Free songs
Home / Diplomacy / Russia’s 21st Century Nuclear Policy

Russia’s 21st Century Nuclear Policy

By Atul Menon of the Confluence Journal

Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant in Russia

During the tumultuous years of the Cold War and the rivalry between the power blocs of the United States and the Soviet Union, the logic of the realm was largely focussed on a ‘Nuclear Arms’ centric discourse. The immediate Post-Cold War period of the 1990s brought with it differing results for the U.S. and the newly-formed Russian Federation. While the U.S. inherited an international system where it was characterized as a global hegemon in a then unipolar landscape, the Russian Federation was left to deal with a downward economic, political, social and military spiral. At the heart of this spiral lay looming questions over Russia’s place in the international system, its ability to compete economically and military, and, most importantly, its security and power projection capabilities through what Russia considers to be at the centre of its offensive and defensive might: its nuclear program.

With the advent of the 21st century, under Presidents Vladimir Putin and (later) Dmitry Medvedev, Russia has experienced leaps and bounds in its socio-economic sphere, both domestically and internationally. Such progress has infused Russia with the need to portray itself as an entity that is “back on the world stage, seeking legitimisation of its new role”[1] as a major power. Both President Putin and the elites in the Kremlin have made it clear that Russia’s Great Power status is incumbent on its ability to strengthen its security, economy, and power projection capabilities, so much so that in October 2003, President Putin called Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces “the main foundation of Russia’s national security.”[2] The progress experienced by Russia and the dynamism of the 21st century have made it paramount to understand the evolution of Russia’s nuclear policy during this period.

This paper argues that despite periods of aggression and affability between the years of 2000-2010, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has largely displayed the rationale of minimum nuclear deterrence through cooperation with the international system, and the U.S. in particular. This argument is supported by having identified and analyzed Russia’s response to 3 dominant factors influencing its nuclear policy, namely: a) American nuclear strategic policy considerations; b) Great power logic; and c) Balance of power politics: where “no state is strong enough to dominate all other.”[3] In substantiating these claims a variety of scholarly and media sources will be used with a concentration on bureaucratic rhetoric in emphasizing policy perspectives. The danger of ignoring this sensitive period in Russia’s nuclear policy risks an arms build-up that could launch another security-dilemma, the likes of which have not been experienced since the end of the Cold War.

Slow Beginnings: Russia’s ‘Great Power Status’ and the United States of America The 21st century ushered in a new era in the Post- Soviet saga of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as the second President of Russia on May 7, 20004. Considering the disastrous aftermath of the Post- Cold War period, the start of Putin’s reign was emphasized by the need to “address the consequences of the political chaos and economic collapse that characterized the 1990s.”[5] At the time, economic considerations therefore played a central determining role, in both Russia’s military doctrine and its superpower rationale. In a 2001 interview with the Finnish media, Putin stated that his main foreign policy goal was to “solve our internal economic and political problems,” which in turn would mean “stability in the world, friendly relations with our neighbours and our main partners, who of course include the US.”[6] The need to grow economically defined Russia’s perception as a “respected major power in the international system.”[7]

Russia's President, Vladmir Putin (right) with Prime Minister Medvedev

Russia’s President, Vladmir Putin (right) with Prime Minister Medvedev

In the midst of this economic decline, Russia’s “nuclear capabilities dramatically declined”[8] as well. The “economization of Russian Foreign Policy,”[9] led the Kremlin to pursue “bilateral strategic nuclear arms (nuclear weapons designed for strategic targets: cities, towns, bases etc.) control and reduction measures with the United States.”[10] Thus, putting militarization on the back burner would allow Russia to reorient its scarce capital towards sectors that could in turn generate greater capital. In accordance with this line of thinking, the 2000 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation opined that “the threat of a global nuclear conflict has been reduced to a minimum,” while still emphasizing the need to maintain a nuclear balance of power with the U.S. through bilateral agreements and treaties.[11]

Russia’s nuclear doctrine in the early 21st century reflected its nuclear arsenal as “political rather than military instruments.”[12] This consideration has led Russia to pursue a nuclear rationale of expanding strategic nuclear arms control and “minimum nuclear deterrence”: reduction of its nuclear arsenal to the minimum level required to ensure deterrence “against nuclear or major conventional attacks” by other states.[13] In line with Russia’s foreign policy decision to cooperate with the West and the United States in particular, on April 14, 2000, President Putin gave a speech to the state Duma in which his appeal to the lawmakers stressed the need to “ratify the START II agreement” along with the “important economic, political and strategic advantages that it offered to Russia.”[14]

The ratification of The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START) would allow Russia to maintain balance with the U.S. While Russia would be required to scrap ‘its land based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), that had been the backbone of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but which were at the end of their service life,’ the U.S. on the other hand would be expected to dismantle their “modern ICBMs (MX missiles) and reduce the numbers of its sea-based strategic weapons, which represented major strengths in the American Nuclear arsenal.”[15] Putin framed these actions in a bid to avoid an “unnecessary arms race for Russia” and to prevent “heavy spending of cash and resources.”[16] The plan was to follow these up with the START III agreements. On top of this, capping the size of nuclear warheads would allow Russia to maintain its deterrence capabilities by clamping down on America’s “upload potential: the ability to quickly deploy stockpiled nuclear warheads on strategic delivery vehicles.”[17] Putin contended that the treaty would also allow Russia to save financially through the process of limiting the operational deployment of its existing stockpile and/or “foregoing future productions.”[18]

Building on the benefits of the START II, the next bilateral treaty to be signed between the United States and the Russian Federation was the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT/Moscow treaty) in May 2002.[19] The SORT, while allowing Russia to keep its previously banned heavy missiles, concentrated on further limiting the number of deployable warheads by Russia and the U.S.; from 3000- 3500 in the START II to 1700-2200 in the SORT.[20] With the new limits set for Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) and the elimination of the heavy missiles ban, Russia could now “extend the lifespan of its missiles beyond 2007.”[21] It must be noted however, that the SORT was ratified by the U.S. to largely assuage Russian worries over the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2001. This will be discussed in greater detail later.

Undoubtedly, Russia’s interest in forging co-operative relations with the U.S. is in the hopes of maintaining a balanced multi-polarity, and at the same time seeking great power status through economic growth- formed the basis of Russia’s nuclear doctrine from 2000-2003. However, the importance of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was still paramount for its great power ambitions. With regards to such ambitions, Offensive realist John Mearsheimer underscores the importance of nuclear weapons as a form of “currency in great power politics.”[22]

Mearsheimer highlights that in spite of economized foreign policy rhetoric, the 2000 National Security Concept of the Russian Federation recognized the fundamentality of great power thinking where Putin viewed contemporary International Relations as “accompanied by competition and also aspiration of states to strengthen their influence on global politics,” which included “creating weapons of mass destruction,” where “military force and violence remain substantial aspects of international relations.”[23] Consistent with this line of thought, Russia abides by a nuclear first use policy where it would use “all means available to it, including nuclear weapons, if it is necessary to repel armed aggression,”[24] or “to de-escalate aggression, to be in a position to use certain components of the forces incrementally.”[25] This rhetoric also prevailed at a time (2001) when Russia faced great insecurity about the feebleness of its conventional (non-nuclear) military capabilities.

Period of Economic Growth, Assertiveness and Lack of Mutuality in Russo-American Nuclear Policies The first years of the 21st century saw a Russian nuclear doctrine projecting affability, mutuality, strategic arms reduction and bilateralism; this was not to remain so, at least not in its entirety. In an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2003, Putin equated Russia’s politico-economic potential with its stature as a nuclear state by affirming that “the United States and Russia are the largest nuclear powers… Russia is a great nuclear power. No one disputes or doubts this.”[26] Statements of a similar nature were made constantly during this period. Russia’s rhetoric was shifting towards “greater assertiveness concerning Russia’s nuclear weapons with a stress on building up the nuclear weapons arsenal.”[27] Two major motives explain this shift: a) economic “growth fuelled by huge oil and gas export earnings”[28] through the early years of the 21st century, and; b) dissatisfaction over the lack of mutuality in Russia’s nuclear and general relationship with the United States, the West and their interventionist activities.

There is no doubt that economic growth significantly boosted Russia’s confidence and influence onto the international system. The substantial economic growth fostered by oil and natural gas revenues “convinced the Russian ruling cohort that the period of decay and retreat is over.”[29] The results of this economic prosperity bled into the Russian military arena as well. Studies have shown that levels of military expenditure paralleled economic growth, where the “military budget was spread more evenly across all parts of the armed forces, including strategic nuclear weapons.”[30] For example, Mathers cites the International Institute for Strategic Studies in pointing out that by 2005, Russia had fast tracked the deployment of new weapons with sizeable potential impacts, such as “next generation ICBMs like the Topol-M,” which is capable of “carrying up to 10 warheads.”[31]

Economic rationales were not everything; there was a great deal of politics involved as well. Putin expressed great dissatisfaction over American missile defense plans, withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and Western influences and intervention in areas such as Russia’s borders and Iraq. President George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty would allow the U.S. to “embark on the development of full-scale missile defense capabilities,”[32] supposedly against rogue nuclear threats such as Iran. Officials in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who showed interest in pursuing bilateral arms control, felt that such actions were “upsetting the strategic balance and undermining the deterrence potential of Russian strategic forces.”[33] As early as 2001, Putin was becoming increasingly assertive in stating the fact “that Russia, even today, has all the necessary means to penetrate any ABM defences” and that “Russia will have the right to install MIRVs.”[34] Moscow also made clear that they have left open, the option of researching ‘asymmetric countermeasures, exploring Russia’s ABM capabilities (developing national missile defense), along with increasing (or at least maintaining) nuclear armament levels and the possibility of a Russo- Chinese joint missile defense shield.”[35]

Such frustrations for Putin were compounded by Western interventionist policies in Iraq as well the Baltic region. The early years of Putin’s reign saw positive approaches towards NATO, such as the openness to developing a “joint defense system with NATO.”[36] However, plans that threaten the balance of power, such as Moscow’s perceived “encirclement by radical pro-American regimes in the former Soviet region” (due to increasing U.S. influence), failed Color Revolutions from 2003-08, and Georgia and Ukraine’s expressed desire to join NATO, all added to “Russia’s sense of strategic insecurity.”[37] In 2008, President Putin stated (after the NATO summit), that Russia views “the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders…as a direct threat to the security of our country.”[38] Stacked on top of this was NATO’s desire, in 2005, to station “antiballistic missile interceptors on Polish territories and build military bases in Romania and Bulgaria.”[39]

By 2007, Russia’s economy had progressed to the point where “it reached the level of 1990 in terms of GDP, and since 1999 grew at about 7 percent annually.”[40] Between 2003 and 2007, Putin had placed greater strategic value on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, stating that “there are plans to develop them, and these plans are realised,”[41] with a focus on “national security and in maintaining the balance of power and ensuring strategic stability in the world.”[42] These war capabilities based approach and rhetoric was not evident during the first years of Putin’s reign. Consequently, Mathers noted Putin’s tendency to equate “Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons with the political and economic strength of the Russian state.”[43] As mentioned previously, such thinking was characteristic of the period accompanying Russian economic growth which subsequently translated to greater assertiveness in Russia’s nuclear doctrine (and foreign policy in general). Bold retorts were also made towards the lack of reciprocity in the co-operative approach taken by Russia towards the West, early on from 2000-2003.

A New Posture: Balanced Affability and the Reset

The end of 2007 and onwards marked a new strategic posture in Russia’s nuclear doctrine. Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected on 8 March 2008. [44] During his first address to the Federal Assembly in 2008, Medvedev affirmed the importance of developing “an international arms control regime,” for which a key role would include “progress in US–Russian cooperation.”[45] The last year of Putin’s presidency, and President Medvedev’s presidency from 2008 onwards, displayed a return to “a minimum deterrent posture with renewed expressions of interest in strategic nuclear arms control.”[46] In this new stage, Russia’s return to co-operation and affability has also been accompanied by strong rhetoric in terms of protecting national interests to produce a balanced affability. As with all the other phases in the evolution of 21st century Russian nuclear foreign policy, significance is once again given to economic rationales (great power logic) which go hand in hand with bilateral strategic arms control (balance of power logic). Furthermore, American President Barack Obama’s “resetting” policy with regards to U.S.-Russian relations,was perceived positively by the Kremlin as well.

During a press conference in 2009, President Medvedev echoed sentiments about economic rationale, when he stated the need to give the Russian people “the best conditions for life and development,” to make the Russian Federation “a strong country.”[47] The importance of economic stability ties to the rhetoric for “reduced emphasis on the modernisation of nuclear weapons” and the need for bilateral arms control agreements. This rationale is pervasive in Medvedev’s foreign policy rhetoric in terms of being firm on Russia’s political and economic interests.

President Obama’s attempt at “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations in order to rectify America’s “history of bullying, selfishness, militarism, and unilateralism, especially during the previous Bush administration,”[48] was looked upon favorably by Russia. The policy was pursued in order to change “the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists,” where “a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another.”[49] The reset policy was largely defined by the “resumption of the arms control dialogue and a commitment to strategic stability.”[50] The rhetoric projected by Obama was that of a “nuclear zero,” which encapsulated America’s “commitment to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.”[51]

As part of the reset policy, the U.S. pursued affirmative trust-building actions such as the announcement of “the withdrawal of the Bush proposal to place missile defence components in Central Europe,”[52] in September 2009. The importance given to co-operation and reciprocity is evident in Medvedev’s statement in March 2009, in which he stated that in the context of global security, the U.S. should pursue policies aimed at curbing nuclear programs in rogue or fragile states “through common efforts rather than by deploying any missiles or radars along our borders.”[53] Such conciliatory statements on missile “defence depicted Russia’s principled support for creating large-scale defensive systems” and exhibited “Russia as eager to contribute to the success of such important work.”[54] In addition, Trenin argues that Moscow’s greatest advantage from the reset “has been his (Obama’s) downplaying of the NATO option for Georgia and Ukraine,” thus relieving policy makers and strategic planners in Russia from worrying about American power projection capabilities near Russia’s borders.[55]

Perhaps, the most significant result of the reset has been the ratification of the New START by Presidents Obama and Medvedev on 8 April, 2010. [56] Medvedev had considered the treaty as striking “a balance between Russian and American interests,” which resulted in a “victory for the global community.”[57] The treaty was formulated in order to bring ‘stability and predictability in the strategic forces’ of both nations.[58] While Russia was still unsuccessful in imposing limits on America’s missile defense capabilities, it did push the treaty to recognize the “link between offensive and defensive strategic systems,” whose importance would increase with the reduction of strategic nuclear arms. [59] In spite of ensuring the progress towards smaller numbers in the Russo-U.S. nuclear arsenals, both nations have also agreed on a mutually binding agreement, which allows Russia to withdraw from the New START “in case of a sharp build-up of the U.S. missile defense system.”[60] The treaty, while not perfect, allows the U.S. to “retain all of its current strategic delivery vehicles,” as long as it transforms 100 of its launchers from being “deployed to non-deployed”; meanwhile, the Russian arsenal will “diminish because of decommissioning ICBMs and nuclear submarines.” [61] Still, the Russian military officials consider the degree of predictability brought on by the treaty as “sufficient.”[62]

With the first decade of the Putin-Medvedev administration having come to an end, the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century was marked by the release of the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020. The policy paper once again defines the importance of “Russia’s economic development and potential as a means of ensuring the country’s national security.”[63] Rhetoric related to nuclear war has also been significantly reduced with a greater focus on “terrorism, extremist groups and criminality,” thereby fostering the openness to cooperate with the U.S. on these global issues. [64] Still, to maintain parity with the U.S., the deployment and testing of “new strategic nuclear land-based and submarine- based missiles” has continued, with “increases to both conventional and nuclear weapons development.”[65] Lastly, the doctrine released in February 2010 limits the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and works toward the long term goal of maintaining “capable nuclear forces” and over time, the eventual “abolition of nuclear weapons globally.” [66]


Having observed the behavior of the Russian Federation in the 21st century, under Presidents Putin and Medvedev, it is easy to infer that Russian bureaucrats have by and large displayed the rationale of “Great Power Balancers.”[67] Russia’s military doctrine from 2000 to 2010 has strived to implement policies in order to achieve the posture of minimum deterrence through arms control dialogues, agreements and measures. While this doctrine has fluctuated through periods of co-operation and assertiveness based on the appraised policies of the U.S. and the growth in Russia’s economy, over-all Russia has aimed to “contain U.S. global pre-eminence”[68] and their nuclear program through openness and multilateral measures signifying the need for mutuality and reciprocity. Russia’s approach to these dialogues have also amplified its “visceral aspiration to be taken seriously in world affairs,”[69] displaying a Great Power rationale and also a Balance of Power logic. As Russia progresses into the next decade of the century, its policies have been lined up to continue the realization of its 21st century goals. However, in order to be able to appropriately balance the U.S.-Western power bloc and to project its superpower persona, Russia will need a powerful ally.


About Confluence Journal

Located in Vancouver, Canada, Confluence is the journal of the International Studies Student Association (ISSA) of The School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. It represents undergraduate students from three streams of study: Security Studies, Cultural Studies, and Economic and Environmental Development.
Scroll To Top