Putin’s Return: Tactical Nuclear Weapons Remain Bedrock of Defense Policy?


By Dr. Richard Weitz

10/17/2011 – One problem created by Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency is that it might make it harder to negotiate an agreement to reduce Russia’s large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs).

No bilateral treaty limits the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Russian or U.S. arsenals. The most important measure of control on TNWs dates back to the 1991-92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI). President George Bush became worried that the chaos in the Soviet Union was loosening controls over thousands of Soviet-era nuclear warheads. Bush therefore announced major reductions in the number of U.S. deployed TNWs and invited Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reciprocate, which he did. When Boris Yeltsin became president of the newly independent Russian Federation, he expanded on Gorbachev’s initiative. As a result, Russia destroyed many of its TNWs and moved others from field units to central storage facilities inside Russia.

These parallel and reciprocal TNW measures were relatively easy to implement since they did not require parliamentary ratification, as a treaty would have. Following their adoption, Russia and the United States eliminated thousands of their TNWs and removed others from operational deployment.

But the fact these reductions occurred outside a treaty framework has certain drawbacks. The PNI do not have provisions—such as mandatory on-site inspections or data exchanges—to verify their enforcement. The only formal joint exchanges on the subject occurred at some NATO-Russia meetings, when the parties have reported to each other the percentage (not numbers) of PNI-applicable warheads that they have destroyed. U.S. officials have complained on several occasions that Moscow was not supplying adequate data to confirm their TNW reductions.

Despite these verification problems, the Russian government has apparently cut back their TNW holdings since the PNIs were adopted, and probably even earlier given the requirement to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear forces (with ranges of between 300 and 3400 miles) under the 1987 INF Treaty.

Nonetheless, Russian officials have taken steps to retain thousands of TNWs. The Russian military possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads on short-range tactical surface-to-surface and air-to-ground strike missiles as well as systems designed for anti-air and anti-ship defense.

Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen regularly publish annual surveys of the nuclear weapons holdings of the major nuclear powers. They calculate that, as of late 2009, Russia had some 2,000 TNWs in their operational arsenal and approximately 5,400 TNWs in reserve. Some 2,000 TNWs are used as AS-4 air-to-surface missiles and gravity bombs by tactical aircraft, 1,120 tactical warheads are employed by Russian air and missile defense units, and the Russian Navy has more than 2,000 TNWs. Norris and Kristensen estimate that the Russian ground forces also have some TNWs, though they hesitate to offer specific numbers. (http://csis.org/blog/bulletin-atomic-scientists-releases-new-nuclear-weapons-inventory)

Russian leaders see their tactical nuclear weapons as performing important defense missions that they are loathe to relinquish.

First, the TNWs reinforce the deterrence provided by Russia’s long-range strategic offensive nuclear weapons. Fundamentally, Russian nuclear forces aim to prevent the United States or any other country from launching a major attack against Russian territory. Russian strategists most likely concentrate their planning and resources on surviving a war with the United States because such a capability should provide the assets Russia would need to defeat weaker nuclear adversaries (e.g., Britain, China, France, or Pakistan).

Russian strategists most fear a U.S. attempt to decapitate the Russian leadership through a surprise attack involving U.S. nuclear and conventional attacks against Russia’s centralized command-and-control networks and against its nuclear forces when they are on their lower peacetime alert status.

Russia has had difficulty maintaining a large number of effective strategic nuclear weapons systems such as nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and strategic long-range bombers. Russia’s TNWs stockpile is several times larger than its strategic nuclear force totals. In some cases, their use can be seen as more credible due to their lower yields. The deployment of TNWs with Russian field units in wartime also means that they are more likely to be used inadvertently, since they could more easily fall out of operational control in the heat of battle.

Second, should deterrence fail, Russia’s nuclear weapons could seek to limit the damage inflicted on Russian people, industry, and forces by its adversaries. Russian nuclear strikes against an adversary’s military offensive potential might weaken that country’s ability to strike Russian targets. Russian TNWs might perform missions that would otherwise require using Russia’s more limited supply of strategic nuclear weapons.

A related function of Russia’s TNWs would be “escalation control.” Russian policy makers could seek to use, or threaten to use, TNWs to prevent other countries from escalating a conventional conflict to a nuclear war. In such a scenario, Russia could threaten to retaliate disproportionately should an adversary employ nuclear weapons to try to alter a conventional conflict that it was losing. Even after one party has initiated a limited nuclear exchange, Russian commanders might attempt to control further intra-war escalation by issuing nuclear threats, demonstrating restraint, or pursuing other “nuclear signaling.”

Russian strategists have also indicated they might detonate a limited number of nuclear weapons to induce an adversary to end (“de-escalate” in Russian terminology) a conventional military conflict with Russia. The selective strike would seek to exploit the inevitable “shock and awe” effect associated with nuclear use to cause the targeted decision makers to weigh the risks of nuclear devastation more heavily.

This strategy exploits the fear that, after one nuclear explosion, the prospects of further detonations increase considerably. Initiating nuclear use would underscore the gravity with which the Russian government viewed the situation and might encourage the other side to de-escalate the conflict to avert further nuclear escalation.

The most commonly discussed contingency for a “de-escalation” mission in Russian discourse is a NATO decision to intervene against a Russian military ally (e.g., Belarus) or on behalf of a non-member country (e.g., Georgia) that was engaged in a military conflict with Russia.

In its 1993 Military Doctrine, the Russian government abandoned its declared pledge not to employ nuclear weapons first in a conflict, effectively establishing a justification in Russian doctrine for initiating nuclear use.

TNWs can more effectively perform these missions than can strategic nuclear forces. In conducting a nuclear strike for a “de-escalation” mission, for instance, Russian commanders could try to minimize its opponent’s civilian and perhaps even military casualties to discourage further nuclear use.

Russian nucs are used to deal with deterrence of multiple threat contigencies at once. (Credit image: Bigstock)
Russian nucs are used to deal with deterrence of multiple threat contigencies at once. (Credit image: Bigstock)

For example, they could employ a low-yield tactical nuclear warhead against an adversary’s military base, warship, or armored formation operating in a scarcely populated area. Alternately, Russian forces could detonate a high-altitude nuclear burst near an adversary’s warships with the expectation that the explosion would not produce casualties or nuclear fallout, but would still devastate the fleet’s sensors and communications due to its electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and other effects.


Since Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are needed to deter adversaries from resorting to major nuclear war, detonating a TNW might provide the optimal balance between signaling Moscow’s seriousness and avoiding an action that might actually provoke more escalation than the Russian government is actually seeking.

Third, Russia’s TNWs can help compensate for weaknesses in Russian conventional forces. Russian strategists have long considered using limited nuclear strikes to alter the course of a conventional conflict that Russia risked losing.

The January 2000 National Security Concept, for example, implied that Russia could employ TNWs to resist a conventional attack without engendering a full-scale nuclear exchange. In theory, they could be used against a range of battlefield targets. If they were detonated on the territory of the Russian Federation to stop an invasion, they would be unlikely to lead the attacker to respond with a full-scale nuclear attack the way a nuclear strike using longer-range strategic nuclear forces might. They are also less expensive to produce and maintain than an equivalent quantity of conventional firepower.

Russia’s TNWs could help Russian troops compensate for China’s much larger ground forces in the event of a Russia-China war, though this perspective is rarely discussed in public given the official line that Russia does not consider China a military threat.

The value of Russia’s TNW in negating NATO’s superior conventional forces is more openly debated given that the weaknesses of Russia’s conventional forces are widely recognized. Moreover, they understand that upgrading Russia’s conventional forces to American standards would entail considerably greater expenditures than maintaining even a large TNW arsenal.

Moreover, several Russian strategists have expressed concern that agreeing to limit Russia’s TNW stockpile could weaken efforts to reform Russia’s conventional forces. They believe that Russia will most likely undertake a comprehensive reform program, which would temporary degrade its conventional forces and expose Russian military vulnerabilities during the unstable transition period between the old and new force structures, if Russians retained robust nuclear forces.

In his 2006 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin stressed that Russia could not afford to wage a quantitative arms race with the United States, but instead had to rely on less costly, asymmetric means in designing Russia’s strategic deterrent. In this same address, Putin reaffirmed that Russia’s armed forces must be “able to simultaneously fight in global, regional and—if necessary—also in several local conflicts.” Given Russia’s weak conventional forces, the country needs TNWs ad other nuclear weapons to meet such demanding criteria.

Fourth, Russia could use TNWs to overwhelm NATO’s expanding ballistic missile defense (BMD) network. For whatever reason, Russian leaders have become obsessed by a possible threat to Russia’s nuclear-armed ICBMs from U.S. missile defense programs. Russia’s large number of nuclear weapons makes it unlikely that any BMD architecture could negate Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Finally, Russian leaders believe that their enormous nuclear arsenal bolsters Moscow’s diplomatic influence. Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal represents one of reasons Russia is considered a great power. Russia’s nuclear weapons also play an important role in ensuring Moscow’s status as an important global player.

During the 1990s, Russian strategists vigorously debated the importance of maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent. A minority argued that, in the post-Cold War world, nuclear weapons had lost much of their military utility and hence Russia should concentrate on developing its conventional forces. The majority, however, continued to view Russia’s nuclear arsenal as an essential instrument for preserving its status as a great power, especially since the other nuclear powers showed little inclination to relinquish their own arsenals.

In addition, Russian leaders have issued more frequent and more explicit nuclear threats than the heads of any other country during the past decade in the context of trying to discourage former Soviet bloc states from joining the NATO alliance or hosting U.S. BMD systems on their territory by warning that such actions could make them legitimate targets for Russian nuclear strikes. Furthermore, TNWs represent one of the few military categories in which Moscow enjoys superiority over the United States or NATO, which enhances Russia’s bargaining position in certain arms control negotiations.

When asked why Russia deserved to be in the G-8, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a January 31, 2006, press conference that, “the G-8 is a club which addresses global problems and, first and foremost, security problems. Can someone in this hall imagine resolving, shall we say, problems concerning global nuclear security without the participation of the largest nuclear power in the world, the Russian Federation?  Of course not.” Later that year, Putin told leading defense sector managers that, “The reliability of our ‘nuclear shield’ and the state of our nuclear weapons complex are a crucial component of Russia’s world power status.”

Putin clearly represents the mainstream Russian view that Moscow’s needs to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal that includes TNWs as well as strategic nuclear forces. This stance makes it unlikely that the United States and NATO will achieve a near-term agreement limiting the number and location of such systems.

Putin’s return also makes it less likely that the Congress will ratify another nuclear arms control agreement any time soon. The U.S. Congress is not anti-Russian, but it is anti-Putin, and selling agreements with the Russian government has become a lot harder.