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U.S., Russia Debate Tactical Nuclear Arms

Wade Boese

Washington and Moscow sparred over each other’s tactical nuclear weapons following an Oct. 5-6 visit to Russia by a senior Department of State official, who also rebuked Russia for not withdrawing its armed forces from two of its neighbors.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker indicated that the United States had questions about Russia’s fulfillment of October 1991 pledges regarding its tactical nuclear weapons, which are warheads designed for use on the battlefield rather than the more powerful kinds deployed on long-range missiles and bombers.

Specifically, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev promised Moscow would dismantle its nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, mines, and artillery munitions. Gorbachev also pledged to store in central locations nuclear warheads removed from air defense missiles, surface ships, multipurpose submarines, and land-based naval aircraft. The Soviet president volunteered these steps in response to similar unilateral moves announced by President George H. W. Bush days earlier. Together, the commitments are known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). (See ACT, October 1991.)

The Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries offered their assessments Oct. 7 on how well Gorbachev’s goals had been achieved. The Defense Ministry claimed that “[t]he Russian side has fulfilled these obligations by dismantling nuclear warheads from ground-based tactical missiles and removing tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and submarines.” For its part, the Foreign Ministry stated, “Russia has practically carried out in full all of the [tactical nuclear-weapon] reduction initiatives that had been put forward.” It added, “All those weapons, unlike the situation with the United States, are located solely within our national territory.”

The 26-member NATO alliance stations nearly 500 U.S. nuclear gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. NATO asserts its nuclear weapons holdings, which peaked at more than 7,000 warheads, are “an essential political and military link” for alliance members.

The State Department released a statement Oct. 20 to Arms Control Today regarding the two Russian ministries’ declarations. “We believe that Russia, for the most part, has been implementing its PNI pledges, but the U.S. will continue to keep this issue under review.”

Little reliable public information exists about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. At a minimum, the Kremlin is estimated to have at least 3,000 such weapons deployed.

The United States and Russia agreed in March 1997 to explore transparency measures for tactical nuclear weapons, but formal talks never got underway.

Although Washington has some uncertainty about Moscow living up to its tactical nuclear weapons pledges, no such doubts exist about the Kremlin’s failure to get its military out of Georgia and Moldova. Rademaker fumed that Russia’s lingering presence is a “source of considerable frustration.”

Moscow agreed in November 1999 to pull all of its troops from Moldova by the end of 2002 and to negotiate a Russian forces withdrawal schedule with Georgia in 2000. Neither has taken place, and Rademaker warned that, until they do, NATO members would not match Russia’s moves toward ratifying the 1999 adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits the amount of heavy weaponry permitted on a country’s territory.

Moscow wants this treaty, which is an updated version of an accord concluded almost a decade earlier, to enter into force because NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have no current arms limits because they are not bound by and cannot join the original treaty. The older treaty will remain in effect until all of its 30 states-parties ratify the 1999 overhaul. Only Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have completed this action; Russia has done everything but taken the last step of depositing its instrument of ratification. (See ACT, September 2004.)

The Kremlin charges that the United States and NATO are improperly tying the adapted CFE Treaty to Russia’s Georgia and Moldova commitments, but Rademaker argued that Russia agreed to both “simultaneously” and they are inextricably linked. “I must say it’s inexplicable to me why we don’t see more progress,” he said.

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