Recent Developments in Russia’s Nuclear Posture
Since 2008, the Russian government has undertaken an initiative to overhaul its conventional armed forces, with a target completion date of 2020. In addition, the Russian defence ministry has announced it will also recalibrate its nuclear deterrent to prevent other countries from gaining military superiority over Russia.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Chief of Staff General Valeriy Gerasimov have both said that Russia’s modernization of its nuclear forces are a top priority in the Russian military’s goal of not allowing the country to be overshadowed militarily by any other country. General Gerasimov has also stated that, despite the economic problems Russia is facing, the Russian Federation will acquire 50 new long-range nuclear missiles in 2015. Specifically, Russia’s current missile defence overhaul plan for 2015-2020 emphasizes the ability to penetrate enemy defense shields.
Despite this, nuclear policy seems to be given comparatively little weight in terms of spending priorities and within Russia’s new military doctrine. In late 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence published a revised military doctrine. The text only discusses nuclear armaments relatively briefly, simply stating that nuclear weapons will continue to play a role in preventing nuclear war as well as other conventional wars on a large-scale or regional level.
Some Russian officials and public intellectuals, such as former Russian Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin, have advocated the need for Russia to develop more effective non-nuclear deterrent capabilities, even though at present there is no possibility of them substituting for nuclear options.
Russian Nuclear Threat: The View from the West
Analysts are increasingly warning of a renewed Cold War in the broader context of the diplomatic standoff over Ukraine. The director of CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia program, Andrew Kutchins, states that “we are, in essence, at war”. Likewise, Clark Murdock of CSIS’s nuclear program, states that the US does not take seriously enough the potential of a Russian nuclear threat, and that the US should be wary of Russia’s increased nuclear modernization.
Western leaders have in reality been factoring this potential threat into their plans. In February NATO leaders will meet in Brussels to discuss the perceived threat posed by Russian strategic nuclear bombers (although France will not participate, instead holding separate discussions). The stated reason for this meeting is because of Russia’s recent activity using strategic bombers close to the maritime borders between Russia and NATO members, which had quadrupled in number over 2014 from the year before.
The revised Russian military doctrine from late 2014 repeats previous statements that NATO is the principal potential military threat. While of course a great deal of Russian wariness toward NATO stems from the Atlantic Alliance’s geographic position along Russia’s western borders, the presence of three nuclear powers -France, the UK and the US- within the alliance’s structure undoubtedly adds to the Russian feeling of vulnerability toward NATO, particularly in the nuclear realm.
The Effects of Sanctions on Russia’s Nuclear Financing
The pinch of economic sanctions laid by the West against Russia has harmed the economy, but has not yet prevented the Russian authorities ramping up defence spending. In fact, Russia’s Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, has announced that there will be across-the-board budget cuts of approximately 10% throughout the government budget, but that the military would remain a major exception. Russia has saved emergency financial reserves derived from previous windfall energy profits, which the government plans to open up in order to alleviate the economic and financial situation. The EU has raised the possibility of new sanctions against Russia, targeting Russia’s atomic industry, if Russia fails to meet the demands laid out by the Minsk accords.
Russia has had plans to increase its nuclear weapons spending for some time. The government announced in 2012 that from 2013-2015, spending on nuclear weapons would increase by 9.29 billion rubles, totaling 38.57 billion rubles (88 million;134 million). This, however, is still significantly small compared with nuclear spending in the UK and the US. The US is poised to spend more than one trillion dollars in nuclear weapons over the next 30 years, and has spent more on nuclear weapons in 2014 than at any other point in its history, including the Second World War and even the Cold War. Likewise, the UK spends 36 billion on its Trident program, and, according to The Guardian, that cost will rise to 100 billion over the next thirty years.
This increase, furthermore, is relatively small compared with the overall increase in Russian defence spending. In the autumn of 2014, the head of the State Duma’s defence committee, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, stated that Russia’s overall defence budget for 2015 would reach 3.3 trillion rubles (81 billion). This is, of course, if the Russian economy can withstand the effects of economic sanctions over the coming year.
Despite the Russian government’s resolve to increase military spending, there is widespread skepticism over the sustainability of such measures. One analyst from Société Générale, for example, does not believe that the emergency reserves that Russia has created from energy revenues, which amount to about 7.65 billion, will not make much of a difference. The Russian central Bank and Finance Ministry also possess reserves currently estimated at 400 billion, but these, according to Sberbank chief German Gref, will only last for a year or two.
According to research by the Swedish Defence Research Agency, issues in Russian economic development notwithstanding, Russia will allocate the majority of its 19-trillion-ruble funding for defence to conventional naval and aerospace sectors, while only five percent of the fund allocation will go to strategic nuclear forces, including the possibility of acquiring 400 land- and sea-based ICBMs and eight strategic missile submarine cruisers.
Therefore, while a healthy degree of caution and awareness is in order regarding the development of Russia’s nuclear capabilities in light of its broader military overhaul, the financial strains Russia is currently facing will likely impede Russia’s nuclear development even further. Therefore we must be aware of Russia’s intentions and capabilities, but at the same time must resist alarmism or an exaggeration of the Russian threat.
The views in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of BASIC.