As the negotiations on a bilateral arms control treaty lumber towards conclusion, the issue of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe has regained prominence. Recently Germany, Norway, Poland, and Sweden have individually proposed that both Russia and the US eliminate their TNW from Europe or pull them out of areas bordering on the European Union, particularly Kaliningrad and Kola Peninsula (ITAR-TASS February 2; Interfax, February 3; www.gazeta.ru, February 4). While there is no doubt that Russia has numerically reduced those weapons and it is unclear what their mission would be, it is also clear that this proposal has triggered conflicting reactions from Russian leaders, reflecting an unresolved ambivalence and struggle over the role of nuclear weapons in Russian defense policy. The US has already stated its intention to place this issue on the next round of arms control talks with Russia after the conclusion and ratification of the treaty now being negotiated (www.gazeta.ru, February 4). However, Moscow’s reaction is more complicated.
Predictably right-wing hawks such as Retired Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov and Konstantin Kosachev, the Chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, slammed this proposal as one-sided and illogical, insisting that NATO and the US should first remove their TNW and adopt President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposals on European security rather than supposedly dividing Europe by insisting on such anti-Russian schemes (Interfax, February 2; Interfax, February 2). Indeed, one commentator, Mikhail Rastopchin, renewed calls to abrogate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and build new TNW to deter and compete with NATO (Vremya Novostei, February 3). It is also well known that the navy strongly defends the continuation of the use and retention of TNW, though it is not clear what mission it has in mind for them (Pomper, Sokov, Potter, Survival, No. 1, 2010). On the other hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his ministry’s spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, stated that they welcomed this call, and were ready to negotiate over TNW’s with both the US and the EU. Indeed, they claimed, quite falsely, that for years Moscow has been trying to persuade its partners to listen to its offer to negotiate the TNW issue, without any response (ITAR-TASS, February 3; Interfax, October 8, 2009; Interfax, February 3). Lavrov even tied his remarks to Moscow’s demand, which is a non-starter for the US and NATO that all TNW be returned to their host countries’ territory, a clearly one-sided proposal (Interfax, February 3).
These statements embody what some might call the ambivalence of Russian policy on nuclear weapons, while others might describe it as disingenuous. On the one hand, both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have stated their aspiration for a situation of zero nuclear weapons, if Russia’s security could be guaranteed (Saradzhyan, Belfer Center), a position reiterated by the Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at the recent Munich Security conference (www.sicherheitkonferenz.de). Yet, both Putin and Medvedev announced in December 2009 that Russia will build new offensive nuclear weapons, a position that the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, Retired Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Yuri Baluyevskiy again confirmed (Interfax, December 29, 2009; Interfax, February 5). Ivanov also denied that Russian generals want to use nuclear weapons (ITAR-TASS, February 6).
However, the facts disprove Ivanov. Indeed, he admitted in 2006 that Russian multipurpose submarines carried nuclear weapons, in violation of existing treaties (Interfax, September 10, 2006). Similarly, the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated in 2007 that, “According to the information to which we have access, there are already tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad area. They are located both at and in the vicinity of units belonging to the Russian fleet” (The Local, August 18, 2008). Similarly, Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the Navy’s Deputy Chief of Staff, told RIA Novosti that, “Probably, tactical nuclear weapons will play a key role in the future,” and that the navy may fit new, less powerful nuclear warheads to the existing types of cruise missiles because these missiles’ range and quality were expanding. “There is no longer any need to equip missiles with powerful nuclear warheads,” Burtsev said, adding “We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles” (RIA Novosti, March 23, 2009).
Although the new Russian military doctrine retained the preexisting official position on nuclear use and refrained from discussing preventive or preemptive nuclear use as Nikolai Patrushev, the Chairman of the Security Council had called for in October 2009, this does not validate Ivanov’s claim above (www.kremlin.ru, February 5; Izvestiya, October 14, 2009). As Ivanov admitted in 2006, Russian submarines equipped with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) or other nuclear weapons were already practicing launches against the US (Interfax, September 10, 2006). More recently, during the Russian exercises in the summer and fall of 2009 Ladoga and especially Zapad 2009, the Russian air force launched simulated nuclear strikes against Poland in a purely conventional exercise on a first-strike basis, clearly aiming to intimidate Poland (www.telegraph.co.uk, November 2, 2009). Moreover, Stabilnost 2008 rehearsed, among other contingencies, a global nuclear war against the US (EDM, October 3, 2008). Clearly, it will be impossible to secure meaningful reductions to its TNW as long as the navy and its supporters like Patrushev, who argues that Russia cannot go to zero as long as anyone has nuclear weapons and still seeks a preemption and preventive option, are making the decisions (Interfax, February 5). Moreover, as Russia’s exercises since 2006 conclusively show, Moscow sees nuclear weapons as war fighting weapons to be used offensively, hence its opposition, as stated in the doctrine, to US missile defenses (www.kremlin.ru, February 5). Whether the Russian government fully controls its generals as Ivanov claims, or is ambivalent or disingenuous is a question for each person to decide. But the existing evidence is hardly reassuring either with regard to TNW or to questions of nuclear weapon use in general.