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Nuclear Weapons and Russian Foreign Policy Goals

Nuclear Weapons and Russian Foreign Policy Goals

Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton push the button. SOURCE: US State Department, Public Domain

Russian foreign policy centers on an elite concern to maintain Russia as a leading global power (Mankoff 2012). Economic weakness in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, contributed to deteriorating military and nuclear forces. However, Soviet nuclear programs and delivery system development never truly ended; rather they slowed in the 1990s due to budgetary constraints. These constraints disappeared during the Russian economic recovery between 1998 and 2008, driven by rising oil prices and the stabilization of economic conditions under Vladimir Putin (Mankoff 2012). At the same time, continued NATO expansion, and American-led interventionism in Serbia and the Middle East, a rising China, intent on modernizing its own conventional and strategic forces, and the rapidly escalating nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, all contributed to Russian concerns about their relative power. As Jeffery Mankoff put it, “The response has been to fall back on the tried and true – a strong state backed by a strong military, and a foreign policy that emphasizes strategic depth and autonomy on the world stage” (Mankoff 2012).

The Russian view has three basic predicates. First, nuclear weapons form a key element in strategic deterrence. Second, they guarantee the sovereignty and security of the Russian Federation from any large-scale aggression. Finally, the Russian nuclear arsenal underpins its role as a world power, and places it on equal footing with the U.S. in arms reduction (Mysanikov 2013; Trenin 2005). The Russians do not rule out a first strike as either a preemption (though they avoid using that word) or in response to a conventional attack on Russian soil (Blank 2011). This is especially worrying, given that the idea of what is "Russian soil" is a very elastic concept these days.

A modern, credible nuclear deterrent is essential Russian foreign policy aspirations. The Russian policy of non-interference is an ancillary component, placing it in clear opposition to many American and European foreign policy and military goals, though with little to no credibility following the events in Ukraine. The most visible manifestation of Russian great power status in the past was the high-level summitry of nuclear arms reduction negotiations. START, START II, and New START all placed Russia on equal footing with the world’s “sole superpower.” Putin’s more assertive and astute foreign policy actions, like those dealing with Syria and Iran, place Russia on an equal footing outside of arms control and reinforce the non-interference policy, which wins support from China and other nations opposed to American action.

Russia also pursued an astute negotiating strategy in arms reduction talks over the last twenty years. Russia inherited a newer, though more vast and varied Soviet nuclear force. First was the rollback of that force, as weapons and weapon systems transferred from former Soviet states to Russia. Then came the START reductions, initially viewed through the lens of cost savings and reduced threat. This tumultuous period saw rapid NATO expansion and threats to the Russian government from hardliner elements.

Internal security concerns and a deteriorating strategic position contributed to the Yeltsin decision to pursue a strategic modernization program. These programs accelerated under Putin with improved economic conditions. Yet the programs were not necessarily new, rather structural reforms in Russian forces coincided with weapons development programs inherited from the Soviet Union and continued under the Russian Federation (Blank 2012; Podvig 2001).

As the Russians negotiated with the United States for reductions, the reductions came largely from older Soviet legacy forces. As a bonus, the cost of those reductions was born by the United States, freeing up funds to pursue modernization that might otherwise have gone toward dismantlement. By the time of New START ratification, the Russians were already below many of its caps, and the weapon systems in the Russian arsenal were newer than the corresponding American systems. 

The Russians also consistently oppose both U.S./NATO BMD and American modernization plans, while they continued to advance and improve their own systems. The Russians effectively pursued a foreign policy strategy portraying American BMD and nuclear modernization programs as destabilizing, while few noticed the Russians own modernization program. 

As the ink on New START dried, Russian foreign policy was at a turning point in its nuclear weapons policy. Russian modernization programs were struggling, especially the Bulava. The remaining Russian strategic arsenal was at least a decade newer than the corresponding American arsenal. However, it too was showing its age. The Americans were seeking additional Russian cuts, even as the Russian arsenal might shrink further of its own accord as new systems faced delay.  The Russian conventional force modernization program was also struggling. The Americans were threatening to modernize their nuclear arsenal, begin fielding European BMD systems, and were talking about new conventional strategic systems (precision strike) that placed the Russian nuclear deterrent at perceived risk. Given that perspective, it is no wonder the Foreign Ministry has ignored President Obama’s call for further negotiations. 


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