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Russia as a Nuclear Power in the Eurasian Context

Jacob W. Kipp

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This chapter assesses Russia’s posture as a major nuclear weapons state and examines the role of Russian nuclear forces within the complex security environment of Eurasia.

Main Argument

Russia does not believe that nuclear war is imminent and sees areas for cooperation with the U.S. and other powers to reduce proliferation. Russia has maintained nuclear parity with the U.S. through the modernization of its nuclear forces and the negotiation of strategic arms control agreements. In the absence of large conventional forces, the government has adopted a doctrine of nuclear “first use” and conducted exercises simulating first use in the case of conventional attacks on Russia and its allies. Russian experts are concerned about instability in a number of regions judged vital to Russian interests, especially if open conflict were to provoke U.S. and NATO out-of area interventions that lack the approval of the UN Security Council. The U.S. development of a global ballistic missile defense system and “prompt global strike” conventional systems raises fears in Moscow that such capabilities could undermine the deterrence potential of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Policy Implications

  • The Russian elite will not embrace “global zero” as a means to sustain strategic stability in an emerging multipolar world order.
  • Instability in Eurasia and NATO out-of-area operations has demonstrated the potential for local wars to become regional conflicts with risks of further escalation, leaving Russia with limited nuclear options to address threats to its vital interests.
  • While Russia had hoped to develop new systems of non-nuclear or pre nuclear deterrence for the emerging era of “no contact” warfare, the recent announcement of the failure of military reforms raises the prospect that it will continue to rely on nuclear deterrence.

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Speaking on Sino-Russian relations in 2003, Evgeny Sergeev remarked that “sometimes it is safer to hold on to the tiger’s tail than to let go.” This comment also seems to fit Russia’s approach to nuclear weapons in the post–Cold War world. Once a country has grabbed hold of the “nuclear tiger,” it may prove hard to let go. In spite of all the reductions in the size of its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, via bilateral arms control agreements and unilateral declarations of intent, Russia still views nuclear deterrence as the key factor in strategic stability and the core of its national security. This is more than a matter of inertia, and has its roots in the highly unstable Eurasian security environment in which Russia has operated over the last two decades. The Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East have seen ethnic and religious strife turn into civil wars and then lead to foreign intervention. While for a long time many in the West saw these events as part of a natural advance of democratic institutions and only later as a clash of civilizations, Russia’s elite has seen in these conflicts challenges to the existing order and threats to the stability of Russia itself.

From the vantage point of 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a difficult time adjusting to its domestic transformation from a command to a market economy and defining its international position. With the end of the Soviet Union, the concept of a bipolar world vanished. Russia found itself a weaker international player seeking to define its place in Eurasia and now more vulnerable to internal and external instability on its periphery. A hard decade of economic crisis and decline gave way to a period of recovery under the mantle of a strong, centralized state, which began to claim a special place in Eurasia. One legacy of the Soviet Union that Russia inherited was its arsenal of nuclear weapons. This alone could not make Russia a superpower, but it did provide a measure of strategic stability while Russia sought to ensure internal stability and define its new place in Eurasia.

Russia inherited the Soviet arsenal at a time when the prospects of general nuclear war had sharply declined from the previous decade. Soviet leadership had invested heavily in the country’s nuclear arsenal in order to achieve parity with the United States and deter potential attacks. [1] The United States’ anticipated deployment of highly mobile nuclear missiles to Europe, its covert aid to the Afghan resistance, and President Ronald Reagan’s intense rhetoric led the KGB to search for key indicators of the impending nuclear first strike. [2]

What made this period of the late Cold War so dangerous was that technological innovations in nuclear command and control had increased the risk of a nuclear crisis. On the U.S. side, targeting the Soviet leadership was a top priority in the operation plan for conducting nuclear war. At the same time, the Soviet military-political leadership had developed its own solution to ensure an effective counterstrike in case of decapitation. This initiative, known as Perimetr or “Dead Hand,” provided for launch authorization if the military and political leadership could not act following a nuclear attack. The algorithms did not exclude human action but placed it directly in the hands of those in missile silos and aboard nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) on the assumption that no national chain of command would still be functioning. [3]

Ultimately, the interactions between the second Reagan administration and the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev never resolved the issue of missile defense. Yet they did set in motion the demilitarization of Central Europe…


Endnotes

[1] Parity in this case was achieved by expanding the number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. There were asymmetric aspects of each power’s nuclear arsenal, but the size of both arsenals assured that neither side could achieve a disarming first strike and thus would face the prospect of a retaliatory attack capable of ensuring mutual destruction. The estimated size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in 1986 was about 45,000 weapons.

[2]Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 383–85.

[3] Nicholas Thompson, “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine,” Wired, September 21, 2009; Valerii Iarynich, “Bez prava verit” [Without the Right to Believe], Otechestvennye zapiski, no. 2 (2003), http://magazines.russ.ru/oz/2003/2/iaryn.html; and “Sistema garantirovannogo otvetnogo iadernogo udara ‘Perimetr’ ” [System of Guaranteed Retaliatory Nuclear Strike “Perimeter”], Masterok, web log, December 5, 2012, http://masterok.livejournal.com/501495.html.

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