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Russia-USA Stalemate on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Joyce Sabina Lobo was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 17, 2011

    Russia and the United States “control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.”1 They have so far engaged bilaterally to reduce their long-range nuclear weapons to ensure that neither side is strategically disadvantaged even as they continue to maintain their deterrent capabilities. While the new START came into force on 5 February 2011, not much progress has been made on other aspects of the nuclear weapons reduction agenda, including tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs).

    The international nuclear scenario has become transformed since the end of the Cold War, with many more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. This, along with the danger of loose nukes falling into terrorist hands, or rogue states passing on the technology to terrorists, has become a cause of widespread concern.

    Even former hawks in the US establishment have joined in the call for reductions in, and eventual elimination of, nuclear weapons, underlining that the world is “on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era” even as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction has become obsolete in the post-Cold War era.2 From the Russian side, Mikhail Gorbachev has called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The importance of eliminating nuclear weapons was also emphasised by President Obama in his April 2009 Prague speech and in the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review. Today, global opinion is in favour of reductions and the eventual elimination of nuclear armaments. Hence, one of the next steps is to reduce non-strategic weapons or TNWs.

    Tactical Nuclear Weapons are primarily for battlefield use to achieve limited objectives. They include “nuclear warheads in the form of mines, artillery shells and warheads, mounted on short-range missiles, which are much smaller in size and are associated with higher risk of proliferation than strategic long-range weapons ....”3 Though their yield is generally lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons (SNWs), they are still powerful and some variable-yield warheads can, moreover, serve the purpose of strategic ones. SNWs are also easily deployable and camouflaged. The division between SNWs and TNWs is therefore not clear-cut. The Congressional Research Service Report hence calls “all weapons not covered by strategic arms control treaties as non-strategic nuclear weapons.”4

    Russia possesses many more TNWs than the US. Various unverifiable estimates give Russia between 2050 and 6000 TNWs, and the United States considerably less, out of which only 200 are estimated to be in Europe.5 During the New START ratification process, US Senators called on the Obama Administration to address reductions in, and the security of, Russian TNW stockpiles. But Russia has been reluctant to proceed on this front. One reason is because it “has revised its national security and military strategy several times in the past 20 years, with successive versions appearing to place a greater reliance on nuclear weapons.”6 Reiterating Russia’s position on TNWs, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued, at a press conference on 13 January 2011,7 in favour of a comprehensive approach by taking into account the totality of factors including the need to implement the new START Treaty. Russia also wants the United States to remove all its tactical nuclear weapons deployed on foreign soil.8 The United States has TNWs in six bases spread over five European states—Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. For its part, the United States is ready to agree to remove these weapons only when Russia acquiesces to reduce its stock.9

    Russia additionally wants other issues like the imbalance in conventional weapons, elimination of weapons in outer space, inclusion of other non-NPT and nuclear weapon states, and joint development with NATO of the Euro missile defence system (MDS) to be addressed. The United States and its NATO partners have not ratified the new CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty (adaptation agreement), thus transgressing the stipulated limit and retaining numerical superiority over Russia. Russia, for its part, has numerical superiority in tactical nuclear weapons. This is ostensibly one of the reasons why Russia has a provision in its 2010 Military Doctrine for resort to the use of nuclear weapons even in cases of conventional attack.10 Russia needs non-strategic weapons to secure not only its western but also its eastern borders. It is modernizing its non-strategic arms “located to the east, and would deploy with troops in a possible conflict with China.”11 So, not only is NATO expansion a Russian security concern but also a rising China.

    The stalemate between Russia and the United States on reducing tactical nuclear weapons has been further complicated by NATO plans to deploy ballistic missile defences in Europe. As noted earlier, Russia wants to develop the missile defence system (MDS) jointly with NATO, and not separately in the form of sharing information and combining sensors. It is threatening a new arms build-up because it considers the MDS as aimed at degrading its deterrent. The West’s refusal to develop MDS jointly is strengthening Russia’s resolve not to ‘re-locate’ its TNWs from its western borders, Kaliningrad and the Kola Peninsula. Rather, Russia wants NATO to move its military infrastructure away from its borders.

    The impasse over the Missile Defence System, the conventional forces treaty and NATO expansion, even as Russia is asserting itself over the former geopolitical space of the USSR, are complicating the process of nuclear talks reductions. As a result, the goal of nuclear disarmament looks like a distant mirage. Russia and the United States must find a middle ground to address these contentious issues in order to move forward on the agenda of reducing tactical nuclear weapons.