The Buzz

Russia's Lethal Nuclear Arsenal Gets an Upgrade: Should NATO Worry?

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave brief remarks at the opening ceremony of ARMY-2015, an exposition where Russia’s defense contractors demonstrated new military technology for foreign weapons buyers. The speech was relatively sedate. It omitted much of the aggressive rhetoric that has become commonplace for the Kremlin, amounting to little more than a sales pitch for Russia’s military systems. Highlighting several pieces of Russia’s plan to modernize its military, Putin mentioned that, “This year we will supply more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] to our nuclear force.”

This simple statement ignited a minor fervor in NATO countries. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that, “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement… and not be concerned.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified…. It’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces.” Reuters says Russia is “beefing up” its arsenal, CNBC asked whether it meant a new cold war, and many others worried about the prospect of a new arms race.

Reading through these statements, you would think that Russia had announced a new arms buildup that posed a significant threat to the West. In fact, Putin’s announcement was entirely in line with previous expectations and did not add major new capabilities to his nuclear arsenal. Russia continues to comply fully with the New START treaty, which limits strategic launchers like ICBMs. Because their Soviet-era ICBMs are aging out of service, Russian nuclear forces must take delivery of forty new ICBMs each year just to replicate their existing capability. Far from a threat, Russia’s ICBM modernization may actually make their arsenal more vulnerable. In short, the speech was barely an announcement and, because it held a moderate line on nuclear modernization, probably more good news than bad.

Let’s take a closer look. Under New START, Russia must decline to reach an aggregate limit of 700 deployed launchers (meaning ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers) by 2018. Both Russia and the United States are on track to meet these commitments. In fact, according to the latest data, Russia is far below this limit, holding its aggregate number of launchers steady at 515. The forty “new” ICBMs do not increase the number of ICBMs deployed, but simply replace old missiles that have been in service since the 1970s.

It is entirely reasonable for Russia to replace its Soviet-era SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25 missiles with variants of the new SS-27 and the Sarmat heavy ICBM. The replacement process, which Russia hopes to complete by 2022, decreases the number of missiles in total, but packs more warheads onto each missile, a vulnerability that the United States would never accept in its own arsenal because it means that more Russian warheads can be attacked by fewer U.S. warheads.

Russian ICBM modernization is reasonably well understood and proceeding as expected, which is why veteran nuclear watcher Hans Kristensen noted last month that that Russia was expected to deploy forty ICBMs per year on average. If anything, last week’s announcement represented a step back from Putin’s pledge last year to deploy fifty new ICBMs this year, a clear concession to the acute fiscal pressures that are hemming in Russia’s military modernization. Furthermore, the United States should welcome any Russian effort to be transparent about its nuclear arsenal. The information transmitted through New START inspections and in public announcements like these is reassuring to both parties. It should be applauded rather than criticized, especially if they do not announce new capabilities.

Even if Russia were somehow to accelerate its nuclear modernization efforts, the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty.”

To summarize: Russia could deploy many more missiles and still remain behind the United States in numbers of launchers and under the New START caps. Even if it cheated on the New START treaty and deployed still more, the Pentagon does not believe that this would significantly affect the strategic balance.

Last week’s announcement should fall somewhere between mundane and reassuring. Instead, much of the West took the bait. Putin clearly hopes that his irresponsible talk about nuclear weapons will strike NATO like a drum, sending fear and awe resonating through the alliance. He hopes to provoke a reaction that will distract attention from his conventional and hybrid aggression, raise Russia’s stature in Eastern Europe, solidify his rule at home, and allow him to impose even greater military expenditures on his citizenry.