Would Russia really use nuclear weapons against neighbors?
A new Russian doctrine – which says it can use nuclear weapons preemptively against small regional adversaries – is seen either as a sign of aggression or bluster to mask insecurity.
(Page 2 of 2)
Other experts suggest the bombastic – and very public – nuclear talk might be a temporary expedient, to cover Russia's extreme weakness as it undergoes a quiet reorganization of its armed forces.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
According to Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now serves as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military reform will abolish the old "mobilization" army that Russia has maintained for more than a century and replace it with a much smaller and streamlined force, but one whose brigades are fully staffed and combat ready.
"Naturally, the Army is weakened, temporarily weakened, by these very radical changes," says Mr. Shlykov. "It's natural that we would rely more on our nuclear deterrent during this transition, though it's debatable whether that should be done in the loud fashion that Patrushev did."
Scaling back Russian army
Under the military reform, the number of officers in the armed forces will be slashed from 355,000 to 150,000, while overall manpower will fall from around 1.2 million to 1 million. The most dramatic change will be the abolition of hundreds of "phantom" divisions, with officers but no troops, which were meant to be filled out in wartime through the mobilization of millions of reservists. Plans call for cutting the number of Russian Army units from the present 1,890 to just 172 by 2012.
"The day of no return for the military reorganization is coming up fast, Dec. 1," says Shlykov, a former deputy chair of Russia's State Defense Committee. "At that point, Russia will have a totally new army, at least on paper. Of course, it will take a few years to bring it up to speed. Until then, we have only our nuclear weapons to rely on."
Russia currently deploys about 2,780 strategic nuclear warheads – though negotiations for a new arms-reduction deal with the US could bring that down to around 1,500 – plus another 2,000 tactical weapons.
Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces will be only slightly affected by the ongoing reform, and remain in full operational shape during the current transition, experts say.
Russia began to shift to reliance on nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. As more and more Eastern European countries joined NATO over the past decade, and Russia's once-massive conventional forces dwindled and decayed, the Kremlin began to regard the nuclear option as the key guarantor of national security in a crisis.
'We envisage only small, regional wars'
Experts say the old Cold-War equation, in which numerically overwhelming Warsaw Pact legions prompted NATO to emphasize its tactical nuclear options, has been reversed since the USSR and its alliance disbanded.
"In earlier times, when we had conventional superiority," says Gen. Makhmud Gareyev, president of the official Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow, "we didn't need nuclear weapons so much. But their importance has been growing. We need to preserve the strategic parity that we had in the past."
But this moment of strategic vulnerability for Russia, though potentially dangerous, will probably only last a few years, says Shlykov.
"The reality is changing drastically, and Russia is no longer thinking in terms of large-scale conventional conflicts with NATO," Shlykov says. "In future, we envisage only small, regional wars. And soon we will have completely modern conventional armed forces to deal with them."