with an important tool for escalation management.
Finally, Poland’s defensive posture as a NATO partner is embedded within the strongest military alliance in the world that, at least for the moment, continues to enjoy the full backing of the United States. As a result, Poland would not have to face Russia alone and falls under the extended nuclear deterrence umbrella provided by Washington, which is complemented by other nuclear allies in the alliance.
Therefore, for Poland to seriously consider an active nuclear weapons program with the objective of becoming a nuclear power, Poland’s security environment would have to change dramatically. This might involve abandonment by the United States and US withdrawal from NATO, as well as a massive Russian rearmament program that reconstitutes and potentially even increases Russia’s conventional threat vis-à-vis Poland and its European allies.
In addition, Polish nuclear proliferation would be more likely if it occurred against the backdrop of a broader nuclear proliferation wave. Since the early Cold War, policymakers and analysts have been concerned about a global nuclear proliferation chain reaction, where proliferation by one state sparks proliferation in the next. While proliferation may not necessarily beget proliferation, there are a number of country dyads for which the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one country may drastically increase the likelihood that the other state follows suit.
For example, an Iranian nuclear bomb would make a Saudi Arabian nuclear capability much more likely. Similarly, if South Korea were to proliferate, Japan might see the need to take similar steps. In this environment, norms against nuclear proliferation would already be heavily undermined at a regional and global level. This could facilitate a Polish decision to go nuclear and may be the final push Polish leaders need.
How Would Poland Acquire Nuclear Weapons?
How Poland would go about acquiring nuclear weapons depends on several factors, most notably the availability of a nuclear-armed patron that would facilitate Poland’s nuclear proliferation. In addition, Poland’s desired nuclear posture would play a role in determining the country’s proliferation trajectory. A key motivating factor of a Polish nuclear weapons program would likely be abandonment by the United States. As a result, it is unlikely that the US would provide Poland with technical assistance, or provide economic and military cover to enable Poland a sheltered pursuit of nuclear weapons in the face of military threats and economic sanctions.
Given that Poland would have to fear Russian preemptive action, especially in a world where Washington had withdrawn from NATO, Poland’s best bet would be to hide its nuclear ambitions for as long as possible. In this regard, Poland would likely aim to present the world with a fait accompli once its nuclear weapons program has started to bear fruit. At least initially, Poland might aim for a minimal nuclear deterrent in the form of a couple of nuclear warheads. Later on, Poland might consider how to increase the robustness of its nuclear deterrent.
Poland’s nuclear acquisition path would be strongly facilitated if it received substantial assistance from abroad. A prime candidate might be South Korea, which retains a relatively high degree of nuclear latency. In a world where South Korea has already proliferated, a willing and able Seoul could accelerate Poland’s nuclear weapons program. This assumes of course that South Korea would be willing to bear the political and economic ramifications of such assistance. Without outside assistance, Poland’s path toward a nuclear bomb would be much more difficult and likely would take significantly longer.
The Impact of a Nuclear Poland
A world in which Poland were to take active steps toward becoming a nuclear power would likely look dramatically different from the world we live in today. As a result, one can only speculate about the implications. As stated above, a key incentive for Poland to acquire nuclear weapons would likely be a sea change in American foreign and security policy, which would have implications beyond Poland. Following a US withdrawal from NATO, European NATO states and especially those located close to or sharing a border with Russia might welcome an independent Polish nuclear deterrent, which could be seen as bolstering European deterrence.
Similarly, given that Polish nuclear proliferation might occur in the context of a crumbling nuclear order where non-proliferation norms have already been drastically undermined by several other instances of nuclear proliferation, any outcry based on the normative implications of Polish nuclear proliferation may be limited.
Finally, active steps by Poland toward a nuclear deterrent may temporarily destabilize the European security environment, due to heightened pressures on the Russian side for military operations aimed at preempting a Polish nuclear arsenal. Once Poland has acquired nuclear weapons, Poland’s nuclear deterrent may serve to reinforce European deterrence. This being said, the exact dynamics that a Polish nuclear acquisition might induce into Europe’s security architecture are impossible to predict from today’s point of view.
The Quest for Survival
Poland has not taken active steps toward becoming a nuclear weapon state and there is a very good chance it never will. If it decides to do so, the decision would most likely be made within the context of a drastically changed security environment in which Poland’s survival as a sovereign nation state can no longer be ensured by conventional weaponry and/or alliance membership.
This is important to realize. States will go to great lengths to ensure their survival; if needs be, by acquiring nuclear weapons. German and European decisionmakers must contemplate how to reassure their Polish and Eastern European partners in today’s security environment, and what kind of assistance is needed if this security environment changes.
Independent of what happens inside the United States, Western European states, in particular Germany and France, must step up when it comes to conventional deterrence on the European continent. European NATO states have the ability to deploy a credible conventional deterrent that is based on forward-defense and denial of Russian conventional threats. What is needed is the political will to set such a defensive strategy in motion.
Fabian Hoffmann is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo.