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NPT: Obama reveals size of US nuclear weapons arsenal. Will Russia respond?

President Obama's stunning disclosure puts pressure on Russia to reciprocate. But Moscow relies much more heavily on its nuclear weapons arsenal for security and regional power.

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Russian analysts insist that the numbers of tactical weapons in Moscow's arsenal will not be so easy to estimate, or to divulge.

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The US is moving toward a nuclear-weapons-free world because it believes there are no military objectives the US armed forces couldn't achieve by using conventional arms alone, they argue.

By contrast, Russia, whose conventional forces are at their weakest point in decades, has grown far more dependent on nuclear weapons for its security. The latest Kremlin security doctrine actually lowers the threshold for using nuclear arms even in a small local conflict.

"There is not the slightest possibility that Russia will reveal the number of tactical nuclear weapons it holds," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister who now works as a civilian adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry.

"The main thing that justifies Russia's claim to be a major regional power is its nuclear arsenal, and there is considerable leeway in our nuclear doctrine to use tactical nuclear weapons in an emergency," he says. "The mystique surrounding these weapons – that is, their numbers and the conditions under which Russia might employ them – is considered a very important advantage. I don't believe Russian leaders would contemplate giving this up."

Debate about whether Russia should respond in kind

Gennady Chufrin, an arms control expert with the government's Institute of World Economy and International Relations, says that all Russian nuclear weapons are based on Russian soil, while the US still deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, Korea, and elsewhere.

"Russia would be very interested in negotiating a treaty covering tactical nuclear weapons, so why would we reveal the figures in advance?" he asks.

But others argue that Russian leaders will find it difficult to maintain a posture of cold-war-style secrecy after Obama's sweeping disclosure of US capabilities.

"If we don't respond, it'll hurt Russia's image," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats.

"If Obama was strong enough to overcome the resistance of his military establishment and take this dramatic step, our leaders cannot do otherwise," he says. "It's a matter of honor for them."


NPT 101:

Part 1: How relevant is the cold war treaty in an age of terrorism?

Part 2: Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Part 3: Why Iran sees nuclear 'hypocrisy

Part 4: Clash between nuclear haves and have-nots

Part 5: Is Iran violating the nuclear treaty?