Although the Cold War is over, and now the most prevalent threats to national security are conventional and asymmetric in nature, nuclear weapons will always remain an integral part of international security, in addition to being a political and diplomatic tool.
Aside from the United States, Russia has the most sophisticated nuclear capability and delivery platforms. This article will examine Russian nuclear capabilities, the evolution of nuclear doctrine in Russia, comparing it to other nuclear-capable states, and make predictions as to the role of nuclear weapons in Russia in the near future.
Russia is an officially recognized nuclear weapon state, as identified by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The Russian Federation has several types of warheads and multiple types of delivery systems capable of transporting them. The Russian government “has been a strong supporter of nuclear nonproliferation treaties and regimes, and bilateral arms control treaties and initiatives with the United States have helped reduce the Russian arsenal substantially from its Soviet-era peak of about 40,000 warheads to approximately 4,300 according to a March 2013 estimate.” (Profile for Russia, 2015) Russia has a nuclear triad similar to that of the United States. A nuclear triad refers to the delivery systems of strategic nuclear weapons, typically launched by air, land and sea. In the case of Russia (and the United States), they have and use strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as the three pieces of their nuclear triad.
According to the most recent data exchange in March 2015 as part of the New START treaty, Russia “deploys 1,582 strategic warheads on 515 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. The actual number of deployed Russian warheads is likely higher since the treaty counts one strategic bomber as one operational deployed warhead, even though, for example, the TU-95 MS16 bomber can carry up to sixteen weapons. One open-source estimate from January 2015 put the actual number of operational Russian warheads at 1,900.” (Profile for Russia, 2015) Russia also has 305 ICBMs of five different variants. Collectively, their ICBM fleet could field 1,166 warheads. Three of their Soviet-era variants are being decommissioned, however, including the SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25, with replacements coming into service by 2022. These replacements include the creation of road-mobile ICBM launchers and an ICBM that contains multiple, independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). (Profile for Russia, 2015) ICBMs can be launched quickly: a mission time of 30 minutes or less for an ICBM to be launched from Russia to the United States is realistic. (Nuclear Weapons, 2008)
While strategic rocket forces play the primary strategic role in the nuclear triad, the sea-based platform takes a less obvious, but no less important, role. In January 2015 Russia reported that its active strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet consisted of two Delta III subs in the Pacific Fleet, five Delta IV subs in the Northern Fleet, and one 995 Borey-class sub in the Northern Fleet. The Delta III submarines carry 16 SLBMs, each with three warheads. These subs are also being slowly being phased out in favor of the newer Delta IV-class subs. The Delta IV-class carries 16 SLBMs, each with the capability of carrying four warheads. The newest subs, the Borey-class subs, will have the ability to house sixteen SLBMs, with each SLBM able to carry up to six warheads. (Profile for Russia, 2015) SLBMs can be launched even more quickly: depending on their locations, SLBMs can reach their target in 15 minutes or less. (Nuclear Weapons, 2008)
The last arm of the strategic nuclear triad is air-based assets. In Russia, they have two heavy bombers that are capable of carrying out a nuclear mission: the Tu-95 Bear and the Tu-160 Blackjack. The Bear has two variants, the MS6 and the MS16. It is uncertain as to the number and operational status of their nuclear bomber fleet, as Russia does not declare this information under arms-control agreements. An open-source estimate made in January 2015 estimates that Russia has 55 Tu-95s and 11 Tu-160s. These assets can launch long-range missiles (air-launched cruise missiles, or ALCMs), short-range missiles, and gravity bombs. (Profile for Russia, 2015)
Tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons also make up a significant portion of the nuclear arsenal. However, Russia has never disclosed the amount and types of weapons they possess in this category. A March 2014 estimate puts the amount of Russian tactical nuclear weapons at 2,000. Scholars believe that these warheads are stored at facilities scattered about the country and are not mated to delivery systems.
The United States and Russia have the greatest involvement and greatest concern by far for the safekeeping and responsible holding of nuclear weapons. They have also had both the greatest rivalry and, paradoxically, the most cooperation concerning nuclear weapon matters. Through international treaties, international organizations, and several summit conferences, the United States and Russia have slowly cooperated on matters of nuclear security. Both countries have advocated for nuclear non-proliferation and have reduced the number of their strategic nuclear weapons. The other nuclear weapon states as recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are the United Kingdom, France and China. Four other states known or believed to have nuclear weapons are India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Both countries, the US and Russia, recognize the seriousness of the prospect of nuclear war, whether between each other or secondarily via some form of proxy war, and have agreed in the past that nuclear war is unacceptable. (Profile for Russia, 2015) And while both countries have always exhibited remarkable restraint in terms of honoring that commitment, the fact remains that both nuclear doctrines for these two countries contain stipulations and conditions upon which either may employ and feel justified to use nuclear weapons.
As one of the most powerful nuclear countries in the world, Russia will always carry an enormous potential problem to American national interests. Russia’s nuclear triad consists of sophisticated and capable delivery systems for all three legs: land, air and sea-based operations. It has a significant number of non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well, which are unaffected by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties made with the United States. Depending on how and where these assets are utilized the Russian Federation may have a nuclear capability even more disconcerting to the international community than its formal triad. To date, Russia has maintained its tradition of being a responsible member of the nuclear club, even if always being ready to verbally remind the global community of its capabilities. What remains to be seen is how might new conflicts and tensions on the global stage – Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, DAESH, Iran – put new dynamics into play between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. As this article shows, Russia is still a force to be reckoned with on the nuclear front. Forgetting that could be extremely hazardous to the global community’s health.
Modernization of nuclear weapons continues- number of peacekeepers declines
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) launched the findings of SIPRI Yearbook 2018, which assesses the current state of armaments, disarmament and international security. Key findings include the following: all the nuclear weapon-possessing states are developing new nuclear weapon systems and modernizing their existing systems; and the number of personnel deployed with peace operations worldwide continues to fall while the demand is increasing.
World nuclear forces: reductions remain slow as modernization continues
At the start of 2018 nine states—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)—possessed approximately 14 465 nuclear weapons. This marked a decrease from the approximately 14 935 nuclear weapons that SIPRI estimated these states possessed at the beginning of 2017.
The decrease in the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world is due mainly to Russia and the USA—which together still account for nearly 92 per cent of all nuclear weapons—further reducing their strategic nuclear forces pursuant to the implementation of the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START).
Despite making limited reductions to their nuclear forces, both Russia and the USA have long-term programmes under way to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and nuclear weapon production facilities. The USA’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), published in February 2018, reaffirmed the modernization programmes and approved the development of new nuclear weapons. The NPR also emphasized expanding nuclear options to deter and, if necessary, defeat both nuclear and ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks’.
‘The renewed focus on the strategic importance of nuclear deterrence and capacity is a very worrying trend,’ says Ambassador Jan Eliasson, Chair of the SIPRI Governing Board. ‘The world needs a clear commitment from the nuclear weapon states to an effective, legally binding process towards nuclear disarmament.’
The nuclear arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states are considerably smaller, but all are either developing or deploying new nuclear weapon systems or have announced their intention to do so. India and Pakistan are both expanding their nuclear weapon stockpiles as well as developing new land-, sea- and air-based missile delivery systems. China continues to modernize its nuclear weapon delivery systems and is slowly increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.
In 2017 North Korea continued to make technical progress in developing its nuclear weapon capabilities, including the test of—what was claimed to be—a thermonuclear weapon, in September. North Korea also demonstrated unexpected rapid progress in the testing of two new types of long-range ballistic missile delivery systems.
‘Despite the clear international interest in nuclear disarmament reflected in the conclusion in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the modernization programmes under way in the nuclear weapon-possessing states indicate that genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament will remain a distant goal,’ says Shannon Kile, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.
* ‘Deployed warheads’ refers to warheads placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces. ** ‘Other warheads’ refers to stored or reserve warheads and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.
Total figures include the highest estimate when a range is given. Figures for North Korea are uncertain and are not included in total figures. All estimates are approximate.
Number of peacekeepers falls globally, despite increasing demand
There were 63 multilateral peace operations active during 2017 (one more than in 2016): 25 operations were deployed in Africa, 18 in Europe, 9 in the Middle East, 6 in Asia and Oceania, and 5 in the Americas.
The total number of personnel deployed in multilateral peace operations decreased by 4.5 per cent during 2017, from 152 822 to 145 911. Nearly three-quarters of all personnel were based in Africa. The decrease in the number of personnel is explained by the fall, by 7.6 per cent, in deployments by the United Nations, whereas the number of personnel in non-UN operations increased by 2.3 per cent to 47 557.
Although the UN clearly remains the principal actor in peace operations, African actors are claiming an increasing role in African peace and security matters. This is reflected in the establishment in February 2017 of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Joint Force (Force Conjointe des Etats du G5 Sahel, FC-G5S).
UN peacekeeping reform remained high on the international agenda in 2017. However, these discussions were overshadowed by two other significant developments during the year: the greater insecurity of personnel deployed in UN peace operations; and the efforts—particularly by the US administration—to drastically reduce the UN peacekeeping budget.
In 2017, UN missions witnessed a dramatic escalation in fatalities linked to hostile acts—in both absolute terms (from 34 in 2016 to 61 in 2017) and as a ratio of the number of uniformed personnel deployed (from 0.31 to 0.61 per 1000 uniformed personnel). Whereas in preceding years most fatalities occurred in the UN mission in Mali, in 2017 the UN operations in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also faced substantial losses.
‘An independent review into the security of peacekeepers released in 2017 (2017 Cruz Report), suggested that UN peacekeeping operations should adopt a more robust and less risk-averse force posture,’ says Timo Smit, Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme. ‘However, this raises the question, which was not addressed by the Cruz Report, as to how the UN should generate sufficient forces that are both willing and capable of adopting such a posture.’
In 2017, UN peace operations—like African peace operations—could no longer be certain of predictable and sustainable funding. The budget cuts and related troop reductions meant that the UN had to rethink its strategy in many operations. ‘Is it realistic to expect the UN to continue to do more with less, and is it worth taking the risk?’ says Dr Jair van der Lijn, Director of SIPRI’s Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.
‘A number of finance-contributing countries hoped that budget cuts might be used pragmatically to strengthen peacekeeping reform. However, the actual effects of resource reduction on some operations might put peacekeepers at further risk and leave populations more vulnerable,’ says Van der Lijn.
NSG Expansion for Non-NPT States: India and Pakistan’s Case
The ascent of the NSG as one of the critical and influentialcartel groups promoting the cause of non-proliferation intends to urge India to become part of it by passing the chronicled reality that the NSG was created against the Indian nuclear weapons tests. The Great Powers possessing nuclear weapons have already given certain exemptions to India in terms of trading in the field of nuclear technology transfer. However, these special exemptions by the NSG members are not consistent with the purported arrangements of the NSG that does not permit a state unless it is party to the NPT.
Albeit Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was made against the Indian atomic test, it is astonishing to note that even the NSG’s revised guidelines of June 2013 did not name India specifically, whose nuclear weapon test wound up in the creation of NSG.
NSG works on the consensus by following the two prominent sets of its normative posture. Firstly, it is responsible to strictly follow the guidelines for nuclear exports. Secondly, it also relates to nuclear related exports. It is imperative to note that the first set of NSG’s guidelines deals with elements such as a) nuclear materials, b) nuclear reactors and equipments, c) non- nuclear materials for reactors, d) plants and equipments for the reprocessing, enrichment and conversion of nuclear material and, e) nuclear technology for each of the above nuclear export elements. Whilst, the second set of NSG guidelines largely deals with nuclear export related materials such as fuel cycle and nuclear explosive for industrial purposes only. Both of these two sets of NSG guidelines are consistent with the provisions of internationally binding treaties in the field of nuclear non-proliferation such as the NPT and many other.
Since the NSG rises up as one of the important cartel groups in the field of non-proliferation, it is not free from the critical issues it confronts. For instance, the Indo-US nuclear deal and the NSG’s nuclear exemptions to India has become a critical issue for the NSG in terms of sustaining its credibility. This indicates that NSG may drift away from the provisions it sets and undermine its own set of guidelines.
However, there can be certain plausible options that the NSG may undertake to restore and enhance further its normative posture and credibility as one of the rising cartels in the field of international non-proliferation like the NPT would recognize both India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons states before they think of joining the NSG. Presumably, as India and Pakistan enhance their nuclear maturity, the NPT and NSG could eventually recognize these nuclear weapons states with the ultimate motive to strengthen the non-proliferation regime
It is also encouraging that the NSG could expand its membership by inducting more states that may include those states which are either Party to the NPT or those who have not yet joined the NPT. If in case India is embraced before Pakistan, it could have critical consequences for regional arms race and increased over reliance on nuclear weapons in the South Asia. Alternatively, the NSG could relax its provisions unanimously agreeing that it could eventually pave the way for both India and Pakistan to join the NSG. However, both would remain legitimate and responsible nuclear weapons states by following the essential parameters of the international non-proliferation regime including that of the additional protocol of the IAEA. Furthermore, the NSG might adopt tostrictlystand by its provisions without showing any flexibility by not allowing both India and Pakistan to become part of the NSG unless they fully satisfy the guidelines of the NSG particularly joining of the NPT.
In a nutshell, this may not be favorable to the NSG as this would show NSG too rigid, discriminatory, and limited by not increasing its membership. Plausibly, expanding its membership and promoting the cause of non-proliferation, the NSG could enhance its credibility in the field of non-proliferation by making both India and Pakistan obligatory to the essential parameters of the non-proliferation.
NATO–Russia Council: What Are the Outcomes?
The principal outcome of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) held on May 31, 2018 is that it actually took place. The Council had been planned for the eve of the next NATO summit scheduled for July 11–12, 2018. Therefore, both parties have clear reasons and motives to get together and discuss mutual interests and concerns within this specific context.
In terms of practical outcomes, the Council offered few. The agenda generally repeats the limited range of issues from the six previous meetings at the ambassadorial level. Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal that the country is ready to maintain political and diplomatic contacts within the Council and discuss mutual concerns even in the current “reduced” regime, and that it is also ready to pursue the dialogue, search for opportunities to return to a dialogue on particular issues and carry out work in the areas of mutual interest.
Unlike the previous sessions of the Council, the results of these recent meetings were not made public. The websites of official agencies ran only short communiques. Today, Russia has taken a serious and well-thought-out step by not abandoning the dialogue proposed by NATO. At the same time, however, we expect the Council meeting to contribute to practical progress, to help achieve a productive dialogue and to restore a practical agenda.
The principal outcome of the NATO–Russia Council held on May 31, 2018 is that it actually took place. While it was NATO that proposed holding the consultations, it was unclear what the real agenda would be and what practical outcomes were to be expected. And these are the key issues. Russia continues to emphasize the need for tangible results, particularly in the current political crisis. On the other hand, it is also noteworthy that the Council was planned for the eve of the next NATO summit, which is scheduled for July 11–12, 2018. Therefore, both parties have clear reasons and motives to get together and discuss mutual interests and concerns within this specific context. Despite the apparent stalemate in the NRC, the opportunity to compare notes in the run-up to the most important event on the NATO calendar, which will be attended by heads of state and government, should not be squandered. The Russian side largely took these very circumstances into account.
In terms of practical outcomes, the Council offered few. The agenda generally repeats the limited range of issues from the six previous meetings at the ambassadorial level. Although the participants of the NRC round table did not plan to discuss anything new, they naturally took the new realities and the military and political situation into account. The emphasis at the previous NATO–Russia Council was on the WEST 2017 joint strategic military exercise between the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus. This time, in discussing transparency, reducing risks and tensions and preventing military incidents, Russia was primarily interested in the upcoming large-scale Trident Juncture 2018 exercise.
Clearly, this will be a major exercise with the participation of up to 45,000 people, including representatives of partner countries. And Russia is understandably interested in the relation of the military activity to the declared functions of containing Russia. At the time, it is apparent that a sufficiently substantive discussion of the issues of reducing military threats and risks and developing joint steps in that direction cannot be considered without stepping up the inter-military dialogue, and that dialogue still does not work in the NATO–Russia Council format. Contacts have been established between NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, but that is not enough. It is obvious that discussing Risk Reduction – the problems of cutting risks, preventing and neutralizing military threats – requires a systemic dialogue, not only between military leaders, but also between specialized military experts. NATO does not agree to this: since April 1, 2014, all practical contacts have been cut, and practical cooperation and interaction have been blocked.
Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal that the country is ready to maintain political and diplomatic contacts within the NRC and discuss mutual concerns even in the current “reduced” regime, and that it is also ready to pursue the dialogue, search for opportunities to return to a dialogue on particular issues and carry out work in the areas of mutual interest.
It is not easy to confirm such sentiments in current conditions, particularly since seven diplomats from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to NATO were stripped of their accreditation in March 2018. Russia does not merely view this as an unhelpful step; it sees it as narrowing the options for dialogue. But Moscow nevertheless agreed to the Council meeting, thus putting the ball in NATO’s court. Moving away from diplomatic parlance, this is a gift from the Russian side, since NATO will need to report on the second track of its relations with Russia at the July summit: balancing “effective containment” with “successful dialogue.” This task had become all the more pressing for the Alliance in the run-up to the summit. Its headquarters would like to demonstrate that the adopted formula had been productive, and Moscow did not want to exacerbate relations and give grounds for more anti-Russia rhetoric. Jens Stoltenberg can now quite responsibly report at the July summit that the dialogue is developing, without focusing attention on the difficulties and its practical ineffectiveness. Yet, if Russia sends such a signal and “gives a gift” to NATO before the summit, then NATO should consider the issue of how to pragmatically develop the dialogue with Russia in the future. Of course, it is also a very important test for Russia. NATO’s future policy will be clearer after the summit: whether the alliance will use the very fact that the NATO–Russia Council took place as a propaganda tool for reporting on the successes of its policy regarding Russia, since the latter is prepared to maintain a dialogue. Conversely, Russia’s signal could be interpreted differently, and NATO may consider and discuss the prospects and contents of its future dialogue with Russia in a pragmatic and consistent manner.
Agreeing to meet with NATO, Russia sends the alliance a positive signal.
Another nuance that is also a fairly important circumstance is the fact that the results of the Council’s meeting were not made public. Communiques on the websites of NATO and the Russian mission were very brief. They stated the agenda and briefly listed the issues under discussion. Moreover, the parties abstained from talking to journalists, and that makes the current Council different from its previous sessions, which were invariably followed by political commentary – including comments from the NATO Secretary General on the alliance’s website and answers to questions from the media. Now there is nothing of the sort, and this reticence means that the situation is unclear, and we should look at how NATO will react in the future and what discussions surrounding the Russian question at the summit will mean.
The topic of Russia at the upcoming summit is especially important against the background of events that may have an unfavourable impact on the general atmosphere of the summit. For example, the major complications in Euro-Atlantic relations, with Trump trying to stress the rather unpopular tenet of the “Old Europe” and showcase the successes of New Europe, which follows Washington’s politics and policies. Trump believes that “Old Europe,” primarily Germany, which has rather unsuccessfully laid claim to European leadership, is moving in the “wrong” direction.” This context is highly unfavourable for the summit itself, and possibly for Russia–Europe relations. A number of specific events, such as the attack perpetrated by the United States, the United Kingdom and France against military facilities in Syria, the publication of U.S. plans to deploy permanent military bases in Poland, etc., could also have a negative effect. This is all very serious and should be taken into account by both NATO and Russia. Today, Russia has made a serious, well-thought-out step by not abandoning the dialogue proposed by NATO. At the same time, however, we expect the Council meeting to contribute to tangible progress, help achieve a productive dialogue and restore a practical agenda.
First published in our partner RIAC
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