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Nuclear Necessity in Putin's Russia

By Gottemoeller, Rose | Arms Control Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Necessity in Putin's Russia


Gottemoeller, Rose, Arms Control Today


During much of his first term, Putin and his military and foreign policy advisers struggled with what to make of the Cold War-sized nuclear arsenal they inherited.

What purpose do nuclear weapons serve in today's Russia? More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians still deploy more than 50 ,0 000 warheads on strategic nuclear-weapon systems. Additionally, they might deploy more than 30 ,0 000 nonstrategic warheads, and there are as many as 180 ,0 000 warheads either in reserve or in a queue awaiting dismantlement.1 This enormous capability is available to Kremlin leaders, but it is a very good question what they can do with it.

Clearly Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to see some political and diplomatic benefit to the weapons. It was no accident that in February-only one month before Putin successfully won re-election-the Russian military staged an all-out nuclear exercise that barkened back to the Cold War. Much of the short-term political payoff was lost, of course, when, with Putin in ceremonial attendance and cameras rolling, the navy twice failed to launch ballistic missiles from its strategic strike submarine. Still, the Russian president also announced plans for a new strategic weapon system, one that, from the evidence of media reports, involves maneuvering warheads that were first developed in response to President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense system in the 1980s.

By overseeing the exercise, Putin was able to look presidential, recalling the days of Soviet power for at least the portion of his electorate nostalgic for it. Also, he was able to say to the U.S. administration recently critical of him, "You cannot ignore Russia." Finally, he was able to highlight for the Russian armed forces that he was paying attention, celebrating their stature as a national institution. Even with the missteps, the exercise thus was a political boon to Putin-not that he needed it in his landslide election victory. Still, Russia's dilemmas about its nuclear arsenal extend well beyond the ramifications of these election-year events.

During much of his first term, Putin and his military and foreign policy advisers struggled with what to make of the Cold War-sized nuclear arsenal they inherited. Like Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, they pondered whether this arsenal could offer security benefits in a world where the Kremlin's most likely adversaries were no longer another nuclear weapons superpower, but terrorists and separatists. They tested whether Moscow could leverage these weapons to diplomatic advantage and "throw its nuclear weight around." They probed whether it was possible to redirect the resources of the nuclear arsenal to other purposes.

As Putin begins his second term, however, many of these questions appear to have been at least partially answered. A combination of military necessity and domestic political benefits have combined with the demise of certain constraints, specifically START II, to convince Putin and his top aides that Russia should continue to depend on nuclear weapons. In fact, the Kremlin has drawn this conclusion even though Russian officials implicitly acknowledge such weaponry will do little to counter the main threats to their security.

To illustrate this point: the recent exercise mimicked one last seen in 1982, when the Soviet Union was at the height of its efforts to achieve nuclear war-fighting prowess and bolster its deterrent against the United States. Russia's official comment, however, placed the 2004 exercise in a context quite different from Cold War deterrence. According to official sources, the exercises were planned to counter the threat of terrorism.2

Given the massive display of nuclear capability and the evident focus on the United States, this explanation at best seemed farfetched: would the United States somehow be involved in a terrorist attack and have to be punished for pursuing that course?

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