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A Nuclear Asia and Russian Security Concerns

A Nuclear Asia and Russian Security Concerns

An Indian Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile on a road-mobile launcher, displayed at the Republic Day Parade on New Delhi's Rajpath, January 26, 2004. SOURCE: Antônio Milena (ABr) - http://img.radiobras.gov.br/Aberto/index.php/Imagens.Principal.120.0.2004-01-31 Original file name: 14872.jpeg

The Russians like making NATO their enemy number one, and that gets a lot of coverage in the west, especially given events in Ukraine and the escalation of Russian incursions into US/European airspace and territorial waters. Yet, Russia has multiple security concerns: the rise of China, the threat of terrorism from the Caucasus, accelerating nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and south Asia, the deployment of U.S./NATO missile defenses, and continued conventional force disparities. Combined, these reinforce Russia’s commitment to nuclear weapons as a central component of its security. This goes well beyond strategic deterrence. BMD is only one of these concerns and is likely to decrease in importance in coming years. In some ways, current Russian policy toward arms negotiations represents a shift in security policy motivated by changing external threats (Sokolski 2012).

The Russian desire for future multi-lateral discussions on nuclear arms reductions relates to these external threats. Pakistan, close ally to China, has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. The A.Q. Khan network and recent pronouncements by Saudi Arabia, suggests Pakistan is not averse to sharing the “Islamic bomb” (Black 2013). China’s military modernization program and nuclear program is also of concern for Russia. Other nuclear-armed neighbors surround Russia. With the Iranian program threatening to push the Middle East into a nuclear arms race, Russian concerns about how deeply to cut their arsenal are immediate.

It is important to note that sheer numbers do not capture qualitative differences between arsenals and delivery vehicles, as noted in our previous posts on the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. These are nearly impossible to capture from open literature, given the extreme secrecy surrounding most of these programs. Because of long-standing bilateral negotiations and cooperation, American and Russian arsenals are better known. This is in stark contrast to the opaque Chinese program. As for Pakistan and India, both of which have fast growing arsenals, their potential production rate and missile programs are visible and monitored by various western groups, but their actual weapons capabilities are unknown. Many of these countries’ weapon capabilities depend on their ability to miniaturize their weapons, a critical stage of development necessary to create ICBMs. Similarly, there are differentiations between the arsenals as to the ability to make thermonuclear weapons. The advanced space programs of both India and China also have direct benefits for their military missile programs and their capability to build ICBMs. It is important to note, most of Russia's neighbors don't need long-range or intercontinental missiles to hit at least part of Russia, or impact it if a nuclear exchange occurs between two or more of its neighbors. 

The chart below is an estimate of worldwide arsenals. It counts warheads only and excludes those slated for dismantlement. This factor makes the numbers shown for the U.S. and Russia lower than those normally reported. The estimate of Russian non-strategic arsenals is also lower than most estimates and reflects the excellent analysis of Igor Sutyagin, also used in the Russian arsenal analysis presented in a different post (Sutyagin 2012).

World Nuclear Forces[1]

Some of the debate about additional strategic arms reductions below New START levels is that such cuts would be approach parity with other powers that are not treaty bound to maintain set levels (Pifer and O’Hanlon 2012). The truth is that while the United States and Russia will continue to possess large nuclear arsenals, those arsenals will continue to decline in the long term (though not in the short term). As I discussed in early posts, the total number of nuclear warheads possessed by the U.S. and Russia does not reflect the number of deployed warheads, which is significantly smaller. The smaller nuclear powers maintain the majority of their arsenal as deployed weapons. The accuracy of these estimates is also open to significant debate. Only estimates of the U.S., French, and United Kingdom arsenals have any degree of real confidence.

The Chinese program is a significant unknown, and the number of Chinese nuclear weapons shown does not reflect their potential capability. Likewise, there are several states not represented that could rapidly nuclearize in the Middle East and Asia. These represent two potential arms races in addition to that already occurring between India and Pakistan. Should either South Korea or Japan go nuclear, the potential arms race with China could push these numbers much higher, and closer to the U.S. and Russia. Likewise, an Iranian bomb is likely to produce at least one nuclear power, Saudi Arabia, and possibly two others, Turkey and Egypt. Israel's arsenal is also unlikely to remain stagnant if the broader Middle East goes nuclear.

In addition to these factors, conventional force disparities play a role in Russian security concerns. Both India and China are carrying out conventional ground, naval, and air force modernizations, expansions, and reorganizations. China poses a unique security challenge for the Russians, as their modernization program has fewer constraints and issues. China also diminishes Russia’s role as a significant world power, which we noted in a previous post is their primary foreign policy goal.

The Russians have their own conventional force modernization programs under way. Russian downsizing and modernization plans are immense in scope and have made significant strides in recent years, but their outcome remains uncertain (Blank 2011). The Russians may have less ground to cover than the Chinese in this regard, but like Chinese economic growth, they are likely to rapidly close the distance and surpass Russian technology and military capability, if they have not already done so. The ability of the BRICs to project conventional power, and modernize their forces, also, in part, hinges on Russia. Russia is the arms supplier of choice in many places around the world and is important to both India and China. China also has a history of copying Russian weapons, with or without Russian acquiescence or collusion, just as they copy American systems, facilitated by an expansive espionage network (something else they learned from the Russians).

The Chinese question is frequently overlooked. While there is every sign that an ongoing rapprochement between the two nations continues, it is interest driven.  Russia wants to export oil and gas to China, and China needs friends in the Asia-Pacific and Russian natural resources. Further, the two are aligned in that they share a common enemy - the United States. That should not be overblown though.  China and Russia both plan for conflict with the US and our allies, and consider the United State their primary "enemy." But where Putin plays brinksmanship with the west and goes out of his way to sitr the waters, mainly for domestic reasons, China's economy, dependent on trade with the US and Europe, means that the PRC tends to behave more like a "frenemy." Therefore, they are more likely to tamp down Russian adventurism and not create too much trouble themselves, at least until it feels it is in a position to withstand the consequences.

This last point is the seam along which a successful US foreign policy could create a new Sino-Russian split.  If Russian actions threaten the Chinese economy, which the regime sees as the essential ingredient to maintaining its primary goal of stability. In a pinch, the choice between stability and supporting Russian adventurism, would see China firmly in the Western camp, there are already several stories about Russian actions in 2008 that amount to economic warfare, where China failed to play along.

Further, even though China and Russia have much they align on, there is much else they don't. The two have a long history of conflict, and the Russians, who face demographic collapse, especially in their eastern-most regions, can imagine a time when China becomes expansionist just as the Soviets took advantage of Chinese weakness in the past. More immediate is the problem of Russian aspiration. 

The Kremlin wants to return Russia to its former glory as a major power, and waxes nostalgic for the days when the world trembled before the might of the Soviets (that WWII parade being but the most recent expression of such nationalist aspirations). China, and to a lessor extent India, both stand on the precipice of eclipsing the Russians. The Russians are only  significant because of their nuclear arsenal, and to a lessor degree because they control the majority supply of gas provided to Europe, though that is changing rapidly.  That makes Russia an uneasy partner with China, as neither state wants to be seen as the "junior" in that relationship - a dynamic that contributed to the famous Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War. There is no doubt, Putin is unlikely to let China take first chair without a challenge.

So, while attention focuses on NATO and the West, don't think for a minute that the Russians aren't looking over their shoulder. They live in a bad neighborhood, and there are a lot of long knifes being sharpened there.

[1] This table primarily draws on the reports of Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Those reports are available as part of the Bulletin’s Nuclear notebook at http://www.thebulletin.org/ search/feature-type/nuclear-notebook.  The numbers are the authors own and do not include weapons awaiting dismantlement and may include estimates shown in previous posts on CBRNPro.net.


Black, Ian. 2013. “Iran nuclear deal: Saudi Arabia and Gulf react with caution.” The Guardian. November 24. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/24/iran-nuclear-deal-middle-east-reaction-saudi-arabia (November 26, 2013).

Pifer, Steven and Michael E. O’Hanlon. 2012. The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press.

Podvig, Pavel. 2001. Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Sokolski, Henry D., ed. 2012. The Next Arms Race. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute.

Sutyagin, Igor. 2012. Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces. London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.



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