Russian History


Nuclear Arms Issues

In the 1990s, Russia's status as a nuclear power raised two major issues. First, the deactivation of nuclear weapons in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union caused a series of problems that affected primarily the civilian population. Second, the rate and conditions for reduction of Russia's nuclear arsenal were matters of heated debate among military and civilian policy makers in the mid-1990s.

During five decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union stockpiled an estimated 40,000 nuclear warheads, which were located from the Far East to the Ukrainian Republic on the western border. Besides the Russian Republic, three other Soviet republics--Belorussia, Kazakstan, and Ukraine--had nuclear weapons on their soil. In the early 1990s, Russia and the United States agreed that, to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, the three other republics should relinquish their entire stockpiles to Russia or destroy them. Although the final cleanup of nuclear materials promises to last into the next century, by the end of 1994 the three former Soviet republics had signed START I and the NPT as nonnuclear states. (Ukraine required additional security assurances and financial aid from the United States as a condition of its participation.)

Experts estimated that disposal of all deactivated nuclear warheads would require at least ten years because Russian facilities can only dismantle 2,000 warheads per year. Another complication is the disposition of an estimated 100,000 now-superfluous employees of nuclear weapons installations who had access to nuclear technology; failure to find suitable employment for such individuals might cause them to sell their highly valuable knowledge abroad. And the total number of displaced employees of nuclear installations is estimated to be much larger.

The presence of nuclear material in Russia has caused other problems. Between 1990 and 1994, the number of documented cases of smuggling of nuclear materials out of Russia went from zero to 124, mainly because of lax security at nuclear sites (see Crime, ch. 10). Although most cases of nuclear smuggling have involved civilians, in 1994 naval officers stole three uranium fuel rods from a submarine in Murmansk--and in the mid-1990s the fast-deteriorating living standards of Russia's military made such incidents more likely (see Troop Support Elements, this ch.). The Ministry of Defense has voiced concern that terrorists might take advantage of security lapses to seize a nuclear weapon; in 1995 a Chechen guerrilla leader threatened to use nuclear terrorism against Russia's civilian population. In a deal signed in 1992, the United States agreed to buy 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium, mainly to ensure that such material did not move into unscrupulous hands. In December 1994, Russia and the United States agreed to inform each other of dangerous incidents involving nuclear materials, and the United States has provided assistance in upgrading Russia's nuclear security procedures.

A second problem related to Russia's nuclear arms is the radiation pollution that has resulted from the discarding of nuclear materials into the ground and the sea. The naval forces have continued the Soviet-era practice of dumping nuclear materials overboard in the Sea of Japan and the Kara Sea, provoking strong reactions from neighboring countries. In mid-1996 at least fifty of Russia's decommissioned nuclear submarines were standing with fuel rods intact along the Arctic coast, awaiting dismantlement (see Environmental Conditions, ch. 3).

The geopolitical and diplomatic aspects of the nuclear situation are equally problematic. Russia ratified START I in November 1992. That treaty limited the United States and Russia to 1,600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles--ICBMs) and 6,000 nuclear warheads each. (The actual number was between 7,000 and 9,000 because of the treaty's counting rules.) The treaty also set a limit of 4,900 ballistic missile warheads and 1,100 warheads mounted on mobile ICBMs. The number and configuration of bombers also was prescribed.

In January 1993, United States president George H.W. Bush and President Yeltsin signed START II. That treaty, which is based on the limitations of START I, would eliminate heavy ICBMs and ICBMs with multiple warheads, and the total number of warheads would be reduced from the nominal START I level of 6,000 to an actual figure between 3,000 and 3,500. START II calls for two phases of reduction, the first of which would begin in 2000. At the end of the second phase, new reductions would be complete in all three delivery modes: land-based ICBM, submarine, and bomber.

In March 1993, the Supreme Soviet (later in 1993 renamed the State Duma) began discussion of START II. The debate over ratification of the treaty continued sporadically for three years and showed no signs of reaching a resolution as of mid-1996. Opponents of the treaty described it as another Western effort to penetrate Russia's national security; treaty backers, including Yeltsin, argued that maintaining the nuclear force at START I levels was financially impossible for Russia, so the much lower START II level matches Russia's capabilities while holding the United States far below its potential. In any case, most of the 2,500 warheads that START II would eliminate were outmoded and scheduled for retirement by the mid-1990s. According to Western experts, in 1996 Russia had the financial resources to deploy only about 500 single-warhead ICBMs, although more than 900 were permitted under START I at that point (see Strategic Rocket Forces, this ch.). Also, Russia's failure to ratify START II encouraged the United States to deploy an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system that would negate much of Russia's nuclear potential. The matchup of potential United States ABM capabilities with existing Russian nuclear strike capabilities became a key consideration in the START II ratification debate.

Nevertheless, beginning in 1995 the question of NATO expansion overshadowed other aspects of the START II debate; the more anti-Western State Duma that was seated in January 1996 made the impending expansion of NATO a primary argument against START II ratification. Some Russian treaty supporters concurred that the treaty should not be ratified unless NATO expansion plans were shelved.