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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

The "Denuclearization" of Russia's Defence Policy?
By Nikolai Sokov

Introduction: Debate in the Russian MOD Hints at Policy Reversal

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 Defence.6

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 Administration.

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 modernization.

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 reductions.

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 abandoned.16

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 defence budget.17

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 all.

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 weapons.19


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 agreements.

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 http://www.segodnia.ru).

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 http://www.vesti.ru; Vladimir 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 (http://www.online.ru.

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 (http://www.segodnia.ru.

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. No. 24).

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 (http://nvo.ng.ru.

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, California.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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