Russia Flexes Its Nuclear Muscles

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Two decades after the Cold War removed the Damocles’ sword of mutually-assured destruction in a sea of nuclear fire from over our heads, and, in the words of George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, “made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete”, the Russian decision to update, modernize and upgrade its nuclear forces is seen as a worrisome harbinger of a new era of strategic competition between Moscow and Washington. But Russian president Vladimir Putin is simply carrying out a 2012 election promise: “We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak. We will, under no circumstances, surrender our strategic deterrent capability. Indeed, we will strengthen it.” Russia has signed a series of arms-control treaties with the United States that place strict limits on both the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, but both Moscow and Washington contend that arms limitations accords do not prohibit the replacement of ageing devices and the modernization of systems.

Many Americans hoped, however, that over time Russia would allow its nuclear force to atrophy, and indeed, in the economic collapse that followed the implosion of the Soviet Union, a post-Soviet Russia appeared unable to maintain its nuclear establishment. Indeed, one of the rationales behind American aid to assist Russia in securing its stockpiles of weapons and to retain some semblance of its nuclear establishment (the Nunn-Lugar program) was the fear that a sudden collapse of Russia’s ability to wind down its Soviet nuclear inheritance would cause Russia to proliferate weapons, materials and personnel to other aspiring nuclear states. Since 1991, Russia has indeed destroyed large numbers of strategic nuclear (as well as chemical and biological) weapons as well as their delivery systems. However, even having accepted Cooperative Threat Reduction assistance for nearly twenty years to secure its arsenal and to destroy old weapons and obsolete systems, the Kremlin decided to embark on the next generation of weapons and delivery systems that will preserve a credible Russian nuclear deterrent for the 21st century. Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear policy, characterizes the Russian approach as striking a balance between “disarmament and modernization.” Indeed, the Russian government is moving beyond simple “life-extension” or technical modifications of older existing systems—the SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the SS-N-18 and SS-N-23 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in favor of developing new missiles, warheads and delivery systems. Lieutenant General Sergei Karakayev, the commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, has stressed that by 2021, nearly the entire Russian strategic nuclear force will have been modernized.

Last month, the Russian government unveiled spending plans that would double the amount allocated for the country’s strategic nuclear forces, to reach 46 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) by 2016. That announcement was followed by a “snap check” of the country’s nuclear deterrent, held at the end of October, in which both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles were fired and Russian air and missile defense systems were tested at the Kapustin Yar proving grounds. This nuclear exercise was designed to remind the United States (as well as other powers) that Russia is no paper tiger, at least when it comes to its deterrent capabilities.

If announced plans are executed in full, what would Russia’s nuclear force look like by the end of the decade?

Russia has been developing a new class of “boomers” (nuclear-powered submarines which carry ballistic missiles)—the so-called Borei-class (Project 955). The Yuri Dolgoruky, the first of this design, began its sea trials at the end of 2008, formally entered service at the beginning of this year, and will begin full-time patrols at the start of 2014. The second and third subs in this class, the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh, are currently in their testing phase. By the 2020s, Russia expects to have eight of these new subs in service and deployed.

Project 955 vessels are expected to carry the new SLBM RSM-56 Bulava (Mace), a new design with a series of countermeasures (including deploying decoys and being able to execute evasive maneuvers) and shielding capabilities that are all designed to defeat missile defense systems or mitigate the damage they might inflict. The Bulava is also designed to carry up to ten hypersonic warheads each capable of independent, individual guidance.

Russian bombers are being upgraded to carry a new, precision-strike, long-range (up to 6,000 miles) cruise missile in both a conventional (Kh-101) and nuclear (Kh-102) formats. It can strike targets at a further distance and carry a heavier warhead than its Kh-55 predecessor. This new system is important because the range, speed and maneuverability of the Kh-101/102 is meant to compensate for a lack of Russian forward-operating air bases and thus”cannot provide distant fighter escort for its bomber fleet.” Ten TU-160 “Blackjack” bombers are set to be modernized by 2020, to serve as interim substitutes until Russia’s next generation PAK-DA bomber is built.

Russia’s land-based ICBMs, some 80 percent of the force, is expected to consist by 2016 of new rockets that entered into service in the post-Soviet period—the Topol-M (SS-27) (deployed both in silos and in a rail-transported version) and the RS-24 Yars (SS-29), with a new version (the Yars-M/RS-26) available as of this year. By 2020, if all goes according to plan, Russia will deploy 170 Topol-Ms, 108 Yars, and 30 remaining life-extended SS-19s —numbers which reflect an optimistic appraisal of the capacity of the missile industry to produce sufficient quantities of both models. Russian ICBMs are also expected to be equipped with the “Vozzvaniye” (Proclamation) system, which would be expected to defeat missile-defense systems by allowing for post-launch retargeting of missiles to new locations.

Russia is also likely to retain most of its small, battlefield tactical nuclear weapons and the delivery systems for antiair, maritime and ground contingencies, with no significant cuts below an effective 2000 weapon threshold. The 2010 Military Doctrine modifies earlier versions by limiting the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts to situations where Russia has been directly acted on and its survival as a state is in the balance —as a means to offset superior conventional capabilities of a potential foe.

Nuclear weapons hold a special pride of place in Russia’s strategic conception of itself as a great power. It is only in the nuclear realm (and in the related field of space flight) that Russia retains parity with a United States which otherwise far surpasses Russia in all other categories of national power—in terms of economic output, global reach, number of allies, or ideological “soft power.” Russia’s possession, even after a series of arms treaties, of a still-sizeable nuclear arsenal is also what guarantees Russia its “special relationship” with the United States, and why no U.S. president can afford not to take a Russian president’s calls. It also remains a key tenet of Russian national-security doctrine to maintain a strategic balance with the United States and to rely on its nuclear forces to continue to deter adverse U.S. actions, especially since Russia no longer can match U.S. conventional forces. (This remains the underlying reason why U.S. efforts to move forward on missile defense, even, as U.S. officials constantly stress, such efforts are not directed at Russia are still seen as so threatening by Moscow—and why Russia continues to trumpet its new systems which it predicts can foil and defeat U.S. missile defense systems).

Strengthening Russia’s nuclear forces also has political cachet. It reinforces the national security credentials of the government by suggesting, as Putin did last year, that a failure to modernize the nuclear deterrent sends a dangerous signal of Russian weakness. At the same time, the Russian defense, missile and nuclear industries—still key players in the constellation of state companies—always benefit from new state infusions of cash. As Thomas Nichols has pointed out, important motivations for the Kremlin to pursue this agenda move beyond strategic imperatives to also keeping “the nuclear missile industry and the officers who run it employed and happy, and … to make the Russian public think that they’re being protected.”

But these last two objectives can be met without any guarantees that the funds spent will actually produce results. And here it is important to note important gaps between stated plans and executable outcomes. Reading the press releases of the Russian Ministry of Defense alone does not provide the entire story.

For one thing, the next generation systems have flaws. Nearly half of the tests of the Bulava missile—meant to be the signature piece of the new Borei-class boomers—have failed, with some experts questioning whether the other tests which were classed as “successes” are also masking problems. If the Bulava continues to have problems, then the modernized SS-N-23s (R-29RMU Sinevas) will have to stand in; these also had problems during their initial test runs in the early 2000s. There were delays in getting the 4th Borei sub (Knyaz Vladimir) started, due to disagreements over price between the government and the United Shipbuilding Company, which controls the Sevmash yards where the submarines are constructed. Indeed, disappointment over the company’s continued problems with completing civilian and military projects on schedule and cost was a key factor in the May 2013 dismissal of its CEO Andrei Dyachkov by deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry—only 11 months after his appointment. The Yars-M, which was expected to ready for service later this year, is delayed and will likely begin its tests only in 2014. In assessing some of the failures in procurement, Podvig has noted the “lack of proper quality control at various stages” of the manufacturing process as a key culprit; whether these issues can be effectively resolved in the next several years remains to be seen. Also left undecided is whether the ambitious spending program will be sustained, particularly as Russia’s economic growth slows and the Kremlin is forced to decide between additional “guns” or shifting more back into “butter.”

And in the grand scheme of things, will this Russian nuclear modernization—even if it is only partially and incompletely achieved—fundamentally change the global balance of power? Nichols argues that these developments do not change the pre-existing realities of the U.S.-Russia strategic relationship; even with older Soviet-legacy systems, Russia still retains the capacity to strike the U.S. homeland with hundreds of warheads, and given the reality that “the United States doesn’t actually have a national missile defense system” and that “the odds of creating one by 2020 are … exactly zero,” whether Russia chooses to replace its Typhoons and Deltas with Boreis, or has Yars-M missiles in place of the older SS-18s, doesn’t make much difference.

For an Obama administration that holds out the promise of a world without nuclear weapons, however, the Russian decision to renovate its nuclear posture creates real difficulties, especially when Russia is also resuming long-distance patrols and conducting exercises. (The Russian claim that these new efforts are in direct response to U.S. missile-defense efforts also creates political difficulties.) The United States is not comfortable with a unilateral approach to downsizing its nuclear stockpile; Washington prefers to do so in concert with Moscow also committed to reductions by a formal treaty. Moreover, if Moscow is committed to nuclear modernization, then it increases the pressure on the U.S. to match the Russian program. It also means that the United States cannot count on cost savings by assuming that a larger portion of Russia’s nuclear force would be retired due to age—and thus not replaced. Additionally, if U.S. strategists were calculating that they could sell a lower U.S. nuclear force on the grounds that most of Russia’s deterrent was concentrated in more vulnerable, fixed ICBMs sites—then having more mobile land missiles (since the prohibition on rail-mobile ICBMs was not carried over into the New START agreement) and a new class of more capable submarines changes those equations. Just as U.S. conventional assumptions—for instance, that the Caribbean since the end of the Cold War had become an American mare nostrum and thus U.S. assets and attention could be directed elsewhere—have been challenged by the resumption of even small-scale Russian air and naval deployments—so to the Russian push to upgrade its nuclear forces may push the administration to scuttle any plan for shifting the U.S. nuclear posture to the most minimal one needed for deterrence.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.


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