Time to Cut Tactical Nukes?


There have been more than a few hints that the Obama administration intends to pursue deeper nuclear arms cuts. A strategic review issued in early January reiterated the administration’s belief that U.S. deterrence requirements can be achieved with a smaller nuclear arsenal. Moreover, the United States and Russia recently started “strategic stability talks” that will involve a bilateral dialogue on further arms reductions, cyber security, Russia’s continued opposition to U.S. missile defense plans in Europe, and a range of other security issues.

The discussions may also cover tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). This category of nonstrategic nuclear armaments wasn’t addressed in the most recent U.S.-Russia arms control treaty – New START – for a few reasons. In part, the administration rushed to reach an agreement that would supplant the verification mechanisms found in the expiring START accord. The hastiness was justified on the basis of the need to sign a “bridge treaty” that would lead to a more comprehensive agreement in the near future. Arguably, the administration also wanted to demonstrate tangible progress toward President Obama’s “global zero” ambition and his effort to “reset” relations with Moscow.

Although the administration voiced readiness to negotiate TNWs cuts when it signed New START, and the Senate mandated such discussions as a precondition for ratification, tackling this class of nuclear weapons will prove far more challenging than previous rounds of strategic arms reductions.

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First, Russia has become increasingly reliant on its nuclear weapons because of the inferiority of its conventional forces. Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine states explicitly that the Kremlin reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts. Last November, the country’s top military commander, Nikolai Makarov, indicated that the“possibility of local armed conflicts along nearly the whole border [of Russia] has increased dramatically” and that he doesn’t “rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons.”

Similarly, the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – aMoscow-dominated military alliance of several former Soviet states – has said publicly that “Russia is ready to protect other participants” of the CSTO “with [the] application of nuclear weapons.” Most of the CSTO member states covered by Moscow’s potential nuclear umbrella are located in Central Asia, where Russia and China are jostling for supremacy.

Despite the Kremlin’s frequent praise for its “strategic partnership” with China, and its joint initiatives with Beijing in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Moscow is in reality quite worried about China’s rapid rise in economic, political and military power. Russia’s Far East has a dwindling population of 6.7 million compared with somewhere between 110 million and 130 million living across the border in China’s corresponding provinces. Many Russians xenophobically refer to this widening demographic imbalance and perceptions of greater Chinese immigration as the “yellow peril” threat.

Moreover, although the Kremlin welcomes and seeks to boost oil and natural gas sales to China, the military establishment is particularly concerned that Russia will become China’s “natural resource appendage.” Some Russians even believe that China’s remarkable economic expansion will create an insatiable need for oil and natural gas, which might cause China to forcefully annex regions of Siberia rich in commodities and – perhaps one day – dominated by Chinese immigrants.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote earlier this month that because of calls “for resources of global significance to be freed from the exclusive sovereignty of a single nation” Russia can’t “surrender [its] strategic deterrent capability” and must instead “strengthen it.” His concerns are most applicable to China because of its geographic proximity and hunger for natural resources.

Contrary to the Kremlin’s anti-NATO bluster, Russia believes that a limited conflict with China in the east is more probable than a clash with NATO in the west. Neither is likely. But if a limited conflict with China did break out, Moscow, to compensate for fewer troops and near conventional parity, seems prepared to employ its TNWs and risk escalation out of necessity. To be sure, the growth of the China threat – real or perceived – will only serve to increase Russia’s reliance on TNWs.

Second, TNWs are Russia’s sole area of nuclear superiority. The Kremlin will doubtless require a wide range of concessions from the United States and possibly other nuclear powers in exchange for cuts to its arsenal. Russian officials have already made clear that in order to start formal negotiations, the U.S. must first unilaterally withdraw its 200 remaining TNWs from Europe. By comparison, Russia is estimated to possess over 2,000 deployed TNWs in the broader region. Moscow has also suggested that it might demand a halt to NATO’s further expansion and limits on U.S. missile defense in Europe – which has, so far, been a nonstarter for U.S. administrations.

Some argue that the U.S. should accept Russia’s demand to remove its TNWs from Europe, which would eliminate Moscow’s excuse for not beginning formal negotiations. But even then – and ignoring Turkey’s opposition – the likelihood that Russia wouldn’t simply pocket this concession seems remote given Moscow’s past negotiating history. There’s little to no evidence that such a “good faith gesture” on the part of the U.S. would somehow move the Kremlin to take a more reasonable stance when it comes to its perceived security interests.

Third, there are also technical challenges to TNWs reductions. No precise definition exists for this category of nuclear weapons.Arms control experts often disagree about whether they should be identified by their range, yield, type of delivery vehicle, or other characteristics. A distinction would have to be made between tactical nuclear weapons and high-yield conventional weapons. Some of the latter – such as U.S. Prompt Global Strike – are being loaded onto long-range ballistic missiles. Russia has expressed its opposition to such systems, which adds another dimension of complexity to TNWs negotiations. Moreover, establishing an effective verification regime for TNWs would require significantly more intrusive and sustained efforts than anything ever tried in the past. It seems doubtful that Moscow would tolerate such prying “eyes” on its territory.

Finally, while the administration advertised New START as a “bridge treaty” that would lead to a more comprehensive arms control process, the accord may have ironically made TNWs cuts less likely. Unlike the United States, Russia had slashed its strategic nuclear weapons – which are more expensive to maintain than TNWs – for financial reasons and was already below the new ceilings for deployed strategic weapons and delivery vehicles when the treaty came into force. In New START, the U.S. agreed to unilaterally reduce its strategic nuclear arms to Russian levels and, therefore, wasted a crucial bargaining chip, which could have been used to compel the Kremlin to shrink its TNWs stockpiles. Now, the Kremlin may not have enough incentive to shrink its TNWs stockpile.

Daniel Vajdic is a researcher in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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