Russia’s Multi-vector Nuclear Policy: a Hindrance to Disarmament

Today, Russia and the US possess approximately 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, and bilateral nuclear relations between these two countries still constitute one of the main issues in global nuclear disarmament.

In spite of recent Russia-US agreements to reduce their respective nuclear stockpiles, however, Russia still maintains an active and robust nuclear policy, one that is now no longer solely dependent on the issue of balancing against the United States, but which must also take into account a number of nuclear states – both lesser, traditional nuclear threats such as China, France and the United Kingdom as well as newer potential threats such as Pakistan and North Korea. Russia’s nuclear strategy is encapsulated in an unpublished but widely-acknowledged document called “Foundations of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence” (Russian: Основы государственной политики в области ядерного сдерживания). The Russian Ministry of Defence acknowledges that all nuclear states have their own particular nuclear strategies, which account for their own respective national security needs as well as nuclear reduction and non-proliferation.

Lieutenant General Aleksandr Burutin, who served as First Deputy Director of the Russian General Staff until a staff reshuffling undertaken by Dmitri Medvedev, stated in 2010 that, “We and the Americans understand that we are entering the threshold of a time when it will be impossible not to take into account the capabilities of other members of the nuclear club, and this will be the basis of negotiations in the near future”. He insisted in his address before the Russian Parliament that Russia should consider not only the nuclear capabilities of the United States, but also those of China, France and the United Kingdom, and even cited the tendency by France to act independently of NATO structures.

According to Paul Bracken in his book The Second Nuclear Age, it was the previous emphasis on the bilateral nuclear capabilities of Russia and the United States that made it easier for the two parties to enter into the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks), and that had China, France or the UK been included in the discussions, it’s unlikely that these agreements would ever have been reached. The presence of a world in which Russia must handle a variety of nuclear threats currently presents a major detriment to the potential for further Russian disarmament.

A report by Russian think tank IMEMO states that while political-military relations between Russia and the US are the cornerstone of global nuclear negotiations, they can no longer exclude other countries. The report specifically cites France and the UK in the context of their individual statuses as nuclear states as well as within NATO, and cites China, North Korea, and Pakistan as being important factors in Russian nuclear negotiations (the latter two because of their potential for political instability). This situation stands in stark contrast to so many other cases of nuclear proliferation where nuclear weapons were sought to balance out one adversarial country (i.e. India and Pakistan) or a specific regional threat (as in the case of South Africa’s nuclear program under the governments of B.J. Vorster and P.W. Botha).

A single, well-placed strategic nuclear weapon can counter a number of threats from other nuclear states. Thus it’s not logical or rational that Russia should need to increase the actual number of warheads to deter multiple threats. Yet there may be psychological opposition to reducing warheads of Russia feel encircled by nuclear states (which harks back to Russia’s traditional feelings of vulnerability from outside forces because of Russia’s lack of natural geographical barriers, an issue that has plagued the country for centuries).

Russia’s nuclear concerns have been especially heightened by the controversial positioning of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe at the behest of the US. The initiative, originally conceived under US President George W. Bush, was transformed by President Barack Obama. The essential reason of Russia’s unease at the positioning of a large missile defence system so close to its borders, a system which is ostensibly supposed to deter and defend from an attack from a potentially nuclear Iran, is that while this system in and of itself does not present an immediate concern to Russia, what does cause the Russians discomfort is the notion that such a system could be upgraded at a later date. While the present system is geared toward an attack emanating from the Middle East, its adaptability and flexibility means it could later be upgraded to meet any threat from the Eurasia region. Russian opposition has only increased with NATO’s decision to integrate the Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) system with the American European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The Russian armed forces have, nonetheless, expressed a certain amount of flexibility and understanding regarding the NATO missile defense shield. In January, 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, who had been appointed by President Putin just two months earlier, stated:

“We are not intent on limiting NATO’s construction of a missile defense shield to defend against missile threats from the Middle East, but we do believe that the defense of NATO countries will be achieved by reducing Russia’s security. It is difficult to build trusting relations if our means of deterrence are [held] at gunpoint by NATO missile defense systems.”

NATO is certainly not the only potential nuclear threat Russia perceives, however. Russia has also highlighted a preoccupation with Chinese nuclear forces. In 2012, Retired General Viktor Yesin met with officials from the US Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon to warn that the United States had been underestimating China’s nuclear capabilities, and stated that China was positioning some of its nuclear weapons on its border with Russia. General Yesin asserted that this was not only a threat to Russia but also undermined the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He also added that the US would inevitably be drawn into the issue due to American obligations to protect allies in the Asia-Pacific region which fall under the US’s nuclear umbrella. The aforementioned IMEMO report also cites North Korea and Pakistan (both of which are not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, nor are recognized members of the major “nuclear five” states) as potential threats to Russia due to their instability, and states that these should be among Russia’s top priorities in the nuclear realm.

In response to the perceived threats to Russian security, Russia has begun revising its nuclear capabilities to meet a wider variety of security challenges. One example is Russia’s undertaking to outfit the Gazhdiyevo naval base (less than 100 kilometers from the Norwegian border) with eight Borei-class nuclear submarines, which will be divided equally among the Russian Atlantic and Arctic fleets. Russian nuclear submarines can carry between 120 and 200 nuclear warheads, depending on how many warheads each missile carries (between six and ten), which is still within the provisions of New START.

Thus, despite the recent progress in recent Russia-US nuclear talks, Russia’s nuclear forces are predicated on the need to deter a multitude of threats. Even with reduced numbers in the context of bilateral negotiations with the US, however, a Russian strategic warhead can be used to deter multiple nuclear security challenges. These threats no longer come exclusively from China, Europe or the US anymore, but also from other countries in South and East Asia as well. Russia looks set to continue its plans to upgrade and modernise their nuclear weapons, and will retain nuclear arms until global nuclear disarmament can be achieved in a multilateral manner.


These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC.

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