Russia, one of the world’s two largest nuclear powers, pursued internally contradictory and frequently inconsequential policies during 2017 when it came to questions of limiting further proliferation of these weapons or preserving important arms control treaties with the United States. And these policies can be expected to continue this year.
International tensions over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK—North Korea) nuclear program was quite acute in 2017, and may even further escalate this year. However, Moscow was largely inconsequential when it came to resolving this issue. For instance, last May, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed regret that the DPRK had conducted another nuclear test. But still, Moscow continued to justify North Korea’s nuclear program as a reaction to military activity by some regional countries and the US (Mid.ru, May 2, 2017). Moreover, although Russia voted for additional sanctions on the DPRK at the United Nations Security Council each time they were introduced, the Kremlin nonetheless repeatedly publicly attacked the sanctions regime as detrimental (see EDM, September 7, 2017).
Russia can be expected to remain similarly inactive when it comes to reining in the DPRK’s nuclear program during 2018. Moscow is interested in a divided Korean peninsula, since a united Korea could mean a US military ally on Russia’s southeastern border. For now, the DPRK remains a useful and advantageous buffer. Russia supports the sanctions only because of its close strategic relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which, in league with the United States, has backed increasing sanctions on North Korea over the course of 2017. For Moscow, maintaining close relations with Beijing is important both to try to withstand Western sanctions on Russia and because Russia does not have any other allies in the region (see EDM, September 7, 2017).
Regarding Iran, which has not yet developed a nuclear weapon, Russia is a member of the six-party talks on Tehran’s nuclear program, which culminated in 2015 with the signing and adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (State.gov, accessed January 31). Contrary to the rhetoric coming from the White House, Russia believes that Iran is sticking to its commitments under the JCPOA, as noted in the Russian foreign ministry’s statement on the matter last year (Mid.ru, May 2, 2017). As such, Moscow has ruled out the possibility of amending the agreement or reinstating nuclear program–linked sanctions on Tehran.
However, this unconditional support for Iran puts Russia at big risk. If the JCPOA ends up being scrapped because one of its parties withdraws or pushes for unacceptable changes to the agreement, Russia will lose another foreign policy success story it can point to. If Iran quits the agreement, Moscow’s ability to exert influence over Tehran will look extremely weak. Perhaps even more importantly, the sudden increased international pressure on Tehran after the collapse of the JCPOA could undermine Iran’s ability to continue to project power into Syria, where Russia relies on Iranian and Shiite proxy militias for boots on the ground (see EDM, December 15, 2016; January 16, 2018).
In December 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reported that, this year, Washington and Moscow are planning to hold “important negotiations” on two key bilateral arms control treaties—New START and the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (Interfax, January 6, 2018). But in 2017, Putin openly declared his negative perception of these agreements, neither of which were signed by him (New START was signed by then-president Dmitry Medvedev, while Putin served as prime minister) (TASS, October 19, 2017). The Kremlin leader also criticized the Megatons to Megawatts Program, which allows the United States to conduct unrestricted inspections of Russian nuclear enterprises. Additionally, Putin expressed doubts about New START. In particular, he complained of various missile types (missile-defense interceptors and sea-based medium-range missiles) left outside the scope of the treaty that, he claimed, can too easily be converted into delivery vehicles that should be counted under the arms control regime (TASS, November 11, 2017). Additionally, the Russian foreign ministry is apparently not satisfied with the bilateral format of further nuclear disarmament talks (Russia’s MFA, October 20, 2017). Over the coming months, Moscow will likely continue to push for the inclusion of outside powers, including members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), into any future negotiations with the United States on the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and missile defense as well. However, negotiations on the extension of New START for another five years after 2021 will probably not fall off the agenda.
In late 2017, the US administration finally confirmed that the Russian missile Washington alleges is in violation of the INF Treaty is the Novator 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) (Russianforces.org, December 5, 2017). It is unlikely that this particular missile will be produced massively or that it will take a leading position in Russia’s nuclear strategy. Most likely, the open secret of the 9M729 GLCM was meant to push the United States to unilaterally withdraw from the INF Treaty in response, thus leaving Russia free to quickly begin producing and adding other medium-range nuclear-capable missiles to its arsenal. Russian counter-accusations of the US violating the INF pursue the same goal. Allegations that the United States is beginning to conduct research into the creation of its own medium-range ground-based missiles would only work to Russia’s benefit because it gives Moscow reason to criticize the US while, at the same time, providing internal justification for Russia’s own INF Treaty violations. Nevertheless, Moscow is highly unlikely to make the first move to unilaterally withdraw from the INF Treaty.
Russia has been critical of the Donald Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review, a pre-decisional draft of which was leaked earlier this January. In particular, Moscow has balked at the point in the draft NPR that the United States is apparently going to develop new sea-based low yield nuclear warheads. Publicly at least, Russia has long considered the development of low-yield nuclear weapons a dangerous phenomenon that would lead to a potential reduction in the threshold for their use. The Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) asserted several weeks ago that the new US nuclear strategy poses a threat to the world (RBC, January 13). Yet, at the same time, Russia is apparently developing its own “clean” low-yield weapons and modernizing its tactical nuclear arsenal (James R. Howe, “Future Russian Strategic Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Forces: 2022,” forthcoming in Stephen J. Blank, Ed., The Russian Military In Contemporary Perspective, US Army War College, 2018). In fact, the increasing role of nuclear weapons as part of Trump’s defense strategy will give Russia confidence that its development of low-yield nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles is correct and should be continued in 2018.
In 2017, the attitude of Russia, and in particular President Putin, to the nuclear agreements he did not sign could be characterized as neutral passive. In other words, they will be kept formally, but Russia could choose to revise them or conclude new ones only under terms that are impossible in principle. Russia is preparing for the collapse of the arms control regime, and it is not interested in new agreements in the nuclear sphere that would limit its production of new nuclear weapon types. Thus, looking ahead to 2018, Russia is unlikely to play a constructive role in various nuclear arms control negotiations, even as it accuses the United States of the same intransigence.