Issue No. 48, July 2000
The "Denuclearization" of Russia's Defence Policy?
Introduction: Debate in the Russian MOD Hints at Policy
By Nikolai Sokov
July saw a long-simmering conflict within the Russian Ministry
of Defence (MOD) burst dramatically into the open. The General
Staff, under the leadership of its chief, Anatoli Kvashnin, made
known details of a wide-ranging plan of military reform providing
for a dramatic shift of emphasis away from nuclear weapons - to the
point of virtually "denuclearizing" Russia's defence policy - to
conventional forces. A special meeting of the Collegium of the
Ministry of Defence (an assembly of the top figures of the
Ministry) on July 12 failed, however, to produce a decision on the
plan. Proposals presented by Kvashnin encountered stiff resistance
of Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev and Chief of the Strategic
Rocket Forces (SRF) Vladimir Yakovlev.1 Subsequently,
President Vladimir Putin held two meetings with both Kvashnin and
Sergeyev, but failed to put the lid on an increasingly public
conflict.2 The "denuclearization" proposals were
scheduled for discussion at a meeting of the Security Council on
July 27,3 but the meeting was postponed for at least two
weeks.4 Thus, the outcome of the dispute remains
uncertain. Chances are high that, regardless of substantive
decisions, both Sergeyev and Kvashnin might have to be
replaced.5 In their stead, Russia might see the
appointment of its first ever civilian Minister of
Initiatives and Implications
The "denuclearization" effectively proposed by the General Staff
is part of a comprehensive proposal for long-term restructuring of
Russia's defence establishment. Stating that the main threats to
Russia come not from the West (NATO) or the East (China), but from
the South (militant Islamic radicals), the plan proposes a radical
reorientation of the limited defence budget with the aim of
strengthening the conventional component of the armed forces in
order to enable them to successfully fight limited conflicts
similar to the war currently underway in Chechnya.
Since the available resources are limited, funds have to come
from other components, and Kvashnin proposed to sharply reduce the
nuclear forces. The SRF became the main target. The plan envisages
reduction of the number of ICBM divisions from the current 19 to
two, the number of ICBMs to 150 by 2003 (or, in a revised version
of his plan, 2006-08), production of ICBMs from the current 10-12
to two per year, and the overall strategic force to below 1,500
warheads.7 The SRF would be eliminated as an independent
component of the Armed Forces ("vid," according to Russian military
terminology) and transformed into a command ("rod"), either
independent or within the Air Force.8 As a result of
such restructuring, by 2016 Russia would be able to create a
"foundation" for "future conventional deterrent capability,"
including vis-à-vis NATO if necessary.
An opinion prevalent in the Russian media is that Kvashnin's
plan was motivated almost solely by his attempt to topple the
Minister of Defence. In broader terms, however, the proposal might
reflect a conflict between the increasingly influential group of
"Chechen Generals" (who led Russian troops during the first and
especially the current, second, Chechen wars and who acutely feel
the deficiencies in the conventional forces) and the entrenched
"missile mafia" headed by Sergeyev and Yakovlev.9
The plan was first submitted by Kvashnin directly to President
Putin in April,10 in violation of regular procedures,
and evidently generated a favourable response, which is hardly
surprising given the inadequate performance of Russian troops in
Chechnya. Kvashnin was even made a full member of the Security
Council (traditionally, the Ministry of Defence was represented
only by the Minister). Subsequently, he moderated his proposals
and, according to some reports, holds several other, even less
radical options in reserve.
Five-fold reduction of ICBMs will reverse Russia's reliance on
nuclear weapons, a reliance which grew steadily throughout 1999 and
into 2000. In terms of nuclear doctrine, the "nuclear threshold"
will again be raised while recent innovations, such as "expanded
deterrence" and the use of tactical nuclear weapons for
"de-escalation" of conventional conflicts, will have to be revised.
It is also highly unlikely that the increasingly popular plans to
rely on tactical nuclear weapons vis-à-vis NATO conventional
power would be acted upon. Instead, this element of the nuclear
forces would continue to dwindle as warranty periods for nuclear
warheads for substrategic delivery vehicles expire.
It seems incontrovertibly significant that the Number Two man in
the Russian military establishment has proposed such a substantial
policy change and that his initiatives have survived several months
of intense struggle. That they were not vetoed by Putin is an
important clue to the ongoing debates inside Russia which have
heretofore remained largely unknown in the West. Many established
assumptions about the future of the country's nuclear policy, it
now seems, warrant a second look.
Although not directly related, the Kvashnin plan is an ideal
match for that of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush,
announced in late May.11 Bush proposed the unilateral
reduction of US nuclear weapons, probably even below the level
currently foreseen for START III, and simultaneous deployment of a
robust defence capability going beyond the plans of the Clinton
On the other hand, Kvashnin should not be mistaken for an
anti-nuclear activist. Key modernization programmes will not be
affected. Production of Topol-M ICBM will continue, albeit
at a much slower pace. Development of a new SLBM, production of a
new SSBN (strategic submarine armed with ballistic missiles) and
production of new air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) for heavy
bombers will also continue. In fact, Kvashnin might face the need
to "pay" the Navy and the Air Force for their support in his
struggle against Sergeyev by increased funding for these two
forces' programmes, including the nuclear component.
Paradoxically, the adoption of Kvashnin's plan will weaken the
already faltering network of arms control regimes. Regardless of
whether the United States proceeds with plans to deploy a national
missile system (NMD) and so lead to the demise of the
Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the proposals will effectively
bypass existing arms control treaties, such as START I, and render
redundant the previously burning issue of whether START II will
enter into force. It clearly won't: after all, if reductions are to
be pursued anyway, regardless of what the United States does, there
is precious little reason to follow various rules and procedures
which are often expensive and cumbersome, or to adhere to
verification mechanisms. Instead, freedom from formal treaties can
allow greater flexibility and cost-effectiveness as reductions are
pursued. Although unilateral measures have gained considerable
popularity among arms control proponents, one has to be mindful
that the situation thus created is inherently unstable,
untransparent and easily reversible.
On balance, the Kvashnin plan can be said to represent a
potentially positive development. A closer look, however, counsels
caution. First, its acceptance in the current form is questionable:
it seems more likely that the SRF will be reduced less radically
and over a longer period of time. Second, there are significant
chances that the new policy might be revised again in the future,
especially if economic growth continues and Russia has more
resources to support both conventional and nuclear
The Context of "Denuclearization"
The deep reduction of nuclear weapons is not a new proposition,
and Kvashnin's plan draws and builds on many earlier ideas. The
main difference is in the context and the pace of the proposed
In July 1997 Boris Yeltsin signed a decree, "On urgent measures
toward reforming the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation", which
provided for a number of structural changes, including, at some
point in the future, folding the SRF into the Air
Force.12 In July-August 1998, 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 Defence Development until
2005".13 These documents foresaw deep reductions of
strategic weapons in the context of the START III treaty, but not
necessarily on the basis of parity, meaning that Russia could go
down to a level lower than the United States.
This trend was reversed in 1999. The prospect of early NMD
deployment, and the war in the Balkans, seen in Russia as evidence
that NATO was becoming more "liberal" in the use of force, led to
considerable enhancement of the role of nuclear weapons in Russia's
security policy. Both the National Security Concept (adopted in
January 2000)14 and the Military Doctrine (adopted in
April 2000)15 accorded a significant role to nuclear
weapons in Russian security policy. Although the Concept implicitly
indicated that reliance on nuclear weapons was temporary and that
eventually emphasis would be shifted to conventional capabilities
to deter conflicts, the envisaged transition was appreciably slower
than that proposed by Kvashnin. Conditions for START III became
more stringent as well, although the deep reduction (to 1,500
strategic warheads) remains the ultimate goal. The primary
condition is preservation of the ABM Treaty. The SRF also developed
a range of options for response to possible deployment of NMD by
the United States, including MIRVing of Topol-M ICBMs and
extending the service life of existing strategic weapons. During
1999 and early 2000, Russia, working in close cooperation with
China, strenuously sought a diplomatic agreement with Western
Europe over common opposition to NMD.
On the surface, Kvashnin's plan can be interpreted as a return
to the 1998 programme, but in reality this is not the case. First,
there is the more compressed schedule of reductions (2003 or
2006-08, depending on the version of the plan). Second, the linkage
between reductions and agreements with the United States (START III
and preservation of the ABM Treaty) is removed. Third, reliance on
nuclear weapons will be reduced before conventional forces
are modernized, not in parallel. Thus, we can speak about a
significant departure from the earlier policy. Kvashnin's plan
appears vulnerable on all three counts.
Economic Effect of Reductions
The most obvious problem, cited even by those who support deep
reductions in the SRF, is the economic effect of the plan. The
financial burden entailed by accelerated nuclear reductions is the
most obvious reason why this proposal might be modified or even
Currently, the SRF consumes about 10 per cent of the defence
budget (compared to 18 per cent before a merger of several services
in 1998 and this year's increase of defence budget). Its share of
R&D is about 40-60 per cent of all MOD R&D and acquisition
spending (a decline from about 80 per cent in 1999). Since a
portion of the SRF, as well as almost the entire command and
control and early warning systems, will have to be preserved,
savings will be limited. According to some calculations, the effect
will be only 19 billion rubles in 15 years, or 0.7 per cent of the
Even worse, expenses generated in the short term by weapons
elimination and retirement of personnel (about half of the SRF are
commissioned and non-commissioned officers entitled to severance
packages) will skyrocket and will actually reduce the funds
available for conventional forces.18 If production of
the Topol-M is reduced, the network of about 200 primary
contractors which supports it might unravel. The current rate of
about 12 missiles per year is considered the minimum necessary to
support this network (the rate of 30-35 is considered
cost-effective calculated per unit). It is possible that in the
future Russia might lose the capability to produce any ICBMs at
A "Green Light" to NMD?
Current Russian plans to militarily oppose American NMD
deployment depend, to a large extent, on the implicit threat of
"adequate response" through increased ability to penetrate
defences. Although Russian opposition to NMD will persist,
reductions proposed by Kvashnin are not linked to US actions,
suggesting that he does not plan to respond in this manner. Russian
action is likely to be interpreted as de facto acceptance of
NMD, compelling Putin to choose between amending the ABM Treaty and
accepting US withdrawal from it.
The elaborate "plot" created around START II ratification last
April (according to the Duma resolution, START II can enter into
force only, among other conditions, if the US Senate ratifies the
1997 ABM demarcation accords) will unravel because there will no
longer be any doubt that Russia will reduce weapons, even below
START II levels, regardless of Senate action. It was mentioned
above that Kvashnin's plan almost ideally correlates with the
proposals made by George W. Bush with respect to simultaneous
reductions and deployment of robust defences.
A severe blow will be thus dealt to the claim of opponents of
NMD in the United States and Europe that missile defence might
rekindle a nuclear arms race. Instead, the counterclaim of NMD
proponents will be sustained that Russia is unable to mount a
response and that the best course of action toward Russia is the
"Reagan way," i.e. to press on with modernization programmes to
which Moscow always reacts with concessions.
Finally, Russia's relationship with China might be seriously
hurt. China is likely to interpret Kvashnin's plan as acquiescence
with NMD and will feel isolated in opposition to American plans.
The recent Russian-Chinese rapprochement, which apparently
constitutes part of a larger foreign policy plan beyond opposition
to NMD, might suffer irreparable damage.
Impact on Security and International Status
The most common critique of Kvashnin's plan, especially outside
the executive branch of the government, is that such a substantial
denuclearization would deprive Russia of whatever role it still has
in the international system. This role is based, many claim,
primarily on its large nuclear arsenal, which should thus be kept
irrespective of threat analysis.
The absence of an immediate military threat from NATO or China
does not mean that no challenges exist at all; in fact, some
consider Kosovo a sufficient reason to keep an impressive nuclear
capability to rule out any overt or implied use of force by NATO.
Another concern is the future of the nuclear non-proliferation
regime. India and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons, the argument
goes, and the "nuclear club" might expand even further; under these
conditions it would be foolish to drastically reduce nuclear
An assessment of the Kvashnin plan should take into account the
potential for both positive and negative consequences. On the
positive side, the plan will to reverse the trend toward reliance
on nuclear weapons and will help to jump-start deep reductions of
nuclear weapons. There is obviously a real possibility that -
either in response to the Kvashnin plan, or through implementation
of the Bush plan - the United States will unilaterally reduce its
own strategic warheads, at least to the level currently foreseen by
Washington for START III (2,500), and maybe even lower. These
reductions will reduce the pressure from non-nuclear states over
the implementation of Article VI of the NPT, contributing to the
stability and sustainability of the non-proliferation regime.
One has to keep in mind, however, that regardless of possible
benefits, Putin may be reluctant to entertain even a return to the
1998 plans on the grounds of their incommensurability with Russia's
more recent concerns over US NMD. Some damage has been done
already, in fact, by the public discussion of these proposals, and
to restore credible opposition to NMD, Putin might find it
necessary to fire Kvashnin in order to at least maintain the
pretence that Russia might engage in an "asymmetric response" to an
American missile defence system. Indeed, the possibility of such an
outcome is greater than one might think. It has been a common view
of Russian commentators that Kvashnin's plan contains more than its
fair share of bureaucratic intrigue and personal enmity with the
Minister of Defence. A policy shift which is based on such flimsy
foundations cannot, by definition, be adequately stable.
Much as Kosovo brought about a turnaround in Russia's nuclear
policy, a similar future crisis might generate a new wave of
reliance on nuclear weapons, this time outside the constraints of
international agreements. An obvious candidate for such a crisis,
for example, would be the possible expansion of US NMD beyond its
currently envisaged parameters. If economic growth continues,
Russia will be in a better position to launch a new round of arms
modernization and deployment than it is today.
In sum, optimism about the possible reversal of Russia's nuclear
policy might be premature. Although the de-emphasis on nuclear
weapons is a positive and welcome development, the Kvashnin plan
appears to lack a stable foundation and, at least on the surface,
contradicts recent trends in foreign policy. It may well be more
prudent to implement such a transition at a more deliberate, even
if slower, pace, and within the context of international
Notes and References
1. "Ministerstvo oborony dorabotaet kompleks predlozhenii po
razvitiyu vooruzhennykh sil strany," Interfax, July 12, 2000;
Mikhail Timofeev, "Sopernichauyshchie klany v Minoborony ne
vyrabotali edinogo mneniya o putyakh voennogo stroitelstva. Predmet
razdora - raketnye voiska," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 13,
2000, p. 1; Vladimir Yermolin, "Mech nad yadernym shchitom,"
Izvestiya, July 13, 2000, p. 2; Ilya Bulavinov and Ivan
Safronov, "Poka otkladyvaetsya..." Kommersant-Daily, July
13, 2000 (electronic version).
2. Andrei Smirnov, "Bitva pri Bocharovom Ruchye,"
Segodnya, July 17, 2000 http://www.segodnia.ru; Vadim
Solovyov, "Skandal otlozhen," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18,
2000, p. 1; "V Sochi President RF vstretitsya s ministrom oborony,"
RBK News, July 16, 2000; "I. Sergeev i nachalnik Genshaba Anatoli
Kvashnin v srochnom poryadke vyleteli v Sochi," RBK News, July 16,
2000; "I. Sergeev: vozmozhnye varianty reformy RVSN svedeny k
minimumu," RBK News, July 17, 2000; Yevgeni Krutikov,
"Termoyadernaya voina," Izvestiya, July 18, 2000; Vadim
Solovyov, "Skandal otlozhen: glavnye bitvy po voennomy
reformiromaniyu vperedi," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18,
2000, p. 1.
3. "V. Manilov: v sovet bezopasnosti vneseny predlozheniya po
reforme Vooruzhennykh Sil," RBK News, July 27, 2000.
4. Nikolai Petrov, "Putin ne uspel pomirit' voenachalnikov v
srok," Kommersant-Daily, July 27, 2000 http://www.online.ru.
5. Alexei Petrov, "Net khuzhe bedy, chem dvoevlastie v armii,"
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 27, 2000, p. 3; Oleg Odnokolenko,
"Ne vynosi yadernyi musor iz izby," Segodnya, July 27, 2000
6. Vadim Solovyov, "President menyaet rukovodstvo Vooruzhennymi
Silami?" Nexavisimaya Gazeta, August 1, 2000, p. 1; Vadim
Solovyov, "Podkovernaya borba generaliteta vyryvaetsya naruzhu,"
Nezavisimoe Voennoe obozrenie, July 21, 2000 http://nvo.ng.ru); Viktor Baranets, "Duma
prosit Putina ne sorkashchat' rakety," Komsomolskaya Pravda,
July 22, 2000.
7. Petr Romashkin, "Nuzhny li Rossii raketnye voiska,"
commentary published on http://www.armscontrol.ru;
Alexander Golz, "General-terminator," Itogi, July 5, 2000 http://www.itogi.ru; Alexander
Shaburkin, "V vooruzhennykh silakh gryadet bolshoi peredel,"
Vremya MN, July 12, 2000 http://www.vrenyamn.ru; Vladimir
Temnyi, "Ministr oborony proigral," Vesti.Ru, July 12, 2000
Yermolin, "Zvezdnye voiny," Izvestiya, July 15, 2000; Sergei
Sokut, "Igra bez kozyrei," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 15,
2000, p. 6; Nikolai Petrov, "Nachalnik Genshtaba predlozhil
reformirovat' ministra oborony," Izvestiya, July 15, 2000
8. "Rossiiskii Genshtab planiruet usilit' gruppirovki voisk na
Yugo-Zapadnom i Tsentralno-Asiatskom strategicheskikh
napravleniyakh," Interfax, July 12, 2000; "Minoborony Rossii
dorabotaet kompleks predlozhenii po razvitiyu vooruzhennykh sil
strany," Interfax, July 12, 2000.
9. Pavel Felgengauer, "Gryznya v oboronnom vedomstve," Vremya
MN, July 18-24, 2000 http://vremyamn.ru; "Chechenskoe lobby
nachinaet operatsiuy to zakhvatu kabineta ministra oborony Rossii,"
APN.RU, July 13, 2000, http://www.apn.ru.
10. Vladimir Temnyi, "Generaly derutsya - Topolyz treshchat,"
Vesti.Ru, July 14, 2000 (http://www.vesti.ru; Vladimir Yermolin,
"Zvezdnye voiny," Izvestiya, July 15, 2000.
11. "Excerpts From Bush's Remarks on National Security and Arms
Policy," The New York Times, May 24, 2000.
12. Igor Korotchenko, "Pervyi shag voennoi reformy,"
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 25, 1997, p. 2; Oleg Odnokolenko,
"Ne vynosi Yadernyi musor iz izby," Segodnya, July 27, 2000
13. "Sovet Bezopasnosti RF reshil sokhranit trekhkomponentniy
sostav strategichesikh yadernykh sil," Interfax daily news bulletin
no. 4, 3 July 1998; "Russia to be major nuclear power in 3rd
millenium-official," ITAR-TASS, 3 July 1998; Ivan Safronov and Ilya
Bulavinov, "Boris Yeltsin podnyal yadernyy shchit,"
Kommersant-daily, 4 July 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, "Vpernye so vremeni miluykovskikh reform,"
Krasnaya Zvezda, August 18, 1998, p. 1,2.
14. 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.
15. Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Feeeratsii. Utverzhdena Ukazom
Prezidenta RF ot 21 aprelya 2000 g. No. 706.
16. Mikhail Timofeev, "Sorkashchenie RVSN ob'ektivno
neizbezhno," Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, July 28, 2000
17. Alexander Goltz, "Poslednii shans technokrata,"
Itogi, July 27, 2000 (http://www.itogi.ru.
18. Interview with the chief of the Peter the Great Military
Academy of the SRF, Col.-Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, Soverskaya
Rossiya, July 22, 2000 (http://www.rednews.ru; Petr Romashkin,
"Nuzhny li Rossii raketnye voiska," commentary published on http://www.armscontrol.ru;
Alexander Shaburkin, "V Vooruzhennykh Silakh gryadet bolshoi
peredel," Vremya MN, July 12, 2000 (http://www.vrenyamn.ru; Sergei Sokut,
"Snachala otrezat', potom otmerit'," Nezavisimoe Voennoe
Obozrenie, July 21, 2000 http://nvo.ng.ru).
19. Sergei Karaganov, "Antiyadernyi udar," Moscow News,
July 25-31, 2000 (http://www.mn.ru);
Sergei Rogov, "Nuzhno li Rossii odnostoronnee razoruzhenie," Vremya
MN, July 18, 2000 http://www.vremyamn.ru); Sergei Rogov,
"Strategicheskaya kapitulyatsiya," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 26,
2000, p. 1; Andrei Kokoshin, "Kakie konflikty I souyzy zhdut
Rossiuy vo vtorom yadernom veke?" Izvestiya, July 27, 2000 http://www.online.ru.
Dr. Nikolai Sokov is a Senior Research Associate at the
Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey,
© 2000 The Acronym Institute.
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