Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared at last week’s (January 18) special meeting of the United Nations Security Council that Russia had no intention of joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (a.k.a. the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty—NWBT). In his opinion, the NWBT “provokes deep contradictions in the international community” (RIA Novosti, January 19). This came as no surprise: Not one of the world’s nuclear powers and none of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) member states support this fledgling treaty, which has nevertheless been approved by many states, including Kazakhstan. Indeed, Astana had called this meeting using its prerogative as the current temporary chair of the UN Security Council. Lavrov confirmed Russia’s commitment to the non-nuclear world ideal but lashed out against the “dangerous tendency” to ignore the interests of nuclear powers and to neglect strategic stability (Mid.ru, January 18). Yet, hidden in the diplomatic language on upholding the international order is Russia’s determination to undermine it from within by corrupting its core rules and norms—as identified in the United States’ new National Defense Strategy (Kommersant, January 20).
Some Russian commentators took pride in the fact that strategic competition driven by revisionist powers, rather than terrorism or other unconventional challenges, is now defined as the main source of threat to US interests, seeing in this a recognition of Russia’s global role (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 18). President Vladimir Putin described the US Strategy as “aggressive,” presenting the deployment of missile defense assets in Romania and Poland as proof positive of this tired propaganda (New Times, December 25). Many new features can be found in the key US security and defense documents that, indeed, deserve attentive analysis in Moscow, instead of the habitual condemnation. Not least, this is because Russia’s massive nuclear modernization is recognized in Washington as a major security issue. The Russian leadership, however, continues to brag about new weapons systems, indicating that it is ready to abandon the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty but would prefer the US to destroy this remnant of the “golden era” of arms control (Russiancouncil.ru, January 16).
Russia embarked on the hugely expensive program of modernizing all elements of its nuclear arsenal at the start of this decade. That modernization is the main priority of the new 2027 State Armament Program, finalized last December, after many delays (Kommersant, December 18). Not every investment has paid off: the development of a new generation of strategic bombers by the Tupolev bureau is lagging, and some exotic projects, like for instance the rail-mobile Barguzin inter-continental ballistic missile, have been canceled (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, December 4). Eight Borei-class nuclear submarines constitute the most expensive entry in the rearmament effort, and the naval lobby keeps arguing for extending the service life of older strategic platforms (RIA Novosti, December 17; Voenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, January 19). The Russian leadership seeks to harvest political dividends from this sustained investment, particularly since the monthly patrols by Russia’s aging strategic bombers—carefully intercepted by NATO fighters—yield diminishing attention (Interfax, January 15).
Moscow is seeking greater political uses for its modernized nuclear arsenal; but it has to tread carefully. Notably, the top brass abstained from introducing any battlefield use of nuclear weapons into the scenario of the Zapad 2017 large-scale exercises last September (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 28). The most promising path may be the controversial area of nuclear non-proliferation. And while presenting itself as a staunch upholder of this principle, Russia is spreading its bets widely. In particular, Lavrov condemned the US stance on revising the nuclear agreement with Iran, but also asserted that without US participation, the deal would break down (RBC, January 19). He expressed readiness to work with Washington on resolving the conflicts in the Middle East, but argued that Iran cannot be prevented from defending its interests in Syria and other conflict zones (RIA Novosti, January 19).
A similarly ambivalent stance is taken in the oscillating crisis around North Korea. Russia voted in the UN Security Council for all resolutions enforcing sanctions but has tried to soften them. And it has argued persistently that sanctions were not going to work (Carnegie.ru, January 16; see EDM, January 18). Moscow misses no chance to criticize Washington for relying too much on military pressure but is keen to engage in bilateral consultations on the Korean problem (Newsru.com, January 20). The official position remains that de-nuclearization of the peninsula should be secured, but Moscow is very supportive of the Olympic rapprochement between the two Korean states, which to all intents and purposes amounts to an acknowledgement of the material results of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs (Russiancouncil.ru, January 12).
By every objective measure—the number of strategic and non-strategic warheads or the size of its nuclear arsenal in proportion to the strength of the Armed Forces—Russia is the most nuclearized state in the world. The long experience of developing nuclear projects should have made Moscow aware of the safety risks, but it actually tends to take a relaxed attitude to problems that are seen as falling beyond the level of acceptable risk by Russia’s neighbors. The appearance of a radioactive cloud of Ruthenium-106 over Europe last year was never satisfactorily explained, and Russia opted not to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the source (Interfax, January 15). The fire at the uranium and plutonium plant in Seversk, Tomsk region, was only a minor news item last weekend (TASS, January 21). The Russian high command is quite flexible in extending the service of nuclear weapon systems that should have been retired many years ago. But it is in denial of the technical problems with the Bulava missile for the Borei-class submarines, which has a checkered record of trials and was test-fired only once in 2017 and once in 2016.
The experience of deploying thousands of nuclear weapons should have also informed the Russian leadership about the very limited political value of this arsenal. This conclusion, however, is resolutely dismissed; and Moscow seeks to maximize the benefits of its nuclear status. Russia insists on maintaining nuclear parity with the United States, but this old-fashioned bean-counting has little to do with upholding strategic stability and much to do with the propensity to wield nuclear instruments of policy. The desire to perform the Cold War–era role of a nuclear superpower par excellence brings much strain to Russia’s stagnant economy, pushes up the safety risks, and adds to the diminishing stability of the world order.