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Commentary | 14 February 2011

Nikolai Sokov Speech: NATO-Russia Interaction on Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

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Nikolai Sokov |Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP)

NATO Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

Many are calling for the non-strategic nuclear weapons to figure in the next round of bi-lateral negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. Nikolai Sokov explores the room for negotiation between NATO and Russia on the future of these weaponsHis comments here are drawn from a contribution to an ELN meeting in London in January 2011. 


NATO-Russia Interaction on NSNW: Issues, Opportunities, Institutions

1. The key asymmetry in NATO and Russian views on NSNW has to do with the scope. NATO disarmament policy concentrates on nuclear weapons (averting dangers, addressing imbalances vis-à-vis Russia, Article VI obligations, etc.). The Russian approach is broader and is informed by a now well-known notion that a nuclear-free world is not just the existing world without nuclear weapons. It seeks to address the totality of the military balance in Europe, in particular conventional forces, air- and sea-based long-range conventional strike assets (including U.S. assets outside the area that could be relocated to the region), as well as missile defense.

2. Russian military planners consider U.S. TNW an integral part of the American strategic nuclear force, which is not subject to START treaties, because they can reach Russia; in contrast, Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons, which cannot reach U.S. territory, are regarded as a separate category with a mission of deterring NATO. As a result, Moscow is reluctant to lump all nuclear weapons into a single category within the same negotiating framework.

3. For a long time, the Russian position on NSNW control has been limited to a demand for the withdrawal of all U.S. NSNW from Europe as a precondition for a dialogue. This was primarily a means of avoiding discussion – Moscow relied on NATO’s inability to make such a decision and so far this bet has paid off. Also, if NATO did change its position, this could help to remove U.S. TNW from the strategic balance calculation.

4. While the old position remains in force and the demand for the withdrawal of all U.S. TNW will remain part of any future Russian position, recently Russian analysts, especially in the military, have apparently concluded that it will be difficult to continue stonewalling and have started to contemplate possible options for an agreement. This process is still in an early stage (Moscow has indicated it would wait until implementation of New START is well underway), thus views that can be heard from Moscow are unofficial or preliminary. To the extent that the trajectory can be detected, the key goals of NATO adopted in Lisbon (transparency and relocation) seem achievable with some exceptions, but the price is still an open question.

5. If recent pronouncements are any guide, future talks will pose serious challenges for NATO. Increasingly, Russian experts and officials link NSNW to broader issues of the military balance in Europe, especially conventional strike assets and missile defense. While the latter could be dealt with separately (in the framework of NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense, if it succeeds), avoiding problems over the former might be difficult. Of special interest for Russia are naval long-range conventional weapons (SLCMs). Dealing with them would necessitate expanding the traditional, CFE-style approach to include navies in the vicinity of Europe, including perhaps limits on relocation of U.S. ships and submarines into the area.

6. While concern is focused on conventional weapons, there is no reason to expect Moscow to drop its long-time insistence of complete withdrawal of U.S. TNW from Europe. Thus, even if talks involving Russian NSNW begin, NATO will still have to face a difficult decision on the future of that stockpile. Furthermore, Moscow is bound to include the infrastructure associated with weapons – storage facilities first and foremost.

7. Moscow is likely to seek the inclusion of British and French nuclear forces into the dialogue. While the Russian position is difficult to predict, it seems likely that demands will be limited to a freeze of the current numbers (a figure of maximum 600 warheads for the combined British and French deployed nuclear weapons has surfaced occasionally). An open question is whether Moscow will also insist on transparency and perhaps even verification measures with regard to British and French forces.

8. As we contemplate the framework for a possible NATO-Russia agreement on NSNW, it is necessary to distinguish between several components of that broad category.
a. The short-range variety of NSNW (“tactical” in the strict sense of the word – warheads intended for short-range delivery vehicles) have little if any military utility. In most cases they are stored far from the common border between NATO and Russia (this is especially true for U.S. TNW) or could be relocated away from it (where border between Russia and the Baltic states is concerned). There is no reason to believe that Russia retains nuclear warheads for short-range land-based missiles or plans to acquire them (stories about Kaliningrad or Iskanders near the Baltic states are almost certainly just stories). Progress on short-range weapons appears possible and even likely. Progress seems more likely on this category of NSNW, in particular relocation and reductions.
b. Warheads for intermediate-range air-launched systems (only Russia has these today, but they will likely only last as long as Tu-22M3 medium bombers) and for sea-based systems (after the United States phases out warheads for SLCMs only Russia will have this category) are a somewhat different matter. First, because of range, these systems can still have a military role. Second, the Russian Navy believes it needs these assets to balance the U.S. Navy and appears to be the strongest opponent to any NSNW deals with the West. Finally, a significant quantity of warheads for naval delivery systems is stored at Russian naval bases in the north of the country, just across the border from Norway. It is difficult to expect that Navy would agree to the relocation of these warheads deeper into Russian territory. Achieving progress on this category of NSNW will probably be difficult – there is little the West has to offer in exchange (except in conventional weapons) and Russia is more interested in them.

9. The greatest challenge will probably be transparency and verification; it will also be a source of unending frustration for NATO, which has little to hide. The START approach, which centers on delivery vehicles, is not applicable to NSNW, which are all kept at bases or central storage facilities; Russia has always balked at the prospect of releasing information about its stockpile. On-site verification is likely to be an even greater problem.

10. Given the inevitable complexities of negotiations on NSNW, it would appear advisable not to discard unilateral withdrawal of U.S. TNW from Europe as an option even though it remains highly controversial. There are two main reasons why such a move could be advantageous:
a. Unilateral withdrawal will force Russia to react with its own confidence building measures and thus help achieve early progress, at least in part, on the goals set in Lisbon (transparency and relocation).
b. NATO will be able to shape its policy without concessions inevitably associated with a negotiated solution (for example, it could be possible to retain, for some time, the infrastructure that would allow the return of weapons if necessary, contingency planning for strengthening conventional deterrence, etc.). It is necessary to emphasize that contingency planning without the withdrawal (as it appears to be the case now) will likely be regarded in Moscow as an increase in the level of threat.

11. The first decision NATO needs to make is the format of negotiations: who will be on the Western side of the table? Traditionally, nuclear weapons have been discussed on a bilateral basis between the United States and Russia with NATO remaining in the background (the INF formula that could be perhaps used in this case). This is also the preference of the Obama administration. Even in that case, the United States could still address a large portion of Russian concerns about long-range conventional strike assets. This option will be somewhat easier for NATO to handle because bilateral negotiations could help avoid the complicated process of arriving at consensus decisions within the Alliance. The alternative is the NATO-Russia format in which the entire Alliance will face Russia. An obvious challenge of pursuing negotiations between NATO and Russia will be achieving consensus on every small detail of the future treaty; this appears quite impractical. Russia is likely to prefer that formula, especially if it wants to drag negotiations, because it is bound to be more inclusive in terms of forces subject to the future treaty; Russia might also seeks to revive Medvedev’s earlier proposal on a comprehensive treaty on all aspects of European security.

12. While the proposal, which seems increasingly popular, to involve the NATO-Russia Council in the discussion of NSNW merits serious consideration, it is advisable to limit its role at best to a general discussion of European security and the role of nuclear weapons. It is inadvisable to use this format for negotiations, however: talks will be highly divisive and could undermine the principles upon which the Council is built as well as prospects for cooperation on a variety of issues of mutual interest, such as missile defense or Afghanistan. Even a general discussion of NSNW could pit Russia against NATO within the Council and it might be more prudent to create a separate body dedicated to that issue or a subcommittee within the Council.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.