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In this research an effort was made to clarify the impact of Russia-Ukraine war on the relationship of two superpowers in the domain of nuclear confrontation, on the dynamic of its further progress, also to shape the appropriate recommendations to Ukrainian government.

In this research an effort was made to clarify the impact of Russia-Ukraine war on the relationship of two superpowers in the domain of nuclear confrontation, on the dynamic of its further progress, also to shape the appropriate recommendations to Ukrainian government.

The author is thankful to Valentyn Badrak, the director of Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS), Ukraine, for his support and contribution to this research.

List of acronyms

SNF – Strategic Nuclear Forces

U.S. NMD – U.S. National Missile Defense

U.S. NMD EPAA – European Phased Adaptive Approach

ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missiles

SLBM – submarine-launched ballistic missile

ABMT – Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

PGS – Prompt Global Strike project

DOD – U.S. Department of Defense

AHW – Advanced Hypersonic Weapon

INF Treaty – Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

ТHAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense


I .General observations:

Russia-U.S. relationship during last two decades are characterized with a stable dominance of military issues, particularly, the necessity to maintain the balance of nuclear weapons, missiles and conventional armaments. Bilateral cooperation on military issues went hand in hand in other spheres, like elimination control of nuclear weapons, realization of a “Megatons for megawatts” program, cooperation in space exploration, as well as some American investments in Russian energy sector and trade in specific sectors. Beginning since 2011, due to a number of factors like Syrian crisis, implementation of U.S. NMD European Phased Adaptive Approach, Snowden case, Bolotnaya square protests, the parties put on hold their cooperation in military and political spheres, military confrontation rapidly begun to get strength, economic and trade relationships returned to a token lever and turned to me marginal in 2014 in view of introduction of Western economic sanctions as a response to Crimea annexation and military aggression in the Eastern Ukraine.

Russia`s resort to nuclear blackmail did not surface without rhyme or reason, it appeared to be another step of evolution in the thinking mode of Kremlin leaders, who seek from the West political guarantees for impunity in creating havoc domestically in Russia and in their “sphere of interests” – post-soviet countries of the former USSR. The West definitely denied Russia such a right, thus there is a possibility to turn the current confrontation, nuclear included, into a long-term enterprise.

After the events of Maidan 2014 Ukraine found itself in a completely new geopolitical and military situation, when the previous approached to safeguard national security proved to be ineligible, while the new ones are not ready to be applied. The situation is aggravated by high probability for the country to find itself in the immediate proximity of U.S.-Russia nuclear and conventional weapons confrontation with a tendency to escalate.

This research is an attempt to evaluate the real degree of existing nuclear threat and options, available to Ukraine in this new military environment, as well as to shape practical recommendations to the government in this respect.

II. Want makes this research relevant?

Starting since April 2015, as a response to Putin`s statement that Russian nuclear armament was put on a high alert level and stands ready to strike NATO in case the latter interfered in the Crimea annexation process, western military analysts begun to estimate the rise of Russian nuclear threat. This process coincided with growing Russian military activity on NATO eastern borders, public Russian allegations to rapidly upgrade its nuclear arsenal and the level of its battle readiness, growing number of ICBMs test launches, provocative flights of strategic bombers, large-scale military exercises in the areas next to NATO borders, including imitation launches of nuclear capable tactical missile systems (Iskanders in Kaliningrad). In Berlin during allegedly non-public contacts with NATO interlocutors Russian retired brass, following Kremlin instructions, threatened to utilize non-strategic nuclear weapons in case NATO sides militarily with Ukraine to jointly withstand Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine.

It is for the first time in decades that the Russia-NATO military conflict poses to be a reality. Russian aggression against Ukraine undermined a post-war European order, even worse, it returned into NATO agenda the issue of Russian nuclear deterrence.

–         In September 2014 Mr.Putin announced in an interview: “Our partners, regardless of their domestic situation or their foreign policy, should always keep in mind that it is better to avoid meddling with Russia. I remind, that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear states in the world. These are not hollow words, this is a reality, to make things even more grave we strengthen our nuclear capabilities”.

–         In the Russian propagandistic documentary “Crimea: a way back home” in April 2015 Putin responded to the question of a journalist about the high alert level of Russian nuclear forces in early 2014 in q following way: “We reflected about such a possibility”. Abroad this wording was interpreted as a proof to escalation of nuclear confrontation with the West.

–         Certain Russian officials began to elaborate on the issue, thus publicly demanding to introduce into the Military doctrine some adventurous statements concerning the possibility to resort to preemptive non-strategic nuclear attacks in case of local conflicts as a means to ‘deescalate’ the conflict. Luckily, these amendments were not accepted.

The concept of preemptive non-strategic nuclear strike was debated for years in NATO and was finally rejected in early 80-s as suicidal. It was substituted by a concept of Air-Ground Operation, which envision conventional air-born attacks with high precision munition targeting the second echelons of the adversary on the offensive. When the cold-war period was over, all the technical equipment, which supported this concept, was dislocated from Europe to the American soil. The Soviet Union also rejected any concepts of a full-scale nuclear confrontation and looked only into the options of utilizing non-strategic nuclear weapons.

It is reasonable to mention, that the escalation of U.S.-Russia nuclear confrontation, besides public statements, has a palpable material dimension:

–         A Russia-Georgia war 2009 was an impetus to modernize Russian conventional forces as well as to upgrade its nuclear arsenal: ICBMs with a more number of multiple warheads appeared, a new generation of SSBNs was launched, new long-range cruise missiles were tested.

–         NATO member-states raise concerns, that Russia included non-strategic nuclear weapon in its defense scenarios. Poland believes to be a target due to its decision to be a home for U.S. NMD EPAA elements: in 2009 Russia conducted military training “Zapad” next door to Poland with a nuclear strike imitation. In 2014 on the wake of Russia-Ukraine war The Kremlin launched a number of military trainings, which included nuclear-capable equipment (Iskander tactical missile launchers and Tu-22M3 middle-range bombers).

–         In December 2014 Russia terminated a program of Nann-Lugar, which facilitated to safeguard and limit Russian strategic nuclear arsenals and nuclear SSBNs with funding of $20 bln since 1991. Simultaneously Russia declared that it walks away from participating in an annual U.S.-Russia nuclear security summit.

–         After the annexation of Crimea a threat of NATO-Russia military confrontation ascended considerably. NATO thinks that Russia downgraded the safeguard to prevent a nuclear conflict with neighboring countries, while East European member-states seriously believe in a probability of nuclear conflict with Russia.

–         Russia`s recent efforts to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities indicate on its desire to discourage NATO from meddling into Russia-Ukrainian war and to intimidate Sweden and Finland, which took steps to join NATO.

The tendency of mitigate the U.S.-Russia military confrontation, which was rooted in early 90-s, changed course since 2002:

–         Russia believes, that American plans to deploy EPAA as an element of national    NMD while withdrawing from ABMT (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) in 2002, combined with the launch of Prompt Global Strike Project and NATO expansion eastwards despite Russian objections were the signs of U.S. intention to shift the bilateral military balance on its favor.

–         Looking from the other side, Russian attempts to assist the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, efforts to develop a non-military nuclear program in Iraq despite strong U.S. objections, introduction of blackmail elements into energy export policy towards Europe, waging was with Georgia in 2008 and with Ukraine in 2014 pushed the U.S.A. to recalibrate its policy towards Russia.

Russia-Ukraine war 2014 proved to be a next step in escalation of nuclear confrontation since 2012. Mr.Putin decided that Russian political class can achieve a “status of an equal partner’ with the West (U.S.A. and NATO) through military confrontation as the only workable means, as far as the path of peaceful cooperation proved to be impractical. Besides, he run to the conclusion that a deep financial crisis in the West since 2008 with no economic rise on the horizon is a right time to skip to alternative policy. Now both sides on the top level discuss the situation, using the language of threats and intimidation. The expert community evaluates the probability of limited nuclear exchange strikes between U.S.A. and Russia, while some basic nuclear agreements in the field of nuclear reduction and limitation began to erode, and the reversal to détente policy is viewed in a very distant future.

Under the circumstances Ukraine as a non-nuclear state needs to distinctly clarify its place in this environment of military confrontation, true intentions and motivations of the parties, real balance of forces and perspectives for to shift it, the variety of scenarios of further U.S.-Russia relationships, as well as to realize its own national interests, preconditions and extents of achieving them, and to recalibrate accordingly its national security and defense policy.

III. What is the real U.S.-Russia nuclear balance?

Despite the existing parity, the importance and the role of SNF will remain prioritized in Defense doctrines of both states at least till 2020. After 2000 the U.S. administration began looking for options to diminish its reliance in the sphere of strategic containment on sheer nuclear arsenal, but since 2012 we may affirm, that this effort was not rooted.

Both superpowers are exploring the ways to effectively modernize its nuclear arsenal as well as options to utilize it. These efforts are noteworthy in conceptual approaches.

On the eve of the cold war époque the USSR had an advantage over the U.S.A. and NATO in conventional forces, while there was a parity in SNF. After the USSR demise the situation changed: U.S.A. and NATO put the development of conventional forces into their focus, while realizing that taking a nuclear option remains highly problematic in modern local warfare. Now Western military has a significant advantage in conventional weaponry, while their SNF played  a secondary role in their containment strategy.

Russia, on the contrary, prioritized its efforts on the efforts to modernize strategic and nonstrategic nuclear arsenals after a long-time decay following the USSR demise. In 2000 Russia abandoned the USSR doctrine, that denied a preemptive nuclear strike, and took on board a concept of ‘deescalating’ nuclear strikes in local conflicts. This concept presumes tactical nuclear threats and strikes during a conventional military conflict in order to terminate its on conditions favorable to Russia. So far Russian nuclear arsenals, though in parity with the U.S., still pose a threat to the West, while the latter has a an advantage in conventional warfare. 

  1. 1.      The balance of Strategic Nuclear Forces

According to estimations of leading experts of both parties, Strategic Nuclear Forces, that is long-range ICBMs, SLBMs and cruise missiles of U.S.A. and – Russia are in a parity, both parties stress the necessity to preserve it and to stick to verification mechanism of control despite the Russia-Ukraine war. The balance is scrupulously verified by several parameters:

            – warheads: deployed, stocked and awaiting for dismantlement,

            – three groups of launchers: ground-launched ICBMs (silos, mobile), SLBMs (submarines), air launched cruise missiles (strategic bombers).

The U.S.A. and Russia still have excessive nuclear capabilities from 14.000 in 90-s till 2.000 at the moment, and the dynamics of their further reduction to 1.500 before February 2018 within the framework of the last START-3 2010 in slow. Besides, this data does not embrace all the warheads. At the moment the situation is the following:

–         Russia has totally 7.500 warheads, 4.500 are stocked in the storages, 1.582 are deployed on 515 launchers, 1.418 are waiting to be dismantled.

–         U.S. have 7.totally 100 warheads, 4.760 are stocked in the storages, 1.597 are deployed (+15) on 785 launchers (+270), the rest 743 are waiting to be dismantled.

As we see, the warheads are in parity, while U.S.A. have serious advantage in launchers, keeping in mind, that START-3 limit is 700. That means that the U.S.A. will keep its advantage in launchers even after 2018 in every group of nuclear triad: ground-based, submarine-based and air-based. The long-time strategy to keep a numerous fleet of launcher provide the U.S.A. the opportunity to engage a low attraction strategy for a preemptive strike case: the less warheads are deployed on your launchers, the less attractive target is your launcher. It would be fair to note, that American advantage in launchers was compensated after USSR demise with the efforts to mitigate the nuclear confrontation and to facilitate the confidence-building measures. Moreover, in 2013 when START-3 was put in effect, the Obama administration lobbied the idea for more slash till 2018 – up to 1.000, but Republicans and Russia did not support the effort.

To be in line with START-3, the U.S. need to start from 2015 to dismantle its hollow silos launches, to turn its B-52H strategic bombers fleet into nuclear incapable, and to reduce its submarine launchers number from 24 till 20. And event after that, the U.S. advantage will still be in place, when the provisions of START-3 be reached. Russia plans to preserve its launcher under 500, with the idea to balance the disadvantage due to a fleet of ground mobile launcher. Meantime a limited fleet of launchers demand from Russia to arm every new ICBM Sarmat with a bunch of warheads, thus making too heavy and immobile missiles a very attractive target for a preemptive strike.

It is worth to note, that numerous Russian nuclear arms modernization programs, launched since 2012, did not disturb the U.S. The reason is simple: this modernization is taking place after a long period of neglect after the demise of the USSR, and the anticipated results of this effort will still be unable to break the balance to Russian advantage.

            – U.S. will keep and facilitate its advantage in launchers and vehicles,

            – the balance of ground-launchers (identified and far-off located) versus sea-based (stealth and potentially intermediate-range) launchers is still to U.S. advantage ((2/3 versus 1/3),

            – in case the START-3 is crippled, the U.S. will still be capable to redeploy 1.000 warheads from the storages, Russia in fact doesn`t have as much launcher to redeploy a similar number,     

–         While the economic sanctions against Russia are still in place and war with Ukraine denies the excess to its arms industry, Russia financially and technologically is unable to catch up with the U.S. in this sphere.

American experts believe that Russian modernization efforts incorporate some flaws:

–         It is reasonable to presume, that Russia will be incapable to finalize its modernization programs before 2020, as planned, perhaps, except a new bomber. It is exactly at that time the U.S. will launch its own cycle of modernization and launch its new submarine to replace «Ohio», a new strike bomber and, perhaps, new cruise missiles, new SLBMs or will modernize the existing one «Minuteman III» as a more budget-friendly variant. That approach will safe U.S. dominance in SNF sphere.

–         A heavy silos-based ICBM ‘Sarmat” equipped with 10-15 warheads will be deployed in 2018 to replace РС-20А Voyevoda (NATO reporting name SS-18 Mod.1,2,3 Satan), whose term of life is expiring. But the problems with auxiliary software and long pricelists might slow dawn the progress of this plans.

–         Contrary to Russia, the U.S. practice a budget friendly approach to its nuclear modernization, which suppose a life-time for its missiles three times longer.

Résumé : While threatening a nuclear attack on the West, Russia definitely doesn`t mean SNF, where the parties have a solid parity with somewhat U.S. tactical advantage. This is a domain, where the parties practice a balanced behavior and stick to scrupulous procedures, so we can hardy expect surprises here. 

2. InstantPrompt Global Strike

The administration of George W. Bush Prompt Global Strike (PGS) in early 2000-s considered such a weapon as a United States military effort to develop a system that can deliver a precision conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world within one hour, in a similar manner to a nuclear ICBM. The idea was suggested by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after fruitless efforts of U.S. DOD to develop effective means of distraction, a strongholds of the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies in Tora Bora mountainous district in Afghanistan. At that time it became clear that nuclear arms have a huge drawback – it cannot be utilized even as mini yield nuclear weapon. U.S. experts believe, that a PGS system could also be useful during a nuclear conflict, potentially replacing nuclear weapons against 30 percent of targets. The PGS system will be designed to complement existing American rapid-response forces, such as Forward Deployed Forces, Air Expeditionary Groups (which can deploy within 48 hours) and carrier battle groups (which can respond within 96 hours).

The PGS program encompasses numerous technologies, including conventional surface-launched rockets and air-launched hypersonic missiles although no specific PGS system has yet been finalized. Possible delivery systems include a rocket similar to existing ICBMs, launched from land or via submarine, –            an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, such as the Boeing X-51 or Advanced Hypersonic Weapon,        a kinetic weapon launched from an orbiting space platform. Later George W. Bush administration rejected the idea because of fears that an ICBM-launched weapon would trigger the Russian nuclear-launch warning system. The Obama administration revitalized the project, In mid 2000s Congress looked skeptically at the PGS mission, it has restricted funding and suggested some changes in funding for specific programs, that resulted in slashing the air-launched  option. Meanwhile Congress appropriated $65.4 million for this program in FY2014 and $95.6 million in FY2015; the Obama Administration has requested $78.8 million for FY2016.

Meanwhile the U.S.A. is still uncertain about the best option for PGS deployment. In 2010, the United States Air Force prototyped a PGS system based on a modified Minuteman III ICBM as a most promising choice. On 11 April 2010, United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated that the United States already had a Prompt Global Strike capability. This coincided with the New START disarmament treaty signed on 8 April 2010, which set new, lower limits on ballistic missiles and their warheads. The treaty does not distinguish between conventional and nuclear versions of weapons, meaning any ballistic PGS missiles and warheads would count toward the new limit. However, the U.S. State Department has stated that this does not constrain plans for PGS deployment, since current plans do not come near the limits. Thus appeared an alternative glider concept, known as the AHW, which may be deployed on missiles based at sea, but it was also rejected later. In January 2012 Pentagon stated its intention to resort to a submarine option, but the progress was put on hold due to same concerns of risks to trigger an accidental nuclear conflict with Russia.  In February 2014, the U.S. Navy solicited proposals for two-year industry trade studies to test the feasibility of developing a hypersonic submarine-launched intermediate-range conventional prompt global strike weapon within $5 million 13-month contracts. So far, there is no clarity which vehicle qualifies as the most promising.

The results of prototype testing also do not propose a thriving optimism. On 18 November 2011, the first Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) glide vehicle was successfully tested by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command as part of the Prompt Global Strike program. The missile was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, and struck a target at the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, over 3,700 kilometres (2,300 mi) away, in under 30 minutes. The prototype, which incorporated technologies developed by Sandia National Laboratories, was used to gather data to assist the development of future hypersonic warheads. The AHW followed an endo-atmospheric non-ballistic trajectory. The second AHW test flight occurred on 25 August 2014 from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska and was terminated shortly after liftoff due to an anomaly in the launch vehicle.

Despite the failure, the Kremlin considered the PGS project to be the prime challenge to Russian national security and began to look for responses in a somewhat chaotic and unlucky fashion. In December 2010, Russian military experts indicated that the forthcoming S-500 missile defense system would include anti-hypersonic defenses. In December 2012, commenting on the development of a replacement for its R-36M2 Voevoda ICBM, the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Sergey Karakaev, stated that the missile will allow Russia “to realize such opportunities as the creation of high precision strategic weapons with non-nuclear warheads and a practical global range. Russia can create non-nuclear, high precision weapons based on intercontinental rockets in the event that the USA also works on designing such a weapon”. On 11 December 2013, Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, speaking at the State Duma,  has warned that Russia will use nuclear weapons if it comes under an attack, adding that this possibility serves as the main deterrent to potential provocateurs and aggressors. He added, that Russia’s Fund of Perspective Researches (FPI) will develop a military response to the American Conventional Prompt Global Strike (PGS) strategy, Rogozin told the State Duma. So far, the FPI has already looked at over a thousand proposed ideas and plans to work on 60 projects, eight of which are top priority. On 10 September 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin once again warned that  Russia will respond to the PGS strategy by upgrading strategic nuclear forces and also developing air and space defense resources.

Résumé: Russian political and military decision-makers, at least publicly, are seriously concerned about the prospects of U.S. efforts to construct a new type of high precision hypersonic conventional weapon, which is not subject to international treaties, excepting long-range ICBMs with conventional warheads within the framework of START-3 2010. Meanwhile America did not succeed to create such weaponry and the prospects are murky as far as it is a pretty costly enterprise. Russian nuclear and military threats were aired recently in the context of PGS, but expert community did not treat them seriously:  Russia cannot resort to nuclear strike targeting a non-existing fantom challenge.   

3. Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF)

The missiles of intermediate and short range relate particularly to European Theatre of Operations, as far as the weapon of this kind is unable to reach the continental U.S.A. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987 eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as between 500-5,500 km (300-3,400 miles), with the exception of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles. Despite an evident success in Europe, the INF Treaty did not create a parity of threats. The attempt of the USSR in 1962 was during a Cuban crisis to break dawn this paradigm to threaten the U.S.A. with this kind of weapon failed, another attempt in mid-80-s to deploy Intermediate missile systems “Pioneer” on Chukotka to threated continental U.S.A. also failed. Moreover, the treaty stipulated different demands to the parties: the USSR had to distract all the missiles as a class of weaponry the U.S.A. had to withdraw the missiles from Europe to its territory without any obligation to distract them.

While following the terms of the Treaty, the USSR distracted twice as much of these missiles than the U.S. (1846:846), and thrice as much the launches sites (825:289). Russian distracted ballistic missiles were capable to deliver fore times more warheads (3154:846). The U.S.A., on its part, distracted more cruise missiles BGM-109G «Тоmahawk» (443:80)., but that did not have an impact on the balance in this class, as far as the U.S. kept the dominance of sea-surface based and air-based cruise missiles ALCM-B of the same type, which were excluded from the Treaty. The insult due to unfair terms of the Treaty bled the hearts of the Russian brass for a long time, stimulating them to revenge; since mid-2000s they began to put the Kremlin to walk away from the Treaty. But for a time being the decision was to stay with the Treaty and seek the detours:

–         Russia began to create a long-range ICBM capable to perform the tasks of an intermediate-range one, that option not ruled out by the Treaty:

The U.S.A. believe that a new Russian long-range ICBM RS-24 Yars (NATO reporting name: SS-27 Mod 2) was tested a number of times as an intermediate-range one. Russia rejects any U.S. efforts to discuss the problem. U.S. experts suggest, that in such a fashion Russia tests this missile`s ability to overcome the adversary`s Anti-Missile Defense system due to the fact, that the tests took pale at a Sary Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing facility. Nevertheless, this does not remove the issue from the bilateral agenda and on 17 January 2015 the U.S.A. informed its allies about its concerns with this respect.

–         Russia initiated to create mobile a short-range ballistic missile system, which is capable to operate as an intermediate-range one. Such an option is banned by the Treaty, but it is difficult to produce evidence to support such charges.   

A mobile short-range ballistic missile system 9K720 Iskander (NATO reporting name SS-26 Stone) is a modification of a system Oka, with a range of application up to 450-470 km. Ikander-K is armed with a new cruise missile P-500 with a range of application up to 500 km, was successfully tested on a range 360 km. But this cruise missile is a modification of the soviet intermediate-range RK-55 Granat (NATO reporting name SSC-X-4 ‘Slingshot’) with a range up to 2.600, which were banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. So far there is no direct evidence that Russia is in breach with the Treaty, only suspicions, but judging from Russia`s record in this sensitive sphere, we can hardly expect fraud.

–         Russia began constructing new sea surface-launched cruise missiles, not banned by the Treaty.

In spring 2014 Russia declared its intentions to introduce to Caspian Flotilla 9 small missile ships Project 21631 Type ‘Buyan-M’, (Tornado) a new generation of river-sea type gunboat, armed with eight Club-S Kalibr anti-ship missiles. Three such gunboats are already operational, the rest will join the Flotilla before 2018. 3M-54 is a Russian surface ship and submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missile (NATO reporting name: SS-N-27A “Sizzler”) has a range 300 km, though there are no targets for this weapon in the Caspian area. According to reports, Russia plans to arm diesel-electric submarines, Project 636 Varshavyanka (.NATO reporting name: Kilo), stationed in Novorossiysk Naval Base, with new cruise missiles with a range 1.500 km, launched from standard torpedo tubes[1]. Though this weapons system is banned by START-3 2010 Treaty for submarines, sea surface-based sites are not ruled out. There are suggestions, that new unspecified cruise missiles stationed on Buyan-type gunboats might provide them with a capability to hit up to 70 targets on  distance close to 1.500 km. These suggestions are not proves, so there is still space for imagination.

–         Russia started testing a new air-based cruise missile, using a nonstrategic nuclear capable bomber Tu-22M3 as a launching site.

The bomber Tu-22M3 is not embraced by a START-3. In early 90-s Russian aerospace companies Tupolev Design Bureau and Raduga Design Bureau tested a bomber Tu-22Ms as a site for a launch vehicle Skif, aimed to launch into space a spacecraft with payload to LEO of 17 tons from an altitude 12 km and speed 1800 km per minute. A supersonic interceptor aircraft Mikoyan MiG-31 (NATO reporting name: Foxhound), which is also not embraced by the Treaty, was viewed as another option, using an air-launching system ISHIM (a 2005-2007 Russia-Kazakhstan project, though unsuccessful).

Résumé : Despite the hypothetical character of Russian alleged effort to detour the INF Treaty 1987, on 27 February 2015 U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in the U.S. Congress blamed Russia for breaching the Treaty and threatened to retaliate. Russia doesn`t buy his arguments and present similar accusations, alleging that the U.S.A. illegally construct long-range ICBMs, easily convertible into intermediate-range, to use them as target-missiles while testing national ABM Defense system. That bring us to the conclusion that both sides try to detour the Treaty, though this is a zero-result game.

We should keep in mind, that the arsenal of intermediate-range cruise missiles is a strategic asset, capable to shift the nuclear balance. In November 2013 NATO launched in Poland Steadfast Jazz exercises – the largest since 2006, involving around 6.000 troops, though with token U.S. participation. Its scenario presumed, among others, the exchange of local nuclear strikes with Russia. The exercises resulted in Pentagon`s conclusion, that nuclear escalation results in bilateral distraction, while high precision conventional strikes might produce a positive outcome[2]. Russian leadership seems to stick to the same mode of thinking.

Additionally, Russia believed the Treaty to be outdated due to the fact, that a number of states beyond the Treaty like China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel poses nuclear weapons. Meantime a calm attitude of Washington to Russian strategic arms modernization perspectives is explained by their belief in weakness of Russian economy, its inability to ensure a long-lasting parity in military sphere. So far, there is little evidence, that Russian nuclear threats mean an invitation to exchange strategic nuclear strikes in Europe. Apparently, Putin means some other scenario.  

4. Nonstrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons:

The specific feature of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is that the two nations have not moved forward with efforts to negotiate limits on these weapons, a detailed accounting of its force, both the warheads and the vehicles, was never provided or stipulated by bilateral STARTs, the main focus of attention war traditionally paid to strategic forces. On the other side, due to gradual evolution accuracy, this class of weapons is very similar to strategic one.  At the moment there is no reliable criterion to distinguish these types of weapons: yield, precision, capacity to destruct strategic targets, range – all these definitions turned to be very relative. De-facto we deal with the same type of weapons, which is able to migrate from one class to another with the only difference, that accounting and control systems for these classes vary substantially. And that poses a problem: the major part of strategic nuclear arsenal is capable to do the tasks of tactical and visa-versa, nonstrategic weapons may do the job of strategic one: many U.S. and Russian heavy bombers can carry weapons of lower yields, and, as accuracies improved for bombs and missiles, warheads with lower yields could achieve the same expected level of destruction that had required larger warheads in early generations of strategic weapons systems. In fact, the distinction lies in the character of a target to be destroyed, but not in the yield or range capacity of the weapons.

By the end of a cold-war era thousands on nonstrategic nuclear munition remained operational, but then both sides eliminated their number considerable on a voluntary basis. Unlike strategic, tactical nuclear arsenal never was is a focus of public attention, they were never negotiated as far as they never posed a threat to continental U.S.A. In early 90-s Russia possessed around 15.000-25.000 of such weapons (precise data is unavailable) and began eliminating them as fast as 2.000 pieces per year. U.S.A. reduces its tactical nuclear arsenal by 75% since 1988 till 1994 (more than Russia), shut down two out of 4 stockpiles on U.S. terrain. In 2000 the total number of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear stockpiles in 7 European countries was slashed from 125 to 10. President George W. Bush decided to make further encouraging cuts and dismantled 4 more storages in Greece and in Germany. Despite this, American deployments of nuclear arsenal in Europe deliver U.S.A. advantages, which pose a subject for Russian discontent:

–         Nuclear weapons deployed in Europe іs still viewed an important tool to discourage Russia from nuclear attack of USA and its European allies. In fact, this reveals a symmetric approach to Russian concept of preemptive nuclear ‘deescalative’ strike: American strategists also believe it to be a much better option than cost and time consuming efforts to liberate Europe from Russian invasion.

–         Now, when the cold war period is over, the deployment of American nuclear arsenal on 6 stockpiles in 5 European NATO states with non-nuclear status (Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Turkey) is not appreciated as a normal situation any longer. To make things worse, in case of a crises the U.S.A. plan to use its nuclear capable aircraft only for a half of these gravity nuclear bombs, the rest is supposed to be launched from the aircraft of these non-nuclear states, which is in a sheer breach with the nonproliferation regime.   

After the USSR demise the parties relied on different philosophies of nuclear arms engagement: in 1999 the Russian leadership embraced to develop and modernize nonstrategic nuclear arsenal as a compensation effort to counterbalance the Western growing advantage in conventional armaments.  Since 2009 Russian strategists discussed the option to utilize the nonstrategic arsenal in regional conflicts and the conflicts in the proximity of its borders, preemptive strikes included (the case of Ukraine). Meanwhile, the National Defense strategies of 2010 and 2014 previewed such an option only for a specific case, critical for the very existence of a Russian state. The problem is whether Kremlin leaders will act in line with the spirit of its own strategy.

The West has a different approach; The Europe, primarily Great Britain, does not view nonstrategic nuclear weapon as an important tool, in 2009 Germany even proposed its complete withdrawal from Europe, though not realized. U.S.A. consider nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe as an insurance from Russian unpredictable conduct in Europe. The difference of approaches with Russia lies in the fact that Obama Administration ruled out the engagement of nuclear nonstrategic arms in a regional conflict, primarily with a nonnuclear state.

At the moment the U.S.A. has at its disposal 760 pieces of nonstrategic nuclear gravity bombs, of which 260 are deployed in Europe. Russia has much more and of different variety – from 1.000 to 6.000 (3.800 according to other estimations), precise data is unavailable. Russian dominance in this area is undisputable. Here are the general assessments of Russian nonstrategic munition arsenal: Army has 170, Anti-Aircraft forces – 430, Russian Air Forces – 730, Navy – 700. According to other estimations Russia has 1.000 nuclear munitions: Army – 201, Anti-Aircraft forces – 166, RuAF – 334, Navy – 330.

At the moment the U.S. politics and experts do not have a common approach how to respond to this disparity: some of them believe that the problem doesn`t exist, some believe it appropriate to produce more weapons of this type, facing Russian aggression in Ukraine. There are opinions, that the U.S. on the contrary should encourage Russia to mutually downgrade the existing level of this type of weapons, as well as to increase the cooperation with Russia and upgrade the verification measures of its preservation and reductiondistraction. Besides, in 2001 the U.S. downgraded the role of tactical nuclear weapons in its containment strategy in view of development of ABM defense systems and non-conventional means of distraction. It was only in 2012, when President Barak Obama renewed his attention to strategic nuclear forces in terms of financing its modernization program after 2020.

In recent years the Congress and U.S. Administration approach to nonstrategic nuclear weapons perspectives was inconsistent, the problem was ignored. In early 2000 the Congress aired its concern of the problem, primarily in terms that the existing mutual arsenal should be reduced, the Russia one should be properly safeguarded from steeling. It even appropriated $5 ml to finally account this arsenal, but in the long run the issue was abandoned. In 2009 Washington again revealed some concern about the growing disparity and the focus of Russian on this type of weaponry, but again with no tangible results to follow. In 2009-2010 while elaborating in Strategic Concept NATO countries discussed the expediency to completely withdraw U.S. nonstrategic nuclear arsenal from Europe, but this approach was rejected due to the assumption, that it is a nuclear defense alliance, which relies on a combination of nuclear and conventional weapons in its endeavor to contain Russia in Europe. In this respect the U.S.A. viewed this weapon primarily as a tool to protect its European allies, not to defend the continental U.S.A. At the moment B-61-3. B-61-4 and B-61-10 versions gravity bombs are the only U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, and they are undergoing renovation to fit modern standards on maintenance.

Previously NATO debated the necessity to modernize this weapon more radically, after the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014 the approach shifted:

–         The role of U.S. tactical nuclear weapon as a tool of containment policy grew considerably,

–         U.S. nonstrategic and strategic nuclear weapon should be estimated indivisibly,

–         The importance of French and Britain`s nuclear arsenal visibly grew.

 Despite the problem of aging the aircraft carriers, U.S. still preserve considerable capacity to engage its nonstrategic B-61 bombs in Europe: the life time of nuclear capable F-15 and F-16, as well as European Tornado are approaching its end. Modern aircraft has problems: Eurofighter (to substitute Tornado) in not nuclear capable, while new nuclear capable F-35 is viewed, primarily in Germany, as too costly in maintenance and warfare. But the delivery systems were traditionally treated in NATO as technical, not political issues. A couple of years ago the Pentagon declared, that in case European allies are unable to maintain old nuclear capable aircraft or to procure new ones, U.S. Air Force may do the nuclear mission in Europe instead of them. Under new grave circumstances of Russian nuclear threat the issue of delivery is of secondary importance for the allies. NATO responded to Russian aggression by building up its conventional military forces, where their advantage is considerable.

Meanwhile Kremlin in moving in the direction of inventing new concepts of nuclear warfare on the brink of defense war. At the early stage of war in Ukraine Russia declared that it stands ready to resort to preemptive nuclear strike on NATO countries, failing to specify the targets. To support the threat, Russia declared its intention to deploy nuclear weapon in Kaliningrad enclave and in Crimea, which resulted in raising the threat of U.S.NATO-Russia nuclear conflict to the level of the cold war period. Consequently Washington does not rule out the possibility to appear unexpectedly in a situation of considerable nuclear confrontation with Russia in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine or with a NATO member-state.

Résumé: Mr.Putin and his team members, while threatening to engage to a nuclear attack against the West in the context of Russia-Ukraine war, seem to mean a nonstrategic one. He resorted to this option while the West never gave him a single pretext of nuclear theat. In such a fashion Mr.Putin tries to constrain the West from meddling with conventional armament into the current conflict with Ukraine. But the Achilles point of this threat is the lack of pretext and specific targets, due to which the experts put this option under serious doubt. Even in March 2015 the U.S.A. doesn`t take seriously these threats due to lack of direct Russia-NATOU.S. direct military confrontation, keeping in mind, that nonstrategic nuclear weapons is designed to hit the command centers, air bases, logistic infrastructure of the troops on assault.

It is important to note, that on the eve of escalation of Russia-NATO confrontation  NATO`s conduct with Russia mitigated any possible military confrontation. After 1991 the U.S. always persistently proposed Russia to gradually reduce the number of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe on a bilateral basis, but this approach never proved to be a success. Russia always demanded that the U.S. withdraw its arsenal from the European soil as a precondition for discussions on reduction. Russia argued, that its nonstrategic nuclear arsenal is totally located on the Russian soil, contrary to the U.S.A. The present escalation has a potential to transform the U.S. stance on the issue to a more robust one.

5. An obscure issue of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Crimea

In spring 29014 and late in mid-March 2015 Russian MoD announced its plans to deploy in Crimean Gvardeiskoye Air Base maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft Ilyushin Il-38 “Dolphin”[3] and Tupolev Tu-142[4], as well as long-range strategic and maritime nuclear capable strike bomber Tupolev Tu-22M3[5]. On 14 August President Putin publicly confirmed these intentions. In December 2014 rumors surfaced, that Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are already deployed in Crimea.

–         The news serves as a pretext for a number of U.S. congressmen to argue against further limitation of nuclear arms in accordance with provisions of START-3 2010.

–         NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.

–         MFA of Russia stated, that the deployment is question is a response to deployment of U.S. nuclear capable aircraft to Baltic states. Minister S.Lavrov argued the legitimacy of Russian activity due to the notion that Russian Federation is free to move nuclear weapons on its sovereign territory Crimea included. On 26 April 2015 Russia denounced that statement.

As we see, the issue of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is already a point in the agenda of Russia-Ukraine-the West crisis of relationship. Though leading American experts[6] in early 2015 doubted the probability of the fact that Russia deployed in annexed Crimea a mobile nuclear capable short-range ballistic missile system 9K720 Iskander (NATO reporting name SS-26 Stone).

Here we should keep in mind the following :  the presence of Russian dual-capable non-strategic nuclear forces in Crimea is not new; they have been there for decades. They were there before the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have been there for the past two decades, and they are there now.  In Soviet times, this included nuclear-capable warships and submarines, bombers, army weapons, and air-defense systems. Since then, the nuclear warheads for those systems were withdrawn to storage sites inside Russia, like Belgorod-22, some 690 kilometers to the north. Nearly all of the air force, army, and air-defense weapon systems were also withdrawn. Only naval nuclear-capable forces associated with the Black Sea Fleet area of Sevastopol stayed, although at reduced levels.

Yet with the Russian annexation of Crimea, a military reinforcement of military facilities across the peninsula has begun. This includes deployment of mainly conventional forces but also some systems that are considered nuclear-capable. Though the deployment of Strategic nuclear forces in Crimea is out of the question.

Naval Nuclear-Capable Forces:

The Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol includes nuclear-capable cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines. They are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and torpedoes. But the warheads for those weapons are thought to be in central storage in Russia.

Backfire Bombers

In mid-March 2015 the Kremlin announced the deployment of 10 long-range nuclear capable carrier-bombers Tu-22M3, armed with cruise missiles X-15 and X-22, for week-long drills till 21 March. Western experts consider their deployment to Crimea on a permanent basis as illogical and pointless due to several reasons.  Russia appears to have four operational Backfire bases:

–         Olenegorsk Air Base on the Kola Peninsula (all naval aviation is now under the tactical air force),

–         Shaykovka Air Base near Kirov in Kaluzhskaya Oblast near Belarus in the Western Military District (many of the Backfires intercepted over the Baltic Sea in recent months have been from Shaykovka);

–         Belaya in Irkutsk Oblast in the Central Military District;

–         and Alekseyevka near Mongokhto in Khabarovsk Oblast in the Eastern Military District.

–         A fifth base – Soltsy Air Base in Novgorod Oblast in the Western Military District – is thought to have been disbanded.


The apparent plan to deploy Backfires in Crimea is kind of strange because the intermediate-range bomber doesn’t need to be deployed in Crimea to be able to reach potential targets in Western Europe. Another potential mission could be for maritime strikes in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, but deployment to Crimea will only give it slightly more reach in the southern and western parts of the Mediterranean Sea (see map). And the forward deployment would make the aircraft much more vulnerable to attack.

Iskander Missile Launchers

In May 2, 2014  Major General Alexander Rozmaznin of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, reportedly stated that a “division” of Iskander had entered Crimea and that “every missile system is capable of carrying nuclear warheads…” But Western experts question its credibility, arguing, that in fact “Iskander missiles” were mistaken for the Bastion-P (K300P or SSC-5) costal defense cruise missile system, which look very similar.

The commander of Russia’s strategic missile forces, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, recently ruled out rumors about deployment of strategic missiles in Crimea, but future plans for the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles in Crimea are less clear. Russia is currently upgrading short-range ballistic missile brigades from the SS-21 (Tochka) to the SS-26 (Iskander-M) missile. Four of ten brigades have been upgraded or are in the process of upgrading (all in the western and southern military districts), and a fifth brigade will receive the Iskander in late-2014. In 2015, deployment will broaden to the Central and Eastern military districts.

The Iskander division closest to Crimea is based near Molkino in the Krasnodar Oblast. So for the reports about deployment of an Iskander division to Crimea to be correct, it would require a significant change in the existing Iskander posture, which evoke  skepticism about the rumors, at least in a short-term perspective.

Air Defense

Russian air defense forces such as the S-300 still have an important secondary nuclear mission, despite the fact, that roughly 60% of the Soviet-era inventory of warheads for air defense forces has been eliminated. After Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian military declared plans to deploy a complete integrated air defense system in Crimea, and some of the former Ukrainian S-300 sites may be re-populated in the future. Though in March 2014 two Russian S-300 units moved promptly into the Gvardiesky Air Base, there is not verified information that they possess nuclear munition.

Résumé: the rumors about the presence of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Crimea reflects a general problem with this kind of armament: the majority on nuclear-capable arms are of double-capable, which make it difficult to present hard evidence about nuclear munition. We may add, the Russian behavior in this respect indicates on its reluctance to disrupt the existing nuclear balance with NATO, nonstrategic nuclear weapons included.

6. U.S. National Missile Defense system

Public statements of Russian key decision-makers declared U.S. National Missile Defense European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) poses a principle challenge to Russian strategic nuclear arsenal. Here we distinguish two points:

            – EPAA is challenging the effectiveness of Russian ICBM attack in case of nuclear conflict between two super states (Russian truly believe in such eventuality and upgrade their readiness level)

            – EPAA in challenging the effectiveness on Russian non-strategic nuclear attack on the European soil, because Kremlin is tending to rely on this nuclear component more heavily in recent years.

It seems to be the reason to explain Russian efforts to bar the deployment of EPAA since 2000, even resorting to nuclear blackmail European countries-hosts of this American system. In particular, the Kremlin threatened Poland and Denmark to targets its ICBMs on their national military installations, though with zero success. Russian nuclear blackmail in the context of Russia-Ukraine war deserves a detailed analysis.

The 1972 Soviet-American ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty presumed, that each country was allowed two sites at which it could base a defensive system, one for the capital and one for ICBM silos. Under the terms of the treaty, each party was limited to two ABM complexes, each of which was to be limited to 100 anti-ballistic missiles. But the main principles of the Treaty gradually underwent considerable erosion.

American attempts in 1983, 1993, 1999 to modernize NMD did not ruin the Treaty, being more conceptual and theoretical rather than practical efforts. But the situation basically changed in 2001, when President George W. Bush. announced, that NMD will secure not only the terrains of the U.S.A., but also its close allies, that it turns to be international: in 2007 there were 17 states-partners, nowadays 24 states-neighbors of both Russia and China. In June 2002 United Stated withdrew from the Treaty, thought the START-3 2010 relates nuclear arsenals limitation with ABM systems. In September 2009 the U.S. launched a EPAA program as a new approach, based on Aegis sea and ashore platforms.

The main component of the U.S. NMD system is a Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) anti-ballistic missiles with so far limited capabilities: they are able to intercept only single-block warheads of only ballistic missiles (cruise-missiles excluded), which to some extent prove it was designed against Iranian threat. Additionally Pentagon deployed a program of sea-based Aegis NMD, embracing 24 US Navy ships in 2011and aiming to raise their number up to 84 to strengthen EPAA. In 2015 almost 50% of the EPAA is planned to be sea-based, that is not on the continental U.S.A., but close to Russia boarders – a factor, that should shift the equilibrium of nuclear strategic arsenals (if a Russian point of view on EPAA is correct).

In March 2013 U.S. Administration cancelled the 4-th phase of EPAA to calm down Russian concerns, though with little success. The whole system of EPAA is not fully operational, but this is a matter of time. Though the prime goal of EPAA is to defend the U.S.A. and its European allies from Iranian ICBMs, their covert goal is to intercept Russian missiles as well, and they have all the reasons to do this.

The Kremlin is concerned primarily with the perspective that EPAA might considerably downgrade the Russian strategic nuclear capabilities, thus shifting the balance in its favor. The European component of U.S. NMD program was initially launched in 2004 by G.W.Bush Administration to counter Iranian missile threat, which was appreciated in the Kremlin as a deception tactics. In 2007 Russia launched a number of initiatives to integrate Russia in the system and thus to discourage the U.S. from deployments in Czech Republic and in Poland, though with no success and escalation of arms race in this area as an aftermath. In August 2007 Russia deployed new NMD system elements S-300 ‘Triumph’ in the Moscow area as well as early warning electronic stations ‘Voronezh’.

Despite the provisions of the last START-3 Treaty 2010, which interrelate the strategic nuclear arsenal with NMD systems, in June 2014 Boeing successfully tested a new vehicle, capable to intercept the ICBM on its most vulnerable phase of trajectory. Besides, U.S. successfully tested a new ТHAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) vehicle, designed to intercept inter-medium and short range missiles within the concept of NMD system. Since 2014 a Spanish naval base Rota became a home for two U.S. Aegis-capable destroyers, in 2015 two other Aegis ships will join them. In 2015 Romania is getting ready to become a home of first land-based Aegis-Ashore deployments, followed by Poland in 2018. On the other side, starting since January 2015 Russia began testing the new NMD system of ‘Almaz-Antey’ JSC.

In the context of developing the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) Russian leaders normally behave prudently. We note contradiction in key Russian statements on the eve of anti-Ukrainian aggression: on 19 December 2013 during press-conference Mr.Putin decided to denounce the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander tactical missile systems in Kaliningrad enclave, which did not go in line with the statement of the MoD in Western military district on the eve. Meanwhile such a deployment is treated in Russia as an ‘adequate’ response to EPAA building-up and pose a direct threat to U.S. anti-missile and radar installations in Redzikowo, Poland.

The phases of EPAA deployment were announced in advance and were not a surprise for Russia: in Romania – 2015, in Poland – 2018. Technically at present these elements of U.S. NMD system are useless against Russian ICBMs, targeting the continental U.S.A., due to the fact, that the trajectories of the latters are much closer to Iceland and Scotland, located far to the North from Poland and Romania. Besides, the capacity of these elements is limited in terms of the quantity of the missiles-interceptors. But EPAA has a capacity to effectively develop its capabilities and Russia is fully aware of it.

Résumé: it seems that while the confidence level is almost next to zero, the parties strive to utilize their international obligations to disguise their efforts to achieve certain tactical advantages. Russian nuclear blackmail in reality has nothing to do with the U.S. NMD EPAA deployment, but as a specific effort to gain ‘sovereignty on impunity’ in Ukraine and, perhaps, in Moldova. The bizarre Russian tactic is proactive: de