The “Tactical Nuclear Weapons Scare” of 2001

Nikolai Sokov
January 3, 2001

On January 3, 2001 the Washington Times reported that Russia was transferring tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad Oblast, an isolated enclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania[1]. The article, which cites US intelligence sources, was promptly denied by the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Baltic Fleet[2], and there is not clear evidence that such redeployment is actually taking place. Regardless of which party is correct, however, the issue raised by the story in the Washington Times needs to be considered seriously.

At risk is the informal regime on tactical nuclear weapons created by unilateral, parallel statements by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in September-October 1991 and slightly expanded by Boris Yeltsin’s statement in January 1992. According to these statements, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia conducted deep reductions of their arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). All categories except one (air-based TNW) were either eliminated or transferred to central storage facilities; the only category that remained deployed, the air-based weapons, was also subject to deep reduction. Russia was supposed to complete activities pursuant to these initiatives by the end of 2000. According to the National Report on the Implementation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by the Russian Federation distributed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference on 25 April 2000, implementation of these unilateral obligations was nearing completion.[3] The Russian government has not made an official announcement that implementation had been completed, but there is no information suggesting that it hasn’t.

In parallel, since the fall of 1996, a number of Russian officials have warned that NATO enlargement and, later, military action in Kosovo might necessitate the scrapping of the 1991 declarations and the redeployment of TNW in Kaliningrad Oblast or Belarus; the Navy has long been requesting permission to return nonstrategic nuclear weapons to surface ships and submarines (for example, the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk which sank last year in the Barents Sea, carried anti-ship missiles and torpedoes that could be equipped with nuclear warheads).

Greater reliance on nuclear weapons has become a staple feature of Russian defense strategy. This trend became particularly pronounced in 1999 when NATO bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo vividly demonstrated that Russia’s capability to resist a highly superior conventional force was limited. The conceptual response to this war was development of a “de-escalation” mission which foresaw the limited use of nuclear weapons with an intention to increase the cost of a conflict to the attacker and facilitate its early termination. The scenario was played out in a series of maneuvers, the largest of them in the summer of 1999 (“Zapad-99”) which simulated a NATO attack on Kaliningrad Oblast. According to the scenario, Russian conventional forces were unable to hold for more than three days, and to avoid defeat Russia selectively used nuclear weapons to demonstrate that it took the situation seriously and was not afraid of escalation.

Within de-escalation scenarios, it would certainly make sense to pre-deploy TNW in Kaliningrad Oblast, which is separated from the main territory of the country. It would also be rational to do that in secret to avoid possible interference by the Baltic states. Thus, the report in the Washington Times deserves attention regardless of whether it is accurate: transfer of tactical nuclear weapons is certainly not impossible.

On the other hand, according to publicly available information, all “de-escalation maneuveres” conducted so far utilized air-launched long-range missiles from Tu-95MS or Tu-160 heavy bombers and from Tu-22M3medium bombers. Launches of tactical land-based missiles are conducted regularly but apparently have not been connected to scenarios that involved the use of nuclear weapons.

In fact, Tochka missiles (erroneously called “Toka” by the Washington Times), according to some reports, have been regularly launched in Kaliningrad Oblast since 1995, including, in 1999, in the presence of representatives of the Lithuanian Consulate in Kaliningrad. The only new factor involved in the 18 April 2000 launch was the use of a different testing range: one closer to the Polish border (previous launches used a testing range closer to Lithuania). Also, a number of official Russian reports, including the one cited above, indicate that nuclear warheads for tactical land-based missiles have been eliminated or at least are close to elimination. This makes the scenario described by the Washington Times less plausible than other possible scenarios of TNW deployment in Kaliningrad Oblast.

The following scenarios are theoretically possible:

  1. Russia can deploy gravity bombs for short-range aircraft in Kaliningrad Oblast without withdrawing from the 1991-92 regime or violating other obligations. Contrary to the report, there are no legally binding agreements on the nuclear-weapon-free status of the Baltic Sea and the adjacent states (for example, a number of US TNW remains in Germany). As noted above, however, Russia has been using long-range aircraft for these purposes, thus a transfer of gravity bombs does not fit the several-year-old pattern.
  2. Russia can transfer nuclear warheads for sea-based weapons from central storage facilities to naval bases, which would entail the withdrawal from the 1991-92 informal regime. This can include either or both anti-ship weapons and sea-launched cruise missiles to be used against land targets.
  3. Deployment of nuclear-equipped land-based missiles appears the least likely because it would entail production of warheads for these missiles. Such production is certainly possible, but would require time and money, making a short-notice deployment of this kind unlikely.

Overall, the second scenario seems the most plausible if Russia decides to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad Oblast. According to a 1998 statement by Chief of the Navy Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the Baltic Fleet did not have nuclear weapons at its bases: those were stored at central facilities and could only be transferred to naval bases during a “dangerous period,” i.e., when a military conflict was imminent. Whether any storage site in Kaliningrad Oblast might be classified as a “central storage facility” is unclear, as the Washington Post and Reuters correctly noted, so it is unclear whether violation of the 1991-92 unilateral statements is at stake: nothing would prevent Russia from moving nuclear warheads to and from such a central storage facility, and it seems significant that Lithuanian officials have refrained from commenting until more information becomes available.

Another difficult question is timing. There seem to be few reasons for Russia to initiate deployment of TNW in Kaliningrad Oblast in 2000. The second phase of NATO enlargement, although highly likely, is years away, and TNW deployment can only ensure that the Baltic states are admitted into NATO at an early date. Russia-NATO relations are on a slow rise after the 1999 crisis caused by the war in the Balkans, owing primarily to Vladimir Putin’s apparent personal interest in improving relations with Western Europe. If, as the Washington Post, Reuters, and the Associated Press, citing US intelligence sources, suggested, nuclear weapons might have been in Kaliningrad Oblast for a year or even longer. This would conform with the hypothesis that one of storage facilities in Kaliningrad Oblast is classified as “central.” Alternatively, it might suggest that the transfer of nuclear warheads, if it actually took place, began in 1999, at the peak of the Russian military’s concerns that NATO might use force against Russia in the same way it had been used against Yugoslavia.

Regardless of what is actually transpiring in Kaliningrad Oblast, the deficiencies of the 1991-92 informal TNW regime remain a problem. It is possible to withdraw from it at any moment without any prior notification. It is also hopelessly weak on transparency and verification: steps which do not formally contradict it but are politically and militarily controversial (such as redeployment of air-based TNW) are not subject to notification either. It is obvious that under a more robust regime there would have been no grounds for second-guessing or rumors. A similar situation is impossible with regard to strategic nuclear weapons, which are subject to a comprehensive transparency and verification regime under START I.

The new “TNW scare” underscores the need to create a formal, verifiable international regime that would address tactical nuclear weapons, first in the United States and Russia and then worldwide. It can begin with formalization of the deep reductions provided for by the 1991-92 unilateral, parallel statements and then work toward complete elimination of this whole category of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, this issue does not seem to command sufficient attention. According to the 1997 Clinton-Yeltsin Joint Statement, tactical nuclear weapons are being tackled within the context of START III. So far, the US START III position with regard to tactical nuclear weapons concentrates on transparency instead of reductions, an approach which is sure to be rejected by the Russians. The Russian position, in turn, provides for accounting for all weapons which can reach the territory of the other side, encompassing US TNW in Europe, but not Russia’s own TNW; it also calls for elimination of all long-range sea-launched cruise missiles (which were “denuclearized” according to the 1991-92 statements), a proposal which is clearly unacceptable to the United States.

Certainly, it is possible to keep TNW within the START III context (for example, by utilizing an earlier version of that treaty that would have established a single limit on all US and Russian nuclear weapons regardless of their range), but given the fact that START III is already overloaded with multiple controversies, such as the one around the US-proposed national missile defense, it may be wiser to treat TNW at separate negotiations.

Another, companion approach is to begin with formalization of the 1991-92 unilateral statements by converting them into a legally binding treaty or at least an executive agreement with a status similar to that of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act (i.e., signed by heads of states, but not subject to ratification by legislatures). In fact, last summer, the United States made such a proposal to Russia. The response was positive, but conditional: the Russian government said it would be prepared to consider formalization of the 1991-92 regime provided it included the withdrawal of US TNW from Europe.

Tactical nuclear weapons will require much more attention than has been the case so far. Approaches and positions need rethinking and reformulation. This work should be a priority for the Bush Administration.

[1] Bill Gertz, “Russia Transfers Nuclear Arms to Baltics,” Washington Times, January 3, 2001, p. 1.
[2] Press Service of the Ministry of Defense of RF and statement by Capt. Anatoliy Lobskiy, press secretary of the Baltic Fleet; both transmitted by Interfax, January 3, 2001.
[3] Natsionalnyy Doklad o Vypolnenii Rossiyskoy Federatsiyey Dogovora o Nerasprostranenii Yadernogo Oruzhiya, 25 aprelya 2000 goda, Press Release No. 37, Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations.
[4] “Na Baltike i Chernom More Net Yadernogo Oruzhiya,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 10, 1998, p. 3; Yuriy Golotuyk, “Yadernoye Oruzhiye Mozhet Vernutsya na Baltiku,” Russkiy Telegraph, June 11, 1998.
[5] Walter Pincus, “Russia Moving Warheads,” Washington Post, January 4, 2001, p. A16; “US: Russia Moves Nuclear Weapons into Kaliningrad,” Reuters, January 3, 2001.
[6] Irina Vladimirova, Yuriy Zubkov, “Amerikantsy Govoryat, Chto Videli Yadernoye Oruzhiye v Kaliningrade,” Chas, January4,  2001 (Chas is a Russian-language newspaper published in Latvia).
[7] Walter Pincus, “Russia Moving Warheads,” Washington Post, January 4, 2001, p. A16; “US: Russia Moves Nuclear Weapons into Kaliningrad,” Reuters, January 3, 2001; “US: Russia Moved Weapons,” Associated Press, January 3, 2001.

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