Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Eurasian Security

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 44

Presidents Barrack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have pledged to accelerate the negotiation of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The new agreement would replace the treaty that lapsed on December 5, 2009. Progress in the US-Russian negotiations has been significant with the working numbers for reduced offensive arsenals in the range of 1500-1675 for warheads and 500-1100 for strategic delivery systems. These numbers are much lower than those contained in the expired START regime. Both Presidents Obama and Medvedev have spoken of this measure as a means to increase strategic security and stability and strengthen the existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The issues that remain to be resolved before the Obama-Medvedev summit are not seen as precluding the signing of the treaty. Current discussions suggest it may be signed in late March or April, with the ceremony held possibly in Prague. The Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, confirmed the Russian military’s support for the treaty, saying “The talks on the treaty are very difficult, but we have reached an understanding that the parties should take in to account each other’s interests and should not infringe upon each other’s defense capabilities in any way,” adding: “The treaty will be ready soon, and it will not infringe upon Russia’s interests.” Unlike the May 2002 US-Russia Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, signed by Presidents Bush and Putin, the new agreement will include verification measures based on earlier START agreements (ITAR-TASS, February 24).

The choice of Prague as a possible venue represents Washington’s desire to link this agreement with President Obama’s proclaimed goal of eliminating nuclear weapons in the twenty first century, which he delivered there in April 2009. Obama referred to nuclear weapons in general and presented the problem of nuclear proliferation as a global issue. Progress on START has made the global connections of the various nuclear arsenals more apparent and the problems associated with them much more immediate. This was apparent in the prominence given to reducing nuclear weapons at the 46th annual International Conference on Security recently held in Munich. The US and Russian delegations agreed that reducing global nuclear arsenals to zero was possible, but it would take time. Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, the senior Russian delegate in Munich, addressed the issue as imperative: “Although nuclear armament remains the backbone of the strategic deterrence system, it cannot be viewed as a panacea against all threats and challenges. It can and should be liquidated.” Ivanov raised Moscow’s concern over the recently announced US decision to deploy missile defense systems in Romania. Ivanov stated that the signing of the START agreement would in all probability lead to pressure to reduce US and Russian tactical nuclear arsenals. Ivanov pointed to the decision of Russia in the early 1990’s to withdraw such systems from combat units and to place them in central repositories, and noted that the US had not reciprocated (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 8).

As Ivanov predicted, calls for reductions in tactical nuclear arsenals in Europe were quickly forthcoming. The Foreign Ministers of Sweden and Poland, Karl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, appealed to Moscow and Washington to quickly and radically reduce tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Their proposal had a Baltic-Scandinavian focus, regarding Russian tactical weapons in Kaliningrad Oblast and the Kola Peninsula. The Russian response was to express surprise at the uneven treatment of the US and Russian arsenals. Russia has already withdrawn its tactical nuclear weapons to central repositories and deploys no such weapons in Kaliningrad Oblast. Unnamed Russian generals were cited as stating that Russia in recent years has removed tactical nuclear weapons from the ground forces, reduced the tactical nuclear arsenal for the air force and air defense forces by 60 percent, and on submarines by 30 percent. As far as the Kola Peninsula is concerned, Russian commentators noted that it was the base of the Northern Fleet, which included naval units involved in Russia’s strategic triad. They stated that tactical nuclear systems there were kept in secure facilities and that Russia had no intention of withdrawing them. However, Moscow has not excluded the possibility of negotiating a reduction in tactical nuclear arsenals. According to Colonel-General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, Chief of the 12th Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which has oversight of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, it will seek to have the negotiations broadened to include British and French arsenals, and take into account Russia’s distinct situation in Eurasia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 5).

Verkhovtsev’s point about tactical nuclear weapons being part of Russia’s deterrent is an explicit part of the new military doctrine. While that document did not embrace the long-discussed notion of “preventive nuclear strike,” it did endorse first use under certain conditions, including deterrence of nuclear strikes and attacks by other means of mass destruction against Russia and its allies and in the case of conventional aggression, which would pose a threat to the existence of the Russian state. Dmitry Litovkin addressed the issue of Russia’s claim to the right of a nuclear first strike in the context of the 2000 version of Russia’s military doctrine which claimed a similar right against Russia’s declared primary threat, i.e., the US and NATO. But the context today is different, Litovkin points to Russian declaratory policy on nuclear weapons to be a direct manifestation of the weakness of its conventional military power and questions whether the new military doctrine actually supports to the efforts to give the armed forces a “new look” (Izvestiya, February 8).

While the US and NATO expansion is once again declared to be the primary concerns in the new military doctrine, they are identified as opasnosti (dangers) and not ugrozy (threats). Moreover, a new concern has appeared among the top four: “territorial claims against the Russian Federation and its allies, intervention in their internal affairs” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 17). These are direct threats to Russia and its allies and can directly result in military aggression against the Russian state, as opposed to moves which might marginally affect the balance of forces. The Russian elite avoid speaking about a threat or danger from China, but there are analysts who see the People’s Republic of China as a possible threat to which Russia could respond only with nuclear weapons. For the last two decades Russia has treated China as a strategic partner, engaging in large-scale weapons sales. Yet, now Russian arms producers warn that in the area of aviation technology China acts like a pirate state, counterfeiting Russian designs like the MiG-29 and the Sukhoi-27 and selling these copies (Izvestiya, February 17). Other Russian authors have noted the deteriorating relations between the United States and China and are concerned that Russia might be drawn into a conflict which would not be in its interests. Aleksandr Khramchikhin recently presented to his readers a scenario for a “Second Korean War,” resulting from tensions between North and South Korea and leading to the intervention of the United States and China, in which Beijing would be the only possible winner. Khramchikhin avoided discussing explicitly the implications of such a conflict for Russia, but it is not difficult to imagine its consequences, where China would expect and demand that Russia provide logistical and other support as a result of Russia’s strategic weakness in the Far East (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, February 4). Valentina Maltseva addressed the new military doctrine’s treatment of nuclear weapons and called the statement on the use of nuclear weapons against large-scale conventional aggression as a sign that Russia will defend itself with the weapons that it has. “This thesis many consider to be a manifestation of aggression by Russia “rising from its knees.” The author does not state who the “many” might be, but the locale suggests an eastern focus (Sovetskaia Sibir, February 11).

As NATO members debate among themselves the issue of reducing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, Russia’s Eurasian landscape may demand a broader focus for such discussions on this part of the nuclear equation because of the emerging explicit connections. The Almaty-based Eurasian Media Forum reported on February 25 that “Russia is ready to protect other participants of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), including with application of nuclear weapons.” The CSTO Secretary-General, Nikolai Bordyuzha, made these remarks in a television interview. Moscow has been calling for closer ties between NATO and the CSTO, but there has been little interest in this in Brussels or Washington. Both see the CSTO as a manifestation of a Russian “sphere of privileged influence.” One cannot construe a nuclear response to terrorism or to NATO as being at the heart of Bordyuzha’s declaration, its source lies further east. Moreover, by explicitly invoking the nuclear arsenal as part of Moscow’s commitment to other CSTO members, Bordyuzha has made the issue of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons explicitly into a Eurasian security problem (Eurasian Media Forum, February 25).