Russia's Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

By Kipp, Jacob W. | Military Review, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Russia's Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons


Kipp, Jacob W., Military Review


Russian discussions have connected redeployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to NATO enlargement However, in 1999 military discussion of these weapons concerned their potential role in theater warfighting as a counterweight to Russia's declining conventional capabilities.

A DECADE AGO it seemed that nonstrategic nuclear weapons were losing their place in superpower arsenals. In fall 1991, the Bush administration announced a series of unilateral moves to reduce, redeploy and abolish certain nonstrategic nuclear weapon systems. A week later Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev pledged that the Soviet Union, in the chaos preceding collapse, would dismantle all atomic land mines by 1998, all nuclear artillery shells by 2000, half of all surface-to-air missile warheads by 1996, half of all tactical naval warheads by 1995 (with the other half stored ashore) and half of the bombs of the nonstrategic air forces by 1996.1 In January 1992 President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation announced that Gorbachev's initiatives would apply to Russia. Because nonstrategic nuclear weapons were widely deployed among the successor states, bringing them under Russian control proved a challenge.2 In 1997 one scholar commented that eliminating nonstrategic nuclear weapons seemed like the logical next step but warned that, in the face of NATO expansion, senior Russian military and political leaders were contemplating reversing the 1991 initiative.'

While US-funded programs brought many nuclear weapons into secure storage facilities, two questions arose regarding Russia's unilateral initiatives. The first concern was weapons security and unauthorized transfers to third parties.4 The second concern was Russian military plans for the other half of its surface-to-air missile warheads, tactical naval warheads and bombs.5 The emerging answer relates to Russian threat perceptions, national security policy and military doctrine. It also invokes a larger geostrategic issue: was the postCold War era of proclaimed strategic partnership ending and a new, interwar era in Russia's relations with the West beginning, in which preventing war gave way to preparing for war?

The NATO air campaign over Yugoslavia sharply deteriorated US-Russian relations. The Russian debate over nonstrategic nuclear weapons shifted from the adequacy of the existing unilateral regimes and prospects for some arms-control and confidencebuilding measures to the utility of such weapons for theater warfare and conflict management. By early January 2001 the Russian military reportedly had moved tactical nuclear weapons into the Kaliningrad area.6 These reports brought a rapid denial from the Russian military.7 Nikolai Sokov considered such a deployment unlikely unless triggered by a second round of NATO enlargement. Sokov further proposed new negotiations to transform the unilateral regimes into an arms-control agreement.8 Sokov correctly states that Russian discussions have connected redeployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to NATO enlargement. However, in 1999 military discussion of these weapons concerned their potential role in theater warfighting as a counterweight to Russia's declining conventional capabilities. Much of that discussion assumes that the United States and NATO represent the probable or eventual enemy. This article addresses the doctrinal debate that has emerged over nonstrategic nuclear weapons' role in theater war and their utility in deescalating such conflicts.9

Strategic Nuclear Forces, Kosovo and Theater Deterrence

In May 1997 Yeltsin fired retired General Igor Rodionov as Minister of Defense. Rodionov had spent a year fighting with civilian leaders over the proper course of military reform. Pressured to confine reform to the armed forces and focus on personnel reductions, Rodionov warned that NATO expansion could cause Russia to increase a nonstrategic nuclear threat on its western frontiers. "We might objectively face the task of increasing tactical nuclear weapons at our border. …

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