President Obama’s recent Berlin speech, during which he called for further US nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, was roundly criticized by Russian elites for its insensitivity to Russian concerns about American conventional weapons and missile defense cabilities, as well as for insisting that Moscow reduce the number of its tactical nuclear weapons. The trajectory of Russian defense policy increasingly makes future bilateral nuclear arms cuts between Washington and Moscow difficult; however, it is too early to write off another round of arms control with Russia just yet.
The Kremlin practices a version of zero-sum realpolitik in international affairs antithetical to effectively confronting its own security challenges. Moscow attempts to legitimize its “great power” status through a number of antiquated methods which make nuclear weapons reductions challenging, including the maintenance of the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. Russia generally lacks soft power mechanisms to project power – remaining committed to its own “special path,” and possession of cumbersome, ill-equipped armed forces. The bases for Russian power in today’s world have more in common with North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan than those of great powers.
The Kremlin’s misguided principals are codified in the 2010 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation (MDRF), which establishes deterrence as the primary goal of defense policy; standing in contrast to the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which puts nuclear proliferation and terrorism at the top of the policy agenda. Conversely, these two issues are mentioned in the sixth, tenth, and eleventh places on the list of the “main external military dangers” in the Russian defense document.
Southern Russia sits on the threshold of the Middle East, while the Russian North Caucasus region is a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. The departure of forces from Afghanistan in 2014 as well as the ongoing Syrian conflict will also have a significant impact on stability in the Russian periphery. In addition, seven states other than the United States possess nuclear armed missiles capable of striking Russia. However, the MDRF identifies NATO enlargement, Western interference in the affairs of Russia and the post-Soviet space, missile defense, the development of non-nuclear precision weapons, and the “militarization of outer space” as the main threats to Russia.
In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev told the Federal Assembly that strengthening air-space defense, integrating ballistic missile defense, air defense, early warning, and space control systems were “one of Russia’s highest priorities.” It is no surprise then that Russia is developing a new heavy ICBM, new ballistic missile submarines, and a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile.
While Russian leaders justify these modernization programs as a necessary response to the perceived threat from the United States and NATO, this buildup is also driven by personal economic and power interests inside the Russian military industrial complex and the Kremlin. As a result, the Russian military will likely look at the end of this project much like it does today – lacking strategic mobility and dependent on nuclear weapons for its first and last line of defense. This in turn will perpetuate Moscow’s seeking of conventional arms restrictions from nuclear weapons reduction negotiations.
In response to Obama’s Berlin speech, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov stated that U.S. missile defense and the participation of other nuclear powers (i.e. China) in future arms control are concerns of Moscow. However, Russian experts have stated that no current or near-future American missile defense system will be capable of having “any significant impact” on the Russian nuclear deterrent potential. In addition, while Russia shares a 5,000-kilometer border with China, Russia has the capability to effectively deter any Chinese nuclear first-strike. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has bungled attempts to address the root cause of its fears of China’s rise, namely, Russia’s shrinking population in Siberia. This has locked in Russian reliance on tactical nuclear weapons to deter Chinese aggression.
And yet, the New START negotiations almost broke down over Russian demands for meaningful limits on U.S. missile defense programs. The latest round of Russian hostility to further nuclear arms cuts could also represent a negotiating tactic ahead of the September meeting between Obama and Putin. Furthermore, Russia does have incentives to engage the United States on further nuclear arms cuts, as Steven Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon have pointed out, such as saving money from not having to build up to New START limits as well as constraining U.S. reserve strategic warheads, where America has a “significant numerical advantage.”
While the road to a new round of nuclear arms reductions will be bumpy given the distance between the defense priorities of the United States and Russia, it is not yet impassable and certainly worth pursuing.