Consolidating Threat Reduction

Harold P. Smith Jr.

In recent years, the leaders of Russia and the United States have had to acknowledge a profound irony: the more they succeed in reducing Cold War arsenals of alert nuclear weapons, the greater their vulnerability to nuclear terrorism. The threat comes from stolen weapons that are no longer on alert and have no ostensible purpose; they are simply waiting to be dismantled. It would seem that the nuclear sword has two edges: we are blunting the one by reducing the alert arsenals while sharpening the other by increasing the number of resultant, sometimes poorly stored, nonalert weapons. In an age of nuclear terrorism, we may well find that the second edge is highly lethal, impossible to deter, and harder to control.

Unfortunately, this prospect is particularly serious in Russia, where there are thousands of nuclear weapons stored, not on a few, well-guarded military bases but rather on many poorly guarded sites, often in the remote and harsh areas of its enormous landmass. Even the number of sites is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 65 to 123.1 There, the weapons are guarded by underpaid, under-equipped, and under-trained soldiers, many of whom are conscripts. The warheads of such weapons, no longer on alert, are not covered in the treaty signed in Moscow in June nor in any other formal treaty.2 They are the detritus of the Cold War, and the variety is staggering, ranging from “suitcase weapons” to those that could be used on the battlefield, so-called tactical nuclear weapons, to nonalert strategic weapons that were once targeted against the United States. Such weapons are vulnerable to smuggling (insider attack) and to theft (outsider attack), and there is no lack of wealthy customers, al Qaeda being one. If the West is to avoid nuclear terrorism, denial of access to these weapons must be comprehensive and immediate.3

Yet, such rapid action is not occurring because of obstacles in Moscow and Washington. Although it is the stated intention of Russia to eliminate these weapons, the demonstrated rate of elimination is, at best, a thousand per year with little hope of improvement.4 The Kremlin will not allocate what few resources it has to something as economically unproductive as improving storage of near-useless nuclear weapons. At the same time, according to the Federal Acquisition Regulations, the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which has the funding and the mission, cannot provide the wherewithal to improve storage unless Russia allows U.S. specialists to have access to the actual storage sites—something that the Kremlin has been reluctant to grant.

The result is a standoff in which the Americans are requesting too much and the Russian are granting too little. The U.S. goal seems to be to secure most of the present sites5 when a handful of fully consolidated sites would cost less and provide more security. The Russians, on the other hand, are resisting access to more than a few and have shown no sign of wanting to consolidate their nonalert weapons within those few. Both sides seem incapable of recognizing that the massive nuclear attack threatened during the Cold War is no longer credible and that the right policy is for the Americans to request, and for the Russians to grant, access to only a handful of sites on which all nonalert weapons would be stored as they await dismantlement.

Overcoming Impediments to Consolidation

So, what is stopping progress? Seemingly, the list is endless. The impediments are so broad and powerful that any decision regarding U.S. access and consolidation can come only from the top of the Russian government and then only if the top is convinced that the various constituencies lack the interest or wherewithal to contest the decision.

Two of the most formidable impediments are fear of intelligence collection and resentment of NATO nuclear weapons, but there are many more: bureaucratic inertia, economic considerations, legal issues, cultural aspects, military doctrine, resentment of U.S. and NATO foreign policy and operations, abandoned and unratified treaties, unfulfilled unilateral initiatives—and these are only on the Russian side. There are also U.S. concerns, many of which are found in high places in the administration and in Congress. They are based on a fear that Russia will rise again as the nuclear enemy of the West and that, therefore, any aid to their nuclear forces today will be a nuclear threat tomorrow. The problem is that these concerns, although legitimate, pale in comparison to the threat of nuclear terrorism in the post-9/11 era and should be set aside.6 The Russian concerns are more serious, more difficult to set aside, and obviously beyond the fiat of the U.S. government.

Fortunately, a little-noticed decision last year demonstrated that these obstacles can be overcome. On April 1, 2002, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov decided that U.S. CTR specialists would have access to a few nuclear-weapon storage sites in order to assist Russia in improving the security of the weapons stored there.7 Such a reversal in policy, promulgated with no fanfare, suggests that the Kremlin could take an even bolder step given the proper push from the United States.

Some of the Russian impediments, although easily predictable, are often beyond the reach of U.S. foreign policy. Among these are bureaucratic inertia, legal restrictions, and simple pride. Others are more amenable to U.S. actions; foreign, defense, and economic considerations come immediately to mind with economic considerations, surprisingly, being the most critical. Kasyanov’s 2002 decision shows how these obstacles might be overcome in a future consolidation program.

Intelligence Collection

Fear of intelligence collection, at least at the level of implementation, was set aside in the early stages of the CTR program. Certainly, the Russians must have expected that various sensing devices would be inserted into the containers and rail cars that were constructed by the Americans and used to transport nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Fortunately, such fears were overridden by the intense desire of Russia to have control of the weapons and by the U.S. decision not to engage in intelligence collection under any circumstance. The requisite trust was built from the very beginning of the program thanks to the urgency of the operation and the steady determination not to dilute cooperative threat reduction with any other missions.

Whether that trust propagated to the upper reaches of Russia’s Federal Security Service FSB is, of course, an open question, but at least it is certain that General Yevgeniy Maslin, then commander of the 12th Main Directorate (12th GUMO) and responsible for storage of all nonalert nuclear weapons, carried the message of trust to all who would listen. Moreover, that message was strong enough to survive the revelation of U.S. intelligence devices being employed in UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) operations in Iraq8 and to provide clear evidence to support a decision to overrule the presumed objections of the FSB.

Bureaucratic Inertia

Bureaucratic inertia, like the poor, will always be with us, whether American or Russian; and moving a bureaucracy or even overruling it is often the mark of a great leader. In Western democracies, public clamor can be a useful tool, but Russia is steeped in bureaucracy and new to the ways of public opinion and to an active, investigative, free press. Furthermore, storage of nuclear weapons is hardly the stuff of public excitement or even interest. Its very dullness is, in fact, its greatest virtue: the bureaucracy could be quietly overruled, and the press and the public did not even notice. So long as the president remains generally popular, which is the situation pertaining for the moment, the bureaucrats will remain quiet.

Military Doctrine

Russian military writings suggest that great importance is placed on tactical nuclear weapons to deter aggression, to signal intent should conventional operations go awry, and to prevail on the battlefield should deterrence and signaled intent fail to achieve their goals.9 To justify this position, Russia can cite the tactical nuclear doctrine of NATO during the Cold War when Western Europe was faced with the overwhelming conventional power of the Red Army. In this case, tactical nuclear weapons were widely dispersed, and their intended first use by NATO in the event of invasion was made amply clear. Today, it could be argued that Russia feels compelled to have a similar deployment of tactical nuclear weapons within easy reach of those borders where it could face superior conventional military force. The fact that NATO continues to deploy its nuclear weapons in various sites in Europe would give substance within the Kremlin to this doctrine. Furthermore, the Russians are intent on retaining their air-launched cruise missiles with tactical nuclear warheads, which are allowed under joint unilateral pledges in 1991 from Russia and the United States to scale back their deployed tactical weapons. The Kremlin wants to hold on to these air-launched missiles as potential strategic weapons should the United States choose to deploy the strategic weapons it will be allowed to retain in a nonoperational status under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.10

Although the military might be willing to allow U.S. experts to assist directly in the storage of weapons awaiting dismantlement, it is doubtful that such experts would be welcomed at those bases where tactical nuclear weapons serve current military plans and doctrine. It is better from the military point of view to have either no access or limit access to storage sites rather than deployed sites. The latter case offered just the wedge that the prime minister needed to overrule the military and grant access to a few sites, leaving the question of tactical nuclear-weapon doctrine unanswered for the time being.

Legal Issues

Russia is not the only country where private and public officials resort to the statement “It’s the law” with the hope that a particularly nettlesome request will be dropped. It matters not whether there is such a law. At its most simple, of course there are laws that preclude U.S. citizens from rummaging around nuclear-weapon storage sites. How could it be otherwise? The real question concerns the details. Are they laws, duly enacted by the legislature and upheld by the courts; executive decrees; bureaucratic regulations; or international agreements, open or secret, bilateral or multilateral? If the “law” is to be legally set aside or circumvented, the details determine the tactics; few countries have a more complex set of laws, broadly defined, than Russia.11

Many channels were explored to uncover the legal details, including the obvious one of asking officials of the 12th GUMO to cite the pertinent law, but their answers were obscure and did not lead to investigable bodies of law. Next, U.S. legal experts from a variety of venues were consulted with regard to specific details and were forced to acknowledge that Russian officials could be justified in concluding that “Russian law does not allow it.”12 On the other hand, they concluded that international treaties, in particular, the Agreement On Security of Transportation, Storage and Destruction of Weapons and the Prevention of Weapons Proliferation, June 17, 1992 could be interpreted as providing legal means for U.S. access.13

Why officials of the 12th GUMO failed to take advantage of this opportunity is another question, but one more likely related to bureaucratic maneuvering than strict adherence to the law. In any case, the legalistic fig leaf such arguments provided disappeared when Kasyanov quietly announced his decision.


No matter how Russia and the United States may try to portray CTR, it is easily recognized as a client-donor relationship and probably resented throughout the hierarchy with which the program must deal. Russia is a proud nation with a unique culture and a long history that includes the bloody defeat of Hitler’s armies, where most Russians believe that Russia saved the West and then rose to be the equal of the United States. Now, Russia is a poor nation needing the assistance of the West in the dismantling of the very arsenal that made it a superpower, and worst of all, the United States is requesting access to the burial grounds of that proud if misguided heritage. It should surprise no one that resistance to that assistance, particularly access to nuclear weapons, can be found at every level. Because of pride, a Slavic shrug, certainly not wild applause, is about the best that CTR can expect for its effort.

On a more personal level, consider the case of the commander of a storage site. As an officer in the 12th GUMO, he was chosen because of superior capability, considers himself to be a member of an elite corps, and knows well that Russian nuclear weapons were guarded effectively for a half century using Russian equipment and methods. The U.S. approach to the storage of weapons, although different, is not necessarily better in his mind, especially when applied to Russian conditions. All he needs is adequate support from his superiors, and that of course is exactly what he is not getting. Instead, he will be asked to embrace U.S. experts who will come, like the Internal Revenue Service, to examine his command and help him do his job. Inevitably, the U.S. experts, no matter how diplomatic, will find fault with his operation, or why else would they be there? In one way or another, the inadequacies of his performance will be reported to his superiors with consequent adverse effects on his career, or so he must think. This is the man on whom the 12th GUMO depends to carry out its mission and to whom they must listen as they prepare their response to the question of granting access. Conditioned acceptance is probably the heartiest recommendation that will be made in such councils.14

Whether conditioned acceptance or Slavic shrug matters not, so long as the impediment of pride can be overruled at the highest level. There is a price for abusing the pride of one’s subordinates, but a popular president can afford to pay that price. Evidently, his prime minister was willing to do just that last year.

Economic Versus Foreign Policy

President Bill Clinton’s famous description of the presidential campaign of 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid,” appears to have been heard, understood, modified, and adopted by Vladimir Putin, i.e., the Russian economy determines Russian foreign policy and not vice versa.15 How else can one explain the Russian reaction or lack of reaction to a variety of initiatives by the United States and NATO? Conversely, whenever U.S. initiatives in foreign policy tend to undermine potential markets for Russian services and products, the Kremlin is far less accommodating. The primary reason that Putin is looking westward is not for political advantage but for foreign investment and access to foreign markets. For the foreseeable future, his is a policy of Real Okonomi—not realpolitik.

Fortunately, access to nuclear weapons storage sites is a political decision with little economic impact and with quiet appreciation by the U.S. government—appreciation that Kasyanov believed and believes, as a former minister of finance, could be useful diplomatic capital to spend on more crucial economic bargaining. The Russian bureaucracy, broadly defined, may not have liked the decision but must have recognized that it is consistent with the overall policy of a popular president.

At the same time, given the lack of domestic support, Kasyanov has been quite cautious, doing far less than is needed to counter the true danger. Rather than immediate and comprehensive access to all storage sites, the Americans were given access only to those areas of those sites where CTR is paying for the effort, i.e., the Russians will allow only what the U.S. regulations demand. Clearly, the prime minister balanced a variety of interests and decided to offer only what was necessary to provide additional financial support—all in accordance with Real Okonomie.

Consolidation of Storage Sites

Furthermore, in a sense, he may have been right: the long-range goal should not be to secure all the current sites; rather, it should be to secure a much smaller set containing all the nonalert weapons. Common sense and U.S. experience suggest that there should be about a handful of such sites rather than the large numbers of sites where they are currently stored. When the fear is theft of a single weapon among thousands, an economy of scale, which gives preference to a few large sites, surely pertains. Simply put, the calculus began to change with the fall of the Soviet Union and was completely altered by the events of September 11. The Russians no longer need to disperse their nuclear weapons as a means to reduce the effectiveness of a U.S. nuclear attack; rather, they need to consolidate them to reduce the likelihood of theft by terrorists. It may well be that the Kremlin understands this and is biding its time in announcing a consolidation of sites. However, it could also be true that Liddell Hart was right: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old idea out.”16

Consolidation and centralization of warhead storage would have two clear benefits. First, it would simplify security; second, the economies of scale would reduce the cost of operations to the Russians. So, if consolidation offers more security for less money, why has Russia not already done so? As usual, money, or the lack of it, is the reason. In this case, savings over the long run can only be realized by investment in the near term, and that investment in a handful of new and/or greatly improved sites is beyond the reach of the Russian economy, given the many other demands for discretionary rubles.

So, What Is There to Do?

Given that the greatest near-term threat today to the United States from the Russian nuclear stockpile is the potential leakage of a few weapons to terrorists, that the CTR program has the funds and the mission to assist Russia in the secure storage of that stockpile, that access to a few storage sites has been granted at the highest level of the Russian government, and that access to all the sites in the near term is unlikely, the CTR program should assign top priority to underwriting the construction of a few central storage sites that meet present-day requirements and to transporting all nonalert weapons to those sites. Put simply, the correct approach for CTR calls for access today at what will become the central storage sites of tomorrow with consolidation within those sites to follow. CTR should not simply acquiesce with the Russian policy that seems content with the slow securing of many tens of sites.

The question of safe storage of alert tactical weapons can be postponed for the moment. These are composed of weapons that are allowed under the 1991 U.S.-Russian understandings and are suitable for cruise missile and long-range bomber delivery. The number of sites should, therefore, be few in number and presumably well guarded by the Russian military. If any rubles are available for nonstrategic weapons, it is reasonable to presume that this is where they will be invested. After all, they guard the borders of Russia itself.

In addition to the obvious financial incentive and technical expertise of CTR assistance in this area, there are additional incentives that the U.S. government could place on the table. Foremost among these is the removal of U.S. weapons from NATO soil. Russian officials on practically all occasions have complained stridently about nuclear weapons within NATO, compared with none within the Warsaw Pact. It is certainly difficult for U.S. officials to argue that Russia should consolidate its nonalert weapons to a few sites and, at the same time, admit that U.S. nuclear weapons are standing on alert throughout Europe to be launched against an enemy that no longer exists. The British recognized this simple fact a decade ago when they removed their NATO nuclear weapons from the Continent and deployed them on submarines with the promise that they would be available for NATO operations if and when called upon. The United States could do the same without undermining its obligations to NATO and greatly easing its negotiations with Russia in matters where the threat is urgent, that is, denying nuclear weapons to terrorists.

What cannot be applied to this negotiation is the denial of CTR funds for other projects if the Russians prove to be uncooperative with respect to consolidation. U.S. interests are best served by CTR continuity even if it means the acceptance of the slower Russian approach to consolidation. Despite this weakness in the U.S. negotiating posture, the question remains: Now that Russia has offered limited access, can it be convinced to consolidate its storage sites, and if so, how? The overwhelming importance to Putin of developing the Russian economy and joining it to the West will certainly be part of the answer.

This article is based in part on work conducted at the University of California Berkeley under contract for the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the University of California system.

1. Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Tom Z. Collina and Jon B. Wolfstahl, “Nuclear Terrorism and Warhead Control in Russia,” Arms Control Today, April 2002; Matthew Bunn, “The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Materials,” April 2000, available at

2. Launchers of nonstrategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons, but not the warheads themselves, were reduced by the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. Submarine-launched cruise missiles, but not the warheads, were reduced as part of START I. The existence of these tactical nuclear warheads was acknowledged in the Presidential Nuclear Initiative signed by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and the the understandings were strengthened by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Although both nations agreed to reduce their stock of such weapons by specified amounts, there was no means for verification or enforcement. See Yuri Fedorov, “Sub-Strategic Nuclear Weapons: Russia’s Security Interest and Prospects of Control,” Yaderny Kontrol 7, no. 4 (Fall 2002).

3. Thomas Friedman, “No Mere Terrorist,” The New York Times, March 24, 2002.

4. The rate of dismantlement in the United States is not much better, although storage is far better. Neither country has much reason to increase the rate; dismantlement of nuclear weapons is a dying industry. There are far better places for investment of federal dollars and rubles.

5. For example, the citation for the Fleming Award to William Moon, the CTR official most responsible for the successful effort with Russia in securing their nuclear weapons, states that he “worked diligently to persuade the Russian Ministry of Defense leadership that the Department of Defense honestly intended to help their nation enhance security at over 50 nuclear weapon storage facilities. ”

6. Susan Eisenhower, “Terrorism and the Nuclear Question,” Address to the National Press Club, February 11, 2002.

7. Four sites were initially identified, and two have since been added. “Access” has been defined as three inspections per site to ensure that the CTR funds have been correctly applied to specified improvements.

8. Barton Gellman, “U.S. Spied on Iraqi Military Via UN,” The Washington Post, March 2, 1999.

9. David S. Yost, “Russia’s Non-strategic Nuclear Forces,” International Affairs 77, no. 3 (July 2001).

10. Nikolai Sokov, “The Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda After SORT,” Arms Control Today, April 2003.

11. Thomas Pickering, U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Clinton administration, was often deeply immersed in navigating the shoals of the Russian legal system. His opinion is unequivocal regarding its complexity. Thomas Pickering, communication with author.

12. The venues included the University of California Boalt School of Law, international law firms such as Baker & McKenzie, and Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS), a not-for-profit organization whose expert in Moscow found the atmosphere “chilling” with regard to this question. Of these, Paul Melling, a partner at Baker & McKenzie, resident in Moscow, assisted by Nadia Urazaeva, provided as clear a view of the situation as is likely without access to classified Russian documents. Although they could find no single specific citation, they concluded that Russian laws, decrees, and regulations give substance to Russian claims.

13. “Article II obliges the executive authorities of each party to enter into appropriate agreements for carrying out the goals of this Agreement. Article II further lists obligatory provisions that should be included in such further agreements. In particular, such further agreements shall include ‘provisions relating to access of the parties to the facilities… where it is possible, for monitoring and inspection purposes.’” Paul Melling and Nadia Urazaeva, communication with author. The agreement entered into force in 1992 for seven years and was extended by mutual agreement on June 15, 1999, for another seven years. One can conclude that the agreement provides a basis for the president to set aside the law in favor of a treaty and to allow access.

14. Deborah Yarsike Ball, “The Social Crisis of the Russian Military,” in Russia’s Torn Safety Nets: Health and Social Welfare during the Transition, eds. Mark G. Field and Judyth L. Twigg (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

15. Andrew Kuchins, “Explaining Mr. Putin: Russia’s New Nuclear Diplomacy,” Arms Control Today, October 2002.

16. Robert Debs Heinl Jr., Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1966).


Harold P. Smith Jr. is a distinguished visiting scholar and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California-Berkeley. He served as assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs during the Clinton administration, with duties including the implementation of the Nunn-Lugar program. This article is based in part on work conducted at the University of California-Berkeley under contract for the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the University of California system.