Materials of the second International Conference
Problems of maintenance of strategic stability

Viktor YESIN
Col. Gen.. Strategic Rocket Forces, ret.


The nuclear policy of Russia is a component of the military policy of the Russian Federation (RF). It is a system of officially recognized decisions about the development of nuclear weapons, their missions and role in providing for Russia’s security; maintenance of a viable nuclear deterrence; keeping strategic weapons in readiness for employment; and on the use of nuclear weapons in war.

The foundations of Russia’s nuclear policy were laid by the leadership of the Soviet Union. Russia inherited this doctrinal legacy when it took the place of the USSR in the international community, and assumed control of its nuclear weapons. It is important to note, however, that having declared itself the legitimate heir of the USSR, Russia, speaking through its first president, Boris Yeltsin, declared that it did not view any nation as an enemy. Moreover, Yeltsin emphasized that Moscow regarded as potential partners every nation whose policies did not threaten Russia’s national interest and security, and did not contradict the UN Charter. This declaration, reflected in the Main Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, approved by President Yeltsin in 1993, has determined the principles of subsequent Russian military policy, including its nuclear component.

The sections of the Main Provisions related to military doctrine were further developed in 1994-1996 to reflect the new positions of the Russian political and military leadership on the concept of nuclear deterrence, decision-making for the use of nuclear weapons, and release of authority for such use. Russia, together with the other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members in possession of Soviet strategic nuclear weapons (Belarus, Kazakstan and Ukraine), ratified the US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I), and, beginning on December 5, 1994, began to implement it. Nevertheless, in that period Russia still lacked an integrated nuclear policy. Only in November 1998 did the Russian Federation’s Security Council consider and approve the Policy on Nuclear Deterrence, subsequently signed as an executive order by Yeltsin on December 31, 1998. This executive order was the first comprehensive new formulation of Russian nuclear policy, no longer dependent upon the Soviet legacy, although it continued to strive for nuclear parity with the United States.

Security through Deterrence

The Policy on Nuclear Deterrence state that Russia’s nuclear policy is based on the constitution of the Russian Federation and the existing body of Russian law, and takes into account Russia’s international obligations. Russia’s nuclear policy plays a key role in creating favorable external conditions for the development of the Russian state; implementation of social, economic and military reforms, promotion of national interests; and preservation of the geopolitical position and status of the Russian Federation as a great power. Russian policy adheres firmly to a strategic course that involves:

Consistent reductions by the five nuclear powers of their nuclear forces, on the basis of reciprocity and equal security;
Making nuclear non-proliferation global and universal;
An end to the testing of nuclear weapons and a global ban on nuclear weapons.

The Russian Federation seeks to eliminate military threats by giving priority to political, diplomatic, international legal and other non-military measures, including collective actions by the international community to maintain peace and end aggression. At the same time, as long as the world lacks a reliable system of collective security, Russia regards its nuclear forces as the main guarantor of its national security, and will maintain them at a level sufficient to guarantee deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence is defined as the ability to convince any potential aggressor that is planning or considering war against Russia and her allies, that the use of force cannot hope to achieve the aggressor’s military and political goals. Deterrence is established by an obvious, viable and guaranteed capability and willingness to deliver unacceptable damage to the aggressor through the use of nuclear weapons. The deterrent warning may be conveyed to potential enemies both politically, through diplomatic and other channels, as well as militarily - by demonstrating Russia’s nuclear force capabilities for purposes of deterrence. Russia’s strategic nuclear infrastructure should provide:

- Guaranteed deterrence of any state (or coalition of states) from aggression on any scale, employing any weapons, including weapons of mass destruction (WMD), against Russia and her allies;
- A flexible nuclear deterrent adequate to all emerging threats and challenges;
- Timely detection of critical threats to the national security of Russia and her allies, and the swift provision of information about such threats to military and political leaders, who then can make and implement decisions on the use of nuclear forces within designated timeframes;
- Adequate levels of safety at all stages in the development, production and operation of nuclear weapons.

Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) must provide for reliable global deterrence against nuclear and conventional attack, while the forces equipped with tactical nuclear weapons should be prepared for a flexible response to any changes in the security environment, in order to achieve the goals of deterrence. These tactical forces also must be able to carry out deterrence at the regional level.

Russia views the use of nuclear weapons as an extreme measure, forced upon it by the need to stop critical threats against its national security, when all other measures have failed. Only the president of the Russian Federation, who also is the supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

Russia will never use nuclear weapons against those states that are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that do not possess nuclear weapons (known as non-nuclear weapons states). Exceptions are in the case of an invasion or other attack against the Russian Federation, its territory, its armed forces or other troops, against its allies or a state with which it has treaty obligations, when such an attack is undertaken by a non-nuclear weapons state together with a nuclear power, or if such a state has an alliance with a nuclear power. Russia absolutely adheres to such “negative guarantees” to non-nuclear weapons states.

Russia’s main goal in the development of nuclear deterrent forces is to maintain them at a level that can guarantee the national security of Russia and her allies under any conditions. These forces are developed according to several key criteria:

- Maintaining the optimal composition of nuclear weapons to fulfill missions of deterrence;
- Planning for the balanced development and optimal combination of nuclear strategic and tactical weapons;
- Improving the protection of nuclear weapon systems and their command and control from unsanctioned use;
- Providing the maximum level of nuclear safety;
- Adopting all measures necessary to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation regimes.

Russia’s nuclear policy is not directed against any specific nations or alliances of nations. The RF confirms all its international obligations in the field of nuclear arms control, including consistent and systematic efforts to reduce nuclear weapons at the global level and eventually to eliminate them.

A New Era

A new stage in the evolution of Russia’s nuclear policy began after Vladimir V. Putin’s accession as president of the RF. In January 2000 he approved a new version of the Concept of National Security of the Russian Federation, and in April of the same year he approved the Military Doctrine of the RF. At the same time, Russia ratified START 2 and the international Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

These events required alterations in the nuclear policy that was in place under President Yeltsin. These emerging changes were formalized at a meeting of the RF Security Council on August 11 2001, along with decisions regarding further reform of the armed forces for the period up to 2010. Within the framework of START 2, which had not been ratified by the United States Senate and therefore had not entered into force, Russia’s political and military leaders addressed important decision on Russia’s nuclear policy that extended beyond 2010. The essence of these deliberations was the decision to end the race for nuclear parity with the United States, and instead seek an acceptable balance between the Russian and US nuclear arsenals. In terms of numbers, this meant that according to START 2, the United States could have 3,000-3,5000 nuclear warheads in its strategic offensive forces. Russia decided that its ceiling would be 1,500-2,000 warheads, on the reasonable and considered assumption that this number of warheads would be sufficient to fulfill the main mission of strategic deterrence against aggression.

There were two main factors behind this decision. First, in mid-2000 President Vladimir Putin, determined that the main goal of future Russian foreign policy would be to achieve rapprochement with the West and establish a partnership with the United States in particular, as well as with the NATO nations as a whole. Once it stopped viewing the United States as an enemy, it no longer was necessary for Russia to engage in a nuclear arms race with the Americans.

Second, most, but certainly not all, of Russia’s military and political leaders came to the conclusion that the main military threat to Russia, both external and internal, would for the foreseeable future come from regional armed conflicts. Russia’s armed forces already had proved themselves unready to neutralize or prevent such conflicts or to engage armed terrorist groups, demonstrated by the limited progress Russian “power agencies” (e.g., the regular military, internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the counterintelligence FSB) were making in counter-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus. Once Russia’s leaders recognized the need for this shift in priorities, they also saw the necessity of reorienting limited financial and material resources to improve combat capabilities and develop the regular components of the armed forces for these regional missions. It no longer made sense to continue spending limited resources on excessive nuclear weapons, which by their nature cannot be used in local armed conflicts.

Thus Russian nuclear policy finally shed the stereotypes it inherited from the USSR. It is true nevertheless that not all of Russian society approved of the new approach, especially members of the older Cold-War generations who had lived most of their lives under Soviet rule. But this is normal in a democracy. Certainly not everybody in the United States approves of Washington’s military policy.


After the Republican administration of George W. Bush came to power in the United States in 2001, and it became clear that Washington would withdraw from the ABM Treaty and would not ratify START 2, Russia’s political leaders made the utmost effort to prevent the disintegration of the established system of strategic stability. These efforts eventually met with a response from the Bush administration. During the 2001 summits between Presidents Putin and Bush, the two leaders agreed in principle to develop and sign a bilateral treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive forces (SORT). This agreement was facilitated by the strengthening of US-Russian cooperation in many fields of international politics, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

When it became apparent, in April 2002, that the SORT agreement could be ready for signing during the US-Russian summit in Moscow scheduled for late May, President Putin met with select members of the Russian Security Council to discuss not only the final details of the SORT agreement, but also the changes in Russia’s nuclear policy, including appropriate responses to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The main thrust of the Council’s final decision was the need to review all previously adopted parameters relating to development of the SNF, according to START 2 limitations.

On May 24, 2003, Putin and Bush signed the SORT agreement, according to which, by December 31, 2012, each will have no more than 1,700-2,200 warheads. Within these limits, however, each side is allowed to determine the composition and structure of its strategic offensive forces. SORT was to be ratified according to the constitutional requirements of each of its signatories, and come in force on the day ratification papers were exchanged. The presidents also confirmed that the START 1 agreement will remain in force.

The American side ratified SORT on March 7, 2003. Moscow intended to ratify in later that same month, but put off a decision when the United States, Great Britain and their allies attacked Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein without the approval of the UN Security Council. The Russian State Duma is expected to consider final ratification again in mid-May 2003. It is likely this time that ratification will be supported both by the Duma and the Council of the Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.

As part of preparations for the ratification decision, President Putin ordered the research institutions under the General Staff to conduct a system study of various nuclear deterrent weapons. The study confirmed that Russia could, without overburdening itself with military expenditures, have 1,900-2000 warheads in its SNF by the end of 2012. Out of this number, 550-600 warheads would be in the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), 800-850 in the navy, and up to 560 in the air force. The actual number of warheads in Russia’s SNF by the end of 2012 will be determined by the condition of the Russian economy, as well as by trends in the global strategic situation. On January 1, 2003, Russia’s SNF had 4,950 warheads.

Tactical Weapons

Russia’s policy in the field of tactical nuclear weapons has not changed substantially since SORT was signed. The earlier decision to reduce the arsenal of tactical weapons to a sufficient minimal level is being carried out meticulously; excessive weapons are being decommissioned and dismantled.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pledged in October 1991 to reduce substantially the Soviet Union’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, in response to a similar unilateral initiative made on September 27, 1991 by US President George H. W. Bush. This pledge subsequently was confirmed and broadened by President Yeltsin. Russia so far has destroyed one third of its naval tactical nuclear weapons, one half of its nuclear warheads for anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) and anti-aircraft missiles (SAMs), one half of its nuclear gravity bombs for tactical aviation, and all nuclear charges for artillery shells and land mines. (The process of decommissioning of nuclear charges may not be completed because the Ministry of Atomic Energy lacks the necessary productive capacity). None of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are actually deployed with troops any longer; they are kept under reinforced guard at storage facilities belonging to the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense. Nor does Russia have any tactical nuclear weapons outside of Russian territory, unlike the United States, which continues to deploy up to 200 B61 nuclear gravity bombs at ten airbases in seven European NATO states (Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey).

Russia’s political and military leaders are determining the future qualitative and quantitative composition of tactical nuclear forces with the following goal in mind: Russia should have an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons sufficient for regional nuclear deterrence (apart from Russia’s SNF, which are responsible for global deterrence). To fulfill this mission, experts conclude that Russia should have about 3,000 tactical nuclear warheads.

Such a bi-level system of nuclear deterrence will enable Russia’s leaders to react in a flexible and effective fashion to any changes in the military-strategic situation, and will allow them, with minimal risk, to defend against emerging threats to the state’s military security.


Russia, along with the United States and the other official members of the nuclear club, has legitimate concerns that the traditional mechanisms of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament can no longer fulfill their mission. Events of recent years demonstrate that some states are willing not only to circumvent but to ignore outright existing agreements and treaties, even those to which they are legally bound signatories (North Korea is a characteristic example). Although the UN Security Council reacts appropriately to such actions, it does not carry out the critically necessary activities of monitoring and managing treaty compliance on a systematic basis.

In order to make progress in this area, which would in turn make the mechanisms of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament stronger and more effective, Russia and the United States together should initiate the establishment of a permanent commission of the UN Security Council for monitoring the observance of treaties on nuclear arms and delivery system reduction, and non-proliferation. (Such a commission could also broaden its mandate to include chemical and biological weapons.) The UN Security Council should give the commission broad powers, including the power to sue UN members’ military forces, to enforce nuclear disarmament obligations. These should include the security of dismantled and surplus nuclear materials that could be used in any program to resume production of nuclear warheads and other nuclear explosive devices, and confirm the irreversibility of the disarmament process. The commission will have access to the rich experience of UN peacekeeping operations, that employed military formations provided by the UN members, and could benefit from the experience of the UN Security Council commissions on the disarmament of Iraq - UNSCOM and UNMOVIC, even though these were not a complete success. Both the commission members and all military formations assigned to carry out any special missions mandated by the UN would require specialized training.

This proposal for strengthening the effectiveness of control mechanisms relating to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is not the only possibility. But addressing it in a positive spirit would allow development of an internationally recognized mechanism, in addition to those that already exist, for neutralizing threats related to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Russia and the United States, which have a mutual interest in maintaining international stability, should proceed from an understanding of the obvious importance of this task.