In recent months there has much hysteria in Washington about Russia allegedly lowering its nuclear threshold and particularly about Moscow’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons. However, there is little evidence that Moscow has lowered its nuclear threshold—nor are there concrete figures available for how many non-strategic nuclear weapons the Kremlin has in its inventory.
Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons:
While non-strategic nuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as “tactical” nuclear weapons, the term is a misnomer. In reality there are tactical and strategic effects that a can weapon deliver. The fact is that any nuclear weapons usage inherently has strategic implications even if it was used on the battlefield as a tactical weapon. Thus, the term non-strategic nuclear weapon (NSNW) is a much better term.
“A nuke is a nuke,” retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former Air Force intelligence chief and current dean of the Mitchell Institute told The National Interest. “No such thing as a ‘tactical’ nuke. The terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ refer to outcomes or effects, not material things like aircraft or weapons.”
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Arms control and non-proliferation experts also agree on that point.
“I do not like the term tactical because it implies short-range. Better to talk about non-strategic—i.e., those that are not covered by START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] or INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces],” former Soviet and Russian arms control negotiator Nikolai Sokov, now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told The National Interest.
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How big is Russia’s NSNW Arsenal?:
Arms control and non-proliferation experts are divided on exactly how many NSNWs Russia currently has in its inventory. The Russian government has not released any official figures, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told The National Interest.
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“There are no official numbers anywhere, so this is one of the problems.” Kristensen said. “Of course the intelligence agencies have their own estimates and they never really use them, what they do instead is sort of do is refer to public sources.”
In the public discussion, there are many estimates on the size of the Kremlin’s post-Soviet NSNW arsenal. Some estimates suggest that the Kremlin has as few as 1200 NSNWs in its inventory while others estimate that Moscow could have as many as 5000 such weapons. Even at the highest estimates, today’s Russian Federation only maintains a fraction of the massive Soviet arsenal, which Kristensen said ranged on the order of 20,000 to 21,000 NSNWs before its 1991 collapse.
Kristensen’s own estimates for the size of the Russian NSNW arsenal ranges from 1800 to 2000 weapons, which aligns with most of the best experts in the field such as Sokov and Igor Sutyagin, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
“Estimates for Russian NSNW vary a lot,” Sokov said. “My best estimate—which is a few years old—is around 2,000, divided almost evenly between the Air Force and the Navy; to the best of my knowledge, none in the Ground Forces.”
The estimates vary so much because experts have to extrapolate data from statements made by U.S. and Russian officials since the end of the Cold War, Kristensen said. Moreover, there are some disagreements among analysts on how to calculate the number of warheads because exactly how the weapons are counted makes a difference. Some weapons are operational and deployed onboard ships and submarines, while others might be in storage. “The actual forces that are operational is lower because a fair number of them are out for repair just like ours,” Kristensen said. “So the number that is actually assigned operationally to the force is even lower than the inventory.”
There are disputes as to whether any of the Russian warheads are actually deployed onboard Russian warships on a day-to-day basis. Sokov believes that the Russian military keeps its NSNWs in storage during peacetime operations. “Please keep in mind that warheads for all naval NSNW used to be stored on shore—as per PNIs (Presidential Nuclear Initiatives)—and I have not seen indications that this has changed,” Sokov said. “Same with air—stored at bases. In both cases, this includes short-range assets and strategic cruise missiles—i.e., above 600 km using START definitions. I am sure that Iskander is nuclear capable, but have not seen data on whether warheads are immediately available for deployment. There are also some for air defense still and for missile defense around Moscow.”
Sokov said that the Russians have actually cut their NSNW inventory below any of the agreements it made with the United States. “Now, Russia has implemented PNIs and went even below (under PNIs, it should have gone down to about 7,000, according to Alexey Arbatov), now it’s probably about 2,000,” Sokov said. “Still, since the fall of 2004, Russia does not recognize PNIs, it’s more of a political decision rather than posture-driven.”
Another factor to keep in mind is that some longer-range Russian nuclear weapons such as cruise missiles have dual strategic and tactical roles. Indeed, all new Russian delivery systems can be built in conventional and nuclear variants, including Kalibrs, Kh-101/102, Iskanders and other weapons, Sokov said. “Longer-range NSNWs certainly have a big role, especially for limited use missions,” Sokov said. “Very central, and Moscow will want to keep these weapons, although big numbers are not needed. For short-range, I frankly do not see a mission. To the best of my knowledge, Russia continues to slowly reduce the NSNW arsenal probably working to ‘clean’ the inventory by removing the heritage elements it no longer needs.”
Why does Russia maintain such a large NSNW inventory?:
In Kristensen’s view, Russia’s inventory of NSNW’s helps to offset its comparatively weaker conventional military forces relative to the NATO alliance as well as offsets Moscow comparatively smaller strategic nuclear arsenal relative to the United States.
“Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons to make up the difference—so to speak—in the stockpile with the U.S.,” Kristensen said. “Its strategic inventory is less—significantly less—than the U.S. And since they have more of a regional mission, they actually rely more on the tactical nukes for those shorter range regional missions.”
Russia’s conventional forces—though they are being modernized—are still weak compared to the United States and NATO. During any prolonged conflict, the Russian military would likely be defeated. “Russia’s conventional forces are incapable of defending Russian territory in a long war,” Kristensen said. “It would lose and as a result of that, they have placed more emphasis on more usage of tactical nuclear weapons as a leveler.”
In effect, the Russians are doing what NATO did during the Cold War. NATO conventional forces were outmatched by Soviet conventional forces during the Cold War, thus they had to rely on nuclear weapons. The current situation is an inversion of the Cold War military balance. “The Russians are doing the same thing,” Kristensen said.
How would Russia use its tactical nuclear weapons?:
There is much debate about exactly how and when Russia might use its nuclear weapons—particularly its non-strategic warheads. But the real answer is that Western analysts simply do not know.
“It’s not known, “ Kristensen said bluntly. “Russia has some vague statements about its mission with weapons in various regions—so to speak. Their public doctrine does not help us a whole lot because it has two giant categories in which it comes down to the survival of the state.”
Modern Russia renounced the Soviet Union’s pledge to never use nuclear weapons first in 1993 as its conventional forces atrophied rapidly in the chaos of the 1990s. In 2010, it was suggested that Russia would issue policy guidance that would lower its nuclear threshold, but that did not exactly happen.
“When the doctrine was issued, the threshold actually went up, not down,” Olya Oliker, a prominent expert on Russian military forces at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote for The National Interest. “Russia’s doctrine then, and now, as this language was reaffirmed in 2014, allows for nuclear weapon use ‘in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.’”
In Oliker’s view, there is little evidence to suggest that the so-called de-escalation or “escalate to deescalte” doctrine exists. “Doctrine may not always define what countries actually do. But it seems relevant that a higher threshold was put in place in 2010, when debates suggested a lower one might come, and remained in place in 2014, when Russia revised its doctrine in response to a worsening relationship with the United States and its NATO allies,” Oliker wrote. “This is not to say that de-escalation is entirely out of the picture for Russia. In fact, it has its proponents. But the fact that Russian analysts and even the occasional official advocate for it publicly indicates to me that it is not, in fact, current policy.”
Indeed, other researchers have found scant evidence that Russia has lowered its nuclear threshold. “Clearly, the Russian threshold for employing nuclear weapons for signaling purposes is lower than the West’s,” Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC, Stanford University and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London wrote for War on the Rocks. “This explains the numerous examples of what Western policymakers call irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling. While it seems prudent to make the Russians ‘think twice about nuclear threats,’ Moscow’s saber-rattling does not equate to a lower threshold for using nuclear weapons. Russian doctrine, declaratory strategy, and strategic debate all indicate the opposite: Improved conventional and non-military capabilities will delay the point at which Russia may use nuclear weapons in conflict.”
Will the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional weapon reduce Russia’s dependence on nuclear weapons?:
The consensus among arms control experts is that Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory. NSNWs will still be a feature of Russian military doctrine, but there will be less emphasis on that aspect of the Kremlin’s power.
“It’s not going to do away with it, of course, but like in our military—once we got more advanced conventional weapons—our planners reduced reliance on tactical nuclear weapons,” Kristensen said. “It’s likely we will also see that happening to some extent in the Russian military forces.”
Sokov agreed with Kristensen’s assessment. “Conventional missions for these assets (Iskander, Kh-101/102 etc.) are, in my view, more important than nuclear ones,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions are a ‘back-up’ for the case of a really big bad conflict, which has extremely low probability—basic deterrence in several variants. Conventional missions are about actual use in support of foreign policy – Syria is the example of the main role of these assets.”
Sokov believes that Russia is fundamentally changing its nuclear posture as its long-range conventional precision strike capabilities improve. “I believe that we are dealing with a fundamental, long-term transition in Russian posture and strategy with the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional assets,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions will decline in relation to conventional—that is, in relative, not absolute terms.”
Ultimately, Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons depends on policy makers not in Moscow, but in Washington. How the United States alters its posture to rely more on nuclear weapons (or not)—now that precision weapons are no longer the sole purview of the Pentagon—will determine to what extent the Russians will rely on their own nuclear forces.
“Whether reliance on nuclear weapons will decrease, too, like it did for the United States in the 1990s depends almost solely on the United States,” Sokov said. “Until recently, the United States held a monopoly on long-range conventional strike capability so it could afford reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Whether this US/NATO policy will continue now that monopoly is almost lost, remains to be seen. I am particularly concerned that NATO – especially the newer members – might want to enhance reliance on nuclear weapons and then Russia will certainly respond in kind—i.e., conventional missions will supplement nuclear instead of replacing them. That’s the key dynamic to watch in the next 5-7 years.”
Only time will tell.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.