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Moscow Reportedly Moves Tactical Nuclear Arms to Baltics

Philipp C. Bleek

Russia has reportedly moved tactical nuclear weapons to a military base in Kaliningrad, an action that would contravene its apparent pledge to keep the Baltic region nuclear-free and could violate its 1991 commitment not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. Russian officials have vehemently denied the allegations.

The move was first reported January 3 by The Washington Times, which cited unnamed intelligence sources and classified Defense Intelligence Agency reports, and stated that U.S. officials first became aware of the weapons transfers last June. Following initial press reports, U.S. news organizations reported senior U.S. officials as confirming that the Clinton administration believes Russia has moved tactical nuclear warheads during the past year to the isolated Russian region, which is located between Poland and Lithuania.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would not confirm or deny the reports when asked about them January 4, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher indicated January 3 that the department would be pursuing the issue with Moscow. The Washington Post cited senior U.S. officials as saying they had been closely following Russia's "handling of non-strategic nuclear weapons at stockpile sites" and were neither surprised nor alarmed by recent developments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the allegations "rubbish" when questioned by a reporter January 6. And, in interviews with Russian news agencies, Vladimir Yegorov, a former Baltic Fleet commander and the newly elected governor of Kaliningrad, derisively dismissed the allegations as a "dangerous joke" and bluntly denied that the fleet has nuclear weapons.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew nuclear submarines from the Baltic Sea in 1989 and said that Russia was "prepared to come to agreement with all the nuclear powers and the Baltic states on effective guarantees for the nuclear-free status of the Baltic Sea." No formal agreement was ever pursued, but both U.S. and Russian officials, including Baltic Fleet officers, maintain that Russia has committed to keeping nuclear weapons out of the region.

In late 1991, responding to initiatives announced by President George Bush, Gorbachev pledged to withdraw all naval tactical nuclear weapons from service to be either destroyed or placed in "central storage sites" and to destroy all nuclear warheads for artillery and tactical land-based missiles. These pledges were reaffirmed in 1992 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The presence of any stockpiled weapons in Kaliningrad would violate Russia's apparent pledge to keep nuclear weapons out of the Baltics, and the more serious step of deploying tactical nuclear weapons would clearly violate its 1991 commitment. Russian officials have so far failed to clarify whether the Baltic outpost serves as a storage site for tactical nuclear weapons, although U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Post that Russia used Kaliningrad as a depot for tactical nuclear weapons that were removed from naval vessels in the early 1990s.

Currently, the United States deploys an estimated 200-400 tactical nuclear gravity bombs on NATO bases in Europe, deployments long protested by Russia, and reportedly stockpiles several hundred Tomahawk nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles and more than a thousand nuclear-armed gravity bombs. All of these weapons systems are classed as "tactical" and have yet to be included in any arms control treaties, although there has been some discussion of limiting tactical nuclear weapons under a prospective START III agreement. The size of Russia's tactical nuclear weapons stockpile is the subject of considerable speculation, but Russia has almost certainly not destroyed all its artillery and land-based tactical missile warheads, due at least in part to financial constraints.

Many analysts argue that any deployed tactical nuclear weapons would likely be intended to serve as a response to NATO enlargement and Western military power in the face of continued Russian conventional force decline. Russia vociferously opposed NATO's 1999 expansion to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Several Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—are currently vying to join the alliance in 2002, a move Russian officials have vigorously condemned. Kaliningrad, which is geographically separated from mainland Russia, is considered a key strategic site by Russia's military and would only be further isolated if Lithuania were to join NATO.

Russia conducted a series of war games in June 1999 that simulated a conventional NATO air and sea-based assault on Russia's western and central territory, reportedly beginning with attacks on Kaliningrad. Discussing the "Zapad-99" exercise at a Kremlin press conference the following month, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev stated that "the decision to use nuclear weapons was made" after conventional defenses "proved ineffective [and the] enemy continued to push into Russia." Sergeyev emphasized that the simulated nuclear use, reportedly several nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles, was intended to test "one of the provisions of Russia's military doctrine." (See ACT, January/February 2000. )

Baltic government officials have expressed concern about the reports of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and in a January 7 radio interview Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski called for "international inspections in cooperation with Russia."

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