A Long Way to Zero: Moscow Remains Reluctant to Take the Next Step

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 30

With the ratification of the START III agreement by the Russian Duma and Federation Council in addition to its signing by President, Dmitry Medvedev, the treaty reached the final stage of becoming a binding agreement for the two major nuclear powers involved. The formal exchange of the signed documents by Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, marked the culmination of that process. The treaty is the most evident success in the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia and the first step toward the goal of “Global Zero” in nuclear disarmament, which President Obama endorsed in his speech in Prague in April 2009. At that time Obama warned that such a process would take generations. The successful negotiation and ratification of the US-Russian treaty marks the end of the era when the central question of nuclear armaments was the bilateral strategic balance between these two powers. Nuclear proliferation over the last two decades has added new states possessing nuclear arsenals and raised the prospect of rogue states and terrorist movements being armed with nuclear weapons. Multilateral cooperation between the US, Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of Korea and Japan has not led to success through the Six Party Talks to preclude the development of a nuclear arsenal in North Korea. Nor does Iran seem to be moving towards the termination of its uranium enrichment program in response to similar international pressure.

The ratification processes in both the US and Russia raised new challenges to further nuclear arms reductions. On the one hand, both the US Senate and the Russian Parliament emphasized the need for further modernization of the respective strategic nuclear arsenals. In the Russian case, Duma Deputy, Andrei Kokoshin, former First-Deputy Minister of Defense and a recognized expert on strategic issues, asserted that the enabling laws affirm the intent of the Russian government to engage in the modernization of its strategic nuclear forces so that they would maintain their capacity to penetrate any possible deployed anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system deployed. The amendments proposed by Kokoshin advocated that the Russian president would not only deploy a new strategic system, but also give priority funding to research and development of more advanced strategic nuclear systems: “The Russian government guarantees priority funding for the strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation” (Interfax-AVN, January 14).

In Krasnaya Zvezda, Evgenniy Podzorov described the proposed amendments as an effort to ensure that the ratification of START III did not impose any disadvantages upon Russia. Citing Kokoshin, Podzorov emphasized the need to maintain strategic stability in both its military-political and military-technical aspects, taking into account the development of strategic offensive weapons and various means of ballistic missile defense. On the issue of Russia’s right to withdraw from START III, Kokoshin outlined the possible reasons more broadly than the development of ABM defense to include advanced offensive strategic weapons and threats to Russian command and control and early warning systems. On ballistic missile defense, Kokoshin continued to assert that qualitative advantage still lies with offensive system modernization (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 19). In September 2010, in an article devoted to the problem of strategic stability and ballistic missile defense, Kokoshin recommended that Russia continues to follow a policy of preparing an “asymmetric response” in case the US reverted to an effort to build a strategic ABM system or achieved strategic defense capabilities via an ABM system deployed in theaters of military operations (TVD) (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 5, 2010).

As part of the US ratification process, the Senate passed a resolution charging the president to begin bilateral talks with Russia regarding the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons. The Russian responsed to this proposed initiative, however, as the Duma began the ratification process. Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Moscow had no intention of entering new nuclear arms talks with the United States. Such talks would have to wait for the implementation of START III, and Lavrov laid out a much more complex agenda for any future talks about non-strategic nuclear weapons by including as topics for discussion “potential weaponization of space, strategic missiles equipped with conventional explosives and other non-nuclear conventional weapons.” Lavrov also added the need to include in such negotiations other nuclear powers (Interfax, January 13).

Following the signing of START III, the Russian press began to refer to the treaty as a political test for Presidents Obama and Medvedev and detailed serious challenges which would determine whether START III deepened the “reset” and moved the world towards nuclear disarmament. The authors spoke of the risks associated with a renewed race between offensive and defense strategic systems, pointed to the investment in nuclear force modernization, speculated on the impact of US deployment of non-nuclear strategic systems, and considered the impact of Russia’s refusal to enter into immediate talks on the limitation of tactical nuclear weapons on a bilateral basis (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 25).

The test on this latter point seems to be on the agenda, since Russian news sources announced that the Obama administration has declared that following consultations with NATO Allies, the US would seek to begin talks on tactical nuclear weapons with Russia no later than one year after ratification of START III (RIA Novosti, February 3).

To understand the likely Russian response to this announcement, one could look at an interview by Kokoshin in November 2010 on the 55th anniversary of the detonation of RDS-37, the Soviet Union’s first two-stage thermonuclear bomb tested at Semipalatinsk test range. The bomb, dropped from a Tu-16 Bison bomber had a yield of 1.6 megatons. According to Kokoshin the test of the RDS-37 was the real beginning of the Soviet Union’s ability to deter a potential aggressor. While discussing the technical development of the weapons, Kokoshin stressed the continued importance of nuclear deterrence for Russia: “Systems and means of nuclear deterrence for the foreseeable future will remain one of the keystones of our security.”  Kokoshin went on to state that “an alternative to nuclear deterrence does not appear possible even in the distant future.” Therefore, Russia must continue to modernize its triad of air, ground, and sea-based strategic nuclear weapons and do the same with “tactical and operational-tactical nuclear weapons systems.” In addition, Kokoshin called for the development of “a system of non-nuclear (pre-nuclear) deterrence” based upon precision-strike conventional weapons (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 26, 2010).

The modernization of tactical and operational-tactical nuclear weapons, of which Kokoshin spoke, may be more than a response to the commonly cited reason of NATO’s expansion, but also reflect Russia’s need to rely on such systems in the face of the military modernization of the  People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has itself developed a formidable arsenal of advanced weaponry. At the same time, the Asian nuclear equation has its own complications with regard to North Korea’s emerging arsenal, nuclear rivalry between Pakistan and India, and the distinct possibility of China and India entering into nuclear competition.