Breaking the U.S.-Russian deadlock on nonstrategic nuclear weapons

By , Nikolai Sokov, William C. Potter | December 4, 2009

As U.S. and Russian negotiators hammer out a replacement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires tomorrow, some Republican senators have already criticized negotiators for not including nonstrategic nuclear weapons–a category of nuclear arms not subject to legally binding limits or verification and one in which there is a great disparity between U.S. and Russian holdings. The U.S. nonstrategic nuclear arsenal is estimated at 1,100 warheads (150-200 of them stationed in five European countries–Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) while Russian nonstrategic stocks may number as high as 5,000 warheads.1 Although unwilling to include limitations on nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the current negotiations, U.S. and Russian officials have indicated that nonstrategic nuclear arsenals might be addressed in a new set of arms control talks that is expected to commence after the START replacement treaty is ratified.

On the surface, that logic is sound. The issue of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is the longest existing stalemate on the bilateral arms control agenda. No meaningful negotiations on reducing these weapons have taken place since 1991 when the two sides announced the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives–a set of unilateral parallel political obligations to eliminate, or store at central locations, a large part of U.S. and Soviet nonstrategic weapons.2 And it is highly desirable that a single limit be established on all nuclear warheads, and that all of them be subject to verification pending their elimination.

Nevertheless, expanding the START format to include all nuclear weapons at this stage might create more problems than it would solve. At a minimum, bringing nonstrategic and strategic nuclear weapons into the same set of negotiations would stall, for an indefinite period, negotiations on strategic arms. Plus, the disparity between nonstrategic nuclear weapon holdings will make traditional approaches to reductions difficult, if not impossible. Moscow is certain to balk at the prospect of trading its estimated 5,000 nonstrategic weapons for 1,100 U.S. nonstrategic weapons. For its part, Washington can hardly to agree to equal reductions, which would freeze Moscow’s numerical advantage.

Finally, verification of nonstrategic stockpiles is a nontrivial task and will require accounting for individual warheads for the first time–START only monitors delivery vehicles such as missiles and heavy bombers and does not account for nondeployed warheads. The result would involve much more intrusive verification at military bases, and for the first time, storage sites for nuclear weapons, one of the most sensitive categories of nuclear-related facilities, would be subject to on-site inspections. While such procedures are, in principle, not unthinkable, it would require serious investment of political resources in both countries to overcome entrenched bureaucratic resistance and political opposition.

Thus, it would make more sense to move forward separately with nonstrategic nuclear weapons and then, if progress is achieved, integrate strategic and nonstrategic reductions at a later stage as part of a broader U.S.-Russian agreement on all categories of nuclear weapons. In any case, achieving progress on nonstrategic nuclear weapons will be challenging, and it will require imaginative, nonstandard approaches.

For many years Moscow’s position on nonstrategic nuclear weapons has been inflexible and stagnant. And its agreement to begin negotiations on them has been linked to U.S. acceptance of the idea that nuclear weapons should only be based in national territories–i.e., the withdrawal of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons from Europe. Effectively, Russia is betting that NATO, which is the custodian of the U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, will refuse to accept that principle, and therefore, it will not have to take meaningful measures to address its own nonstrategic weapons.

Calling Moscow’s bluff could be the key to meaningful progress. If U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons are withdrawn from Europe, it would be hard for Russia to continue stonewalling. While such a step is bound to generate controversy in the United States and NATO, especially in Eastern Europe, it is likely to have little impact on U.S. and alliance security, despite assertions to the contrary. There is little evidence, for example, that Washington would resort to nuclear weapons use, much less nuclear weapons of a tactical variety, if an attack were to occur. Furthermore, nonstrategic nuclear weapons are no longer frontline weapons. In fact, they currently can reach only a few targets in Russia and relocation further east would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Charter.

More importantly, the presence (or absence) of a limited number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe can hardly influence the Russian perception of the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. And if need be, Washington has many other tools of reassurance it can employ–e.g., new missile defenses and extended air patrols, not to mention its vast strategic nuclear arsenal. Ultimately, the question is about the political will of U.S. leaders, not about specific assets.

Lastly, the window of opportunity for using nonstrategic weapons in Europe as a lever to induce change in the Russian position is narrow. The dual-capable aircraft that are intended to deliver nonstrategic nuclear weapons are nearing the end of their lifetime. If these systems are allowed to expire, NATO would lose the lever; if they are replaced at high cost, then trading them away would be politically complicated, at best.

To utilize this opportunity, Washington could put forward a statement on its own, or on behalf of NATO, in conjunction with unilateral nonstrategic weapon withdrawal in which it would disclose basic information about its total nonstrategic stockpiles (including those on U.S. territory) and invite Russia to respond in kind. Moscow also could be encouraged to respond by redeploying its nonstrategic nuclear weapons to bases that are geographically further removed from Europe.

There is no guarantee, of course, that unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons from Europe would lead Russia to change its position. It would, however, make it more politically costly, if not impossible, for Moscow to continue to stall. If implemented against the background of positive movement in other areas such as strategic arms reduction, this tactic has a good chance of succeeding. After all, something must be done–and soon. The continuing stalemate over nonstrategic nuclear weapons is unacceptable and represents a needless threat to transatlantic security and President Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

1By the middle of this decade the Russian nonstrategic nuclear arsenal had been reduced by 75 percent from its 1991 levels. (See “Practical Actions of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Disarmament” [in Russian], report presented at the Seventh Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, slide 13.) Reductions have continued since. If data provided by Alexei Arbatov is taken as a baseline, in 1991 the Soviet stockpile consisted of 21,700 warheads, rendering the current figure at less than 5,000 warheads. (Alexei Arbatov, “Deep Cuts and De-Alerting: A Russian Perspective,” in The Nuclear Turning Point (Brookings Institution Press: Washington, D.C., 1999), p. 320.)
2The 1991 statements by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev were subsequently affirmed and expanded upon by Boris Yeltsin in January 1992. The texts of the statements by Bush, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin can be found in the 1992 SIPRI Yearbook (Stockholm: SIPRI, 1993), pp. 65-73, 85-92. For a discussion of these initiatives see William C. Potter and Nikolai Sokov, “The Nature of the Problem,” in Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Options for Control (U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research: Geneva, 2000).

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