Russia Flexes Its Nuclear Muscles

Russia Flexes Its Nuclear Muscles

Moscow's modernization moves might derail the Obama administration's goal of a less nuclear world.

And in the grand scheme of things, will this Russian nuclear modernization—even if it is only partially and incompletely achieved—fundamentally change the global balance of power? Nichols argues that these developments do not change the pre-existing realities of the U.S.-Russia strategic relationship; even with older Soviet-legacy systems, Russia still retains the capacity to strike the U.S. homeland with hundreds of warheads, and given the reality that "the United States doesn’t actually have a national missile defense system" and that "the odds of creating one by 2020 are ... exactly zero," whether Russia chooses to replace its Typhoons and Deltas with Boreis, or has Yars-M missiles in place of the older SS-18s, doesn't make much difference.

For an Obama administration that holds out the promise of a world without nuclear weapons, however, the Russian decision to renovate its nuclear posture creates real difficulties, especially when Russia is also resuming long-distance patrols and conducting exercises. (The Russian claim that these new efforts are in direct response to U.S. missile-defense efforts also creates political difficulties.) The United States is not comfortable with a unilateral approach to downsizing its nuclear stockpile; Washington prefers to do so in concert with Moscow also committed to reductions by a formal treaty. Moreover, if Moscow is committed to nuclear modernization, then it increases the pressure on the U.S. to match the Russian program. It also means that the United States cannot count on cost savings by assuming that a larger portion of Russia's nuclear force would be retired due to age—and thus not replaced. Additionally, if U.S. strategists were calculating that they could sell a lower U.S. nuclear force on the grounds that most of Russia's deterrent was concentrated in more vulnerable, fixed ICBMs sites—then having more mobile land missiles (since the prohibition on rail-mobile ICBMs was not carried over into the New START agreement) and a new class of more capable submarines changes those equations. Just as U.S. conventional assumptions—for instance, that the Caribbean since the end of the Cold War had become an American mare nostrum and thus U.S. assets and attention could be directed elsewhere—have been challenged by the resumption of even small-scale Russian air and naval deployments—so to the Russian push to upgrade its nuclear forces may push the administration to scuttle any plan for shifting the U.S. nuclear posture to the most minimal one needed for deterrence.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin. CC BY-SA 3.0.