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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 50, September 2000

A New Old Direction in Russia's Nuclear Policy

By Nikolai Sokov


An increasingly public conflict between Chief of the General Staff Anatoli Kvashnin and Minister of Defence Igor Sergeyev over the future of Russia's nuclear forces, which rocked the Russian military establishment during the first two months of the summer (see "The 'Denuclearization' of Russia's Defence Policy?" in Disarmament Diplomacy No. 48, July 2000), ended in an anticlimactic meeting of the Security Council on August 11. The meeting adopted certain innovations which, while falling far short of what Kvashnin proposed, did not merely uphold the status-quo, the goal of Sergeyev. In this sense, neither "won" in this conflict. President Vladimir Putin thus once again demonstrated his preference for compromise and moderation over conflict and "quick fixes".

There will be no accelerated elimination of land-based strategic missiles (ICBMs), which will instead be removed only as their warranty expires: thus, reductions will be completed by 2006. This is commonly classified as a victory for Sergeyev. Russia will eventually have 1,500 warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, whereas Kvashnin proposed strategic forces consisting of 1,200 warheads, with a vast predominance for the Navy and the Air Force. The Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) will consist of ten divisions instead of just the two foreseen by Kvashnin. On the other hand, the SRF will be eventually downgraded from a "vid" status (a full-scale independent branch of the Armed Forces, on par with, for example, the US Air Force) to a "rod" (an independent branch with a lower status, equal approximately to the US Marine Corps), which can be seen as a partial victory for Kvashnin. Military-Space and Missile-Space Defence forces, which were folded into the SRF in 1997-98, will again become independent (with a status of "rod"), representing another partial victory for Kvashnin, whose original proposals provided for their inclusion in the Air Force (a course of action which information leaked from the meeting at first suggested, erroneously, had been agreed on).

In early September, Sergeyev, almost in passing, disclosed that the Armed Forces as a whole would be significantly reduced: Ground Forces by 180,000, the Navy by 50,000, the Air Force by 40,000, the SRF by 80,000. These reductions are intended to be implemented in a very short time - between 2001 and 2003. Given the monetary price of reductions, however, the process will most likely take longer than that.

Many contend that following the public debate and the Security Council meeting, Sergeyev's days at the helm of the military establishment are numbered. It now appears almost equally possible that Kvashnin will have to go as well; many, at least, many would consider such an outcome "fair game". An even more important personnel change appears in the offing: a decision to functionally separate the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff and to appoint Russia's first civilian Minister of Defence.

Probably the most important development, however, which remained secret for several weeks after the August 11 meeting, was the decision to develop a more comprehensive and elaborate plan of military reform. It became known that the Security Council had set a date of September 23 to meet and discuss the outlines of such a programme. This meeting did not, however, take place. Instead, on September 27, members of the Council assembled for a "working conference" where Putin announced that discussion of the military reform would be postponed until November because the relevant agencies could not reach a consensus. According to the President, the strongest opposition came from eleven agencies other than the Ministry of Defence which have armed units and are reluctant to lose status. It seems likely that the Sergeyev-Kvashnin conflict was not even on the agenda, especially as Sergeyev was absent on vacation.

Doctrinal Fluctuations

In only a year and a half, Russian nuclear doctrine has completed an evolutionary circle, returning to the ideas which were adopted in the summer of 1998 in a series of Security Council decisions and Presidential decrees. Then, the nuclear arsenal was supposed to begin a lengthy process of slow decline as warranty periods of missiles and submarines expired. The projected replacement rate was low, making the overall arsenal considerably smaller even as its quality (measured, in particular, in the ability to penetrate defence systems) was scheduled to somewhat increase.

In the spring of 1999 the combined impact of NATO's Kosovo operation and the American push to deploy a national missile defence resulted in a sharp increase in reliance on nuclear weapons. The war in Kosovo sharply increased the perception of a potential threat emanating from NATO which could not be deterred by conventional weapons alone. The still-lingering concern over NATO expansion in 1997 made this perception particularly acute: since the summer of 1999 the Russian army has regularly trained to defend against a large scale, "Kosovo-style" air-attack. For its part, NMD can, theoretically, render the Russian nuclear deterrent impotent in ten or so years, making the country more vulnerable to conventional attack.

With the outcome of the August 11 Security Council meeting, we see the outlines of a return to the more balanced view of nuclear weapons espoused in 1998. The obvious question is whether similar twists and turns are possible in the future. To answer this issue, one has to understand that Western estimates of Russia's reliance on nuclear weapons have been curiously unidimensional. Undoubtedly, such reliance is dangerous, while security threats that merit such a posture are either absent or highly unlikely. But the role of nuclear weapons in Russian national security policy is broader than that. In a way, the presence of the ultimate security guarantee makes political reforms and reductions in both armed forces and defence budget possible, alleviating pressure from conservative, nationalist, or simply alarmist groups. For this reason alone, nuclear weapons will continue to occupy a visible place in Russian security policy.

Reliance on nuclear weapons was also rational in a purely economic sense. Throughout the 1990s Russia could retain a large arsenal "on the cheap" by simply extending the service life of ICBMs and submarines (warranty periods of heavy bombers will only expire in the second decade of the 21st century). Today, Russia finally faces a choice between a large investment in nuclear weapons and a significant reduction of the arsenal. In this context, the intensity of the debate about priorities is hardly surprising.

This is not to say that the role of nuclear weapons might not increase again. For example, a new round of NATO enlargement could stimulate a renewed sense of threat from the West. Or another war in the Balkans (for example, over Montenegro) could have the same effect, as might the presence of NATO troops in the territory of the former Soviet Union in any capacity (peacekeepers in Georgia?). Given this backdrop of uncertainty and suspicion, a slow pace of denuclearization can actually be a prudent choice to the extent that it will prevent sharp reallocation of limited funds back and forth between conventional and nuclear weapons.

A final point about the future of Russia's nuclear doctrine is that the traditional starting point of any debate - the possible mission of nuclear weapons - can only confuse the picture. The range of future threats cannot be reliably determined and their assessment fluctuates as domestic and external inputs change. Today, the war in Chechnya seems to epitomize the wars of the future, and so Kvashnin wanted to redesign the armed forces to fit this particular type of conflict. If Russia fights a more traditional and larger-scale war in, for example, Central Asia against the feared incursion of Taliban forces from Afghanistan, a Chechnya-type force might prove inadequate. The relationship with China is friendly at the moment, but who can predict what will happen ten or twenty years ahead?

In other words, the very indeterminacy of future threats pushes the Russian military toward emphasising a multipurpose army capable of facing any potential or even imaginable threats. The budget, on the other hand, cannot support such sweeping ambition. It seems much more reasonable to reshape the armed forces proceeding from the criterion of solvency rather than mission. President Putin, incidentally, stressed precisely this criterion at the September 27 "working conference" of the Security Council, emphasising that "cosmetic measures" would not be accepted. From this standpoint, nuclear weapons are seen as an inalienable part of an affordable defence capability because they can address a range of "high-end" threats (i.e., threats from vastly superior countries and alliances, such as NATO or China). For this reason alone, it is only sensible to expect that forthcoming meetings of the Security Council will hardly degrade the role of nuclear weapons further: moderation is one thing, denuclearization quite another.

An Assessment of the August 11 Plan

There is obvious, and generally accepted, merit in reducing the status of the SRF to a "rod", i.e., a less prominent but still independent branch of the armed forces. After all, the plan is now to reduce the number of ICBMs (to a level similar to that envisaged in 1998). Also, a reduction of the ICBM force will eliminate the need for a separate chain of command at the army level, allowing for the subordination of divisions directly to the Main Staff of the SRF, while elimination of a redundant administrative level also makes sense as a money-saving option. The number of divisions will be reduced, but it cannot be reduced to two, as Kvashnin proposed: concentration of ICBMs in only two deployment areas can unacceptably reduce survivability of the force. Ten divisions makes much more sense from this point of view.

Opinions differ as to whether the reinstitution of the Space and Space Defence Forces as independent branches makes sense operationally. Separating them from the SRF less then three years after amalgamation might be too wasteful, and thus debate on this particular aspect of the military reform will probably continue. In any event, they could hardly become part of the Air Force as the early rumours concerning the August 11 meeting suggested. The missions of the Space and Space Defence Forces are so different from the missions of the Air Force that the early-warning system would have suffered from such an amalgamation, with an associated dangerous degradation of strategic stability. This element alone demonstrates that aspects of the original proposals of Kvashnin were rather poorly thought through.

The future of the sea and air legs of the triad will hardly be affected by this year's "grand debate" because the Kvashnin proposal did not substantially differ from the earlier, 1998-vintage plans. In fact, the Kursk accident will probably have only one discernible effect: lending indirect support to the SRF without seriously undermining the Navy. After all, as one high-placed military official in Moscow remarked, "ICBMs do not sink" - or, reformulated in terms less offensive to the Navy, ICBMs do not require as expensive and extensive support infrastructure.

The Air Force will continue to play a very substantial role in the nuclear arsenal, but most likely at the theater rather than strategic level. Its aircraft are versatile, being able to use both conventional and nuclear short-range missiles and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Even more important, even in a nuclear role they can be employed for substrategic missions, in line with the latest Military Doctrine, unlike the SRF and the Navy. To be capable of similar missions, the latter has to be equipped with tactical nuclear weapons in contravention to the 1991 unilateral statement of Mikhail Gorbachev, confirmed in January 1992 by Boris Yeltsin.

Such optimisation can have less expected and even unwelcome consequences, however. START I and II contain a number of provisions which severely limit Russia's flexibility. For example, START I prohibits deployment of ALCMs on medium-range bombers, while START II demands elimination or irreversible conversion of silos of MIRVed ICBMs. US proposals for START III do not alleviate these constraints, while arguing for even greater flexibility for the US nuclear forces. Combined with American insistence on amendments to the ABM Treaty, these proposals are likely to stimulate the already strong desire on the part of some Russian military leaders to completely withdraw from arms control treaties. Savings could then help preserve a greater number of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles in a dual-role (recently, a number of Russian experts even suggested that ICBMs with conventional warheads could be useful for strikes against Chechen training camps in Afghanistan).

Sergeyev's earlier ideas about creating a single Strategic Deterrence Force now seem buried forever. It is difficult to say what motivated the initiative which turned the Navy and the Air Force against him and, in the final analysis, made Kvashnin's recent attack politically feasible. It is conceivable that, sensing the forthcoming reduction of the number of ICBMs would generate doubts about the wisdom of retaining the SRF as a branch ("vid") of the Armed Forces (after all, the three-branch structure of the armed forces was decided in the summer of 1998), he wanted to preserve the SRF by giving it additional missions: a common and often efficient bureaucratic trick, but in this case one which went badly awry.


The roots of the 1998, and now again the present, policy can be traced to the early 1990s when Sergeyev was appointed Chief of the SRF. This appointment resulted from a rather unusual procedure which apparently has not been repeated since: a joint Executive-Parliamentary commission interviewed several candidates to the position and selected Sergeyev. The central argument in his favour was his insistence that in the event of US NMD deployment, Russia should continue to reduce the nuclear arsenal and respond by improving the quality of its strategic forces. Other candidates, according to a member of that commission, advocated withdrawal from START I and the then still-unratified START II, and a sharp increase in the number of deliverable warheads - a standard Soviet approach to similar situations. Sergeyev emphasized quality over quantity and was disinclined to overestimate the potential American threat - and won the day.

Seen from this perspective, the evolution of the Russian approach to nuclear weapons was consistent throughout 1992-98, while 1999 represents a partial aberration. The return to the basic idea of a relatively slow transfer of emphasis from nuclear to conventional forces appears reasonably prudent from a Russian point of view. It is economically rational because sharp turns are always expensive. It also allows for the postponement of major decisions: as the nuclear arsenal gradually contracts, Russia can adjust choices if the external situation changes or can continue the present policy if its relationship with more powerful neighbours (NATO and China) continues to improve. Even more importantly, the economic situation might improve and alleviate financial constraints.

If recent speculation about a decision by Putin to create a distinction between the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff and to appoint a civilian as Minister of Defence prove true, a further reassessment of the role of nuclear weapons is possible. Defence policy might become more financially solvent and streamlined. On the other hand, events outside Russia might reignite "nuclear passions" if only because reliance on nuclear weapons is an easily available and psychologically comfortable "knee-jerk" reaction to international crises. Future fluctuations in doctrine, however, might be more dangerous henceforth: unlike 1999/2000, future increases in reliance on nuclear weapons will require allocation of resources and will thus be less reversible. This year's adjustment could be implemented by a political decision. Similar adjustments will involve money, first to build more nuclear weapons or develop new ones, then to reduce production or close down R&D programs. Western caution and prudence in relations with Moscow, coupled with sensitivity to the potentially destabilising impact of policies such as NATO expansion and power-projection, would make an important contribution to the stable, moderate evolution of Russian nuclear doctrine and posture.

Dr. Nikolai Sokov is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.