Friday, May 09, 2008

What Do Putin's Liberal Russian Opponents Think of His Nuclear Policies?

The answer may surprise you.
Boris Nemtsov is an important figure in Russia's liberal opposition movement. He was Deputy Prime Minister of Russia during the late 1990s under Yeltsin. Nemtsov was one of the founders, and now the main spokesperson of, the Union of Right Forces. Despite its ominous-sounding name, the Union of Right Forces is one of Russia's two main liberal opposition parties, along with the more left-leaning Yabloko. Nemtsov, in particular, is the proponent of a particular brand of Russian liberal thought that is as suspicious of the west as it is disapproving of Putin.

This outlook led Nemtsov to make a critique of Putin's nuclear weapons policies that will surprise most westerners. In his recent "White Paper" in which he critiques the legacy of Putin's presidency at length, Nemtsov claims that Putin has allowed a catastrophic decline in the quality of Russia's nuclear deterrent, and that that this threatens Russia's national survival:
This was the time to arm the army adequately. However actual arms deliveries and even plans for re-equipment have been scandalously low. According to data from the Council for National Strategy published in November 2007 published in a report entitled Results under Vladimir Putin: Crisis and Decay of the Russian Army, between 2000 and 2006, the Armed Forces received deliveries of only 27 ICBMs (27 warheads) while 294 (1779 warheads) were written off. In the penniless years 1992-1999, the army received 92 ICBMs (92 warheads). Since the year 2000, only 3 new aircraft have been delivered: one Tu-160 and two Su-34s. Around 100 aircraft were delivered during the 1990s. Since the year 2000, a little over 60 T90 tanks have been purchased while the total for the 1990s was 120. During the same decade, the Navy and seaborne frontier forces took delivery of over 50 surface and subsurface vessels. The figure for the current decade is less than ten [FN 1]. The state armaments programme for 2007-2015 plans to deliver a mere 60 aircraft to the armed forces in that time. This means that it will take … 80 years …. to renew our existing air fleet.

But the main blow has been against the most important element of Russia’s military potential, the support of the country’s sovereignty – the strategic nuclear forces. During the Putin years, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have decayed at a frightening rate. More data from the Council for National Strategy’s report quoted above shows that between 2000 and 2007 the strategic nuclear forces wrote off 405 delivery units and 2498 warheads (as against 505 warheads only in the 1990s, during which time 60 new delivery units were bought while the army also took delivery of 1960 Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers). Under Putin, only 27 rockets have been produced – three times fewer than in the 1990s. So while Russia was overall able during the 1990s to maintain its nuclear potential at the level of that which it had inherited from the USSR, under Putin its reduction has become a serious threat to national security.

Furthermore, while the numbers of relatively invulnerable silo-based and RT-23 [FN 2] rail-mobile ICBMs (these latter look like standard refrigerated rail cars, which make them difficult to keep track of) were reduced, the armed forces continued to be given mobile Topol [FN 3] units that are highly vulnerable (these are 100-ton, 22-metre-long road-mobile units which can easily be found by optical, radar and infrared intelligence).

One hardly need say how important a country’s strategic nuclear force is to its sovereignty. One might even say that no SNF = no sovereignty. The rest of today’s armed forces are most unlikely to be able to resist large-scale attack by a strong aggressor. If Russia’s nuclear arsenal continues to be shrunk at current rates, by the middle of the next decade Russia’s SNF will have at its disposal no more that 300 ICBMs and 600 warheads. In that case, it is questionable if it will be able to perform its nuclear deterrence function: it becomes possible for an aggressor to make a disarming non-nuclear strike with high accuracy weapons to annihilate practically all of Russia’s nuclear strike power and take out the few rockets that the country does manage to launch with its anti-missile defence capability. China’s strategic nuclear force will equal that of Russia in the next 10 years or maybe even exceed it.

There’s no sensible response to the endless jabber about “sovereignty” as the main aim of Putin’s policies if in reality the main factor in that sovereignty – the strategic nuclear deterrent – has been undermined under Putin.

I don't think that this critique of Putin's nuclear policies is remotely fair (Russia does have obligations under the SORT treaty to reduce its nuclear arsenal), and claiming that the silo-based ICBMs and the rail-based SS-24s were vastly more survivable than the road-based Topols simply strains credulity. In fact, if current trends continue the Russian nuclear deterrent may be qualitatively superior to that of the United States twenty years from now--it'll be 50+ year old Minuteman IIIs and 30+ year-old Trident IIs versus road-mobile Topol-Ms and Bulavas of vastly more modern design (not to mention new weapons systems that are being considered by the Russian government right now.) Western critics of Putin tend to make the opposite criticism: that he has squandered precious resources on strategic nuclear forces while neglecting other areas of policy. But the fact that this kind of thinking about nuclear weapons exists among influential members of Russia's liberal opposition should give serious pause to those who think that it will be easy to "induce" Russia to abandon its nuclear armament.

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