Russian National Security Strategy and Nuclear Weapons

A Russian T-90 rolls through Moscow during May Day 2013. Photo Copyright Vitaly V. Kuzmin, Used under Creative Commons License.

Russia pursued research and development, life extension programs, nuclear weapons modernization, and force modernization beginning in the 1990s, despite funding limitations and political infighting. Their major limiting factor remains funding for production and manufacturing of new systems and weapons, which typically suffer delays. Despite acquisition troubles, Russia’s development and modernization programs are on firmer ground than the United States. The United States NNSA modernization plan is constrained by budget battles and sequester in a period of declining defense budgets. It also suffers from a lack of political support. The American modernization program was the bargain the Obama administration struck with Republican and Democrat hawks in the Senate to obtain New START ratification. Since then, the administration has shown varied levels of support for the project, and support in Congress is shifting, especially among budget hawks. 

This is the essential difference between the American and Russian program. While both the U.S. and Russian weapons engineering and development programs face steep challenges, the Russian program has significant political support and has received sporadic budgetary attention. The American program continues to face political opposition and increasing delay due to budgetary constraints. The Russians are fielding new systems and platforms now. The United States hopes to begin fielding new systems just before the end of New START, but if current trends hold, those programs may suffer further delays or even cancellation. Given that, it is entirely possible that Russia will have a newer, sounder nuclear triad than the United States in 2021, though it may be smaller than what Russia currently possesses. Given recent economic hardships that possibility looks increasingly unlikely, but it remains a possibility, and the price of oil (and the Russian economy) can rebound quickly.

Qualitative differences between the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are difficult to measure. The Russian arsenal is qualitatively different from American weapons and in ways that make the two difficult to compare directly. In addition to greater throw weights, the Russian arsenal is vastly more diverse, and multipurpose, especially in its non-strategic arsenal. Russian warheads may have simpler designs than U.S. weapons, with greater design tolerances that increase their reliability.[1]

Technological and conventional force weakness also affects the Russian triad in submarine and air warfare. For instance, the ability of American planes to penetrate Russian airspace is likely greater than Russia’s ability to penetrate American and NATO airspaces, though the recent escalation of Russian air and sea incursions into US and NATO air space and territorial waters suggests that the Russians intend to challenge. Similarly, new American attack submarines are technically superior to Russian boats, though they also suffer production delays due to cost constraints and technical problems.  The Russians are also increasingly concerned about American standoff conventional force capabilities and long range conventional strike munitions, which they see as a threat to their nuclear deterrent (Blank 2011).

Fundamentally, conventional force weakness is behind current Russian nuclear strategy. Russia does not rule out first-use and considers the use of tactical weapons an integral part of its defense planning (Blank 2011; Mysanikov 2013; Trenin 2005). According to national security documents and military doctrines signed by President Medvedev in 2010:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat (Blank 2010).

There is also some debate about Russian willingness to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike. The above statement avoided the term, but it continues to leave room for such action.  Given these and other statements, as well as the continued development and deployment of a wide range of nuclear and nuclear capable systems, the importance of nuclear weapons to Russian security strategy is likely to continue into the future.

[1] This concept comes from a 2012 conversation between the author and a nuclear scientist who worked on a recent report evaluating the effect of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on U.S. stockpile reliability. 

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