"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Russia's Strategic Priorities
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Celeste A. Wallander

President George W. Bush announced in December that the United States planned to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in six months. For years, Russia had warned that loss of the treaty would undermine the nuclear strategic stability on which the delicate balance of terror had rested during the Cold War. It had claimed that, without the ABM Treaty, other arms control agreements could not stand, including START I and II, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and even the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Russia’s leaders threatened a new arms race that would restore Cold War acrimony.

Yet, sometime between the first serious Russian warnings in 1999 and the December 2001 decision, something changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the decision by calling it merely a “mistake” and said that it would not harm improving U.S.-Russian relations. Russia has not withdrawn from any arms control agreements; in fact, Russia and the United States are moving forward with discussions for a new offensive arms limitation agreement, perhaps in time for a Bush-Putin summit in early summer 2002.

What has happened to make Russia sanguine about a world without the ABM Treaty? Russia’s priorities have changed, as well as its assessment of what U.S. testing portends for the strategic relationship in the next 10 to 15 years. The political relationship has improved, and the Putin leadership cannot reverse course without closing off vital opportunities for integration and chances to secure resources to solve the terrible problems that plague Russia. In short, what has happened is that the Russian government has bet it will not lose as much from a world without the treaty as it will gain from a United States willing to cooperate. Most of all, Russia’s leaders have realized that U.S. missile defenses will not be a reality for some time and that they can preserve options for responding to potential defenses over the next few years.

The Stakes

The ABM Treaty provided Russia with status, partnership, and security. Status came from locking the United States into a bilateral relationship that no other country shared. The ABM Treaty preserved an aspect of superpower status that Russia could claim even as its conventional forces shrunk to nearly one-fourth their former size and its strategic nuclear arsenal dropped to nearly half of its Cold War high. By the same token, the treaty created a claim for partnership in negotiating strategic stability in the new security environment. Although the Bush administration tried to relegate Russia to a lower priority in U.S. foreign policy in the early months of its term, it found it needed to take Russia seriously to try to find a compromise on the ABM Treaty, if only to reassure European allies that the United States remained a reliable partner.

At the same time, the ABM Treaty provided security benefits. Nuclear deterrence policy is not merely about mutual assured destruction and the threat of being able to launch a few missiles at vulnerable cities. It remains based on counterforce calculations: we hold at risk not merely (or primarily) cities and citizens to deter leaders in other states, but military, defense, and industrial infrastructure.1 By preventing the United States from deploying defenses, the ABM Treaty limited U.S. counterforce capability.

The decision to forego these advantages without vehement objection is due in part to a new leadership style (Putin’s pragmatism vs. Boris Yeltsin’s high drama), but it is more importantly rooted in a shift in priorities. Putin’s foreign policy serves his domestic economic goals: to stabilize, regularize, and restructure the economy to support a 21st century Russian society and cultivate a newly confident Russian state. The Putin leadership wants Russian businesses to produce and invest, not merely strip assets and hide them abroad. It seeks good business relations with export markets and potential foreign investors.

The opportunity for substantially improved relations with the United States is key to Putin’s priority for economic growth and integration. Economic and business relations with Europe are strong, but they are not enough. Russia needs U.S. support for accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which should expand Russia’s export markets and provide leverage for cleaning up Russia’s business practices. If that happens, Russian businesses would become more competitive, and international investors might become willing to invest substantial amounts of capital into new and reformed Russian enterprises.

On the security front, the biggest problems facing Russia this decade are NATO and instability and terrorism in Eurasia. Russia and the United States now agree that counterterrorism is their central security priority. It does not make sense for Russia to undermine its partnership in a vital security issue by worsening relations over the less immediate concern about missile defenses. NATO’s future as a military alliance in Europe is much more important than future missile defenses because it affects how Russia will reform its conventional military forces. Putin has invested considerable diplomatic effort in reassuring European partners that Russia is a responsible neighbor. One element of Putin’s campaign has even been to propose joint development of European missile defense systems, possibly in the context of NATO. For such a cooperative security posture toward Europe to remain credible, Putin can hardly break off relations with the United States and embark upon a nuclear arms race.

However, these economic and political priorities alone would not matter if the Russian security leadership had not come to the conclusion that the U.S. decision poses no threat to Russia in the short term and does not rule out long-term options to preserve Russia’s nuclear capability. Russian government statements since the decision have repeatedly asserted that U.S. testing is unlikely to result in a successful comprehensive national missile defense system. Therefore, although Russia loses the ABM Treaty, it retains assured retaliation capability for the short and medium terms. Both Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have stated explicitly that Russia can afford to wait and watch as the United States tests and develops missile defense because it is not expected that even a limited U.S. system—let alone one big enough to negate Russia’s deterrent capability—will be ready for 10, 15, or maybe 20 years.2

Russia’s Strategic Future

Earlier Russian threats to withdraw from a broad array of international and bilateral arms control treaties have largely disappeared. Such actions would be clearly counter to Russia’s own interests. Russia will concentrate on specific measures and capabilities to preserve its assured retaliation capability, not on destroying international treaties simply to make a point about U.S. unilateralism.

Russia’s immediate focus will be the new offensive arms control talks and a potential agreement linking offensive and defensive systems. Numbers for the new agreement are not in dispute. Russia can accept the 2,200-warhead ceiling the United States has proposed, although Russia envisions reductions to 1,500 warheads. Russia prefers a treaty, although Putin might accept a formal executive agreement if that is as far as the United States will go, especially if it includes transparency measures in defensive systems.3

The most important problem is likely to be the meaning of “operationally deployed warheads” in a new treaty. As proposed by the Bush administration, the term would not apply to warheads removed from delivery vehicles that had been removed from launch platforms. Such a definition would mean that the United States would preserve the ability to reconstitute American strategic forces well beyond the 1,700-2,200 warheads being discussed if the new agreement does not mandate destruction of the delivery vehicles and launch platforms. The Russians well understand this, and they are very much opposed.4

If the United States insists on the treaty limiting only operationally deployed warheads and preserving delivery vehicles and launch platforms for a reconstitution capability, Russia will insist on maintaining the same option (if not same capability). This could mean that Russia might preserve warheads in excess of 1,500, as well as delivery vehicles and launch platforms. This would make little economic sense because Russia simply cannot afford to preserve the Cold War Soviet arsenal, even in storage, on a military budget (projected for 2002) of only $9 billion. However, arms control is political, so if the United States is granted the right to preserve a hedge force, any bilateral agreement will have to grant Russia the same rights. Russia may not exercise the right, but such a hedge force would provide Russia with additional options for countering a significant U.S. missile defense system, should such a system be successfully developed and deployed.

The resulting negative nonproliferation implications are clear: if Russia did exercise the right to preserve a hedge force, large numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles would have to be stored, maintained, and secured. A renewed threat reduction effort might be joined to the treaty to provide for safe and secure storage of nondeployed Russian warheads and delivery vehicles. However, having the U.S. taxpayer preserve Russia’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear forces (against the United States) might be a complicated political issue. Even if Washington were willing to pay, Moscow might be unwilling to allow U.S. involvement in creating and maintaining systems to secure a nuclear arsenal meant to be reconstituted against a reconstituted U.S. force. Without some system to secure non-operationally deployed Russian warheads, further arms reductions risk creating a greater proliferation danger.

START I may survive loss of the ABM Treaty with or without new agreements on reductions and defense transparency. Russia has some interest in the treaty as a way to limit U.S. nuclear forces to some degree and (more importantly) to keep the verification regime and attendant Russian claims on U.S. transparency. Russian sources claim that withdrawal remains a possible response if things go badly in the security relationship, especially given substantial discontent with the treaty in the Russian military.5 U.S. sources are skeptical that Russia would give up an international treaty that gives Russia a claim on how the United States shapes its nuclear forces. If a new offensive arms agreement succeeds in creating new limits and a verification regime, START I might not be needed. If the negotiations fail, START I becomes more valuable for the existing transparency and verification system, but also more difficult to preserve if Russia views the failure as due to American bad faith.

Even if START I remains in force, Russia is considering options to enhance its retaliatory capability in the event the United States does successfully test and deploy missile defenses. It is virtually certain that START II will never come into force. The Russian Duma ratified the treaty on the condition the ABM Treaty remain in force. Without START II, Russia can maintain existing MIRVed ICBMs permitted under START I, including SS-18s and SS-24s, considered important by Russian analysts to increase the invulnerability of Russia’s retaliatory capability against an enhanced counterforce capability that would accompany a missile defense shield. Whether Russia would in fact keep these missiles is questionable because they are aging beyond their service life and need to be retired regardless of arms control treaties, but preserving them is one way for Russia to keep its options open.

Russian officials talk most about the option to put up to three warheads on the new SS-27 (Topol-M). Designed in response to the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, the SS-27 incorporates features meant to make it more difficult for a missile defense system to track and destroy. Russia may resume production of 10 SS-27s per year—up from the six per year that production had fallen to in 2000 and 2001 due to budget constraints—although this level would remain well below the 30-40 SS-27s Russia had originally planned to deploy each year.6

In the weeks since the U.S. decision, however, President Putin and Defense Minister Ivanov have both stated that Russia has no immediate plans to MIRV its SS-27s. Although deploying multiple warheads per missile would be cheaper than maintaining more missiles, it would not be costless to deploy fully operational MIRV systems for the SS-27. Clearly, the Russian government plans to maintain the option of MIRVing SS-27s, as well as maintaining existing MIRVed ICBMs permitted by START I in the event the United States does successfully deploy missile defenses. Putin has also said that Russia’s decision on MIRVing will depend on the “quality” of the U.S.-Russia relationship. His criteria are most likely a new arms agreement, U.S. support for Russian WTO membership, and the NATO-Russia relationship.

Russia’s other option is to develop countermeasures, such as decoys and technology to maneuver warheads in flight.7 Countermeasures would be expensive, and a decision to develop them would depend on how threatened Russia believed its retaliatory capability to be by new U.S. defense systems. Russia can live with a U.S. capability to shoot down 20-30 incoming warheads. Beyond that, Russia would begin to explore countermeasure options. The problem of expense for such research and development could well be mitigated by Russian-Chinese cooperation in countermeasures development, which is one reason their joint opposition to U.S. missile defense played such an important role in the 2001 Russia-China Friendship and Cooperation Treaty.8

The Long Term

Putin’s popularity and effectiveness as president remain high. His public opinion support numbers are around 80 percent, and his legislation breezes through the Duma and Federation Council. He continues to move supporters and associates into key positions and has achieved greater control over Russia’s regional leaders. Putin’s decision to support the U.S. war on terrorism and accept the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty have not been enthusiastically supported, but they have not caused visible opposition. As long as the Russian economy remains strong, Russian public support for Putin will hold.

The greater risk is that Putin will face opposition within defense, security, and foreign policy circles if he has nothing to show for pragmatic cooperation with the United States. Russian analysts warn that Putin risks being as alone, and vulnerable, as Mikhail Gorbachev was in 1991.9 Putin probably would not be toppled from office, but that does not mean that his problems in Russian defense and security circles would not affect U.S. interests. U.S.-Russian security cooperation, particularly for securing and disposing of Russia’s numerous weapons of mass destruction, requires active support from Russia’s defense interests, not just lack of active opposition.

For example, initiatives to support alternative employment for Russian scientists that used to work on weapons of mass destruction have been sometimes hindered when Russian security officials block access to facilities in which the scientists are working in new commercial enterprises because defense-related work also continues there. Security officials are also sensitive about Western access to information about Russia’s submarine force (nuclear-weapons capable boats as well as those simply powered by nuclear reactors), the dismantling and securing of which is a major U.S. nonproliferation concern. The sensitivity of the issue and influential role of the FSB in limiting transparency is evidenced in the conviction in December 2001 of Grigory Pasko, a journalist who revealed dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific by the Russian navy, and in the prosecution of Igor Sutyagin, a researcher who relied upon unclassified information to write analyses of Russia’s navy under a Western contract.

In these and other cases, cooperation and transparency are sensitive because American intentions in dismantling Russia’s weapons of mass destruction are questioned. In many instances, concerns have been allayed and cooperation achieved, as evidenced in the impressive achievements of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and related projects for nonproliferation cooperation. But success requires willingness and goodwill on the part of Russian officials at all levels, not merely those at the top.10 As the counterterrorism campaign takes on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the stakes in how the United States and Russia manage their post-ABM relationship will grow.

1. For an excellent and succinct explanation of war-fighting, counterforce, and deterrence, see Bill Keller, “Missile Defense: the Untold Story,” The New York Times, December 29, 2001.
2. “Putin hits at US decision to pull out of ABM Treaty,” The Financial Times, December 14, 2001; “Russian Defense Minister Says Proposed U.S. Missile Defense May Never Happen,” Associated Press, December 18, 2001.
3. Discussion with Russian officials in Washington, December 2001; Fred Weir, “Russia Remains Skeptical of Paperless Disarmament,” The Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2002.
4. For a Russian analysis of U.S. “downloading” and the implications of warheads that are not “operationally deployed,” see Pavel Podvig, “The End of Strategic Arms Control?” PONARS Policy Memo Series #217 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001).
5. Nikolai Sokov, “Void Left by the ABM Treaty in Danger of Widening,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, January 2, 2002.
6. For numbers, design characteristics, and capabilities of Russian nuclear forces, see Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
7. Mikhail Khodarenko, “Na povestke dnya-gonka vooruzheniy,” Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, December 21, 2001.
8. Nikolai Sokov, “What Is at Stake for the United States in the Sino-Russian Friendship Treaty?” PONARS Policy Memo Series #200 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001).
9. Aleksei Arbatov, “Dogovor po PRO i terrorizm,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 26, 2001.
10. Oleg Bukharin, Matthew Bunn, and Kenneth Luongo, “Renewing the Partnership: Recommendations for Accelerated Action to Secure Nuclear Material in the Former Soviet Union,” report of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, August 2000; “Russia ‘Nuclear Regionalism’ and U.S. Policy,” proceedings of a conference held by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute for International Studies, March 19, 2000.

Celeste A. Wallander is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.