Two years ago, I wrote about the thousands of tactical or battlefield nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War.
Today, I can confidently report: they are still out there, uncounted and unseen. There has been almost no progress toward bringing these weapons into the open, or under an arms control treaty.
Both the United States and Russia have made dramatic reductions since the visionary, unilateral initiatives of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991, in which they pulled back voluntarily and without a treaty as the great confrontation of the Cold War ebbed. But the story didn't end there.
Today, the United States, which once had 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, retains about 200 B-61 gravity bombs in five NATO nations. (And there are about 300 non-deployed bombs in the United States, as well as 260 cruise missile warheads which are being phased out.) Russia now has some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons of various kinds assigned to delivery vehicles, with more awaiting dismantlement. The estimates of Russian stockpiles have been highly uncertain in the two decades since the Soviet collapse.
The fate of these weapons will be in the spotlight again at the NATO summit in Chicago May 20-21, which is expected to approve a new Deterrence and Defense Posture Review. Don't look for a dramatic shift from the status-quo; the allies want to hold onto the nuclear weapons, for now, as a political symbol of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps as a chip to be traded in future negotiations. And Russia, too, sees these warheads as a useful bulwark against NATO's edge in conventional or non-nuclear forces (a complete turnabout from the Cold War when it was the West that saw nuclear battlefield weapons as a way to stop a Soviet conventional invasion.)
Tactical nuclear weapons have no significant military utility in these times. A target could be just as easily put in the crosshairs of a highly-precise strategic weapon.
If NATO policy is stuck, then at least the summit should consider a very good suggestion from Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who has just completed a comprehensive look at tactical nuclear weapons, a report [pdf] chock-a-block with data and valuable insights. Kristensen, who is co-author with Robert S. Norris of the authoritative "Nuclear Notebook" column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, suggests we create some transparency as a first step to break the tactical nuclear weapons impasse.
"Russia, the United States and NATO do not disclose how many non-strategic nuclear weapons they have or where they are deployed" he writes. "As a result, uncertainty and rumors fuel a debate full of half-truths, exaggerations and worst-case assumptions."
Kristensen points out that keeping the details of tactical nuclear weapons secret is in contrast to the approach taken with operational, long-range strategic weapons, which are accounted for in the New Start treaty data. Also, in 2010, the Obama administration disclosed the size and history of the total nuclear weapons stockpile. Why not do the same with the tactical warheads? In 2011, a group of NATO nations proposed just that: exchanging data between the United States, NATO and Russia on numbers, locations, operational status, command arrangements and warhead storage security. But so far it has not been done.
"The stalemate in non-strategic nuclear weapons cries out for political leadership and bold initiatives. It is important that Russia and the United States take steps to drastically increase transparency. This can be done on a unilateral basis and should include overall numbers, locations, and delivery systems. It should also include verification measures to confirm data that is provided. Increasing transparency is essential because uncertainty creates mistrust, rumors, and worst-case planning.
"Most of what is assumed about Russian non-strategic nuclear capabilities still comes from literature published during the Cold War and in the first years after the demise of the Soviet Union. Since then, the U.S. intelligence community has largely stopped publishing estimates about Russian nuclear capabilities, and Russia has not offered any insight.
To that end, it is important that possible agreements on increased transparency of non-strategic nuclear weapons not be confined to confidential exchanges of information between governments but also benefit the international community."
Operation Upshot-Knothole, May 25, 1953, via Wikimedia Commons
What's the value of a nuclear warhead today? Not the monetary value, but as a deterrent?
Nuclear explosions are frightfully destructive, and that's the point: to inspire fear, to deter an adversary. Atomic bombs still appeal to some nations and terrorists, making proliferation a constant risk. Fortunately, there are fewer nuclear warheads in the world than during the Cold War; down from about 60,000 to about 22,000 today, most of which remain in the United States and Russia. But the deterrent value of the arsenals isn't what it used to be. Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats -- terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics -- for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.
AFP/Getty Images/Robin Utrecht
In remarks on Russian television today, President Dmitri Medvedev has turned up the heat in the long-simmering talks on missile defense. Medvedev voiced impatience with the United States, saying the negotiations are not making progress toward a common approach.
Why now? Medvedev has one eye on the calendar: the Russian parliamentary election is Dec. 4. The ruling United Russia party has been losing steam in the opinion polls and Vladimir Putin has already announced he intends to return to the presidency next year. Voters are yawning. Surely, Medvedev has made the calculation that a toughly-worded reprimand to the United States and NATO will play well.
President Obama has embarked on a phased, limited missile defense in Europe which the United States insists is not aimed at Russia, but rather at Iran. Medvedev said he doesn't believe it, and Russia fears that over the next decade the system could be used to undermine its own strategic nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the United States, but the answer, so far, has been "no." Medvedev complained that Russia faces a "fait accompli" as the U.S. system is built. The Medvedev text is here.
Medvedev announced a series of potential counter-measures to a missile defense system, mostly things that have been floated before, such as new weapons which might penetrate any missile defense or disable it. Medvedev said "these measures will be adequate, effective and low cost." No doubt, they will be. The technical challenges to missile defense -- hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space -- can be enormous, and have been daunting since the 1980s when President Reagan first dreamed up his Strategic Defense Initiative, the idea of a global shield that he promised would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Medvedev's latest message may be motivated by domestic politics and negotiating tactics, but it is also a reminder that even a small missile defense system is going to be a nettlesome sticking point with Moscow. Next year, one hopes, Russia and the United States will find a way to cooperate on missle defense, and move beyond it to deal with the large agenda of unfinished business in nuclear arms control. It is a lot more urgent and important.
Update: A good post on what it all means from Pavel Podvig.
Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago -- at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse -- and discovers why Russia did not become the nightmare scenario that many predicted. He helps explain the mindset, circumstances, and outlook of Russia over the last two decades, providing an excellent vantage point to see where Russia is going.
The current conventional wisdom about the failed coup in the Soviet Union twenty years ago -- great expectations, followed by disappointment -- neglects the more subtle and important aspects. The anniversary this week is a good opportunity to savor some insightful and complex assessments. Among the best, in my view:
Jonathan Steele's interview with the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev is unusually introspective, and laments his failure to separate himself from the Communist party. Many people have long thought it was his greatest error, and it is refreshing to see him acknowledge it now.
A series by Der Spiegel including an interview with Gorbachev. In discussing the coup, Gorbachev admits he should not have left Moscow for vacation in the days before the hardliners moved against him. "I had become exhausted after all those years," he said. "I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake."
Masha Lipman's terrific essay in The Washington Post. Lipman points to the bargain that Russians have made with the Kremlin, what she has called a non-participation pact. Russians have won personal freedom, and enjoy it, while apathetic and passive about public politics, in which competition has ceased to exist. This nuanced description of today's Russia points out that not all was lost. The public space may be closed, but the private space is free. That's not the Soviet Union any longer.
Leon Aron's piece in The Post is based on extensive discussions with people involved in building civil society, and he concludes there's still hope, that there's a solid foundation being built in social movements that will prove a counter-point to the efforts from above to suck all the air out of civil society.
Neil Buckley has an enlightening survey in The Financial Times [behind paywall] that looks at what happened to all the former Soviet republics, chiefly focusing on economics and political freedom. This wider lens is very useful. Estonia and Uzbekistan were once in the same country, and although differences existed then, too, look at the distance between them now.
I've already had my say on this topic, in FP, here.
DIANE-LU HOVASSE/AFP/Getty Images
The United States has just completed a big clean-out of highly-enriched uranium from nuclear research reactors in Poland, shipping more than 1,000 pounds of spent fuel to Russia. That’s approximately enough to make 18 nuclear bombs. The operation, run by the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, in cooperation with Poland, was one of the largest in recent years, and took five shipments over 12 months. (One of the very first such operations, back in 1994, known as Project Sapphire, removed about 1,330 pounds of HEU out of Kazakhstan.)
Here's the official statement from the NNSA. There is a good overview piece in Nature, which makes an important point that was also evident last spring at the nuclear security summit: the difficulty in such operations is not just hustling the nuclear material off to a safe harbor. Much of it is contained in research reactors, and those scientists working with the reactors think they have an important purpose. In the case of Poland, the United States is preparing to convert the reactors to low-enriched uranium and supply the new fuel at a cost of about $70 million. The removed HEU was first brought to Poland more than 30 years ago by the Soviet Union.
President Barack Obama has pledged to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. It is going to be a tough deadline to meet. The best overall look at vulnerable nuclear materials continues to be the annual report, Securing the Bomb [pdf].
National Nuclear Security Administration
A new window was thrown open Friday on key historical turning points in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington D.C. published a large new collection of digitized fascimiles of original documents, making them available to Russians online for the first time.
The materials include a rare complete series of the historic dissident journal "Problems of Eastern Europe." The journal is accompanied by an introduction from its longtime editors, Larisa and Frantisek Silnicky. Published throughout the 1980s, the journal contained "a wide range of Soviet, Eastern European, and ultimately even Western reformist thinking, in order to make connections between those various publics and overcome the information barriers that especially hindered the development of dissident and oppositionist ideas," the archive said.
The documents on new Russian-language web pages also include declassified Soviet-era documents on topics such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War, and dissident movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the archive said.
Here's more from the announcement after the break:
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.