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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Russia Ready to Reduce to 1,500 Warheads, Addressing Dispute Over Strategic Forces' Fate

Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal will be reduced to 1,500 warheads, Russian news sources reported after an August 11 meeting of the Security Council. The meeting was convened by President Vladimir Putin to resolve a dispute between Russia's most senior military officials, Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev and Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, over the reorganization of Russia's nuclear forces. The council also reportedly decided to shift funds from the Strategic Rocket Forces to conventional weapons procurement as part of a major military budget reorganization and to reconsider the rocket forces' independent status after 2006.

The council's decision appears to be the first time that Russia has indicated a willingness to unilaterally reduce its arsenal, although the planned "gradual" reduction allows Russia time to negotiate additional strategic reduction agreements with the United States to minimize anticipated disparities between the countries' arsenals.

For several years, Moscow has advocated reducing the Russian and U.S. strategic arsenals to 1,500 deployed warheads in the context of a START III agreement. Russia currently deploys about 6,000 warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, while the United States deploys just over 7,000. START II, which has not yet entered into force, requires the countries to reduce their arsenals to 3,000-3,500 deployed warheads each by the end of 2007.

The Russian press reported that the reduction depends in part on progress in strategic arms control agreements. If START III negotiations fail to be initiated or are unsuccessful, or if the United States proceeds with deployment of a national missile defense, the role of the rocket forces is likely to be revisited.

The Security Council's decision appears to be motivated largely by financial factors, as various segments of the armed forces compete for a share of Russia's inadequate military budget. In the absence of official government figures, the size of that budget remains controversial, with reputable analysts positing figures between $5 billion and $55 billion per year, depending on the degree to which purchasing power parity is taken into consideration.

By comparison, the United States is spending about $300 billion on its military this year.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Sergeyev had been clashing publicly with Kvashnin, who has advocated shifting funds from the nuclear forces to conventional force procurement. The current round of the controversy, which dates back to at least 1998, began when Kvashnin, long rumored to be a potential successor to Sergeyev, went public July 12 with a plan to reform Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, responsible for Russia's ICBMs.

According to a July 15 report published in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Kvashnin argued for reducing the number of land-based launchers from the current 756 to 150, consolidating existing rocket forces divisions, dramatically downsizing missile complex personnel, cutting back production of the Topol-M long-range missile, and reducing the rocket forces' share of the military budget from 18 to 15 percent. Kvashnin also called for the Strategic Rocket Forces to be subsumed into the current air force command structure.

Kvashnin, one of the primary architects of the war in Chechnya, has long argued that Russia's nuclear arsenal siphons much-needed resources away from its conventional forces. Many Russian defense officials blame Russia's difficulty in defeating Chechen rebels on the fact that the army is ill-funded and hence ill-equipped.

Sergeyev, who previously served as head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, countered by labeling Kvashnin's plan "criminal stupidity and an attack on Russia's national interests" in a July 14 interview with the Russian news agency Interfax. In a July 15 article, Interfax also cited Sergeyev as arguing that the Strategic Rocket Forces are the centerpiece of Russia's newly adopted military doctrine, which appeared to broaden the range of scenarios under which nuclear weapons could be used in order to compensate for the decline of Russia's conventional forces. (See ACT, May 2000.)

Sergeyev argued that Russia's nuclear forces represent the country's only hope for maintaining a global leadership role and must therefore receive funding priority. Under Sergeyev's leadership at the Ministry of Defense, the Strategic Rocket Forces have claimed almost one-fifth of the military budget and the majority of military procurement funds (reportedly between 50 and 80 percent), as the force struggles to deploy the new Topol-M land-based missile to replace a missile force that is reaching the end of its intended service life. (See ACT, June 2000.)

Both officials argued their positions in the media, resulting in a remarkably public debate about one of the most sensitive Russian policy issues. Putin, speaking during a July 15 visit to a major conventional arms show in the Ural mountains, ordered his generals to silence their debate and come up with realistic policy proposals. The president also fired six senior generals reportedly loyal to Sergeyev on August 1, apparently foreshadowing the result of the August 11 Security Council meeting.

While Russian media reporting on the closed meeting indicated that Putin had sided with proponents of a reduction in both the size and independence of Russia's nuclear forces, Sergeyev emphasized at a subsequent press briefing that "not a single missile…will be removed before the complete expiration" of its functional service life.

The majority of Russia's nuclear weapon delivery systems will have exceeded their service lives by the end of the decade. Budget allocations for Russia's strategic nuclear forces, including the Strategic Rocket Forces as well as the air force and navy arsenals, are already insufficient to perform the upkeep and modernization necessary to maintain the current arsenal.

Regardless of whether the decision to withdraw significant funding from Russia's nuclear forces is implemented, those forces are likely to shrink significantly in the coming decade. The reduction will only be hastened if START II, which prohibits multiple-warhead missiles like the SS-18 that form the backbone of the current Russian arsenal, enters into force.