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Experts: Outlook Bleak for Near-Term NATO-Russia Tactical Nuke Deal

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- There is no expectation that Russia and NATO will reach an accord anytime soon to reduce their respective stocks of deployed short-range nuclear weapons, a Russian arms control expert declared on Friday.

“I would say that from my standpoint there are not currently any opportunities for [an] NSNW [nonstrategic nuclear weapons] deal between Russia and NATO,” said Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“That is … very sad but, as I believe, [a] temporary situation as Vladimir Putin tries to consolidate his eroding influence in the Russian society (and among the Russian elites!) and is not very much keen for any deals with the West right now,” he told Global Security Newswire by e-mail, referring to the Russian president.

Moscow and Washington are already pledged under the New START agreement to by 2018 reduce their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear arms to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. The pact does not address battlefield armaments, but the Obama administration has said repeatedly it hopes those weapons would be covered in future arms control talks with Russia.

The United States today keeps about 200 B-61 gravity bombs at bases in NATO nations Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

Sutyagin in a November analysis asserted that his home nation has only about 1,000 tactical nuclear weapons that could be fired quickly in the event of an atomic conflict. That, he argued, is roughly half the weapons counted in several other estimates.

Such weapons are generally held to offer less explosive power and more restricted targeting ranges than strategic nuclear warheads, though some argue that the distinctions are increasingly blurred.

“The lower level of the Russian NSNW is rather the obstacle than the chance for the further reductions,” according to Sutyagin.

The researcher spent years in prison after being convicted of espionage in Russia, and was freed in 2010 as part of a spy swap with the United States. Sutyagin has said that he passed only public data on Russian nuclear submarines to a British firm believed to be a CIA front.

He said the present situation is essentially the reverse of the Cold War status circa 1968, when the United States kept a far larger number of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe as a deterrent against aggression by Russia’s conventional armed forces. Today it is the Kremlin that feels its military requires an extra edge against NATO’s greater conventional strength, Sutyagin said.

Obama administration plans for ballistic missile defenses in Europe also inevitably enter the mix, even if Washington wishes otherwise, he added.

The final segment of the U.S. “phased adaptive approach” calls for deployment around 2020 of missile interceptors that could be used to bring down ICBMs. The Kremlin claims those weapons would pose a threat to its nuclear deterrent, even as the White House demurs that the Europe-based interceptors would never be able to catch Russian ballistic missiles.

“I have very strong doubts the West would be prepared even to consider what it should bring to the table to calm down the quite real Russian concerns accumulated over more than a decade of neglect by the West of Russia’s security concerns,” Sutyagin said.

The White House had not responded by press time on Monday to a query on possible new arms control talks with Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry also did not respond to e-mailed questions, while its embassy in Washington was not open on Friday or Monday.

Other issue experts have echoed Sutyagin’s pessimism on the matter.

“Russia has no desire right now to include tactical nuclear weapons in arms control,” said James Acton, a senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Possession of short-range nuclear weapons contributes significantly to Russian leaders’ continued image of their nation as a great power, making them difficult to retire, Acton said in a telephone interview on Monday. Moscow has stuck to its demand that U.S. tactical arms be withdrawn from Europe before it will negotiate a permanent reduction of its arsenal.

Various options have been raised for intermediate steps to ease the impasse. The 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review advocated bilateral "strategic stability" talks that would offer Moscow an opportunity to “discuss steps it could take to allay concerns in the West about its nonstrategic nuclear arsenal, such as further consolidating its nonstrategic systems in a small number of secure facilities deep within Russia."

There might be a greater opportunity in President Obama’s second term for the sides to discuss confidence-building measures or verification programs that could promote nuclear safety and security, and perhaps pave the way toward a future arms control deal, according to Acton.

Possible measures, as discussed in a 2012 Carnegie experts’ workshop, could include yearly U.S. declarations on its ballistic missile defense planning or restarting information swaps on sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles that were conducted under the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Acton, though, indicated that even such confidence-building agreements might be out of reach in coming years.

“I’m still not terribly optimistic about that, but that is increasingly the direction the Obama administration has been pushing,” he said. “It takes two to tango. The Russians have to play along, which they haven’t shown much willingness to do so far.”

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