Nuclear midnight ticks closer in wake of Russia’s Crimea threats

It’s been a year since Russia annexed Crimea and the nuclear rumors are flying. Earlier this month, Russian officials speculated about whether or not Russia could place nuclear weapons in Crimea. Admitting ignorance about what weapons were there now or whether there were any plans to deploy such weapons there, Mikhail Ulyanov, an official in charge of arms control for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “in principle, Russia can do it.”

And in a video apparently intended to mark the anniversary of the annexation, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert at the time of annexation.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, idle speculation is never a good idea. In principle, countries can do a lot of things, and in retrospect, leaders may have considered a lot of options, but Ukraine and Crimea have been free of nuclear weapons for more than 20 years. It is in everyone’s best interest to maintain that reality.

Russian President Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia’s Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great), Aug. 17, 2005. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE
Russian President Putin watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia’s Arctic North on board the nuclear missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great), Aug. 17, 2005. REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

For Russia, introducing nuclear weapons into Crimea would provide neither tactical nor strategic security advantages. Russia decided long ago to remove and eliminate intermediate-range missiles under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and to remove tactical nuclear weapons from the corners of the former Soviet Union. While Russia may bemoan its conventional-forces strength now, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not significantly more challenging. Ironically, deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Crimea could result in NATO pursuing options to increase its capabilities.

Absent a security rationale, any perceived political benefits must contend with the heavy political baggage associated with bringing nuclear weapons back to the Black Sea. More than 20 years ago, as the Soviet empire was crumbling, the prospect of “loose nukes” haunted not just the United States but also Russia and its former Soviet allies. Ukraine, which had hosted thousands of tactical nuclear weapons and what would have been the third-largest nuclear arsenal at the time, declared both its sovereignty and its intention to become a nonnuclear weapon state in 1990. The thousands of Russian tactical nuclear weapons stationed on Ukrainian soil were the first to go, in 1992, but it took a few more years to dismantle the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. Under a trilateral process involving Ukraine, Russia and the United States, some 176 long-range ballistic missiles and 42 strategic bombers armed with more than 1,800 nuclear warheads were eliminated. Ukraine joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994 as a nonnuclear weapon state.

The comments about Crimea and nuclear weapons can be dismissed as irresponsible and ill-advised, but Russian actions regarding nuclear weapons and arms control paint a dismal picture. So dismal, in fact, that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock in early 2015 to rest at 3 minutes to midnight. Plans to negotiate further limits on strategic nuclear weapons have been iced, and inspections under the existing treaty (New START) have slowed. Hopes for talks to limit tactical nuclear weapons have evaporated, as Russian official statements have placed increasing importance on the role of tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional-force weaknesses. More disturbing is the Russian development of a new ground-launched cruise missile, the Iskander-K, which the United States alleges violates the INF Treaty, which eliminated a whole class of intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

Even in conventional arms control, Russian cooperation has faltered. Last week, Russian officials also announced they were withdrawing from the Joint Consultative Group on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

Given the current breadth of dissatisfaction in the U.S.-Russia relationship, some observers might be tempted to respond to these provocations with a “good riddance” attitude. In times of rising tension, however, countries need venues in which to air differences, and the United States and Russia are no exception. Traditionally, arms control treaties have not only provided stability and predictability in strategic affairs but also afforded American and Russian officials opportunities to develop working relationships and keep dialogue open even if broader political relations have deteriorated. Now more than ever, U.S. and Russian officials need to come back to the table and not just talk, but also listen.

Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, where she has directed the Proliferation Prevention Program since 2010. She previously held positions at the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Department of State and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. She is a member of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

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