Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 80

After years of procrastination and petulance the Russian parliament has at last voted to ratify the 1992 START II Treaty. Many of the legislators must now be asking themselves why they took so long, because their long-delayed action looks like a winner for Russia in several respects. Buoyed by this success, the State Duma also quickly approved the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty, giving Russia at least the moral high ground vis-a-vis the United States as the important review conference for the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons opens this week at UN Headquarters in New York.

In terms of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, START II, with its limit of 3,500 strategic weapons, provides some breathing room. Provided that the U.S. government chooses to comply with the bulk of the treaty’s provisions–Senate approval of the Russian ratification conditions is questionable at best–Russia’s nuclear triad will lag less far behind its American counterpart than it would under the prevailing START I limits. There will be some significant changes in Russia’s strategic nuclear posture to be sure, but these will be brought about just as much by the age of the present stockpile and the slow recovery of the Russian economy as by the treaty.

The treaty will eventually ban all land-based strategic missiles with multiple warheads. The giant SS-18s, each with ten warheads, will therefore be retired, but these venerable weapons had been living on borrowed time regardless and were becoming less reliable as their service life was arbitrarily extended. Under the revised timetable agreed upon by the Russian and American presidents in 1997–though yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate–the Russians will need to cut the SS-18 force from 180 to sixty-five missiles by the end of 2004 and eliminate all of them by the end of 2007. As President-elect Putin reminded the legislators, this timetable matches their planned retirement. Noting that they were built in Ukraine, he pointed out that it would be prohibitively expensive for Russia to develop a similar heavy missile to replace them. START II allows the Russians to convert two-thirds of their 160-strong SS-19 force from multiple-warhead to single-warhead missiles and to place ninety SS-25 missiles in the stronger and more survivable SS-18 silos.

Currently, more than half of Russia’s strategic warheads are loaded on land-based missile systems. The historical preponderance of this leg of the Russian nuclear triad is coming to an end. By 2008 the land-based missiles will probably account for less than 25 percent of the strategic deterrent. The goal is to eventually field just one land-based missile, the Topol-M, in two variants: one silo-based and the other mobile. Colonel-General Vladimir Yakovlev, the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, has noted that the economy is now fielding just one missile rather than the former six. His forecast that this new missile will form the bulk of the force beginning in 2007 is, however, overly optimistic. These missiles are currently being produced at the rate of ten per year. Even were this output doubled, hundreds of older SS-19s and SS-25s would need to remain in inventory to flesh out the land-based triad.

While the submarine-based leg of the triad is to assume a larger role in the future, there are serious problems in the fleet. Fewer than twenty of the thirty-two strategic submarines in the inventory are operational. This negative trend will increase over the next few years. The solid-fuel missiles in the gargantuan Typhoon-class submarines have reached the end of their service life and efforts to develop a replacement have been unsuccessful. A new “Bark” missile was to have equipped both the Typhoons and the new “Boreas” class strategic submarine. Work on the first of this class, the Yuri Dolgoruki, began in late 1996 but was suspended when the Bark program was put on hold after unsuccessful testing. The decision was then made to equip the Yuri Dolgoruki with another variant of the land-based Topol-M missile, one called “Bulava-30.” The Russian Navy has a friend in the president-elect, perhaps due to his ties to St. Petersburg with its naval heritage. He seems particularly interested in maintaining the effectiveness of the strategic submarine fleet. Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev has publicly endorsed the Bulava program. Yet it remains to be seen whether this land-based missile can be modified to meet the different demands of a sea-based missile, particularly the submerged-launch requirement.

In attaching conditions to the START II ratification which the U.S. Senate is certain to find onerous, the Russian parliamentarians might have over-reached. To achieve a semblance of numerical parity with the American strategic arsenal the Russians must sell their START III proposal calling for no more than 1,500 strategic weapons for either country. Antagonizing the Senate is hardly an auspicious sales pitch (Russian and Western agencies, April 14-19).