Why Nuclear Weapons Continue to be Central to Putin and Russia

December 16, 2013

The headlines over the last couple weeks have rightly been focused on Ukraine and its unenviable position as a pawn being torn asunder by the competing interests of the EU and Russia. The situation is merely another example of how Russia uses economic intimidation and its supply of hydrocarbons to enact foreign policy ambitions (Russia supplies at least 60% of Ukraine’s natural gas); among other less subtle threats and assurances of less-than-desirable outcomes should Yanukovych decide to discover an independent streak. Russia’s position on Ukrainian integration into Europe, its desires to construct a Kremlin-led customs and economic union, involvement in the ongoing Syria negotiations, use of its veto on the Security Council, and its military modernization plan are all indicative of Putin’s latest attempts to re-assert Russia’s position not only as a regional, but global power. However, all of these are subject to varying degrees of importance and relevance, which is why Russia’s nuclear arsenal remains integral to the return of Russia to great power status and to its national security planning.

Russia has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which assures its involvement in many of the most pressing international matters, and which can be used for its own interests (like blocking any meaningful movement toward a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war). Yet, the U.N. continues to be a negotiating venue rather than the scene of decisive agreements between global powers, and Russia’s veto can only defend or advance its interests so far. Russia also has large deposits of natural resources, including nickel and gold, which, with oil and gas, comprised the engine that drove the economy’s 7% growth in the last decade. The vast amounts of hydrocarbons allowed Putin to induce policy directions and to cower regional states, including the EU and especially Ukraine. However, the time of easy and cheap oil and gas is coming to an end: “over the next 10 to 15 years, Russian exports of oil and gas would drop by more than 20 percent, with their share of the country’s GDP decreasing by one-third.” Russia’s economic picture continues to deteriorate, with the IMF labelling Russia’s growth model of relying on commodities “exhausted,” and even Putin finally admitting that internal conditions were to blame rather than the perpetual scapegoat of a weak global economic environment saying: “”We have to be clear: the main reasons for the economic slowdown are not external but internal.”

The Security Council and commodities can only empower Russia so much. That is why the modernization of Russia’s military is a central component of Putin’s national and international resurgence. Without a modern military, Russia cannot take its proper place among the great powers and defend itself should conflict with neighboring states occur (not the least of which is China, with a rising population, economy and military; all of which give considerable pause to not only Putin but the influential General Staff as well). But there are significant questions over whether Russia can truly modernize its conventional forces to the level that it believes it both needs and wants. In simple terms, unless there is a dramatic tackling of the endemic corruption, economic shortcomings that rely upon commodities, an over reliance on bureaucracy, and a lack of legal protections for investors, it remains highly unlikely that Russia will be able to increase efficiency and the modernization of its military.

With the conventional military, both presently and in the near future, significantly outmatched not only by the U.S. but by China in the Far East, nuclear weapons have become the key element of ensuring Russia’s national security and presence in international relations. At the expanded meeting of the Defense Ministry on December 10, Putin detailed the efforts at modernizatsiia, mentioning that Russia is set to receive 40 advanced and upgraded ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). This follows a meeting with the leaders of Russia’s strategic missile forces at the end of last month, where plans detailing the deployment of 22 silo based and 18 mobile RS-24 Yars-M ICBMs were discussed. Russia is also conducting snap readiness checks alongside the introduction of new ICBMs. The majority of Russia’s ICBMs are reaching the end of their service life, meaning that the deployment and modernization of current and new missiles is crucial to maintaining Russia’s nuclear capabilities. Currently, a majority of Russia’s ICBM consists of older SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 ICBMs which have been in service since the USSR. Russia is set to replace these older missiles with newer and more advanced 108 RS-24 Yars-M (SS-29), Topol-Ms (SS-27)(mobile and silo-based), as well as 30 SS-19 in nine divisions by 2016.

ICBMs are not the only part of Russia’s attempts to retain its nuclear posture. ICBMs form one part of what is known as a nuclear triad, the key concept behind maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent and response. The other two parts are air and submarine launched nuclear weapons. Russia has plans to build eight new Borei class nuclear submarines that will form the core of its sea-based nuclear deterrent and replace the ageing Typhoon, Delta III and IV class submarines. Each Borei is equipped with 16 (later versions may have up to 20) new Bulava SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). However, the Bulava has run into significant technical delays and problems, leading to its deployment on the Borei being postponed with no more tests scheduled until later in 2014. Additionally, Russia is putting priority on the development of a new long range bomber, the PAK-DA, to replace its ageing fleet of Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers. These will be equipped with new Kh-101 and Kh-102 (nuclear) cruise missiles, increasing their range up to 6,000 miles. Tactical nuclear weapons can also be configured to be loaded onto the new Su-34 fighter bombers recently introduced into service.

Russia’s continuing nuclear parity with the U.S. is predicated upon its ability to have a reasonable deterrence capability and to maintain a modern, deployable nuclear arsenal. This has taken increasing urgency due to the U.S. development of missile defense, which would “erode” the global balance of power, and its Prompt Global Strike initiative which, “would allow the United States to strike targets anywhere on Earth with conventional weapons in as little as an hour.” The development of these initiatives is extremely threatening to Russia’s nuclear parity with the U.S. and would further undermine its ability to use nuclear weapons to compensate for its weakened military and its status as a global power. “”High-precision weapons are becoming an increasingly important factor in non-nuclear deterrence, and perhaps even one of the most decisive factors,” Putin stated.

In the wake of the initial deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated: “We noted that if the arrangement is implemented fully… then there will be no reasons for creating a missile defense system in Europe.” The threat of a U.S. and NATO missile defense system continues to be a major point of contention, not only between Russia and the U.S. and NATO, but with Russia’s relations with central European nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic where such a system would be based. Russia does not accept the premise that the missile defense system is for defensive purposes or is aimed at a nuclear Iran, especially in light of the Prompt Global Strike initiative. Because of this, Russia is developing an advanced ICBM, the RS-26 Rubezh, and which, though specifications are for the most part still classified,  deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin called a “killer of US missile defense.” Russia is also equipping its ICBMs with a new targeting system designed to evade U.S. missile defenses.

And, yes, while Russia is upgrading and improving its nuclear capability, no, it is not going to launch attacks or revert to Cold War style brinkmanship. Russia’s nuclear capability is more than anything the last vestige, along with its Security Council seat, of a time when Russia was one of two great powers, and who’s presence in world politics was ever present. As much as Russia—and Putin—desire to return to great power status, they fear being outpaced by other powers faster than they can increase their capabilities. Russia fears aggressive actions by others, and with its conventional forces unable to protect its own global aspirations or check the aspirations of other more aggressive states (China), its nuclear triad is the sole remaining guarantor of Russia’s security. That is why any actions that could be perceived as undermining its nuclear capabilities are so threatening.

While Russia’s new advancement of its nuclear arsenal is concerning, especially to nations close to Russia experiencing aggressive war games on their borders, and because of accusations that it has violated (more likely circumvented) the INF (Intermediate-range of nuclear forces agreement), it is as much an indication of Russia’s concerns about its own weaknesses as anything else. “The increase by foreign countries of their strategic, high-precision non-nuclear systems potential and boosting missile defense possibilities could ruin earlier reached agreements on nuclear arms control and reduction, and lead to the disruption of the so-called strategic balance… No one should have illusions over a possibility of taking military advantage over Russia,” Putin said. “We will never allow this.”