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Russia: Great Powers Redefined Separately Nuclear Forces

Prague, 8 December 1997 (RFE/RL) The United States and Russia have recently been focusing their attention on defining potential use of nuclear weapons in conflict situations. Each has been doing this separately, in ways reflecting specific interests and requirements, but the general effects are likely to ease somewhat the threat of world war.

According to a recently published article in the Washington Post (Dec. 7), U. S. President Bill Clinton issued at the end of last month a still classified directive for American military planners, emphasizing that their work should focus on "deterring nuclear wars or the use of nuclear weapons at any level, not fighting with them."

The Post cited several ranking sources in the U. S. government, particularly a special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council Robert G. Bell, as saying that the directive makes a departure from the long-established strategy of fighting an all-out nuclear war until victory, irrespective of social and military costs ("bomb them back to the stone age").

The Clinton directive is reported to have preserved the option of using nuclear strikes against military and civilian targets, particularly after enemy attacks with chemical or biological weapons.

In this, the directive is said to assert continuity in defensive preparedness. The Post says that "the United States will continue to rely on nuclear weapons as a cornerstone of its national security for the 'indefinite future,' and that it will retain a triad of nuclear forces consisting of bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles."

But the Post also says that the directive clearly determines that the U.S. will "drop any planning for a long nuclear war," and its nuclear forces will "focus on deterring the use of nuclear arms against U.S. forces or allies simply by threatening a devastating response."

Russia has refrained, so far, from issuing any formal document or instructions on the matter. But Russian politicians and military experts have long been engaged in discussions on the role of nuclear forces in planned reforms of the armed forces.

According to intelligence reports published in the Western press (see the New York Times, Dec. 7), many Russian experts "advocate placing greater reliance on nuclear weapons to compensate for the deficiencies of conventional forces."

This view is reported to have been further strengthened as a result of recent Western decision to expand NATO eastward. In an assertion corresponding to the U.S. position, Russia said in its military doctrine that it "reserves the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, if it is attacked by a non-nuclear-weapons state allied with or supported by a nuclear-weapon state."

The emphasis in the current discussion, however, has been on using nuclear weapons primarily to "de-escalate regional wars before they became large scale, thus obviating the need for a vast conventional-force structure."

Russian conventional forces have long been regarded in neighboring countries as the primary threat to their security. Any significant decrease in both numerical and logistic potential of those forces would be seen as decreasing such a threat, particularly in the situation in which nuclear conflicts at the border of Russia are extremely unlikely. In this way, the current interest among Russian military and political leaders in shifting dependence away from conventional forces to nuclear arms could be beneficial to political stability and security in regions bordering Russia itself.

With these attempts to redefine the role of nuclear weapons by both the U.S. and Russia, the question of reducing nuclear arsenals in both countries acquires ever increasing importance.

Both countries have agreed to reduce their arsenals in the 1993 START-2 treaty. Further reductions have been envisaged in conversations between the U.S. President Clinton and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin during their meeting in Helsinki this year. These reductions could be formalized in a new treaty, the so-called START-3.

However, the process has been halted by Russia's failure to ratify the START-2 provisions. Such ratification is seen as a necessary condition for embarking on formal START-3 negotiations.

START-2 has been ratified by the U.S. Senate, but Russia's State Duma (parliament's lower house) has still failed to do so. And now, it is obvious that there will be no ratification this year, despite repeated Yeltsin's promises and assurances by other Russian politicians.

Last week (Dec. 6) chairman of the Dump's Foreign Affairs Committee Vladimir Lukin was reported by Russian media to have said that START-2 is unlikely to be ratified this year, owing to opposition by Communist and nationalist deputies. These deputies are said to be concerned that the treaty would affect Russia's national security, but they also point out that the government has, so far, failed to present a convincing and coherent plan for restructuring Russia's nuclear forces, once START-2 and START-3 are implemented.

The current discussion within the Russian military and political establishments on the role of nuclear forces in future conflicts may eventually serve to develop plans for such changes.