The Fate of Russian Nuclear Weapons: An Anticlimax on August 11

Nikolai Sokov
August 14, 2000

The meeting of the Security Council on August 11 which was supposed to discuss, among other things, the proposals of Chief of the General Staff Anatoliy Kvashnin on radical reduction of Russia’s land-based strategic missiles (ICBMs) did not produce a sensation. As one Russian observer correctly predicted, both Kvashnin and his leading opponent, Minister of Defense Igor Sergeev, lost to President Vladimir Putin’s preference for caution. [1]

Having rejected proposals for rapid “denuclearization” of Russian defense policy, the Security Council, at the same time, removed another extreme which had become apparent in 1999-excessive reliance on nuclear weapons. The result is a moderate and, arguably, more sensible policy. Russia will continues to rely on nuclear weapons as an interim measure until conventional weapons are improved, but it will also seek deep reductions of its nuclear arsenal through negotiated arms control agreements. It will continue to oppose US national missile defense (NMD) system, but earlier, rather emotional threats of an immediate nuclear arms race have been significantly toned down, if not altogether removed.

Balance or Logrolling?

Although they have not been publicly released, the gist of the classified decisions of the 11 August Security Council session can be deduced from leaks and reports in the media. [2] Apparently, the session confirmed that the Russian strategic arsenal will eventually be reduced to 1,500 warheads. This reduction, however, will be gradual, and linked to the expiration of the service life of individual weapons systems. Reductions and restructuring will also depend on the outcome of arms control talks and developments in the missile defense area, particularly US plans to deploy a National Missile Defense.

One major organizational change will be a reduction in the status of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), which are currently a branch (“vid” in Russian terminology), on par with the Army, Navy, and Air Force. After 2006 the SRF will be downgraded to a service (“rod”), and ultimately merged into the Air Force. The command structure of the SRF will also be simplified: intermediate army-level commands will be abolished, and all 19 SRF divisions will be directly subordinate to the Main Staff of the SRF. The Space Forces, which in 1998-99 were merged into the SRF, will be transferred to the Air Force within the next two years.

The session also reportedly decided that Russian defense spending will be “harmonized”, meaning that R&D and acquisition funds will be divided more evenly between nuclear and conventional forces. The Russian defense budget as a whole, however, will be optimized so that spending on personnel decreases. By 2016 personnel expenditures should account for only about half of defense spending, as compared to 80-90 percent today. The upshot of these changes is that conventional forces will not avoid serious restructuring and reform.

At the same time, defense spending will grow very modestly, according to the council’s decisions. Two billion rubles (about $60 million) will be added to the FY2000 defense budget (146.4 billion rubles or about $4.9 billion), but FY 2001 budget will remain at the same level (some sources hint at modest growth for FY2001). Thus, former President Boris Yeltsin’s decree (adopted in 1995, then subsequently confirmed several times) that defense budget should constitute at least 3.5 percent of GDP will remain unimplemented. In fact, since GDP is expected to grow, the share of the defense budget will decline from the current 2.7 percent to 2.2 percent of GDP. The FY 2001 budget, however, will contain an additional, separate item, “military reform,” which will be used to fund retirement of commissioned officers and restructuring.

Despite their public row, the meeting of the Security Council did not result in the sacking of either Sergeev or Kvashnin, at least for now. This outcome is hardly surprising: it would have been unseemly to make fire them at the meeting itself. The consensus of the Russian media was that since they had not been fired prior to the Security Council meeting, any personnel shake-up would be postponed until the fall.

Overcoming the “Kosovo Syndrome”

Comments about the Security Council meeting in the Russian media underscored that it was guided by the National Security Concept rather than the conflict between Sergeev and Kvashnin. Indeed, the text of the Concept-2000 [3] concentrated on the modernization of conventional forces, while nuclear doctrine occupied very little space – barely two paragraphs. The document left a distinct impression that increased reliance on nuclear weapons was a stopgap to address security problems until Russian conventional forces are up to the task.

Moreover, the 11 August meeting vividly recalls the decisions made two years ago, in July-August 1998, when the Security Council approved two documents: the “Concept of Development of Nuclear Forces until 2010”, and the “Foundations (Concept) of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Defense Development until 2005”. [4] These documents foresaw deep reductions of strategic weapons in the context of START III treaty, but not necessarily on the basis of parity, meaning that Russia could reduce its forces to a level lower than the United States.

In 1998, the principle guiding Russian nuclear policy was “optimization at lower levels” – the same principle that Igor Sergeev had been promoting since 1992 when he was appointed the Chief of the SRF. This line was interrupted in 1999 when the prospect of early NMD deployment, together with the war in the Balkans–seen in Russia as evidence that NATO was becoming more “liberal” in the use of force–led to the considerable enhancement of the role of nuclear weapons in Russian security policy. Now Russia is returning to earlier policies, apparently having overcome the “Kosovo syndrome.”

The warning that this line might be changed in case of unfavorable developments in the international environment–particularly the deployment of NMD by the United States–is only prudent and logical. It allows Putin to continue the line of policy he has been successfully pursuing so far, including the proposal to develop a joint US-European-Russian boost-phase defense system and his stellar performance at the G-8 summit at Okinawa, where US allies joined Russia in opposition to US NMD plans. Following this policy, he can also preserve the relationship with China which depends on continued Russia’s opposition to NMD.

Numerous reports which appeared prior to the Security Council meeting indicated that Vladimir Putin was considering a plan to delineate the responsibilities of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff in a manner similar to the United States. This reform would be capped by the appointment of a civilian as Minister of Defense. The General Staff, under the new system, would report directly to the President. Its Chief would become a full member of the Security Council. With this goal in mind Anatoliy Kvashnin was appointed to the Security Council last spring. The plan apparently remains in the cards and was only postponed because it turned out to be difficult to find the right candidate for the Minister’s portfolio. It also seems that Kvashnin jumped ahead of the train when he submitted his proposals for reform directly to Putin. After all, Sergeev formally remains his superior. It also seems that Putin judged these proposals excessively radical.

All evidence indicates that for Putin the conflict between Sergeev and Kvashnin is not the overriding consideration. In fact, the sacking of several generals prior to the meeting of the Security Council should not be interpreted in narrow bureaucratic terms – as a victory for Kvashnin – but rather as the first step toward a more far-reaching military reform, in which personnel changes are only part of the “game.” [5]

A Forecast: Whence from Here?

After a relatively short period of uncertainty, Russian nuclear weapons policy seems back on track, and the new policy (or, rather, the restored old policy) appears reasonably sound. Russia will continue to seek a START III treaty that would reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads. Opposition to US NMD plans will continue, but will be primarily political: the chances of a new nuclear arms race (a financially unsupportable proposition anyway) have decreased dramatically. The role of nuclear weapons has been de-emphasized in the country’s security policy, and their relevance will continue to diminish as conventional forces are restructured and rearmed.

A number of uncertainties remain, however. The first among them concerns the possibility of a START III-NMD “package”. It may prove difficult to achieve a START III treaty that is acceptable to Russia. For example, if Republican candidate George W. Bush wins the presidential elections in the United States this fall, his administration might opt for unilateral reductions in nuclear forces rather than negotiated ones. Chances are also high that next year the United States may withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty, no matter who wins the presidential elections.

Two options, or a mixture of them, seem feasible under these circumstances, depending on the domestic political situation in Russia and the state of its finances:

  • Russia will continue the line toward reduction of its strategic weapons without changes. The increasingly popular proposal about withdrawing from arms control treaties will be significantly reinforced, however. In the absence of agreements, optimization is likely to be more effective in military and financial terms, and US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is likely to be treated as a welcome pretext rather than a threat.
  • Reduction of the strategic arsenal will be slowed down if service life of the existing systems is extended yet again. In addition, other cost-effective methods can be utilized, such as limited MIRVing of single-warhead ICBMs. In this case, Russia’s nuclear policy might be adjusted again, probably around 2006-08, depending on the new assessment of the security environment and the availability of funds.
  • The second uncertainty concerns tactical nuclear weapons. The 2000 Military Doctrine assigns substrategic missions to nuclear weapons, [6] and it is still unclear exactly which weapons systems will support these missions. A cost-effective option would be to use heavy bombers equipped with air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

On the other hand, heavy bombers might be unable to support all types of substrategic missions, and recently the Russian military have been increasingly eyeing tactical delivery vehicles as a possible option. This option could also be more cost-effective. In this context, rumors about possible transfer of Chief of the Navy Vladimir Kuroedov to the Security Council [7] might be particularly significant because he has previously advocated a return of tactical nuclear weapons to surface ships and submarines. [8] This would amount to a withdrawal from the informal regime created by unilateral, parallel statements of US President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

To a large extent, the choice for or against deployment of sea- and/or land-based tactical nuclear weapons will be determined by the overall legal context of nuclear arms reductions. If the trend toward unilateralism in this area obtains, then Russia will probably choose the second option, especially if it turns out to be more cost-effective. If Russia and the United States remain within the bounds of arms control regimes, then a withdrawal from the 1991 regime will be unlikely.

It is worth keeping in mind, however, that in any case the overall trend toward the reduction of the Russian nuclear arsenal will remain intact. What is at stake in future debates is not reduction itself, but rather, its pace the details of the structure of the future Russian nuclear arsenal.

[1] Vladimir Temnyi, “Sovbez kushaet sladkuyu parochku,” news, August 10, 2000.
[2] Nikolai Petrov, “Putin ne uvolil ni Sergeeva, ni Kvashnina,” Kommersant-Daily, August 12, 2000; “Sovet Bezopasnosti prodlil zhuzn; raketnym voiskam,”; Vladimir Atlasov, “Dalshe otstupat nekuda,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 12, 2000; “Sudba rossiiskikh vooruzhennykh sil reshena,”; Vladimir Temnyi, “Dvoevlastie v Minoborony zakonchilos’,”; Alexander Bekker, “Armiuy oboshli s flangov,” Vedomosti, August 14, 2000, p. 1; Igor Danilov, “Itogi zasedaniya Soveta Bezopasnosti RF: boevaya nichya v polzu voennoe reformy,” Interfax, August 14, 2000; “Vice-premier RF oprovergaet soobshcheniya o cokrashchenii raskhodov na natsionalnyuy oborony v budushchem godu,” Interfax, August 14, 2000; Andrei Korbut, “Sovbez soglasilsya s predlozheniyami Genshtaba,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 15, 2000, p. 3.
[3] Kontseptsiya natsionalnoi bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii. Utverzhdena Ukazom Prezidenta RF ot 17 dekabrya 1997 g. No. 1300 (v redaktsii Ukaza Prezidenta RF on 10 yanvarya 2000 g. No. 24).
[4] “Sovet Bezopasnosti RF reshil sokhranit trekhkomponentniy sostav strategichesikh yadernykh sil,” Interfax, July 3 1998; “Russia to be major nuclear power in 3rd millenium-official,” ITAR-TASS, July 3 1998; Ivan Safronov and Ilya Bulavinov, “Boris Yeltsin podnyal yadernyy shchit,” Kommersant-daily, July 4 1998; Yuri Golotuyk, “Yadernoe razoruzhenie neizbezhno,” Russkii Telegraf, July 11, 1998; Yuri Golotuyk, “Moskva skorrektirovala svoi yadernye argumenty,” Russkii Telegraf, July 4, 1998; Anatoli Yurkin, “Perspektivy voennogo stroitelstva,” Krasnaya Zvezda, August 5, 1998, p. 1,3; Oleg Falichev, “Vpervye so vremeni miluykovskikh reform,” Krasnaya Zvezda, August 18, 1998, p. 1, 2.
[5] Nikolai Poroskov, “Generalskii iskhod,” Vek, August 4-11, 2000, p. 4.
[6] Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Feeeratsii. Utverzhdena Ukazom Prezidenta RF ot 21 aprelya 2000 g. No. 706.
[7] “Tretii – luchshii,” Profil, July 31, 2000,
[8] See, for example, “Yadernoe oruzhie mozhet vernutsya na Baltiku,” Russkii Telegraph, June 11, 1998, p. 1.

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