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The Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agenda After SORT
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Nikolai Sokov

When the Russian Duma finally ratifies the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), will it mark the beginning of a new era of bilateral cooperation between Washington and Moscow or the closing chapter in arms control negotiations between Russia and the United States that sought to regulate the Cold War?

Russian officials have dubbed SORT the “last in the series of traditional arms control treaties,”1 stating that the new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation requires a new approach to arms control. They implicitly endorsed some—albeit not all—of the principles advocated by the Bush administration, namely, that the United States and Russia no longer need complicated, restrictive, and expensive arms control treaties.

Indeed, one can say that coupled with the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and START II, SORT marks the end of traditional arms control. Further reductions are unlikely in the near future because, after SORT is implemented, the United States and Russia will have reached what they feel is the optimal (or close to the optimal) level of strategic arsenals that they need: 2,200 deployed warheads for the United States and 1,500 for Russia. One possible additional step is codification of the ongoing reduction of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons, but its chances are remote. More importantly, managing first-strike capability, which was the key motive of traditional arms control, is no longer urgent following the end of the Cold War.

Yet, there is now an opportunity and an objective need to usher in a new stage of arms control. During the SORT talks, negotiators broached, even if they were unable to fully implement, some guiding principles of an entirely new approach to arms control that would take advantage of improved Russian-American ties to move transparency and verification measures to a new level: taking such scrutiny beyond the level of missiles and other delivery systems to encompass the nuclear warheads themselves.

Given the closer ties between the two countries, the United States and Russia should be willing to subject themselves to more intrusive measures that encompass the full nuclear weapons infrastructure, including warhead storage sites and production and dismantlement facilities. SORT provides a framework for such an approach by instituting a regular series of bilateral meetings between the two countries. But turning this opportunity into reality will require strong political will.

The Bush administration’s skepticism about arms control agreements has been well documented, and commentators are right to point out that, in their eagerness to curb the U.S. military advantage and preserve scarce budget dollars, Russian officials are generally more supportive of further nuclear arms control efforts. Russian arms control preferences, however, are also driven by a mix of complex, often contradictory domestic economic, political, and military impulses that could stymie progress.

Transparency of Warhead Arsenals

The need to fill in SORT’s many blanks constitutes the core of the Russian arms control agenda for the coming years. The Kremlin’s highest priority is finding a way to close what it sees as the treaty’s biggest loophole—the ability of the United States to maintain thousands of spare nuclear warheads and not have them count against the treaty’s limit of 1,700-2,200 operationally deployed warheads—those mounted on planes, missiles, and submarines. Russian officials fear that, in a crisis or downturn in relations, the United States will be able to return as many as 2,400 of these stored warheads to missiles and heavy bombers, bringing the total to 4,600. SORT allows such “uploading” without prior notification and, theoretically, even in secret.

Russia is not likely to have such an option. The Kremlin plans to reduce its arsenal primarily by eliminating delivery systems (old types of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), because it lacks resources to modernize the existing missiles or produce new ones in sufficient numbers. Consequently, no matter how many spare warheads Russia will have lying around and regardless of its warhead production capability,2 Moscow will be strictly limited in the number of weapons it can deploy. And this number, furthermore, is likely to be below the 1,700-2,200 missiles allowed by SORT: Russia’s announced plan (and its initial SORT negotiating proposal) is 1,500 warheads. That means that, if it comes to a showdown in the future, Russia could face a U.S. nuclear force that is more than three times its size.

While many Russian nongovernmental experts remain concerned about this imbalance, the Kremlin downplays its significance, and rightly so, given the improving relations between the two countries. Should relations worsen, however, massive U.S. nuclear superiority could theoretically make Russia vulnerable to political pressure and even to limited use of NATO’s conventional forces—the nightmare of the Russian military after a string of Balkan wars in the 1990s, especially after the conflict in Kosovo.

During the SORT talks, Russia first failed to win U.S. agreement to eliminate delivery vehicles, as had been provided for under previous arms control agreements. Moscow then offered a proposal to eliminate warheads removed from operational deployment but refrained from specific proposals on how such a measure could be verified.3 The United States rejected the proposal at that point. But it should now be resurrected. It is clearly in Russia’s interest to prevent secret, large-scale uploading and to make U.S. deployment actions more transparent and verifiable. Development of a verification system for SORT should be the centerpiece of Russia’s arms control policy in the coming years. There are several ways to achieve this goal:

  • The creation of a comprehensive data exchange and verification regime capable of tracking every warhead through its life cycle in real time or close to real time.
  • A requirement that each side notify the other when warheads are transported to storage facilities near missile and heavy-bomber bases, making deployment possible.
  • A requirement that notifications be complemented by inspections of these storage facilities in rare cases when questions and concerns need to be clarified.

At first glance, circumstances seem conducive for such an endeavor. Both the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma called for annual reports from their respective governments about the implementation of SORT and the reductions projected for the next year.4 The two countries could easily codify these mandates by agreeing on an amendment to SORT or on an executive agreement negotiated by the Bilateral Implementation Commission. U.S. officials have indicated that they support exchanging data on nuclear arsenals, although they have all but ruled out verification mechanisms.5 Russian officials have emphasized that they treated SORT as just “the first step” in longer negotiations and planned to discuss the transparency of warhead stockpiles within the Bilateral Implementation Commission.6

Relations between the United States and Russia are reasonably stable, despite unavoidable ups and downs, and the two countries can afford negotiating specific transparency and verification provisions after SORT enters into force. In the past, details of verification and data exchange had to be in place prior to the signing of treaties, and negotiations on them complicated and delayed implementation of weapons reductions.

Still, the success of these discussions is not preordained. In fact, it is not even clear if Russia will decide to commence in-depth discussion of these issues. The Russian government seems to be torn between two diametrically opposed impulses. On the one hand, the Kremlin could benefit from a verification regime that will ensure predictability and effectively remove the threat that the United States will secretly redeploy scores of warheads. Such an agreement would also eliminate what many in Moscow see as an unfair advantage that the United States enjoys because of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program.

Under that decade-old program, the United States aids Russia’s effort to reduce its Cold War nuclear arsenal and in the process gains a deep understanding of the status of Russia’s nuclear force. Indeed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN), one of the architects of the CTR program, cited the transparency benefits of CTR as one reason for blocking Democratic efforts to add verification measures to SORT. (See ACT, April 2003.) Yet, CTR, for obvious reasons, does not grant Russia similar access to the U.S. arsenal, and Russia’s military has long chafed at this asymmetry. Bilateral measures governing warhead transparency would not only represent genuine progress on arms control issues but also redress this long-standing grievance.

On the other hand, progress toward making Russian facilities more transparent has been halting, and any further steps are likely to prove even more difficult. The Russian military and the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) have long resisted opening warhead production and storage facilities to inspections and even to information exchange.7 For example, a February 2000 U.S. proposal for a comprehensive exchange of data within the context of START III consultations was flatly rejected by Russia, contributing in no small measure to the failure of START III. Even the more modest plans of the Bush administration for data exchange are likely to encounter opposition in Moscow.

All told, the current trends seem to favor the opponents of warhead verification. Support for new agreements on verification and transparency could rise, however, if both governments become convinced of the value of openness or if U.S.-Russian relations worsen sufficiently to transform the theoretical threat of U.S. redeployment into something more tangible.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Tactical nuclear weapons8 are likely to figure prominently on the Russian-American arms control agenda, if only because it is virtually impossible to create a data exchange and verification regime for strategic warheads alone. A partial regime will always give rise to misunderstandings and suspicions that strategic warheads are misrepresented as tactical.

The need for transparency for such battlefield weapons was dramatically underscored by a crisis in early 2001, when Russia was suspected of moving nuclear warheads for tactical missiles to Kaliningrad oblast.9 An extension of strategic weapons transparency to tactical nuclear weapons would ease U.S. suspicions about Russia, and it would also address Russian concerns about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, including the possibility that they might be redeployed closer to Russia as NATO expands further East.

Tactical nuclear weapons are currently subject only to the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs)—unilateral, parallel statements of George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev (the latter subsequently confirmed and expanded by Boris Yeltsin). In these statements, both sides declared their intention to store or eliminate warheads for nonstrategic delivery vehicles except for a share of air-based weapons. These PNIs amount to an informal arms control regime but one which is not legally binding and does not include verification or transparency measures; even the aggregate numbers of tactical nuclear weapons are unknown.

In recent years, the United States has repeatedly raised concerns about Russia’s tactical weapons stockpile. U.S. lawmakers, such as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Lugar and ranking member Joseph Biden Jr. (D-DE), have been particularly vocal in warning that these weapons pose a significant proliferation risk. The above-mentioned data exchange proposals, which the United States tabled in February 2000, included tactical nuclear weapons along with the strategic stockpile.

Yet, Russians are even more resistant to disclosing information about their tactical nuclear warheads than their strategic weapons. This resistance springs first and foremost from uncertainty over the future role of tactical nuclear weapons. At one level, there is a broad consensus in Russia that they are vital for national security; and the armed services are reluctant to part with them. But the military and political establishments have yet to develop a coherent doctrine outlining specific missions and scenarios of use.

The most commonly cited mission is deterrence of a limited conventional attack by NATO. This mission was first described in the late 1990s as a “de-escalation” of a possible limited conventional attack by NATO and will remain “on the books” until NATO-Russian relations qualitatively improve. The mission, however, has not been fully operationalized in terms of specific requirements for types and numbers of weapons; during several exercises in recent years, the Russian military apparently preferred to use strategic weapons (air-launched cruise missiles on heavy bombers) for theater-level missions.

The Russian military remains suspicious of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Although U.S. officials point out that these number only in the hundreds, they are widely seen in Moscow as intended to be used against Russia, if only because no other credible mission has been attributed to them. The Kremlin fears that they could easily be redeployed to the territory of new members of NATO, closer to Russia’s borders. NATO’s unilateral pledge in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that it had no intention to redeploy the weapons does not fully satisfy the Russian military since the pledge is not legally binding and not verifiable. The demand that these weapons be withdrawn from Europe represents a sine qua non of any progress in tactical nuclear weapon arms control. The relocation of U.S. troops from current bases in Europe closer to Russian borders in the territories of new NATO members could preserve and possibly increase the perceived relevance of tactical nuclear weapons.

In the mid-1990s, some Russian experts also discussed using tactical nuclear weapons to deter potential threats from the “South”—a broadly defined region that includes Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and South Asia—but recently this mission has not been publicly discussed. Still, the sheer power and size of Middle Eastern states, the instability of the region, and the likelihood of proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond Pakistan remain a cause of concern. Operationalization of these missions is even less developed than that for the European theater.

Until doctrinal questions are settled, an arms control strategy for tactical weapons is unlikely to emerge—Russia simply will not know how many and which types of nonstrategic nuclear weapons it might need in the future. The existing Russian tactical nuclear weapons arsenal is quite large, although hardly as large as some suggest. It probably amounts to nearly 8,000 warheads (compared to almost 22,000 a decade ago) with about 3,000 deployed on aircraft.10 It is clear that it will be reduced further, but the pace of elimination is limited by funding shortages and insufficient warhead dismantlement capability. The size of the arsenal, however, is the least important characteristic; the central questions are the basing modes, ranges, and other properties of weapons and delivery systems.

In line with the PNIs, Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear arsenal is exclusively concentrated in its air force, which has gradually de-emphasized strategic missions in favor of a theater-level capability. If present trends continue, Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal will continue shrinking and consist primarily of cruise missiles equipped with both conventional and nuclear warheads. Gravity bombs will probably be reduced to a very small number.

There is also a slight possibility that the Kremlin might be tempted to revise its view of the PNIs. The impetus would most likely come from the navy, which has long lobbied for the return of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to surface ships. Without such weapons, they contend, the navy will remain powerless vis-à-vis the U.S. and the majority of other navies. Since much of the navy’s tactical nuclear arsenal was stored rather than eliminated, redeployment would be fast and cheap. But so far, the navy’s lobbying has had little, if any, effect on the Putin government.

The return of land-based tactical nuclear weapons is also possible but even less likely. Russia has two types of nuclear-capable missiles: Tochka, or SS-21, and the new Iskander, which has never been tested with a nuclear warhead but in theory could carry one. Still, all warheads for land-based tactical missiles have been eliminated under the PNIs, and renuclearization would be both time consuming and costly.

Russian plans for nonstrategic nuclear weapons will also be affected by pending U.S. decisions on the development of new tactical nuclear warheads and the associated resumption of nuclear testing. If the United States were to restart nuclear testing, Russia would do so as well, even though Russia (unlike the United States) has ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Kremlin would do so first to maintain its current stockpile, then to develop new warheads similar to those that are being proposed in the United States.

For the time being, though, the Kremlin appears most interested in keeping all of its options open and therefore has refrained from committing itself to any arms control talks on tactical nuclear weapons with the United States. Russian officials also contend that the deterrent value of their tactical weapons is enhanced by the uncertainty surrounding their numbers and potential uses; some Russian officials have suggested that, if the United States were ever to learn the real story about its tactical nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon would no longer fear these weapons. Finally, Russian military officials have warned that disclosing the exact locations of various storage sites, as well as the number and the types of warheads in them, might make these sites vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike—whether nuclear or conventional.

The Future of START I

In the SORT text, the United States and Russia reaffirmed START I, and the United States reportedly intends to raise with Russia the issue of extending the accord before START’s December 2009 expiration date. But before they agree to such an extension, Russian officials might be tempted to propose some changes to the treaty.

The additional cuts in both countries nuclear arsenals that are called for in SORT have in some ways superceded the significance of START I limitations on strategic delivery systems and indirectly on the number of deployed strategic warheads. Some elements of START I, however, will continue to impose constraints on the possible development of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The most visible among them are the provisions that would make it very expensive and cumbersome to use a new Russian ICBM, the Topol-M, as a delivery vehicle for multiple warheads.11

Equipping Topol-Ms with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) seemed a foregone decision only a few years ago. But under President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s nuclear posture planning has shifted in favor of the naval leg of the strategic triad, and many plans of the land-based Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) were shelved. More recently, however, indications have appeared that the SRF has regained at least part of its standing. MIRVing apparently has been postponed rather than cancelled and might resurface by the end of the decade—at the time the expiration of START I draws nearer.

Equipping the Topol-M with three warheads might become necessary if older types of ICBMs cannot survive as long as currently planned. Russian defense officials assume that a number of SS-18 heavy ICBMs can be retained until the middle of the next decade12—perhaps about 50, each bearing as many as 10 warheads.13 The Duma’s draft law ratifying SORT mandates that the shelf life of existing delivery vehicles be maintained as long as possible. The calculation is tenuous, however, and it is far from obvious that a sufficient number of old-type missiles will last long enough. The navy is in even worse shape; it does not have a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and thus had to put on hold plans to build a new submarine.14 The air force, as noted above, is gradually shifting toward higher-priority theater-level missions.

Consequently, a faster-than-expected retirement of old ICBMs might leave Russia with fewer than 1,000 warheads in its deployed arsenal. There might simply not be enough time to deploy hundreds of Topol-Ms by the beginning of the next decade, especially since the annual rate of their deployment has declined in the last three years from 10 to six instead of increasing to 20. MIRVing therefore could help keep the arsenal at a “decent” level.

MIRVed ICBMs are also thought to be particularly well suited for the penetration of missile defenses. If the United States achieves significant progress in that area, this would constitute one more reason to allow the Topol-M to carry multiple warheads.

If START I is opened for revision, it would also be reasonable to expect that Russia will attempt to implement another change, which it had sought in the 1990s: simplification of the verification regime. Reportedly, the Kremlin intended to reduce the number of short-notice inspections (the most expensive and organizationally difficult element of verification), shifting the emphasis to data exchange and visits.

Strategic Defense

Concern about the impact of the projected U.S. missile defense system on Russia’s deterrent capability prominently figured in all past arms control talks, including on SORT. The proposed Duma law on the SORT ratification identifies deployment of a potent missile defense system by the United States as one of the triggers for Russia’s withdrawal from that treaty. (The same provision was contained in the law on ratification of START II, which was adopted in the spring of 2000.)

The Kremlin no longer appears to share these concerns. The official position is that in the foreseeable future any missile defense the United States could realistically create will not affect Russian deterrence. The vast majority of military experts simply do not believe that the endeavor can succeed at all, and certainly not in the short time frame advertised by the current U.S. administration.

Consequently, it seems unlikely that U.S. missile defense programs will become an insurmountable stumbling block to further nuclear arms control negotiations. Rather, Russian officials might be tempted to use the existence of these programs as a justification for the lack of progress caused by other reasons. This situation is likely to persist until the end of this decade, when Russia should be able to make a more realistic assessment of the impact of missile defense (if any) and space-based weapons upon the global and bilateral nuclear weapons balances.

Similarly, Russia will continue to press, along with China, for negotiations on prevention of an arms race in open space within the UN Conference on Disarmament. Its support for that proposal is genuine, but the continuing stalemate will most likely not spill over into other areas.

Meanwhile, the Russian aerospace industry will continue to be interested in joint missile defense programs with the United States and NATO. For a variety of reasons, primarily political, these plans will emphasize nonstrategic defense systems. But if the United States decided to engage in genuinely large-scale joint research and development programs—with commensurate profits for Russian companies—common work on strategic defenses might also become possible.

Multilateral Arms Control

High-level Russian military officials have declared that any reduction of nuclear weapons below the SORT levels will require the participation of other nuclear states. Projected reductions will bring Russia to a level at which it can no longer be indifferent to the arsenals of the United Kingdom, France, and especially China, whose arsenal is widely expected to grow in the coming years.

Yet, multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations will continue to be difficult. Russia clearly insists on keeping many more nuclear weapons than any of the three “second-tier” nuclear powers, probably as many as all of them combined; this might be unacceptable to some or all of them.

Therefore, we can expect a repetition of the 1980s standoff, when the Soviet Union insisted on counting French and British nuclear weapons at the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) talks. The situation will hardly be as tense, but still one can confidently expect serious resistance on part of both the United Kingdom and France.

Finally, the advanced level of arms control that the United States and Russia might reach by the end of this decade, with an emphasis on controlling warheads instead of delivery vehicles, is unlikely to be acceptable to the second-tier nuclear states, especially China, because of the unprecedented level of intrusiveness. China might be prepared to entertain a START I-type agreement, whose accounting and verification system concentrates on delivery vehicles, but opening the nuclear weapons complex is far less feasible.

In the absence of cuts by second-tier countries in their nuclear forces, Russia is unlikely to entertain legally binding reductions below the officially projected level of 1,500 warheads and might even prefer to preserve the option of going higher in the future, to the level of 2,200 warheads.


Given the political and economic constraints and preferences of both the United States and Russia in the coming years, the two sides will likely be limited to a least-common-denominator approach that could yield little or no progress. Neither side is prepared to press for, much less make sacrifices in the name of, new safety and security tasks neglected by the SORT process. Both governments view the political, organizational, and financial costs of robust arms control treaties as excessive given the absence of an immediate threat of a large-scale military conflict. In addition, the Pentagon’s interest in maintaining strategic nuclear flexibility and its aversion to limits on its future military options will be difficult for other elements in the Bush administration to overcome.

In the end, the post-SORT period is likely to become the time of missed opportunity. Hopefully, however, it is only a prelude to a much more robust arms control process, perhaps when a new generation of Russian and U.S. leaders enters the scene or comes under pressure from non-nuclear states in the context of Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which the nuclear states agreed to work toward eventual nuclear disarmament. The agenda in front of the United States and Russia is both challenging and promising: a focus on nuclear weapons instead of the means of their delivery and, through control of nuclear warheads, achievement of genuine transparency, predictability, and trust between the United States and Russia.


1. Yuri Baluevski, “Potentsial Doveriya,” Izvestiya, September 17, 2002.
2. “Russia: Warhead Assembly and Dismantlement Facilities,” CNS databases at http://www.nti.org/db/nisprofs/russia/weafacl/warheada/overview.htm.
3. See interviews with Deputy Chief of the General Staff of Russia Yuri Baluevski to Kommersant-Daily (published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site, May 29, 2002, document No. 2002-05-27) and to Mayak radio station May 16, 2002 (available at http://www.radiomayak.ru).
4. The U.S. Senate approved the resolution of advice and consent to the Moscow Treaty March 6, 2003. The Russian Duma delayed voting on a proposed law of ratification on March 18, citing its opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq.
5. Testimony of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 17, 2002.
6. See statements by Defense and Foreign Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Igor Ivanov at the last stage of SORT talks, as well as unnamed high-level diplomats, to Strana.ru news service May 13, May 21, and May 15, 2002, respectively.
7. In the above-mentioned interview to Mayak (fn. 3), Baluevski specifically noted that the Russian side did not raise the issue of verification at SORT talks, because it would have entailed access to highly sensitive facilities. Russia only proposed that warheads removed from delivery vehicles be subject to elimination.
8. The term “tactical nuclear weapons” is imprecise and is used here only because it has become widespread. Unlike during the Cold War, when it denoted short-range, primarily battlefield weapons, today it often covers an array of weapons, including sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), which Russia considers strategic weapons, as well as nuclear weapons of medium bombers (such as FB-111 or Tu-22M3), i.e., all nuclear weapons that are not subject to START I. A more appropriate term should be “nonstrategic nuclear weapons.”
9. Nikolai Sokov, “The Tactical Nuclear Weapons Controversy,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, January 31, 2001.
10. Ibid.; Harald Muller and Annette Schaper, “Definitions, Types, Missions, Risks and Options for Control: A European Perspective,” Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Options for Control (UNIDIR, 2000, publication no. UNIDIR/2000/20), especially appendices (pp. 51-78).
11. Alexander Kuranov, “Vygody Upushchennye I Obretennye,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 23, 2002, p. 1 (interview with Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee).
12. “’Satana’ Ostanetsya na Dezhurstve do 2016 goda,” Vremya Novostei, no. 230, December 16, 2002, (interview with the SRF Chief Nikolai Solovtsov).
13. Deployment of the latest version of the SS-18 began in the late 1980s, but a number of these missiles were kept in so-called dry storage, such as stored without being fueled. Thus, not only could Russia extend the service life of deployed SS-18s, it can also fuel and deploy missiles taken from dry storage, which still have many years of deployed life ahead.
14. It is possible to equip Boreys with 10-warhead liquid-fuel Sineva SLBMs. Such a decision is unlikely to be made for several years, as long as it is still hoped that the new solid-fuel Bulava ballistic missile (intended for both land and sea basing) will be successful.


Nikolai Sokov is a senior research associate for nonproliferation studies at the Monterey Institute. He participated in START I and START II negotiations while at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union and Russia.


Posted: April 1, 2003