#30 - JRL 2009-186 - JRL Home

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
7 October2009
Nuclear Russia: ‘Zero’ Possibility
By Simon Saradzhyan in Moscow for ISN Security Watch
Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. He is the author of several papers on security and terrorism.
Nuclear weapons continue to play a vital role in Russia’s defense, security, foreign and even domestic policies, but Moscow should nevertheless at least embark on the Global Zero path, Simon Saradzhyan comments for ISN Security Watch.

Until last year, it would have been difficult to imagine that the Russian leadership would embrace the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, given the role they play in Russia’s policies, including that of deterrent and equalizer in the overall military balance between Russia and the US and its NATO allies, and even between Russia and China.

Yet, first, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and, finally, President Dmitry Medvedev publicly praised the idea of 'Global Zero.'

April 2009 saw presidents Barack Obama and Medvedev sign a declaration committing their countries to seeking a world without nuclear weapons. Subsequently, Medvedev signed off in May on Russia’s new Strategy of National Security Through the Year 2020, which introduces a commitment to Zero.

Most recently, on 24 September, Russia, along with other members of the UN Security Council, voted to pass Resolution 1887, which aims to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Kremlin’s support for nuclear disarmament has compelled even such proponents of nuclear deterrence as the-then chief of the main component of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad, General Nikolai Solovtsov, to concede that nuclear weapons may eventually lose their significance and Russia may abandon its nuclear status “as a result of […] a change in the nature of international relations.”

These statements and documents prove that Russia is ready to take initial steps toward nuclear disarmament, including negotiating new nuclear arms control treaties with the US. However, any further progress on Russia’s part toward Zero would be possible only if a number of conditions are put in place to decrease the value of nuclear weapons in Russia’s defense and security policies.

The Russian leadership has already enumerated a number of such consecutive or simultaneous external conditions: universal implementation of existing nuclear arms control and nonproliferation treaties; further and irreversible cuts in US-Russian nuclear arsenals; constraints on US missile defense and enhancement of Russian conventional forces coupled with guarantees that no hostile country or alliance will have an overwhelming superiority in conventional armed forces over Russia and its allies; and resolution of major conflicts.

Subsequently, there should be a verifiable accounting of all nuclear arsenals, their reduction and elimination, followed by guarantees that no country or sub-state actor would be able to develop/acquire such weapons in the future. Some of these conditions may prove to be very difficult to attain, such as codified guarantees that the US and NATO will not have an overwhelming superiority in conventional armed forces over Russia and its allies.

Granted there are these and other major obstacles to negotiating Zero, but Russia’s current nuclear posture also entails major costs and risks, including the risk of accidental nuclear war, nuclear terrorism and proliferation. Russia and other official nuclear powers cannot hope to continue holding on to their arsenals in spite of their official Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments to eliminate them, while also trying to convince others to honor their commitments to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Russian leaders also know or should know that some of the functions assigned to nuclear weapons by Russia’s strategic documents and strategists are doubtful or even unrealistic - such as deterring future ‘non-military threats’ as proposed by Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Nikolai Makarov in February. The utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the existing threats is also limited. Rogue nations know that no nuclear arms are likely to be used against them as long as they do not launch massive WMD or conventional attacks on nuclear powers or their key allies.

Likewise, nuclear weapons would not be very effective in deterring or ending those types of conflict Russia is much more likely to face than a hypothetical war with NATO. These include an armed conflict with a conventional power, intrusion by insurgents or low-intensity conflict with such insurgents on Russian territory.

Realization of the limitation of the real utility of nuclear weapons as well as of the external and internal costs and risks associated with possessing these weapons should compel Russia to start walking along the path to Global Zero together with other nuclear powers.

A nuclear-free world may prove unattainable in the foreseeable future. However, if Russia and other nuclear weapons states take even some of the initial steps required to progress towards Global Zero, the world will become significantly safer, not only for them, but for the entire international community.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. He is the author of several papers on security and terrorism.

Editor's note:

This is an abridged version of Simon Saradzhyan’s paper “Russia's Support for Zero: Tactical Move or Long-term Commitment?” published by the Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in September, 2009 and available here:


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