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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 25, April 1998

Disarmament Implications of Russia's Nuclear Weapons Uncertainties
by Yuri Pinchukov


The current stalemate in the US-Russia strategic arms limitation process - caused by the unwillingness of the Russian State Duma to ratify the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) II Treaty - is increasing the already dangerously high level of uncertainty surrounding Russian nuclear forces. This uncertainty, which has been present and growing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, reflects broader political uncertainty about Russian reform and stability. This has been all too evident in recent weeks. The prospect of START II ratification early in 1998 evaporated with President Yeltsin's dismissal of the government headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the subsequent bitter dispute between the President and the Duma over Yeltsin's nominee to succeed Chernomyrdin, Sergei Kiriyenko.

Although the Duma has now reluctantly accepted Kiriyenko, uncertainty and instability are likely to grow rather than recede - in the arms control area as in others - in the run up to the Parliamentary elections in 1999 and the 2000 Presidential election. Even if START II is now ratified in the not too distant future, the future of the US-Russia arms control agenda will still need to be considered in the light of ongoing political turmoil in Russia. A more thorough analysis of why the Duma has thus far refrained from START II ratification could shed light both on the future of that Treaty and the START process as a whole.

Reasons for Parliamentary Opposition to START II: The Broader Picture of Risk and Dissatisfaction

While the debates in the Duma over START II ratification have revealed a diverse range of opinions, there is one general explanation for the long delay over deciding the Treaty's fate. The Duma's reluctance can be traced not only to the predilection of its conservative majority to criticise Yeltsin's arms control policy: there are also less blameworthy concerns over the economic costs of treaty implementation. In a sense, it was these same concerns that also caused the long delay in ratification by the Duma of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), although the strategic context of the debate was slightly different (1).

The Duma's concerns over costs should be taken seriously - more seriously than might first appear. The budget costs of START II implementation represent just a tip of an iceberg of total budget obligations to be spent on strategic forces; START reductions, however, are just part of the broader strategic nuclear picture. To keep to the officially accepted doctrine of retaining nuclear parity with the United States, the Duma will have to authorize considerable funds required, and long awaited, by programs of strategic forces modernization and restructuring. These programs envisage Russia's transition to much lower nuclear levels, as well as the reduction of weapons production complex and the conversion of a part of the military research and development (R&D) base.

The proposed strategic nuclear arms downsizing will require extremely complex organizational and technical procedures for the dismantlement of hundreds of delivery vehicles and thousands of nuclear warheads, together with the disposal of large amounts of weapons materials and components, as well as the ecological restoration of areas formerly occupied by military installations. This task, vast as it is, is considered to be supplementary: the primary objective is that of providing operational support and maintenance to a residual nuclear arsenal. Though the Russian nuclear and security establishment feels much more prepared for a latter task, both are to be performed under unprecedently austere and severe budget limits. To achieve these objectives, the investment of huge additional resources will surely be necessary.

Despite the evident technical and organizational relationship between the task of START II implementation and the broader programs of Russian nuclear forces modernization, the arms control treaty introduces some important constraining elements into the strategic rearmament and weapons liquidation processes.

Complications begin in a program planning phase. To fulfill the defense requirements of the recently adopted national security doctrine, Russian strategic planners have to work out in detail, and to submit to the political leadership, thoroughly elaborated proposals on a new nuclear-based military posture. Taking into consideration the necessary military technology and defense production problems to be solved, any kind of nuclear arsenal restructuring could be achieved at best in a period of time of 10-15 years, assuming the decision-making and initial-planning phase had been fully completed.

Such planning and decision-making is enormously complicated by a combination of decreasing defense spending and necessarily speculative predictions about the prospects for Russia's economic growth. The chastening reality is that no long-term program can be planned with necessary correctness under such circumstances; no expert would try to determine the parameters of an optimal structure for the nuclear arsenal and the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons when the performance of the Russian economy is predictable - and then only vaguely - for at most the next few years. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect this kind of planning be made under conditions of great financial uncertainty; or to expect such plans to be adequately assessed and acted on by the government military institutions - institutions used to functioning in the completely different environment of the planned economy, when the defense sector used to receive as much of the country's finance, labor and material resources as it asked for.

The Duma's conservative majority is acutely aware of the problems of limited defense funds and the additional complications entailed in the linkage between START II's technological and budgetary dimensions and the broader programs designed to deliver the modernization of Russian nuclear forces. It is in this context that the price of START II ratification is perceived by the Duma as being too high, especially in relation to issues of time limits, verification, warheads and fissile materials accountability. In the face of these problems and uncertainties, the Duma has preferred to abstain from ratification; it clearly doesn't want to take responsibility for making such a momentous strategic decision when its impact on the even more fundamental national security issue of retaining nuclear weapons is so hard to gauge. At the same time, the government has proved incapable of presenting an accurate and reasonable assessment of how it sees the solution of the above-mentioned problem of providing enough budget resources to meet the ambitious requirements of the Russian nuclear doctrine and to maintain nuclear forces equal to those of the US (2), as well as continuing parallel nuclear reductions in accordance with the time schedule set out in START II.

To help deal with the evident difficulties and complications experienced by Russia in relation to the START process, and in order to continue to keep the strategic arms limitations under bilateral control, the US administration has accepted Russian initiatives for deeper reductions to be pursued in the framework of the proposed START III rearrangements as well as other additional supplementary agreements aimed at removal or increasing time limitations in the START II/START III process of strategic forces deactivation and elimination. Most importantly, in September 1997 the two sides agreed a protocol setting an end-date for START II implementation of 31 December 2007 rather than 1 January 2003 (although all weapons scheduled for elimination will have to be deactivated by the end of 2003) (3).

However, notwithstanding these adjustments, the margin of the Russian nuclear weapon uncertainty remains too high to make prognostications on what the best structure and size of the Russian nuclear arsenal should be in order for it to be capable of meeting Russia's national security needs while not placing a too-heavy burden on the Russian economy.

It seems that the political drawbacks related to the poor predictability of the Russian nuclear stockpile and posture have not escaped President Yeltsin's attention. Speaking in Stockholm in December 1997, Yeltsin made a spontaneous statement on Russian intentions to cut through the knot of unsolved nuclear arms control issues by means of a radical new approach: Russia, he said, was prepared to make deep unilateral cuts in its nuclear forces (4). This statement was immediately disavowed by members of his delegation, and excused on the grounds of the President's ill health.

Undoubtedly, unilateral nuclear disarmament measures had been the subject of certain inside discussions held within the Russian government on, say, whether Russia would have to amend its official nuclear doctrine, moving close, probably to adoption of a variant of the 'French Strategy' and to reduce its strategic arsenal to some 1,000 warheads in a first step. However, it was evident that, no matter how desirable some budgetary savings might be, such radical unilateral changes would be fraught with serious international and domestic political consequences. Many of the benefits brought by joint US-Russian nuclear disarmament efforts would be lost. Unilateral nuclear disarmament measures would also create considerable pressure within Russia.


The implications of Russia's nuclear uncertainty reach far beyond the area of strategic arms reductions. Just as economic instability complicates the issue of military and nuclear modernization, so Russia's continuing reliance on nuclear weapons complicates the overall course of political and economic reform. Nuclear weapons are useless in dealing with economic crises, but they can seriously frustrate efforts made for the recovery of the Russian economy. Despite all government efforts, Russia suffers from an extreme discrepancy between actual foreign direct investment and the high potential for absorbing foreign capital. Part of the problem of long-term foreign investment reluctance could be related to the enhanced risk of political instability in a country having nuclear weapons on its territory: when investing in a country, every investor also 'buys' all that country's economic and political problems and potential disasters. Powerful incentives will be required to help overcome this natural risk-aversion.

To meet the new challenges of nuclear weapon possession, Russia needs to update its nuclear weapon posture to better accord with both the changing international political environment and the global economical realities Russia is just beginning to learn.

Russia must find measures to deal with nuclear weapon uncertainty. As a primary move, the tasks of nuclear weapon liquidation and nuclear force modernization and restructuring should be separated from each other, and each provided with independent funding sources. Second, a new civilian governmental ministry - a Disarmament Agency - should be established and all programs of nuclear disarmament and weapons liquidation should be transferred under its auspices. The chief role of this Agency would be the collecting and accumulation of the funds needed for the many tasks of nuclear disarmament. Russia alone is unable to find enough finance to organize and to perform these tasks in the foreseeable future. If Russia is left alone in its efforts, many years may be needed before the problem of dealing with surplus nuclear arms and materials in a safe and verifiable manner will be solved. And during this time, the nuclear uncertainty factor would keep growing and keep damaging Russian international political and economic activities and prospects.

There is only one way to speed up this program - to find independent, reliable sources of financing. The process of nuclear weapon elimination would be considerably more predictable if it were supported not by the unstable Russian budget, but, for example, by international finance institutions providing back-up credit loans. Although commendable, the existing US financial assistance helping Russia in fulfilling its commitments to reduce the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union (the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program) is too small and too subject to domestic US considerations, as the US Congress alone gives the final authorization for the funding level of CTR projects.

Commercial approaches to the task of surplus weapon components and materials utilization are also possible - a good deal of valuable material released from dismantled weapons, like highly enriched uranium, could be used as a bank collateral to increase the debt capacity of the nuclear weapons liquidation program. And one could suggest other financial technologies to provide the program with sustainable funding, leading to much lower investment risks than can now be expected for other types of foreign investment in Russia.

Notes and references

  1. See the author's analysis of budgetary dimensions of chemical weapons disposal in 'Analysis of Russia's Program for the Liquidation of Chemical Weapons', Environment Policy Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Summer 1997.
  2. The conceptual foundation of political and military utility of nuclear weapons was laid down by President Yeltsin's national security message of June 13, 1996. According to its wording ' in the long run the Russian Federation should pursue nuclear deterrence policy, and Russia will pursue to maintain strategic military balance in order to prevent recurrence to military confrontation on a global scale, as well as to block new rounds of arms race'.
  3. Jack Mendelsohn, 'The Current and Future US-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda', Disarmament Diplomacy Issue No. 19 October 1997, pp. 7-11. On 13 April 1998, a protocol to the Treaty, setting out the changed arrangements and timelines for implementation agreed by the two sides, was forwarded to the Duma by President Yeltsin.
  4. Speaking on 2 December, Yeltsin stated: "I announce here for the first time that, unilaterally, we will reduce the quantity of our nuclear warheads by one third." The same day, Yeltsin's chief spokesperson, Sergei Yastrzhembsky stated: "The President is not suggesting a new reduction... [I]t does not mean that Russia will unilaterally cut nuclear arsenals at the expense of its national security. ... The issue is that if we sign START III, Russia might be ready to go in [for] a more radical reduction, naturally in the event of parallel efforts by our partners." See Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 21 (December 1997) p. 45.

    Dr. Yuri Pinchukov is Chairman of Moscow Non-Proliferation Association. He is the author of numerous books and articles of WMD non-proliferation, nuclear arms control and nuclear power and arms race economics.

    © 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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