Russia’s nuclear policy has once again become the stuff of controversy. On the one hand, domestic right-wingers, darkly suspicious of rumored U.S.-Russian agreements to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal under some form of American supervision or control, are attacking the regime for selling out Russian sovereignty and power to Washington. But they overlook the fact that the Russian nuclear archipelago remains perhaps the largest outlet where terrorists could potentially acquire the capability to use weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, it is in everyone’s interest that these weapons or weapons-grade materials remain under secure lock and key and be reliably inventoried.
At the same time, those Western analysts and elites who regularly assert that nuclear weapons serve no rational military purpose except to deter other nuclear weapons, along with those who believe in the efficacy of missile defenses, will not be cheered by Russia’s recently announced trends regarding nuclear weapons. Last year President Vladimir Putin stated that these missiles would appear in Russia’s arsenals, but that other states do not have and will not have those missiles within a few years time.
More recently, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russia is now developing missiles that Moscow believes will be “unique, unmatched by the systems of any other country.” In other words, these missiles will be able to penetrate missile defenses. Russian weapons engineers also make similar claims that these new missiles have a good chance of “beating all known and yet to be conceived anti-missile defense systems, including those with space-based elements.” Many, though not all analysts, believe Ivanov was referring to both the Topol-M land-based mobile missile systems and the new Bulava sea-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or perhaps to hypersonic versions of these missiles that could arguably defeat the projected U.S. missile defense system. These statements may be intended to rebut the domestic critics who believe that Putin is giving away the store. These two scenarios do not contradict each other.
However a third alternative explanation, and one that does not contradict these theories, is that a coherent Russian nuclear strategy is taking shape along with new developments in Russian weaponry. Ivanov, in his rivalry with former Chief of Staff General Anatoly Kvashnin, argued that nuclear weapons were, in his view, a war-fighting instrument that could be used to achieve concrete strategic ends. And in his more recent statements, Ivanov indicated his belief that these new weapons could deter a whole range of threats against Russia.
Moscow apparently rejects the notion that nuclear weapons (either strategic ICBMs or more short-range and smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons) do not serve rational or attainable strategic purposes. Thus once the 2002 Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (SORT) with Washington was signed, the way was open for Russia to revert to placing multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as its land-based component to last until the new systems enter into serial production. This saves money for now and extends the life of the existing SS-18 and SS-19 missiles until the Topols and Bulavas, if not newer systems that we do not know about, come into being. Likewise Russia is also building missile defenses and space systems so that it too, like the United States, will not remain defenseless and face a potential nuclear threat.
Ivanov also observed that Russia will remain a nuclear power, but it does not need the arsenal that the Soviet Union had. Nor are Russian missiles aimed at specific countries, although they are intended to deter against a whole range of possible contingencies.
Following this line, Russia, according to Ivanov, also aims at self-sufficiency in its scientific, technological, and production capability although it does not exclude future cooperation with NATO. Russia’s strategy is a balanced development of strategic forces, improving and upgrading missile systems, and maintaining a sufficient capability to deter threats and defend its interests.
As Russia’s economic capability now determines much of its strategic policy, efforts are underway for the Bulava to serve both as a submarine-launched missile on existing Akula class submarines and the forthcoming Borey class submarines, but also as a land-based missile. Ivanov has stated that in 2005 Russia plans to buy seven strategic missiles, nine new space apparatuses for military purposes, and five booster rockets.
This may not seem like a comprehensive rearmament but, within the limits of Russia’s capabilities, these figures suggest a continuing commitment to a robust nuclear capability as well as to a gradually revived army capable of meeting Russia’s territorial commitments and interests.
Moscow’s strategy for rebuilding Russia’s defense capability may be limited and hampered by fiscal constraints and the previous collapse of those armed forces, as well as the fact that it can only occur over a long-term. But this does not mean that we should be blind to strategic, doctrinal, and operational realities that are beginning to make themselves felt in Russian policy. There is a strategy and policy emerging here, and they need to be understood and analyzed if we are to continue making sense of Russian developments.
(NTV Mir, February 23; Interfax, February 12; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 14; Itar-Tass, March 1; Zavtra, February 17-23)