Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nuclear Strategy in Russia’s Defense Schema

The following is a guest blog post by Anthony Rinna. Anthony is a graduate student at La Salle University and a research intern on the Security Affairs team with the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program based in Philadelphia, PA.

Yale University management professor Paul Bracken warned of an impending “second nuclear age” in an eponymously named book published in late 2012. At the forefront of this age is the apparent drive by rogue states to obtain a nuclear weapon, though we shouldn't overlook the nuclear moves made by other countries, most notably Russia. Indeed, Russia is once again placing a strong emphasis on its nuclear capabilities, despite efforts by the U.S. to see a reduction in Russia’s nuclear stockpile (as well as its own). While media attention toward Russia in the West largely tends to focus on energy geopolitics, corporate espionage, and laws on the foreign funding of NGO’s and the adoption of Russian children by American parents (some even speak of a New Cold War with Russia), there has been a considerable lack of attention in the media and policy circles to Russia’s overall nuclear strategy.

It’s no secret in the policy community, and particularly among Russia watchers, that Russia’s primary foreign policy goal is to gain the respect of the international community and to be seen as a major player on the global stage. Russia’s conventional military forces have faced many challenges, such as a decline in available conscript-aged males, which is part of an overall trend of population decline across the country. While militaries in the West are moving away from conventional infantry to lighter, more mobile forces capable of conducting surgical operations in hostile environments, and much of the global defense realm continues to develop cyber warfare and security, Russia’s calling card seems to be its nuclear arsenal.

It’s logical that the Russians would place so much emphasis on its nuclear capabilities, seeing as this is what given it respect in the world arena since the fall of the USSR. (Sure, Russia has been included in the BRICS group of emerging powers, but this, as with its inclusion in the G8, is somewhat misleading, as Russia’s economic viability rests largely on its vast reserves of oil and natural gas.) Rather, it has been Russia’s possession of a large nuclear arsenal that has accorded it respect in the international community, and as such, there is no sense in pumping money into conventional forces lacking in warm bodies. While the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal has long been in doubt, it seems that Russia is sparing no expense at updating and maintaining this powerful tool.

Despite Russia’s participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START for short, according to Voennoe Obozreniye, (English: Military Review), Russia’s military news service, Russia’s defense budget spending on the “nuclear-armaments complex” (Russian: «ядерно-оружейный комплекс») has been allotted to increase by 11.5 billion rubles between 2010 and 2013, which, at the time of writing, converts to about USD 378 million. When compared with the lower spending increases and even spending cuts in other areas of Russia’s national defense budget, this is a rather significant indicator of where Russia’s defense priorities lie. Russia’s defense budget in general has been projected to increase by 25.8%, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, between 2013 and 2015. And given that, for the previous three fiscal years, no other area of Russia’s defense spending has seen anywhere near as significant an increase, it stands to reason that a large portion of this increase in the defense budget will continue to service the “nuclear-armaments complex”.

It should of course be remembered that the “nuclear-armaments complex” implies much more than simply an increase in warheads, as the money allotted to this “complex” must cover logistics, maintenance, asset protection and wage garnishment, among other things. Thus, while not implying an illegal increase in warheads, it does show a more decisive shift toward emphasizing nuclear capabilities.

With this caveat, it is important to understand the specific stipulations of the New START, namely, that the number of strategic nuclear launchers will be reduced by half, and that the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed should not exceed 1,550, with the understanding that this number could be legitimately exceeded, as only one warhead per bomber is counted regardless of how many it actually carries (Russia has, according to The Economist, already reduced its stockpiles below the requisite amount). Inspections by both sides will be made annually to ensure that both parties are in compliance with the treaty.

The point here is that Russia seems intent on, above all, making the most of its nuclear prowess, and making these capabilities the primary guarantor of its security. Observers need not automatically assume that Russia will somehow, of necessity, try to clandestinely sidestep the treaty, but it is nonetheless a good indication of the thought patterns of the people in charge of Russia’s defense.

The hard financial numbers are supported by recent actions being taken by the Russian military. According to the Barents Observer, this year, Russia is due to outfit two Borei-class nuclear submarine cruisers for service in the Caspian Sea, which is an area of critical importance for Russia, the United States, and the four other Caspian littoral countries (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) due to the implications for energy access and control.

Likewise, Russia is currently outfitting eight Borei-class submarines at Gadzhiyevo naval base (less than 100 kilometers from the border with Norway), which will be divided between Russia’s Atlantic and Arctic Fleets. Gadzhiyevo’s strategic location (in Murmansk) means that Russia will be able to easily project its nuclear submarines into the Arctic, which, due to environmental changes, is set to become a new geopolitical flashpoint among states competing for resources, as well as into not only the North Atlantic, but even as a supplement to the Baltic Fleet. Of more direct concern for the U.S. are incidents such as the interception of Russian Tupolev-95 aircraft by the U.S. Air Force over Guam, which occurred in mid-February.

Russia’s nuclear strategy is not directed unilaterally toward the United States, but takes into account the nuclear potential of other states possessing such armaments, stated Lieutenant General Aleksandr Burutin, First Deputy Director of the Russian General Staff, in 2010. And Igor Sergeev, formerly Russia’s Defense Minister, acknowledges threats to Russia’s security emanating from neighboring nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea. While Russian policy has traditionally stipulated not only that Russia will refrain from first use of nuclear capabilities, but that it would generally not carry out an asymmetrical attack against a non-nuclear state, there have been policy revisions in Russia to this end, indicating a greater Russian willingness to make wider use of its capabilities.

At bottom, then, Russia's emphasis on nuclear power and capabilities is driven by multiple factors. First, it's one of the ways in which Russia will seek to secure and elevate its position of respect among the community of nations. Perhaps part of this is a reaction to the perceived “second nuclear age," with emerging rogue nuclear countries on Russia's doorstep. Furthermore, the controversy over the positioning of a NATO missile defense shield in Eastern Europe cannot but be part of the impetus for this strengthening of Russia’s strategic capabilities.

All this should be taken as a realistic assertion that nuclear arms will likely play a decisive role in Russia’s security policy vis-à-vis the rest of the world in the 21st century. This is definitely a setback for global disarmament efforts, and poses a threat to global security, but should still be understood within its proper context. With projection capabilities in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East, it is imperative and in the best interests of global security that the outside world, specifically the defense and policy communities, understand that it is once again dealing with a more nuclear-enabled Russia. Given the destructive power of nuclear armaments, this is not something we can afford to take lightly.

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