In their most recent Wall Street Journal article, Adam Entous and Jonathan Weisman write that Russia has moved short-range tactical nuclear warheads to facilities near NATO borders this spring. This revelation comes amidst the Obama Administration’s efforts to pass New START, a strategic arms control agreement with Russia, in the “lame duck” session of the Congress.
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Council of the Federation (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) foreign affairs committee, brushed off the news, stating, “We have relations of trust now with our American partners and don’t take any steps without informing our partners and consulting with them.” He does not say that the WSJ report is untrue.
However, the Russian Federation has no interest in eliminating its massive tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, which is 10 times stronger than the U.S.’s. That is why Russia insisted that tactical nuclear weapons are not mentioned in New START.
During the Bush Administration, Russia used its advantage in tactical nukes to intimidate NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic into cancelling the ballistic missile defense plans on their territory. Moscow threatened to deploy Iskander short-range nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between the borders of Poland and Lithuania. With Washington’s support, the threat tactics failed.
For decades, NATO allies have relied on the U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to deter Soviet and later Russian aggression. This mechanism is often referred to as “expended deterrence,” as it extends the U.S. nuclear might to protect its allies. However, because the U.S. withdrew almost all of its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, leaving its NATO allies still within range of Russia’s superior tactical nuclear arsenal, the U.S. extended deterrence is threatened. Allies may think that the U.S. will not use its strategic weapons if they are attacked.
Clearly, there is an interrelationship between strategic offensive and tactical nuclear weapons. But while the relationship between strategic offensive weapons and ballistic missile defense is acknowledged—and ballistic missile defense options are likely to be limited throughout the treaty—there are no comparable limits on tactical nuclear weapons. When it comes to tactical nukes, the imbalance in Russia’s favor is obvious.
By deploying tactical nuclear weapons close to NATO borders, Russia is not honoring its commitments under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the early 1990s regarding tactical nuclear weapons. Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin declared that the Soviet Union would eliminate its entire global inventory of ground-launched, short-range nuclear weapons—something Moscow successfully avoided.
Tactical nukes may also become a proliferation problem, since the ease with which tactical nuclear weapons are concealed or transported make them a desired target for terrorists. New START does nothing to address the large size of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, its safety, and its security—including in the context of nuclear terrorism.
There are no guarantees that New START will lead to elimination of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons arsenal. Indeed, because the United States may be giving up its advantages in ballistic missile defense, conventional global strike systems (Prompt Global Strike), and more stringent verification regime of the first START, there is no leverage left to achieve elimination of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia will surely not willingly give up its unilateral advantage in exchange for a getting to “nuclear zero” fantasy when others (e.g., China, North Korea, and Iran) are sure not to follow.