Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 85

Increasingly frustrated and angry over their inability to stop NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia, Russian leaders have once again been tempted to play some nuclear cards. The scanty reports from last week’s Kremlin meeting of the Security Council indicate that the government has decided to both bolster Russia’s aging strategic nuclear forces and, apparently, to reinvigorate the military’s nonstrategic–or battlefield–nuclear arsenal. Nuclear forces will be given an even more prominent role in an amended military doctrine–one which will probably name NATO as a potential enemy and may endorse the policy of a preemptive nuclear strike. Many journalists and commentators in Moscow have gone far beyond the government, returning to the type of irresponsible rhetoric not seen since the most frigid days of the Cold War, calling for the end of all arms control and even threatening a nuclear Armageddon.

The few details revealed indicate that the government will try to wring as much out of the existing forces while spending as little as possible in the process. With START II effectively dead for the foreseeable future, the large land-based, multiple warhead missiles–especially the giant SS-18 Satan–will be extended in service. Some hints of the new policy had been made public before the Security Council met. Two weeks ago the commander in chief of the Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, announced that the service life of the Delta III strategic submarines in the Pacific Fleet would be extended until 2005. Built in 1975-1982, these submarines were to have been scrapped next year.

The most troubling announcement concerns the short-range nuclear weapons. These are also the weapons about which the West knows least. It is believed that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most warheads were pulled back into central storage depots. In 1991, in response to unilateral cuts announced by U.S. President George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev pledged to eventually eliminate many of these weapons. This pledge was never formalized as a treaty, and might become the first arms control casualty of the new doctrine. A profusion of these smaller, tactical nuclear weapons would greatly increase the odds that one or more might get into the wrong hands.

Hasty nuclear decisions could backfire, making Russia less rather than more secure. Such proposals as redeploying nuclear missile in Belarus or abrogating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty are examples of two such short-sighted ideas. Some in the Russian military would like to resume production of the SS-20 and SS-23 medium-range ballistic missiles banned by that treaty. Yet the Russians in 1987 got more than they lost. The United States destroyed all of its Pershing-II ballistic missiles, missiles which the Russians feared could quickly strike Moscow from bases in Europe. With NATO’s borders now much closer to Moscow, any new INF arms race in Europe would be disastrous to Russia in both economic and strategic terms (Russian and international media, April 22-May 2).