Russia and weapons of mass destruction

A virtual special issue of the Nonproliferation Review

The Nonproliferation Review

The Nonproliferation Review often features articles about the Russian Federation and weapons of mass destruction. This selection includes nine articles from our pages since 2018 on Russia and the following topics:

Missiles and nuclear weapons

Hanna Notte, Sarah Bidgood, Nikolai Sokov, Michael Duitsman & William Potter, Russia’s novel weapons systems: military innovation in the post-Soviet period (2021) [temporary open access]

This article identifies the principal drivers of Russian military innovation involving five novel nuclear, conventional, or dual-capable delivery systems—Avangard, Burevestnik, Poseidon, Kinzhal, and Tsirkon—and analyzes the interplay between these drivers over the course of the innovation process. It does so by means of a structured, focused comparison of the five systems and their progression to date, distinguishing “innovation” from concepts like “invention” and “diffusion,” and defining the stages of an innovation life cycle. The article also distills prior research on Soviet weapons innovation and investigates its continued validity. The analysis finds external factors to be central in driving innovation, specifically Russian threat perceptions around (1) US missile-defense development and (2) the development of Western conventional warfighting capabilities. It also discusses the roles of a range of internal factors, including industry and high-level political support for specific systems, the availability of Soviet-legacy research and engineering initiatives, and the appeal of anticipated industrial and ancillary benefits from the development of specific systems. Cooperation between design bureaus and other industry players is also examined, as is the role of status considerations in driving innovation. Finally, the relative importance of individual factors in explaining innovation is shown to differ across the systems. The structured comparison identifies the continued validity of certain aspects of past studies on Soviet military innovation, while also bringing to light new insights about contemporary Russian weapons innovation.

Dmitry Stefanovich, “Proliferation and threats of reconnaissance-strike systems: a Russian perspective” (2020)

Russian military officials, scholars, and politicians have long been aware of reconnaissance-strike systems, and have developed a sophisticated set of military countermeasures, as well as a number of weapons with roughly the same traits. Russia monitors the ongoing proliferation of such weapons in Europe and sometimes uses it for political purposes, but general planning remains focused on the capabilities of the United States and NATO. Arms-control measures within this domain seem to be hardly possible right now, although there are several options that policy makers might consider useful, including unilateral transparency measures. The prospect of rapid development and massive deployment of new intermediate-range missiles in Europe in the mode of yet another conventional precision weapon must drive the search for advanced security-architecture ideas. Most of all, communication, including military to military, is essential for avoiding misperceptions and eventual incidents that could easily spark an all-out conflict.

Ulrich Kühn, “Between a rock and a hard place: Europe in a post-INF world” (2019)

The end of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has the potential to plunge Europe and NATO into deep crisis. Russia’s continued violation coupled with the Donald J. Trump administration’s desire to balance against Moscow and Beijing could force a new missile debate on Europeans. Even though Washington is trying to assuage its allies, the specter of another round of INF missile deployments to Europe is not unrealistic. Meanwhile, NATO’s European members face a dilemma. Some want NATO to resolutely push back against Russia. Others want to avoid a new deployment debate, at almost all costs. The Kremlin will use these cleavages to weaken NATO. If not carefully handled, NATO’s response to the Russian missile buildup could lead to domestic turmoil in a number of European states and render the alliance ineffective for a prolonged period. Europeans need to act now and voice their preferences in the military and diplomatic domains. A number of different military options are available, below the level of deploying new INF missiles in Europe. However, Europeans need to consider trade-offs regarding crisis and arms-race stability. At the same time, it will be up to European capitals to conceptualize a new arms-control framework for the post-INF world, one that takes into account today’s geopolitical realities and the entanglement of modern conventional and nuclear forces. Given the Trump administration’s loathing of arms control, concepts of mutual restraint may well have to wait for the next US administration. In any case, that should not stop Europeans from taking on more responsibility for their own security.

Matthew Bunn & Dmitry Kovchegin, “Nuclear security in Russia: can progress be sustained?” (2018)

Nuclear security in Russia has continued to evolve since the suspension of nearly all US–Russian nuclear-security cooperation in 2014, but the United States and the rest of the world now know much less about the directions of this evolution. This article assesses the current state of nuclear security in Russia based on an examination of key drivers of Russia’s nuclear-security system, from allocation of resources to regulatory oversight. It then outlines four scenarios for the future of evolution of nuclear security in Russia, describing potential causes, implications, and observable indicators for each scenario. It closes with recommendations designed to maximize the chance of moving onto a path of continuous improvement of nuclear security.

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Chemical weapons

Stefano Costanzi & Gregory D. Koblentz, “Strengthening controls on Novichoks: a family-based approach to covering A-series agents and precursors under the chemical-weapons nonproliferation regime” (2021) [temporary open access]

Novichoks, also known as A-series agents, are nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Once obscure chemicals, they garnered a great deal of attention after their employment in the attempted assassinations of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 and of Alexei Navalny in 2020. Novichok agents were not originally featured in the schedules of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which are intended to support the treaty’s verification regime and declaration requirements. However, following the Skripal incident, the CWC schedules were amended to include Novichok agents. Furthermore, precursors for their synthesis were added to the Australia Group’s (AG) list of chemical-weapons precursors. In this article, we evaluate the recent revisions of the CWC schedules and the AG precursors list, identify the remaining weaknesses of both lists, and make recommendations for further amendments. We recommend strengthening the coverage of the CWC schedules by adding families of Novichok agents with guanidine branches. This is particularly important in light of the Navalny incident, since that incident appears to have involved a guanidine-bearing Novichok agent currently not covered by the CWC schedules. We also propose an approach to the control of Novichok precursors by the CWC and the AG based on families of chemicals rather than individually enumerated chemicals.

Stefano Costanzi & Gregory D. Koblentz, “Controlling Novichoks after Salisbury: revising the Chemical Weapons Convention schedules” (2019)

Novichok agents are a class of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In light of the use of a Novichok agent in Salisbury in March 2018, two sets of proposals to amend Schedule 1 of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have been put forth, one jointly by the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands, and the other by Russia. Both sets of proposals will be discussed and voted upon at the next Conference of States Parties of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in November 2019. If either set of proposals is approved, it will be the first time that the list of chemicals subject to verification under the CWC will have been modified. This viewpoint will discuss these proposals, and argue that, if adopted, the joint proposal and the portions of the Russian proposal upon which consensus can be reached would significantly strengthen the CWC by considerably expanding the coverage of its Schedule 1 and bringing Novichok agents firmly within the CWC’s verification system. We also argue that, since the OPCW Technical Secretariat did not deem the fifth group of chemicals proposed by Russia to meet the criteria for inclusion in Schedule 1, Russia should withdraw this part of its proposal from consideration. The proposals have also served an important purpose in clarifying the identity of the chemical agent used in the Salisbury incident, squarely placing it within one of the two families of Novichok agents described by the Russian chemical-weapons scientist and whistleblower Vil Mirzayanov. If either proposal is approved in November, it will be important to conduct a thorough assessment of key precursors for the synthesis of Novichok agents and assess the need to amend CWC schedules and national and multinational export-control lists accordingly.

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Biological weapons and dual-use research

Milton Leitenberg, “False allegations of biological-weapons use from Putin’s Russia” (2020) [temporary open access]

From 1949 until 1988, the Soviet Union conducted a nearly continuous campaign of false allegations of biological-weapon (BW) use by the United States. In 1995, senior Russian military officials revived this pattern of false allegations, which continues to the present day. Russian officials amplified the campaign after the US government funded the transformation of former Soviet BW facilities in the Commonwealth of Independent States under the Nunn–Lugar program. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China in January 2020 prompted a very greatly expanded Russian-government BW-related disinformation effort. This paper aims to present a reasonably comprehensive account of these activities and to assess their significance. The Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated open disdain for both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Gigi Kwik Gronvall & Brittany Bland, “Life-science research and biosecurity concerns in the Russian Federation” (2020) [open access]

This article examines the current state of the life sciences in the Russian Federation, which has potential health-security and biosecurity implications. Research involving advanced biotechnologies present opportunities for public-health advancement, but their dual-use capabilities raise biosecurity concerns that carry global economic and security implications. While experts have raised such concerns about possible Russian misuse of biotechnologies, Russia is not a top-tier nation for life sciences research, by many metrics. A better understanding of the current landscape of biotechnology and life-science research and investment in the Russian Federation will help to identify potential areas of concern and opportunities for international scientific engagement. This work builds on the substantial legacy of Raymond A. Zilinskas in his work to describe and analyze biodefense and biosecurity concerns in the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union.

Amanda R. Moodie & Michael Moodie, “Building a case of (non?)compliance concern” (2019)

Review of Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger, Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia (Lynne Rienner, 2018)

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