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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

Russian Perceptions of Nuclear Weapons
By Daniel Sumner


At a time of political uncertainty in Russia, economic chaos, military reforms and general deadlock in the international arms control regime, a new sociological poll - commissioned by the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia (Moscow) and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (Monterey, California) - has revealed that the Russian public supports non-proliferation and disarmament but believes that Russia needs to retain its nuclear capabilities.

The poll, which was conducted in October 1999, covered a representative sample of adults from cities, towns and villages throughout Russia, across all age-groups and levels of education.1 In terms of its scale and specificity to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the survey is the first of its kind in Russia. This paper summarises the main findings and considers the broader implications they may have for the formulation of Russian nuclear policy in the coming months.

Since the poll was conducted, a number of events of potentially great significance for the direction of that policy have taken place. In December 1999, elections to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, returned a majority of members broadly supportive of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, opening up a strong prospect of Russian ratification of the START II Treaty, albeit hedged with conditions and reservations concerning American plans to deploy a national missile defence at the possible expense of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. In January, following the abrupt resignation of President Boris Yeltsin, Putin became Acting President and almost immediately signed into law a new National Security Concept (see the last edition of Disarmament Diplomacy for substantial extracts and coverage) which reaffirmed the strong commitment of the previous, 1997 Concept to nuclear deterrence and the possible first use, in extremis, of nuclear weapons. A new Military Doctrine, replacing a 1993 text and reaffirming support for Russia's nuclear status, has been published in draft form and is awaiting final approval. And in late March, Putin was elected President in elections brought forward from July and to the backdrop of a bloody, ongoing war against Chechen separatists.

After considering some of the key findings from the poll, this paper also briefly addresses the implications and ambiguities of the new National Security Concept. Taken in conjunction with the findings of the survey, they offer little solace to those searching for any groundswell of support in favour of a more proactive nuclear disarmament stance by the Kremlin. The predominant mood, both officially and publicly, is one of unease about US arms control policy and the growing power and activism of NATO, mixed with a desire to reassert Russian power and influence.

That said, the Russian Government is prepared - and, for financial reasons, keen - to cut nuclear weapons back to significantly lower levels. If nuclear weapons reductions could take place in the context of a stable US-Russia relationship, serious momentum towards disarmament might once again be driven forward from Moscow.

Poll Findings: Summary & Assessment

In perhaps the most important single finding, 76% of those interviewed said that Russia still needs nuclear weapons, with a similar percentage believing that they play a key role in ensuring Russia's national security. In this respect, public opinion corresponds with the official government stance, as set forth in the Concept of National Security:

"A vital task of the Russian Federation is to exercise deterrence to prevent aggression on any scale against Russia and its allies, either nuclear or non-nuclear. The Russian Federation should possess nuclear forces that are capable of guaranteeing the infliction of the desired extent of damage against any aggressor (state or coalition), in any conditions and under any circumstances."2

The male respondents were more inclined to voice their support for Russia's nuclear weapons (82% of men, compared with 71% of women), and there was also a clear correlation between positive backing and education. Interestingly, 83% of those with higher education considered Russia's nuclear status to be important, compared with only 62% of those with only primary education.

The respondents were asked to choose from a list which arguments of the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies they found the most convincing. The most popular argument put forward by the proponents of Russia's nuclear arms is that Russia's nuclear status gives the country political might, with which 40% of respondents agreed. Also considered important is the suggestion that other countries would not dare to attack a nuclear-armed Russia (37%). This belief in the deterrence potential of nuclear weapons is particularly prevalent in Moscow and St Petersburg (47%, compared to 38% in the villages). The most popular argument against nuclear weapons is their cost (24%; 27% among the educated), followed by a conviction that the use of Russia's nuclear weapons would ultimately be too damaging to Russia, and the belief that there is no point in nuclear weapons if no one dares to use them.

When asked how many nuclear weapons Russia should possess, the respondents were divided. The most popular answer overall was that Russia needs the same number as the United States (US) (32%) but, worryingly, 26% of those interviewed argued that Russia should strive for more nuclear weapons than the US; in other words, 26% preferred the idea of superiority and a renewed arms race. Whilst the educated are more inclined to come down heavily in favour of parity (43%), as are the inhabitants of Moscow and St Petersburg, the less educated actually prefer the concept of nuclear superiority (28% call for more nuclear weapons than the US, against 18% who stand for parity). Also supporting numerical superiority are the elderly and the inhabitants of rural areas. There are some supporters of the principle that the size of Russia's arsenal should be determined independently from the US (i.e. Russia should have several dozen, several hundred or several thousand warheads, regardless of the US stockpiles), but these amount to only 11% of the respondents. This demonstrates that the Russian public still thinks of its nuclear weapons programme as being in direct competition with the United States.

At present, Russia has an estimated 1,174 strategic delivery systems (the US possesses 1,100 and Britain 48), and 22,500 nuclear warheads (compared with 12,070 in the US and 192 in Britain).3 Under the START II Treaty, the total number of warheads possessed by Russia and the US would be cut to 3500 each by December 2007. A START III treaty, if and when it is negotiated, would involve further quantitative reductions (as well as qualitative measures), but all the measures under these US-Russian bilateral agreements (past, present and future) proceed from the premise of parity. There is a possibility, however, that such reciprocal reductions are under threat, and the Russian government has hinted that a new phase of the arms race may be round the corner.4

On the question of First Use, the majority of Russians are in favour of keeping the option open: 35% believe that Russia should relinquish its right to use nuclear weapons when not in direct response to a nuclear attack, while 47% say it should be retained. The percentage calling for No First Use is highest in Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities5, where a small majority is in favour of abandoning the right. The Soviet Union had pledged a policy of No First Use in 1982,6 but this was abandoned in the first Russian Military Doctrine of 1993, and both the new Concept of National Security and the draft Military Doctrine officially reaffirm Russia's right to use nuclear weapons first.7 It seems that this stance enjoys public backing. However, there is high-level support in Russia for the abandonment of the policy. In an interview with a German newspaper, State Duma Defence Committee Chairman Andrei Nikolayev said that Russia should relinquish the right to First Use because it "harms Russia's reputation and increases the threat of a nuclear war."8 This suggests that the issue is not set in stone, although it is highly unlikely that Russia would take a unilateral step to pledge No First Use.

Asked about the level of alertness and targeting of Russia's nuclear weapons, the majority of respondents (51%) believed that the missiles should not be pointed at any particular state. This is in line with the official Russian position, which formally de-targeted its nuclear weapons in 1994 in a bilateral agreement with the United States.9 That said, experts believe that Russian missiles retain Cold War target co-ordinates in their memory banks, and that to return the weapons to fully targeted status would take a scant ten seconds. Moreover, if a Russian nuclear weapon were to be launched accidentally, it would automatically revert to its primary Cold War target, be that Washington, London, Beijing, Paris or any other city or facility.10

Although the majority support de-targeting, they fall short of advocating full-scale de-alerting. Only 12% believe that the weapons should be kept in storage, while 82% maintain that missile systems must be kept on full military alert. It is estimated that, at present, Russia would be able to launch approximately 2,100 nuclear warheads within a few minutes of the command being given; even with the full implementation of START I and II, this figure would amount to several hundred.11 Such levels of nuclear alertness call into question the effectiveness of quantitative reductions, and de-alerting (a form of qualitative disarmament) is a key measure advocated under proposals for START III. The results of this poll suggest that such a step would be unpopular with the Russian public.

There is still fear among the Russian population that the country might be the target of nuclear aggression from another state. 52% of the respondents consider such an attack to possible, while 38% think it impossible. Women are considerably more likely to believe that Russia may be on the receiving end of a nuclear strike than men (58% and 44% respectively), whilst the young are understandably more certain than the elderly that it could never happen (not having lived through WWII and the entire Cold War). Interestingly, the inhabitants of Moscow and St Petersburg - the most likely targets of aggression by another state - are relatively sure that there is no threat of nuclear attack (62%, against 28% who consider it possible), whilst the rural respondents see things rather differently: 53% of those living in villages think nuclear aggression is a real threat, and only 38% believe it to be impossible. This is perhaps an indication that mind-sets in the countryside take longer to alter than they do in the cities, and a suggestion that this aspect of Cold War mentality has not yet dissipated in the villages.

Considerably more worrying is the possibility of nuclear facilities in Russia becoming the target of terrorists. 89% of those questioned believe that terrorists may attack such facilities, whilst only 7% have enough faith in the security of Russian nuclear facilities that they consider terrorist attacks to be impossible. Strikingly, only 5% of the elderly believe the facilities to be secure. It is worth remembering that the poll was conducted in the wake of the Moscow apartment bombings, however, and at a time when the Russian mass media was obsessed with terrorism and the threats from bandits.

The Russian public is also concerned about the theft of hazardous material from nuclear facilities: 83% of the respondents said that such theft would be possible (86% of the educated population, and 91% of those in Moscow and St Petersburg), whilst only 10% were confident that it was impossible. This public fear exists despite the repeated assurances of Minatom (Ministry of Atomic Energy) officials that the nuclear material in Russia is effectively guarded. In an interview given in November 1999, Victor Yerastov, Head of the Department of Nuclear Material Accounting and Control, asserted that the last registered case of fissile-material theft was in 1995. However, he admitted that there were 52 cases of such theft currently registered in the Department's database, which suggests that the Russian public perception is not entirely misplaced. Yeratsov maintains that most illegal trafficking "involves radioactive substances having nothing to do with fissile material. These sources of radiation are mainly used in the national economy, in various industries", but this claim is less than fully reassuring.12

The respondents were overwhelmingly against the transfer of Russian nuclear technologies and materiel to other states (78%). However, 14% considered that such nuclear transfer was permissible, regardless of international responsibilities. This can be seen as a firm commitment on the part of the Russian public to the principles of non-proliferation, which is an endorsement of the obligations Russia accepted under the terms of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).13 Despite being a major exporter of conventional arms, the Russian government firmly and vocally supports nuclear non-proliferation, officially recognising the proliferation of nuclear arms as a principal threat to Russian national security.14

In response to a direct question about the consequences of nuclear proliferation - whether or not the world would become more stable if more countries acquired nuclear weapons - a considerable majority saw no benefit in proliferation: 76% of those interviewed answered that an increase in the number of nuclear weapon states would not enhance global stability, although a surprising 11% believed that it would.

A majority of public opinion clearly regarded universal nuclear disarmament (the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons) to be the answer, but around a third disagreed. Overall, 57% of the respondents thought that universal disarmament would make the world more stable, and 34% believed it would not. As the level of education increases, faith in global disarmament tends to decrease. Of those with only basic education, 63% believe that elimination of nuclear weapons will bring about global stability; only 51% of the educated share this view. This correlation may be due to increased exposure among the educated to government arguments on deterrence. Of those who had maintained that there would be no gain from the emergence of more nuclear-weapon States (NWS), only 60% suggested that eliminating all nuclear weapons would increase stability. The lack of clear commitment to global disarmament among the Russians is mirrored by a less than enthusiastic approach to the issue of START II ratification. Thus 55% believe that Russia should ratify the Treaty, and 25% are against ratification. Some 20% of respondents were not able to answer the question (32% among those with only primary education). Some comfort can be drawn from the fact that the young are more supportive of ratification than the elderly (57% compared with 51%), and the educated are most in favour (62%).

Russians do not trust the US to meet its international obligations in arms control. Only 15% believe that the United States will honour all its arms reduction commitments, while 72% suspect that the Americans will carry out only those parts of the agreements which serve its national interests. This mistrust could be linked to the US plans to develop its national missile defence (NMD) and possibly violate the terms of the ABM Treaty. However, it turned out that only 41% of the respondents had heard anything about the US NMD plans before the interview (65% of the educated). An astonishing 54% knew absolutely nothing about the issue (amongst those with only basic education, 74% either did not know about the plans or could not answer the question). Knowledge about the NMD issue increases with education, and those in large cities are more aware than those in rural areas. However, given the considerable coverage of the problem in the Russian mass media, the level of ignorance is worrying. That something which threatens to derail the international disarmament and non-proliferation regime could have completely bypassed the majority of Russians suggests that the average Russian really does not consider these issues except when confronted with them explicitly, as in this poll.

When asked what they believed the Russian response should be, if the US goes ahead with NMD plans, most respondents advocated symmetric measures (i.e. the building of a Russian missile defence). 47% thought that a Russian missile defence system would be the best response (56% of the educated; 37% of those with primary education), while 32% preferred diplomatic efforts and only 8% suggested increasing Russia's nuclear arsenal. The high percentage calling for diplomacy is encouraging, as is the low level of support for a resumption of the arms race. Russian government officials have warned that their most likely response to US NMD deployment would be to withdraw from START and build up the Russian nuclear arsenal.15 Whilst this may be a bluff of sorts, as the Russian economy would find it very difficult to support a new build-up, it is interesting to note that the move would probably be unpopular with the public if it were taken.

An overall analysis of the results of the poll enables us to conclude that Russians generally support non-proliferation and disarmament measures, and are in favour of compliance with existing international obligations preventing the spread of nuclear arms. However, they are not quite ready for universal disarmament, and believe that Russia's nuclear weapons still play a major role in national security.16

Nuclear Weapons in the National Security Concept

The poll could not have come at a more opportune moment. The publication of the Concept of National Security in early January turned the eyes of the world's media and public on to Russia's nuclear weapons once again, and the developments in Chechnya have forced the international community to see Russia as a military power prepared to exert its authority. In such circumstances, it is both interesting and valuable to have a picture of Russian public opinion.

In fact, the Concept is recognised as a broad document - dealing with internal policy and issues such as terrorism and social malaises as well as matters of military security17 - but international attention was focussed on the nuclear provisions, which were seen by some as a lowering of the threshold for use. The 1997 Concept had reserved the right to a nuclear strike "in case an armed aggression creates a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation as an independent sovereign state". This wording has been altered in the new version to allow Russia "the use of all forces and means at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, in order to repel armed aggression against itself or its allies, when no other means are deemed possible to prevent the liquidation of Russia as a party to international relations."

Russian officials were quick to deny that there had been any significant change in policy in this area,18 but the expert community was divided on the matter. Some believe that the circumstances under which nuclear weapons may be used have been "considerably broadened."19 Dr Nikolai Sokov (Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey), for example, concluded that "no longer are nuclear weapons reserved solely for extreme situations; now they can be used in a small-scale war that does not necessarily threaten Russia's existence."20 However, there are also those who doubt that Russia's position has shifted so dramatically. Ivan Safranchuk, of the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow, suggested that Putin used the early signature of the document to make a political statement to the Russian elite; taking the opportunity to make his mark as Acting President. The furore caused by the wording was, in his opinion, accidental: the result of a piece of careless editing which appeared, at first glance, to put nuclear weapons on the same level as conventional arms. Safranchuk doubts that the government intended to imply the lowering of the nuclear threshold. His opinion appears to be supported by the official Russian statements and by the parallel Russian Military Doctrine, which includes security assurances and clarifies nuclear arms as weapons of last resort.21

Other provisions of the Concept of National Security dealing with nuclear arms are encouraging. Russia strives to:

  • Achieve progress in nuclear arms control and maintain nuclear stability in the world through states' compliance with their international obligations in this respect;
  • Fulfil mutual obligations to reduce and eliminate weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms;
  • Adapt existing arms-control and disarmament agreements in line with the new climate in international relations, and also develop when necessary new agreements especially for enhancing confidence- and security-building measures; and
  • Assist in establishing nuclear-weapon free zones.
Such objectives demonstrate that, at least on paper, Russia is committed to international disarmament and non-proliferation. Vladimir Putin did not develop a manifesto outlining his policy on nuclear weapons for the Presidential campaign, so his actions as Secretary of the Security Council, Prime Minister and Acting President are all we have as indications of the directions he might take. Putin was reportedly instrumental in the development of the Concept, so conclusions about his attitudes may be drawn from the broad support shown for the arms control regime, qualified by an implicit distrust of NATO and the United States. In this respect, the government position mirrors the attitudes given in the PIR/Monterey public opinion poll outlined above. Putin himself has repeatedly voiced his support for the ratification of START II22, and showed that he regarded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (yet to be ratified by the Duma) as meeting the vital interests of Russia.23 At time of writing, the official Russian position on the ABM Treaty also remains unchanged: any modification of the Treaty is regarded as unacceptable, and US withdrawal from the Treaty may force Russia to pull out of the START process, thus risking a new arms race.

In reality, Russia can ill afford to build up its nuclear arsenal. There are serious financial barriers which make increasing Russia's nuclear might an unrealistic prospect. Indeed, the dire economic position is a key reason for the government's eagerness to press ahead with further reductions under START III. Although arms reductions are also costly to the national purse, the Comprehensive Threat Reduction (CTR) programme provides Russia with financial aid for disarmament. The public understand that maintaining nuclear weapons at their present level is economically undesirable, and so does the Russian government. Financial reasons are not everything, but in the current climate in Russia they count for a lot.


It is unlikely that the results of the PIR/Monterey poll will directly influence the government's decisions regarding nuclear weapons and the corresponding treaties. However, it is interesting to note the broad similarity between the current official stance and public opinion. The government is in favour of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, but is reluctant to take unilateral measures and always relates its actions in this sphere to those of the United States. In this respect, it is suspicious of recent US and NATO developments. The public shares these feelings, agreeing with the official position that Russia's nuclear weapons are crucial to its status as a political power and vital for the protection of its security interests.

Daniel Sumner, a Cambridge University student, is an Acronym Institute intern working with the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. The author would like to thank Ivan Safranchuk and Sean Howard for their advice and assistance in preparing this paper. The Acronym Institute also wishes to thank The Ploughshares Fund for their generous support of Daniel Sumner's internship with PIR.

Editor's note: Further information about the PIR Center project, "Examining Attitudes of Russians Towards Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Challenges", is available from the project director, Ivan Safranchuk: (subscription@pircenter.org).

Notes and References:

1. The respondents were divided into the following age groups: 18-28; 29-39; 40-59; 60+. For our purposes, "young" refers to the 18-28 band, and "elderly" refers to respondents over 60. Similarly, the poll divided interviewees into four educational groups; in this analysis, "educated" refers specifically to those with higher education.

2. Concept of National Security of the Russian Federation, January 2000.

3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

4. The 2000 Concept of National Security predicts that "The growing technical advantage of a number of leading powers and their enhanced ability to create new weapons and military equipment could provoke a new phase of the arms race and radically alter the forms and methods of warfare." This can be interpreted as a reference to US NMD plans, and also to the development of so-called "High Precision Weapons" (HPW).

5. Cities with over one million inhabitants.

6. Bruce G. Blair: Statement before Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, House National Security Committee, March 17, 1997.

7. The Concept of National Security asserts that Russia would be prepared to use "all available forces and assets, including nuclear weapons, in the event of the need to repel armed aggression, if all other measures of resolving the crisis have been exhausted or have proven ineffective".

8. Interview with Berliner Zeitung, March 6, 2000. Reported in Russia Demands Security Guarantees from the West, Gisbert Mrosek, Inopress, March 7, 2000.

9. Bruce G. Blair: Statement before Subcommittee on Military Research and Development, House National Security Committee, March 17, 1997.

10. Ibid.

11. Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons, Harold A. Feiveson, Editor, The Brookings Institution, July 1999

12. Interview conducted by D. Litovkin, PIR Center Staff Writer, Yaderny Kontrol, No. 6, Vol. 48, November-December 1999.

13. See Articles I & III, 2 of the NPT prohibiting nuclear transfer.

14. The 2000 Concept of National Security sees proliferation as a "fundamental threat in the international sphere", and considers the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime to be one of the "principal tasks for ensuring the Russian Federation's national security".

15. See, for example, Missile Shield Would Unravel Arms Pact, Claims Russia, Russia Today (Reuters) March 6, 2000.

16. Compare this with the results of a British MORI poll, published in March 2000 by the Oxford Research Group. The MORI poll found that 68% of Britons would think more highly of Tony Blair if he were to take a lead in negotiations to remove nuclear weapons worldwide.

17. See Sergei Ivanov's Foreign Ministry Statement of February 16, 2000, clarifying the National Security Concept http://www.acronym.org.uk/urclar.htm

18. Ibid.

19. Dr Alexander Pikaev, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington Post, January 15, 2000)

20. Nikolai Sokov, Russia's New National Security Concept: The Nuclear Angle (CNS Report), Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute for International Studies.

21. The Military Doctrine has yet to be finally approved by the Russian Government. A draft has been published in full which is expected to be passed soon without difficulty. See Draft of the Military Doctrine: The Nuclear Factor (Arms Control Letter of November 1999, PIR Center).

22. In this, he has the support of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. See Russian Foreign Ministry statement, document 181-21-3-2000, March 21, 2000.

23. A speech given on August 30, 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Soviet nuclear test. (Reported in Security Issues, Volume 1, No. 6 - PIR Center, March 2000).

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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