A Second Sighting of Russian Tactical Nukes in Kaliningrad

Iskander a new Russian short-range missile

Iskander, a new Russian short-range missile

Nikolai Sokov
February 15, 2011

Judging by press reports, tactical nuclear weapons appear to have a curious propensity to surface with some regularity in Kaliningrad oblast, a Russian exclave squeezed between Lithuania and Poland. The Associated Press and other US media organizations have recently reported Eastern European concerns about “an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons believed to be at their doorstop in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.” [1] Ten years ago, almost to a day, The Washington Times reported that Russia had possibly moved warheads for short-range Tochka-U (SS-23) short-range ground-launched missiles into Kaliningrad. The story caused a brief stir in the United States and NATO and then quietly died since no proof emerged. [2] This time statements about tactical nuclear weapons in the exclave as well as in the main Russian territory close to the Baltic states came from Lithuania; the same issue was raised by several countries during the tour of US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller to the region. [3]

The SS-23s in Kaliningrad that were a concern in 2001 are still there, but recent reports add a new wrinkle: the additional presence of new Iskander ground-launched missiles with the range close to 500 km. Unlike the SS-23s, there is no evidence that these new missiles have been tested for nuclear warheads, although theoretically they could be used for that mission. Nonetheless, as before these concerns do not cite any publicly available evidence making it unclear whether they are accurate or merely reflect fears of Russia by the Baltic States and Poland that make these countries suspect the worst.

At a different time few would have paid close attention to these statements, but things are different today. Several Western European countries are seriously discussing the possibility of completely withdrawing the small arsenal of US tactical nuclear weapons that still remains in Europe (estimated at 180 B-61 bombs), among them are Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, three of the five countries in which the weapons are based (the other two basing countries are Italy and Turkey). Before New START could enter into force, the Obama administration had to pledge to Congress in writing that within a year it would seek to begin talks with Moscow to address Russia’s substantial preponderance in tactical nuclear weapons; [4] Russia is estimated to have about 2000 of the weapons. At the same time, as several recent statements by high-level Russian officials indicate, [5] Moscow has decided to temporize and will not provide a positive response to the anticipated US proposal to discuss TNW. Statements about Russian tactical nuclear weapons that originate from NATO members in Eastern/Central Europe are just another piece in a complicated diplomatic and political game that will be played this year.

A closer look suggests, moreover, that suspicions about Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the vicinity of the Baltic states are probably overstated. There is no doubt that Russia is enhancing its missile capability there. The plan to deploy new Iskanders in Kaliningrad oblast was officially “sold” as a response to the George W. Bush administration’s plan to deploy ten missile defense interceptors in Poland. Thus after the Obama administration announced a revision of that intention — a move clearly not anticipated by the Russians — the original plan for Iskanders had to be canceled and it was decided to deploy them in the main Russian territory in the vicinity of the Baltic states. Since the reach of these assets from the new location is smaller, the cancellation was clearly a defeat for the Russian military’s plans.

There is no indication, however, that these missiles were intended to carry nuclear warheads. Instead, they fit perfectly with decade-old Russian efforts to develop a long-range conventional strike capability. Russian military leaders and experts regard a similar capability of the United States and NATO as the most serious threat to their security (and a source of envy), and there is every intention in Moscow to field an adequate response. Iskander missiles as well as a variety of other assets, such as a long-range conventional air-launched cruise missile and conventional sea-launched cruise missiles are just the more visible elements of these efforts. Giving a nuclear mission to Iskanders would simply defy the main purpose of having these missiles.

Similarly, there is no indication that SS-23s are now equipped with nuclear warheads. In fact, the 2001 rumors were reportedly based on the fact that some warheads for these missiles had been transported to Kaliningrad oblast, but even at that time it remained unclear whether these were nuclear or conventional. More recently, in 2007 the Chief of the 12th GUMO, General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, declared that nuclear warheads assigned to Ground Forces had been dismantled. [6] This means that there should be no more nuclear warheads for the ground-launched SS-23s.

Sea-launched nuclear weapons are kept at naval bases and the probability that any are intended for the Baltic Fleet (much less for the ships based in Kaliningrad oblast) appears very low — there are simply few targets for these assets. According to statements from the leaders of the Russian Navy, these weapons are intended to balance US Navy, and there are few, if any, targets for them in the Baltic Sea.

In a more general sense, tactical nuclear weapons (aside from sea launched ones as noted above) do not have a viable mission contrary to the common perception that Russian short-range nuclear assets are intended to balance NATO’s conventional superiority. The Russian military believes that the key danger from US and NATO military forces involves conventional strikes at long distances; short-range nuclear weapons simply are incapable of balancing that particular threat. Consequently, the role of nuclear balance is assigned to longer-range nuclear assets — strategic and intermediate range (air-and sea-launched). [7] Given the operational Russian nuclear strategy, deployment of short-range nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad oblast, much less further to the east, simply does not make much sense.

The issue of tactical nuclear weapons is difficult and highly controversial. Their psychological significance and visibility far outweighs their political and military value, and this seems true for both East and West. No one really knows how to deal with them: negotiations are highly desirable, but since they have never been a subject of negotiations, there is no precedent. Raising the profile of these weapons, no matter how well-intentioned, can only make the task of limiting and reducing them more difficult. Even today, NATO talk about Russian TNW only serves to enhance their perceived value in the eyes of Russian policy makers and military and consequently raises the “price” for the agreement to include them into the arms control agenda. A more realistic — and cool-headed — assessment can conceivably be more conducive for early success at limiting and reducing the Russian TNW arsenal.

[1] Vanessa Gera, “US: Poland Concerned about Armed Kaliningrad,” The Associated Press, February 11, 2011.
[2] For details and analysis of allegations see Nikolai Sokov, The Tactical Nuclear Weapons Controversy, Jane’s Defense Weekly, January 31, 2001.
[3] See “Lithuania Claims Russia Deployed Warheads Near Border,” Agence France Press, February 8, 2011, www.spacewar.com.
[4] See Miles Pomper and Nikolai Sokov, “New START Ratification: A Bittersweet Success,” CNS Feature Story, December 22, 2010.
Provision 12 A(i) of the treaty’s resolution of ratification says “Prior to the entry into force of the New START Treaty, the President shall certify to the Senate that the United States will seek to initiate, following consultation with NATO allies but not later than one year after the entry into force of the New START Treaty, negotiations with the Russian Federation on an agreement to address the disparity between the non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons stockpiles of the Russian Federation and of the United States and to secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.”
[5] See a statement of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at New START ratification hearings in the Duma:
a. “Stenogramma Vystupleniya Ministra Inostrannykh Del Rossii S.V. Lavrova na Plenarnom Zasedanii Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federalnogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii npo Novomy Dogovoru o SNV, Moskva, 14 Yanvarya 2011 goda” [Transcript of a Statement by Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov at a Plenary Meeting of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on the New START Treaty, January 14, 2011],
b. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 14, 2001, document 20-January 14, 2011, www.mfa.ru.
c. Statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, “Mid RF: Obsuzhdat s SShA Voprosy Takticheskogo Yadernogo Oruzhiya Poka “Rano,” RIA-Novosti, January 29, 2011.
[6] Nikolai Poroskov, “Takticheskii Yadernyi Kozyr” [A Tactical Nuclear Ace], Vremya Novostei, September 7, 2007
[7] “Reducing and Regulating Tactical (Nonstrategic) Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” CNS Paper, December 2009.

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