The April 1999 Russian Federation Security Council Meeting on Nuclear Weapons

The April 1999 Russian Federation Security Council Meeting on Nuclear Weapons

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Nikolai Sokov

Senior Fellow, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

On 29 April 1999 the Security Council of the Russian Federation conducted a closed meeting to discuss the status and prospects of the nuclear deterrence forces. According to reports, the meeting lasted for an hour and a half and was so secret that even the chiefs of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Air Force, and the Navy, who are formally not members of the Security Council, were excluded from all but the introductory session. Reports were made by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeniy Adamov.

At a subsequent briefing, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Putin reported that the meeting adopted three documents. One of them covers the development and the security of the nuclear weapons research and development and production complex, another is a concept for the use of nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons; the third document, said Putin, was so secret that even its title could not be disclosed. He stressed that Russia would continue "to abide by all obligations it had undertaken" in the area of arms control and international security.[1]

The secrecy generated widely divergent reports in Russian media. Whereas some sources treated it as a continuation of earlier efforts to streamline and optimize Russia's nuclear posture, others tended to view it through the prism of the ongoing Kosovo crisis. All sources, however, underscored that the meeting represented yet another step in the process of enhancement of the role of nuclear weapons in the country's security policy.

It is unclear whether and how the Kosovo crisis, which was one month old at the time, affected the Security Council's decisions. Yeltsin's introductory statement and Putin's briefing put the meeting into a broader context of a series of decisions pertaining to Russia's nuclear arsenal, beginning with the Security Council's decisions of July 1998, which determined the shape of Russia's strategic posture, and the new concept of the country's nuclear deterrence policy, adopted in December 1998. It is possible, however, as many reports suggested, that the evolving Kosovo crisis necessitated various adjustments to the previously planned decisions; the fact that the meeting was postponed for several days [2] might indicate that last-minute changes were made in the prepared documents.

According to press reports, the decisions adopted at the Security Council meeting concentrated in three main areas: nuclear weapons development, adjustments in the strategic posture, and – the least clear of all – the future of tactical nuclear weapons.

The problems of the "nuclear weapons complex," i.e., "research and production infrastructure, disposal, and social infrastructure," were the main topic of discussion at the meeting, according to Vladimir Putin.[1] The decisions that were adopted apparently closed several "gaps" in the financing of the nuclear industry and provided for an expanded program of nuclear testing within the limitations of CTBT. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, this program would include "'imitation' experiments outside test sites, hydronuclear experiments at test sites, and the development of domestic high-speed computers that will increase the reliability of the Russian strategic arsenal."[4] A few days later, Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeniy Adamov announced that by the end of May a decision would be made to conduct a series of "explosion-free" (probably hydronuclear) experiments with nuclear weapons on Novaya Zemlya.[5]

Significant attention was devoted to the safety and security of facilities comprising Russia's nuclear complex, including the "problem of [Russia's] international contacts" in that area (probably, the future of the CTR program),[6] as well as "social security" (i.e. salaries and other forms of support) of scientists in the nuclear weapons industry.

The decisions of the Security Council adjusted the decisions on the shape of Russia's strategic posture that were made in July 1998: since the Kosovo crisis has made ratification of START II by the Duma virtually impossible, Russia might need to maintain a higher level of strategic weapons than originally foreseen. The "stop-gap" measures discussed at the meeting concentrated on extending the service life of strategic weapons that previously had been scheduled for elimination under START II and future START III treaties. Specifically, in a revision of an earlier decision, Russia will attempt to buy from Ukraine eight Tu-160 and three Tu-95MS heavy bombers, possibly exchanging them for the same number of An-22 "Antei" and An-124 "Ruslan" military transport planes.[3] The service life of RS-20 [NATO name SS-18 'Satan'] heavy ICBMs will be extended by another two years.[2] Eight Kalmar 667BDR [NATO name Delta III] SSBNs, which had been scheduled for retirement in 2000, will be kept operational for five years longer.[3]

The Security Council also decided to extend the service life of nuclear warheads for tactical delivery vehicles [3] and, according to Putin's briefing, discussed the concept for their use. A number of reports indicated that the Security Council decided to develop a new, low-yield nuclear warhead.[7] The purpose of deploying these low-yield warheads is, reportedly, to "change the image of nuclear weapons as a weapon of mass destruction;" their yield will be between several dozen to one hundred metric tons of TNT; their number might reach up to 10,000.[7]

The press differed, however, on the intended purpose of these new warheads. Numerous reports hypothesized that the new warheads are intended for the new "operational-tactical" missile "Iskander," which will replace the OTR-23 Oka [NATO name SS-23 'Spider'] missile eliminated under the 1987 INF Treaty [4] (the new missile will have a range below 500km to conform to this treaty), and for the 320mm howitzer, which has a 40km range.[8] Some suggested that nuclear weapons might be restored as infantry division-level arms [9] and, conceivably, division commanders would be authorized to use them.[8]

These reports contradict Putin's explicit statement that Russia would continue "to abide by all obligations it had undertaken" under arms control regimes: if tactical land-based missiles and artillery are equipped with nuclear warheads, this would constitute a violation of the fall 1991 unilateral obligations announced by Mikhail Gorbachev in response to similar initiatives by George Bush; in January 1992 Boris Yeltsin confirmed and slightly expanded these initiatives. One can hypothesize, then, that these new warheads–if, indeed, a decision to develop them has been made–are intended for strategic delivery vehicles (such as heavy bombers and/or ICBMs), which would then become usable in regional conflicts. The meeting also adopted the key elements of Russia's nuclear doctrine, which appear to mostly repeat the provisions of documents adopted in 1993-98. In particular, the document "Basic Provisions of the Russian Federation Policy in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence" signed by Boris Yeltsin at the Security Council meeting included the following key elements:Russia will use nuclear weapons only as a last resort, when all other attempts to eliminate critical threats to its national security and that of its allies have failed;Russian nuclear weapons are not aimed against any concrete state or alliance;

  • Russian nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear signatories of the NPT, unless a nuclear-free state acts jointly with a nuclear ally to stage or support an intrusion or other attack on Russia, its territory, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or a state with which Russia maintains security commitments;
  • Russia's international obligations in the area of disarmament, including the nuclear nonproliferation regime, were reaffirmed;
  • Russia welcomes the creation of internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones, supports the entry into force of the CTBT as soon as possible, and supports talks on the ban of production of fissile materials;
  • the 1972 ABM Treaty remains fundamentally important as an element of strategic stability;
  • Russia reaffirmed its commitment to the START I Treaty and other international agreements, as well as to an agreed approach to further nuclear arms cuts.[10]

These provisions appear to confirm the hypothesis that, contrary to press reports, the Security Council did not decide to withdraw from the 1991 informal regime on tactical nuclear weapons. Instead, it apparently searched for ways to increase the relevance of nuclear weapons as a deterrent in regional conflicts without abandoning the framework of existing arms control regimes. The use of strategic weapons in the regional context seems to be the only opportunity to achieve that goal. The Security Council did not resolve all doctrinal issues, however, and Chairman of the Federation Council Yegor Stroev, who was present at the meeting, stated that discussion of the military doctrine would continue.[11]


[1] "Na zasedanii Soveta Bezopasnosti prinyaty dokumenty kasayushchiyesya razvitiya yadernykh sil," Interfax, 29 April 1999.
[2] Yuriy Golotyuk, "Rossiya peresmatrivayet svoyu yadernuyu argumentatsiyu," Izvestiya, 27 April 1999, p. 2.
[3] Ilya Bulavinov and Ivan Safronov, "Rossiya budet derzhat 'yadernyy porokh' sukhim," Kommersant-Daily,, 30 April 1999.
[4] Igor Korotchenko, "Otechestvennyy yadernyy kompleks razvalivayetsya," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 30 April 1999, p. 2.
[5] "Decision on Russian Nuclear Tests Expected by the End of May," Interfax, 8 May 1999.
[6] "Yadernyy shchit gez izyana," Rossiyskaya gazeta, April 30, 1999, p. 2.
[7] Pavel Felgengauer, "Ogranichennaya Yadernaya Voyna? A Pochemu By i Net!" Segodnya, 6 May 1999, pp. 1, 2; in WPS Oborona i bezopasnosti, No. 53, 10 May 1999.
[8] Aleksey Karelov, "Malenkaya Pobedonosnaya Voyna," Vremya MN, 30 April 1999, p. 2.
[9] Vladimir Yermolin, "Rossiya Vooruzhayet Pekhotu Yadernym Oruzhiyem," Izvestiya,, 30 April 1999.
[10] Interfax, April 28, 1999.
[11] "Russia Relies on Nuclear Forces to Defend National Security," Voyeninform military news report, Vol. VIII, No. 4(88), April 1999; in "Voyeninform on Russia's Nuclear Forces," FBIS Document FTS19990505000112.



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