The Donald Trump administration has signaled that it is not interested in prolonging the New START strategic nuclear weapons limitation treaty after its expiration in February 2021, expressing the need to focus on the strategic threats emanating from China instead; this has seriously complicated the Kremlin’s position on the ten-year-old arms-control regime. Moscow’s strategic nuclear arsenal has long been a pillar of its great power status. But the ongoing collapse of the arms control agenda allows Moscow to expand its opportunity for further bargaining with Washington. Russia’s leadership certainly needs this enlargement and will follow several avenues to achieve it.
Per the conditions of New START, the United States and Russia agreed that neither side may deploy more than 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and heavy bombers, and no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads. Though Washington and Moscow maintain near parity of deployed warheads (1,372 and 1,326, respectively), the number of deployed missiles and heavy bombers is much more lopsided, at 655 for the US and 485 for Russia, as of March 2020 (State.gov, March 1). This disparity does not represent any real security threat for Russia, but it does create a political challenge for the Kremlin, since it undermines the appearance of an equal relationship with the United States.
In terms of nuclear forces, Russia must actively seek to achieve a new balance in the coming years. By the mid-2020s, Moscow will need to dismantle more nuclear missiles and submarines than it is able to replace. For instance, Russia has 91 old ICBMs: 46 R-36M2 (SS-18) and 45 Topol (SS-25) missiles (Russianforces.org, January 4). This is almost 30 percent of all deployed Russian ICBMs. Despite regular efforts to extend the missiles’ lifetimes, they will have to be retired in large numbers over the coming years (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 16, 2019). At the same time, current annual manufacturing capacity at the missile plant in Votkinsk is only estimated at approximately 12–16 Yars (RS-24) ICBMs. Moscow is additionally conducting research and development on the new heavy liquid fuel ICBM Sarmat (RS-28), an advanced version of the R-36M2. However, the missile plant in Krasnoyarsk will not begin producing Sarmat missiles until the mid-2020s, and it may have an industrial capacity of fewer than ten missiles per year.
A similar issue is inherent in the strategic naval forces: in the coming decade, Russia needs to dismantle seven Soviet-era nuclear-missile submarines. Russia plans to replace them with seven Borei-class submarines, including one that should be commissioned by this summer (TASS, May 13). Nevertheless, the manufacturing of Boreis faces numerous delays—originally, Moscow planned to complete construction on eight of these vessels by the end of 2020, but the number will in fact only reach four by this December.
Russia additionally plans on modernizing its 55 Tu-95MS heavy turboprop bombers and 11 Tu-160 heavy jet bombers (RIA Novosti, February 5). Moreover, Moscow has scheduled the manufacture of new Tu-160s within the next ten years. But as of May, it is unclear if Russia’s defense industry will be able to realize these plans at a proper pace.
Therefore, between the middle and end of this decade, the number of Russia’s nuclear forces will likely stabilize somewhere below 500 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers. Since the lifetimes of new ICBMs, SLBMs, submarines and modernized strategic bombers are longer, any kind of return to a quantitative arms race with the US would only be possible for Russia at the end of the 2020s, at the earliest.
Due to this context, Moscow may prefer to return to the negotiating table on strategic arms limits in the future, when it will have a stronger bargaining position and will be able to extend the diplomatic agenda to encompass missile defense, space and/or other global security issues. The Kremlin leadership is, thus, likely to increase uncertainty in the domain of strategic arms for the long-term purpose of forcing the United States to take Russia as seriously as it now takes China.
Russia has at least two options for increasing nuclear instability if New START collapses next year. The first such tool is continued development and deployment of the Avangard nuclear hypersonic glider. As of May 2020, only two gliders were confirmed to have been deployed—reportedly, on Soviet-era UR-100N UTTH (SS-19) ICBMs (Russianforces.org, December 27, 2019). The authorities contend that the production of additional units is underway (Russianforces.org, December 27, 2019; Mil.ru, January 6, 2020). Nevertheless, the gliders face the significant problem of being too heavy for the modern Yars missile. Consequently, the Kremlin may have to continue to rely on Soviet-era liquid-fuel missiles with larger throw-weights (TASS, May 28, 2019). With the Avangard onboard, they may be able to partly fill the gap in ICBMs, but it will hamper the introduction of 28 newer missiles in their place. Pointedly, the Avangard changes nothing in terms of nuclear deterrence, which implies that the hypersonic gliders could be easily traded away in future negotiations, if the Kremlin sees the chance for striking a separate bargain with the United States.
The second option is a conversion of Tu-22M3 jet bombers into nuclear-capable heavy (strategic) bombers. As of this spring, Russia has been modernizing 30 of these jets, and the first converted (Tu-22M3M) versions are now undergoing flight tests (Lenta.ru, March 20). Their new engines and avionics were unified with the modernized Tu-160 heavy bombers, so when the Tu-22M3M is presumably introduced into service in 2021, it will be capable of filling the gap in Russia’s deployed strategic arms. Again, however, the problem lies with the defense industry: the Kuznetsov engine plant produced only four engines in 2018; and since 2019, the plant has been contracted to build only 22 additional engines (Samregion.ru, October 16, 2018). Even the Russian military has complained about these low production rates (TASS, February 5, 2020).
Consequently, the probable expiration of the New START treaty will allow the Kremlin to cover up the actual number of its strategic arms as the problems related to their modernization and development begin decreasing Russia’s arsenal. Over the coming years, Moscow will likely seek to launch a new Cold War–style arms race in order to pressure Washington to negotiate on strategic security and other political issues, even as Russia’s nuclear forces dwindle. Prolonging the treaty may be an option, but likely only if the Kremlin can secure a bilateral presidential summit with the White House.