Russia's Nuclear Weapons: Everything You Always Wanted To Know (But Were Afraid To Ask)
For now, the Russians seems to have adopted the notion—again, as a function of their conventional weakness—that nuclear weapons can be used to “de-escalate” conflicts. It’s doubtful that the Russians are really believe that nuclear strikes (especially on the United States or NATO) could be de-escalatory, but in the absence of any other ability to project force, old Soviet habits are hard to break. On May 7, for example, the Russian military floated the idea of stationing nuclear-capable short range missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad if NATO increased its conventional forces in the region, a threat as unsurprising as it is meaningless.
Are they cheating on the INF Treaty?
For over a year, the Russians have been taunting the West by breaking, in spirit if not in letter, the INF Treaty. It’s a clever approach: they’re not actually building intermediate-range nuclear forces, they’re just taking long-range nukes and then testing them at intermediate range. In other words, they’re skirting the treaty, no doubt as a clear sign to Europe and NATO that they are not immune from nuclear attack in the brave, new post–Cold War world. Indeed, the Russians have openly mooted quitting the INF Treaty, even though the weapons they banned no longer exist and there are no Russian or American plans to make any.
The Obama administration’s usual approach to the Russians has been to lag behind more nimble Russian diplomacy, but in this case the administration’s low-key response is the right approach. What the Russians are doing is, in effect, goading NATO, and showing that they still have the old Soviet charisma that created NATO in the first place. It is not news that Russian nuclear forces can reach Europe; what’s different is that the Russians are trying to emphasize that capability by testing weapons as though the calendar is stuck on 1981.
Where’s the real danger?
In sum, the outlook for Russia’s nuclear forces is less important than the serious improvements Russia is seeking to make in its conventional forces, especially in Europe. The Russians have relied on nuclear arms to compensate for conventional weakness, a practice even Moscow realizes is unsustainable and dangerous. The real threat to NATO will occur if Western military forces on the ground continue to be hollowed out by budget cuts and a lack of purpose, while Russian forces continue to improve and to recover from the disarray of the Soviet collapse.
During the current crisis in Ukraine, many in the West and in Ukraine itself lamented the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the United States, and Britain agreed to respect Ukrainian borders and sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine releasing any claims on the last remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal on its territory. If Ukraine had kept its weapons, the reasoning goes, Russia would never have dared to threaten Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But this is the wrong lesson: what seems to have given Moscow pause is the willingness of Ukraine, outnumbered and outgunned, to fight back. What may be serving to cool further Russian ambitions, in other words, is Russian conventional weakness. Had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, a Russian invasion might have taken place a decade ago on the pretext of “securing” those systems, but if Ukraine avoids a Russian invasion now, it will not be because of anyone’s nuclear arms, but because Russia is aware that it might face a serious conventional fight even against an admittedly weaker country.
If Moscow redresses those conventional shortcomings without an answer from the West, nuclear issues will seem, in comparison, like a quaint problem from the past.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheWarRoom_Tom.
This first appeared in 2014 and is being reposted due to reader interest.