chapter  9
Pages 19

Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) remain a contentious issue in USRussian relations, in NATO-Russian relations, and in transatlantic and intraEuropean relations. This discord stems primarily from the significant imbalance in the number of weapons possessed by Russia and the United States; estimates suggest that there are 2,000 Russian TNWs while the United States has only 500-600. The imbalance in Europe is probably even more significant: although the precise numbers are unknown, it is commonly assumed that most of Russia’s stockpile of TNWs is deployed in the European part of the country, while the United States only has approximately 180 of these weapons in Europe, and the United Kingdom and France no longer have any of this category of nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia do not exchange data on the numbers and locations of their TNWs; as a result, the publicly available data that exist are unofficial expert estimates.1 The only international regime to which these weapons are subject is informal – the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), which Russia no longer recognizes as politically binding. The uncertainty surrounding TNWs stands in stark contrast to knowledge about strategic weapons, which are subject to the data exchange and verification provisions of the START treaties. The opportunity to conclude a treaty covering TNWs was missed in the autumn of 1991, when the Soviet response to President George H. W. Bush’s statement on TNWs contained a proposal to begin talks on a legally binding verifiable treaty, but that proposal was not accepted by Washington. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically; since at least the mid-1990s, the United States has favored negotiations on TNWs, but Russia now resists the idea. Over more than a decade, Russia’s main condition for starting negotiations on TNWs has been the withdrawal of the remaining US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. More generally, Russian officials complain that the West, and the United States in particular, is only willing to discuss its own agenda, which includes Russian TNWs, but refuses to discuss the Russian agenda, which includes, according to a statement by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the ratification of the New START Treaty in the Russian Duma, conventional strategic weapons, space-based weapons, missile defense and the imbalance in conventional forces.2 The implication is clear: Russia seeks a much broader

discussion than the West is currently prepared to accept. Essentially, Russia refuses to discuss TNWs as a separate issue. Western concerns about Russian TNWs stem to a large extent from classic logic: if Russia has a large number of TNWs and refuses to disclose information about its stockpile, then these weapons, it must be assumed, have a specific and well-defined place in its nuclear strategy. This logic follows from the commonsense assumption that nuclear posture reflects political and military decisions and is intended to support certain missions, whether defensive (i.e., deterrence) or offensive. A corollary of that assumption is the ability to derive, from the nuclear posture, political decisions and military strategy. A similar model, which assumes strict rationality in national security decisions, was used during the Cold War to analyze Soviet intentions. In real life, of course, nuclear postures, in addition to the bounded rationality of decision-making, can be spurious and can be affected by interest group politics, technological inertia, research and development failures, political and psychological idiosyncrasies and other factors. That was true for the Soviet Union3 and remains even truer for Russia, which for two decades has had to deal with a nuclear arsenal that was inherited from the Soviet Union (large-scale modernization of the nuclear posture is only beginning today). This chapter seeks to demonstrate that the existing Russian TNW posture does not reflect any conscious military or political decisions. Instead, it is a result of reductions implemented under the PNIs, the aging of warheads and delivery vehicles, inertia, bureaucratic politics, and unrelated international and domestic developments. The bulk of Russian TNWs do not have a discernible mission. Moreover, Russian resistance to any dialogue on TNWs is a result of domestic politics and the lack of a clear arms control position rather than a desire to protect a valuable asset. For the purposes of this chapter, the term “tactical nuclear weapons” denotes all nuclear weapons that were covered by the 1991 PNIs (which used the term “tactical”), i.e., those not subject to the START I or the INF Treaties.4 That is, this term includes not only short-range assets (“tactical” in the common sense of the word), but also weapons that should more properly be categorized as intermediate-range (such as long-range sea-launched cruise missiles – SLCMs – or medium bombers). The difference between short-and longer-range weapons is particularly pertinent for the analysis of Russian nuclear strategy, as will be noted below.