Russian views on U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty

I have an explainer article about Russian perceptions of U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…


Despite Russian urgings, national security adviser John Bolton is insisting that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty prohibits all short-range and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles, both nuclear and conventional, as well as systems that can be used to launch such missiles. As a result of the treaty, neither Russia nor the United States can deploy missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or 310 to 3,420 miles. Since this is a bilateral treaty, other countries are not bound by these constraints.

Since the U.S. government announced its withdrawal plans, Russian officials and experts have weighed in on what this means for Russia and how to respond. Here are five things to know.

1. Russians see the INF treaty as giving unfair advantages to the U.S.

Russian experts and officials have long argued that the treaty that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed with President Ronald Reagan in 1987 was disadvantageous — first to the Soviet Union and then to Russia. Russia gave up its ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles without extracting any restrictions on U.S. sea- and air-launched missiles. That’s significant, because the vast majority of Russia’s nuclear weapons are land-based, whereas the U.S. bases much of its nuclear force on submarines. The Kremlin believes this has allowed the U.S. to dominate the world’s oceans with its Tomahawk cruise missiles, and has left Russia vulnerable to a U.S. sea-launched attack.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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Russia’s Iran Strategy

Another piece that I wrote for Oxford Analytica has been picked up (in edited form) by CNN. Here’s the repost.

In response to Tehran’s announcement of advances in its civilian nuclear capabilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 15 urged the international community to re-engage Iran in serious negotiations, with the aim of forestalling the development of a credible nuclear weapons program. While Russia is often portrayed as uncritically supportive of Iran, the bilateral relationship is more complicated than it appears.

Most Russian corporates have complied with international sanctions, which have made it difficult for multinationals to pursue opportunities in Iran. Large contracts have been repeatedly called off or postponed. Yet economic cooperation, especially in the civilian aviation, telecom and hydrocarbons sectors, remains significant.

While Iran used to be one of Russia’s leading defense industry customers, this relationship has almost completely collapsed in the wake of President Dmitry Medvedev’s September 2010 decision to ban sales of missile systems, armored vehicles, warplanes, helicopters and ships to Iran. This went beyond the U.N.-mandated sanctions. Since then, Russian military sales have been limited to equipment needed to modernize previously transferred anti-aircraft defense systems and electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems.

While bilateral ties have been periodically difficult, Moscow is well aware of Iran’s important geopolitical role – not just in the Middle East, but also Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian leaders have long believed that protests such as the 2009 Green Movement could destabilize a great many states in Russia’s ‘south’, and this view has only been confirmed by the ‘Arab awakenings’. They also fear that an Israeli strike on Iran would be the first step in a regional conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East and generate massive refugee flows into Russia via Azerbaijan. At the same time, Russian policymakers are also concerned about the possibility of Iran creating instability on Russia’s southern border, especially in light of difficult relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Russian military planners recently announced that next autumn’s large-scale military exercise would take place in the Caucasus and involve the premise of a war that begins with an attack on Iran, but turns into a regional conflict that draws in Russia.

Russian leaders believe that Iran already has the technical ability and materials to build a nuclear weapon should it choose to do so. For this reason, it opposes the use of air strikes (or other military means) to damage the Iranian nuclear program. The logic is that while military strikes would certainly set back the program in the short term, they would only reinforce Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon in order to deter potential future attacks. From Russia’s perspective, negotiations are thus the only means to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Russia would like to see a comprehensive agreement, whereby Tehran agrees to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for the end of sanctions and reintegration of Iran into the international community. Should Iran make the first aggressive move by following through on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Russia will benefit in the short term from higher oil prices. However, this would be more than off-set by a subsequent intensification of regional instability. Over the longer term, Russia would be best served by stable oil prices, not extremely high ones.

How many nuclear weapons does Russia need?

This is the question posed by Ilya Kramnik in a recent article on the Voice of Russia radio website. Kramnik argues that Russia’s nuclear posture has been based on the notion of matching the United States, something that is patently impossible given that Russia’s GDP and yearly government budget are tens of times smaller than those of the US.

To this end, Russia has announced a plan for the rapid construction of a total of eight Borei class SSBNs by 2018, with one new submarine to be commissioned every year starting in 2013. While Kramnik argues (correctly, IMO) that this plan is somewhat overoptimistic, he believes that all eight will be completed by 2020 or 2021. But the fact that these submarines can be built (while new ICBMs are being built concurrently) does not negate the question of what is the opportunity cost of spending a huge percentage of this decade’s military procurement budget on new nuclear weapons that are unlikely to ever need to be used.

He argues instead that Russia’s posture should be based on having enough nuclear weapons to deliver a counterstrike that would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This would allow for the Russian nuclear stockpile to drop from the current goal of 1550 warheads on 700 delivery platforms  (i.e. the limits set by the New START treaty) to 900-1200 warheads on 300-400 delivery platforms.

Kramnik notes that Russia’s defense industry is perfectly capable of maintaining the current posture. But limitations on the overall size of the defense procurement budget mean that this level of procurement of strategic nuclear forces can only be accomplished by neglecting the modernization of Russia’s conventional armed forces. And these are the forces that are desperately in need of new equipment in order to be able to successfully carry out missions in the regional and local conflicts that pose a much more likely short-term threat to Russia than the possibility of nuclear war with the United States.

This includes major platforms and systems such as multipurpose nuclear and diesel submarines, fighter aircraft, surface ships, air defense systems, tanks, and artillery. But it also includes more basic needs, such as modern precision-guided munitions, personal combat and communications equipment, etc. Kramnik points out that until such weapons are equipment can be procured in needed quantities, Russia’s position in the world will continue to weaken while its soldiers sustain a higher rate of casualties. And, he argues, this will all be done in the name of maintaining nuclear parity with the United States.

Needless to say, I find this to be a very prudent and realistic assessment of misplaced Russian military procurement priorities. I’m encouraged that Russian commentators are increasingly focusing on this imbalance, rather than supporting the MOD’s drive to maintain nuclear parity out of some sort of continuing sense of desire to maintain great power status. I wonder how Russian planners will change their force posture once the potentially quite significant cuts in US defense spending come into effect over the next couple of years.