Moscow Lowers Expectations on Tactical Nuclear Breakthrough

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 85

US proposals to reduce tactical nuclear weapons are being carefully and consistently downplayed by Moscow. Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee expressed skepticism on the issue following a series of meetings with US defense officials in Washington. Mergelov characterized Moscow’s stance as “guarded” though he also raised the problem of such an ambitious disarmament program receiving support in Russia: “Russia’s reaction on the prospects for discussion about tactical nuclear weapons is, to put it mildly, guarded and careful. I do not think that, at the moment, if I propose debates in the international affairs committee or in the defense and security committee, you will find even a couple of people who will fiercely support the abandoning of our tactical nuclear weapons” (RIA Novosti, April 30).

In Krasnaya Zvezda, Viktor Ruchkin examined recent statements by Colonel-General (retired) Viktor Yesin on the prospects for securing a reduction of tactical nuclear weapons. Yesin, a former chief of the main staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN), stated that if talks begin without first holding “consultations” this may predetermine their failure. Ruchkin cited Yesin’s statement during an international conference on April 18 (Prospects of Transformation of Nuclear Deterrence, at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences). “Tactical nuclear weapons are a means of regional deterrence, in which general purpose (that is, conventional, non-nuclear) forces also participate. The neighbors of Russia are clearly superior with respect to general purpose forces. In the East, it is primarily China. In the West, it is primarily NATO,” Yesin stated. Although such conflict in the current strategic environment is highly unlikely, Yesin added that situations and intentions can rapidly change (Interfax, April 28, 19; Krasnaya Zvezda, April 29).

Yesin used data on the numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons estimated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). These estimates suggested in 2010 that Russia possessed around 2,050 tactical nuclear weapons. However, unlike the coverage elsewhere by the Russian media, Ruchkin emphasized Yesin’s assertion that if the numbers of such weapons in Russian air defense and missile defense are taken into account, there is already an approximate parity with the US (Krasnaya Zvezda, April 29). However, on the issue of parity, Yesin said this is not possible in principle, advocating a broader disarmament context including “general purpose forces, missile defense systems and long-range high precision weapons” (Interfax, April 19).

US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller’s proposal for Russia and the US to exchange data on the numbers, location and types of their tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe prior to commencing talks was described as illogical and unrealistic, according to Viktor Kazimirov, a Moscow-based expert on political-military issues. “The exchange of data on tactical nuclear weapons before appropriate talks start would simply be pointless because to this day the US has not withdrawn nuclear weapons of this class from other countries in Europe, while first the Soviet Union and later Russia did that,” Kazimirov said. He noted that such US systems in Europe constitute “forward-deployed nuclear weapons” capable of striking Russian territory (Interfax, April 23).

Kazimirov also complained that Washington intends to upgrade the tactical nuclear warhead designed for the European theater and dismissed Gottemoeller’s proposal for Russian tactical nuclear weapons to be withdrawn from the zone of contact with NATO member states: “It is like Russia demanding that Washington shut down US nuclear bases on US territory, inviting it to put them somewhere further away in the Cordillera.” He expressed surprise that Washington only wants to count tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, saying that all US tactical nuclear weapons should be included. He concluded: “Negotiations with the US that cover just tactical nuclear weapons would be unproductive when some types of nuclear and missile defense arms complement others, since they are interrelated. For this reason, before negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons start, Moscow has to be convinced of Washington’s constructive implementation of START III, as well as obtain firm guarantees that no weapons of any kind are deployed in space and about the elimination of imbalances in conventional weapons, where NATO’s member states have a considerable advantage in comparison with Russia. US and NATO nuclear strategies of an offensive nature also have to be revised” (Interfax, April 23).

On April 27, Yuri Rubtsov suggested that US proposals to reduce tactical nuclear weapons are not only badly timed, but if implemented would damage strategic stability. Rubtsov criticized Gottemoeller for advocating that “cooperation will be able to provide Russia with the assurance, that the American missile-defense system will not disrupt strategic stability and simultaneously strengthen the ability of both of our countries to be protected from the developing missile threats.” This was interpreted as repeating statements by US officials after unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 ABM Treaty. He questioned why US officials use the term “non-strategic” in discussing tactical nuclear weapons, arguing that this is a convenient stance for Washington overlooking the fact that US and Russian approaches to these weapons differ. Russian weapons in this category pose no threat to US territory while “forward-based US tactical nuclear weapons” pose a threat to Russia “tantamount to strategic weapons” (http://www.fondsk.ru/news/2011/04/27/ssha-popytka-obescenit-rossijskij-potencial-jadernogo-vozmezdija-pod-vidom-shirokoj-diskussii.html).

Rubtsov repeated Moscow’s pre-condition to such talks: “Russia, responding to proposals, which already had often been expressed, on negotiations on the problem of tactical nuclear weapons, put forward, in our view, a basic condition for their initiation: the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons to their national territory. Although (in justice) our country in due course could demand its inclusion in the limited framework of START III. Since, it bears repeating, tactically in terms of their TTKh (tactical-technical specifications), they, in the event of use, acquire a strategic character in terms of their proximity to Russia’s borders.” Rubtsov recalled the “strong conviction” expressed in November 2010 by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that negotiations on strengthening international stability and assuring strategic parity cannot focus exclusively on one issue. Lavrov linked the issue of tactical nuclear weapons to US plans to develop space-based weapons, missile defense and its development of “non-nuclear strategic weapons” (http://www.fondsk.ru/news/2011/04/27/ssha-popytka-obescenit-rossijskij-potencial-jadernogo-vozmezdija-pod-vidom-shirokoj-diskussii.html).

Moscow will certainly play hard ball on this issue, though it clearly assigns a high military premium to both nuclear deterrence as well as its stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons. Radical reversals of Russian policy are unlikely prior to the presidential election in 2012 –if at all.