The Nuclear Debate of Summer 2000

The Nuclear Debate of Summer 2000

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Nikolai Sokov

Senior Fellow, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The summer of 2000 witnessed an intense struggle within the Russian military establishment, which directly affected the country's strategic posture, the relative influence of various military services, and the fate of high-level commanders of the Russian Armed Forces. In just two months, decades-old traditions of the supremacy of the Strategic Rocket Force (SRF), which controls land-based strategic missiles (ICBMs), was shattered and the severely weakened SRF had to share its place in the strategic triad with the Navy and eventually move to the second, if not the third place. Only two years later the situation was partially reversed with land-based strategic systems restored to their dominant place within the triad, even though the SRF did not fully recover the administrative status it once had.

The events of the summer 2000 were centered around a long-simmering conflict between Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev and Chief of the General Staff Anatoliy Kvashnin. At a meeting of the Collegium of the Ministry of Defense on 12 July 2000 (the Collegium is an assembly of the top figures of the ministry), that conflict became public as Kvashnin unveiled his plan to reorganize the SRF.

Reportedly, this plan included reduction of the number of ICBM divisions from 19 to just two and the number of IBCMs to 150 by 2003 (some sources indicated that a revised version of his plan foresaw a more drawn-out reduction) with the overall strategic force reduced to 1,500 or even less.[1,2,3,4,5,6] Deployment of the new ICBM, Topol-M, was to be cut to only two or three per year whereas earlier plans foresaw the deployment of no less than 10 Topol-Ms per year with an eventual increase to 20. Savings generated by these reductions were to be channeled into the modernization of conventional forces, so that by 2016 Russia could create the "foundation" for a "future conventional deterrent capability." In the meantime, the SRF was to be eliminated as an independent component of the Armed Forces ("vid," according to Russian military terminology) and transformed into a command ("rod"), either independent or within the Air Force.[7,8] Minister of Defense Sergeyev objected to these proposals, and discussion was again concealed behind closed doors. Following the Collegium, Sergeyev threatened to resign if Kvashnin's plan was adopted.

The fact that Kvashnin so boldly announced his views hinted that he had been able to obtain Putin's endorsement. Indeed, according to many reports, the "denuclearization" proposals were based on a report that Kvashnin had sent to Vladimir Putin in April 2000 shortly after the adoption of the Military Doctrine, and which was supposed to provide guidelines for its implementation.[9]

In the face of an acrimonious conflict between the two highest figures in the military hierarchy, the Collegium was unable to reach a decision. Proposals presented by Kvashnin were sent back for additional discussion, although the balance seemed to be tilting toward an outcome unfavorable for the SRF.[10,11,12,13] With the conflict public knowledge, Putin called both Sergeyev and Kvashnin to the southern Russian resort at Sochi to discuss the conflict (initially only Sergeyev was supposed to come, but later Putin additionally invited Kvashnin and Secretary of the ecurity Council Sergey Ivanov [14,15]). That meeting ended inconclusively and it was decided to continue the discussion at a late July meeting of the Security Council.[16,17,18] (The meeting actually took place two weeks later, on 11 August, probably as a result of serious bureaucratic and political infighting.)

Kvashnin's statement at the Collegium shocked the Moscow military and political establishment, as well as independent observers because it presupposed a radical change of the Russian military posture not just a deep reduction of the nuclear arsenal, but a radical shift of emphasis within the nuclear triad from the SRF to the Navy, with the Air Force probably taking second place. The proposed changes were clearly directed against Igor Sergeyev, himself a former Chief of the SRF, and were widely interpreted as Kvashnin's claim for the minister's position.

In terms of personal politics, this was clearly a competition for the position of minister under the new administration (Vladimir Putin had been elected president only months before these events, in April). Kvashnin's star was quickly rising, as suggested by his rapid  advancement in both the official and the unofficial hierarchy. By 2000, the General Staff had firmly consolidated operational control of all Armed Forces, partly due the initial success of the second military campaign in Chechnya, which was widely credited to Kvashnin's leadership. In June of 2000, he was made full member of the Security Council (previously the Ministry of Defense was represented only be the minister, who was the ex officio full member of that body). In contrast, SRF Chief Vladimir Yakovlev, who was widely rumored to be Sergeyev's candidate for minister of defense, did not receive a promotion at the same time as other service chiefs (he was promoted to army general only in June, months later than the others). In fact, Yakovlev sounded resigned to his defeat in the intra-agency struggle and as early as a week before the Collegium pinned all his hopes on Putins wisdom and statesmanship.[5,19]

On a deeper level, the personal rivalry between Sergeyev and Kvashnin was but a reflection of a deeper division over the future of the Russian Armed Forces. Many Russian observers suggested that the conflict was essentially between the entrenched "missile mafia," the military and industrial leaders associated with nuclear weapons, on the one hand, and the increasingly influential group of "Chechen generals," who led Russian troops during the first and especially the second military campaigns in Chechnya and who emphasized development of conventional capabilities. While the National Security Concept and the Military Doctrine foresaw the gradual shift of emphasis from nuclear to conventional weapons, the manner and the pace of that shift remained undefined. Kvashnin, who himself had made his career in Ground Forces, was a prominent commander during the first war in Chechnya and effectively commanded troops during the second war. He led the assault, advocating an accelerated revision of funding priorities.

To a certain extent, the joint offensive of Kvashnin, the Ground Forces, and the Navy was a response to an earlier plan by Sergeyev to merge all nuclear weapons into a single commandthe Strategic Deterrence Forces, which was supposed to unite the SRF and the nuclear components of the Navy and the Air Force. The plan was announced in October 1998 on the heels of the just-completed merger of the SRF and Space Forces.[20] This plan generated extremely strong opposition, including on the part of the Navy, which had been reeling from vastly inadequate funding and, after the "change of guard" in the Kremlin, seemed well positioned for a more prominent place in the Armed Forces due to a close personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Chief of the Navy Vladimir Kuroyedov. (Putin even attended the defense of Kuroyedov's doctoral dissertation, which subsequently was transformed into the Naval Doctrine of Russia.)

Another important element of the political "game," which extended beyond the intra-service rivalry, was the future of the military organization as a whole. Reportedly, Putin's plans included delineating the responsibilities of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff in a manner roughly similar to the United States. Such a move was to be capped by the appointment of a civilian as minister of defense. In this context, the appointment of Kvashnin as a member of the Security Council was part of a broader process rather than just a reflection of his personal fortunes.

Kvashnin's plan carried with it profound consequences for Russia's foreign and defense policy. On the surface, it looked like an attempt by several leading members of the Russian military to radically reduce the nuclear arsenal and, implicitly, reliance on nuclear weapons, which could be seen as a positive development. In fact, consequences could be far less straightforward. Sea-based strategic weaponsboth submarines (SSBNs) and submarine-launched missiles (SLBMs)were nearing the end of their service lives. Development of a new SLBM was still in very early stages. It would have been necessary to radically increase funding for the naval leg of the triad to maintain the strategic arsenal even at the proposed 1,500 warhead level. In the meantime, Russia was destined to lose its new ICBM, Topol-M, since production at the rate of two per year was simply uneconomical. In effect, the radical change in the strategic posture would have left even less money for conventional modernization than under Sergeyev's original  plan.[1] Ultimately, the effect could be even greater and longer-term reliance on the diminishing and aging nuclear arsenal and possibly even the lowering of the nuclear threshold.

The plan also undermined the complicated "web of incentives" created by the Russian military to prevent the United States from deploying national missile defense (NMD). Prior to 2000, the deep reductions of strategic weapons, including the elimination of MIRVed ICBMs (land-based strategic missiles with multiple warheads) under the START II Treaty, were closely linked to the confirmation by the United States of the 1972 ABM Treaty [see the CNS report "START II Ratification: There is More Than Meets the Eye"]; if United States were to deploy NMD, the Russian military promised "a material response," which could be understood as a refusal to reduce strategic arms and a limited modernization effort. The plan unveiled by Kvashnin removed both the incentive and the "punishment:" strategic weapons would have been sharply reduced regardless of what the United States did, including all or almost all MIRVed ICBMs.

The 11 August meeting of the Security Council did not produce a sensation. As one Russian observer correctly predicted, both Kvashnin and his leading opponent, Minister of Defense Sergeyev, lost to President Putin's preference for caution.[21] Although Security Council decisions are classified, the gist can be deduced from leaks and reports in the media.[22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30] Apparently, the meeting confirmed that the Russian strategic arsenal will eventually be reduced to 1,500 warheads. This reduction, however, was supposed to be gradual and linked to the expiration of the service life of individual weapons systems (in contrast to Kvashnin's proposal about expedited reduction). Reductions and restructuring were also linked to the outcome of arms control talks and to US plans to deploy NMD.

One major organizational change was the reduction in the status of the SRF, which was downgraded from a branch ("vid" in Russian terminology), on par with the Army, Navy, and Air Force in the United States, to the status of a command ("rod"); it was also planned to fold the SRF into the Air Force by 2006 (a decision that was subsequently revised). The structure of the SRF was supposed to be simplified: intermediate army-level commands were to be abolished, and all SRF divisions made directly subordinate to the Main Staff of the SRF. The number of divisions, however, was set higher than in Kvashnin's proposals: 10-11 instead of two or three. The Space Forces, which in 1998 were merged into the SRF, were again to become independent. The deployment rate of Topol-M ICBMs was set higher than that proposed by Kvashnin (two per year), but still lower than what had been projected by the SRF; starting in 2000 deployment has consistently been six per year instead of 10; an increase to 20, as the SRF originally planned, seems highly unlikely.

The 11 August meeting effectively ended the debate over the nuclear posture, although discussion of military reform in general continued and even intensified. There were additional Security Council meetings in September and November 2000, but these did not affect nuclear forces. The final decisions were made only in January 2001, when Putin finally approved "The Plan of Reforms of the Armed Forces in 2001-2005." At that moment the first revisions of the 11 August decisions were made; reportedly, these revisions were initiated by Putin personally.[31] The long-awaited retirement of Igor Sergeyev, which had been the subject of many rumors since the spring of 2000, however, only happened in late March of 2001. He was replaced with Sergey Ivanov, a close confidant of Vladimir Putin and the erstwhile secretary of the Security Council, who oversaw the final stage of development of the Military Doctrine, as well as the tortuous process of laying out plans for military reform. Anatoliy Kvashnin had failed to achieve his widely reported goal of becoming minister of defense. In 2004, Sergey Ivanov managed to downgrade the General Staff, stripping it of operational control of the Armed Forces and control of the defense budget, and in July 2004 Kvashnin was forced to retire from military service. [For more information on the 2004 reforms of the Russian government, see Cristina Chuen, "The 2004 Russian Government Reforms," CNS Research Story.]

The plans, which Anatoliy Kvashnin advanced in the spring and summer of 2000 and which were subsequently cut by the Security Council, were revised again in 2002 following the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The SRF was again accorded the status of the primary element of the triad, even though its formal place in the Armed Forces was not restored to a branch ("vid"). [32] Reportedly, the decision was formalized at a meeting in the Kremlin between Vladimir Putin, Sergey Ivanov, and Anatoliy Kvashnin in June 2002, immediately after the formal US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty on 13 June.[33] Kvashnin, referring to that withdrawal, emphasized that Russia's security vis-a-vis NMD was guaranteed by strategic forces, first and foremost heavy ICBMs.[34] That attitude was, of course, the exact opposite of the views he had espoused two years earlier.

In August 2002 Sergey Ivanov slightly modified the argument and declared that the decision to retain MIRVed ICBMs was not a response to the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, but that existing ICBMs would be retained and that, specifically, heavy SS-18 ICBMs would remain in service until 2016.[35] This decision presupposes additional extension of these missiles' service lives and in this regard represents a further revision of the August 2000 decisions, which foresaw that ICBMs would be eliminated as their service lives expired. He also called the SRF "the most important military-political factor deterring aggressive intentions toward Russia and our allies," effectively restoring that branch to its de facto leading status in the nuclear triad.[36]

The new SRF chief, Nikolay Solovtsov, expanded on the minister's remarks, and openly stated that "this year plans on [SRF] reforms have been changed by the President." According to Solovtsov, it was decided to retain at least two divisions of heavy SS-18 ICBMs and a feasibility study with regard to keeping a third division was underway. The government funded the extension of service lives of SS-18 ICBMs. Furthermore, it was also decided, he said, to retain one out of three divisions of rail-mobile SS-24 ICBMs. (Keeping all three divisions was impossible in any case as service lives of solid-fuel ICBMs cannot be extended as easily.)[37,38,39] In December 2002, Solovtsov noted, with some satisfaction, that the SRF was not "fading away:" as before, its structure consisted of armies and divisions (meaning that the original plan of eliminating the intermediate chain of command had been dropped as well) and that it planned to retain, until 2020, 10-12 divisions of ICBMs organized into two armies. He also made it clear that the reduction of the SRF was primarily determined by the expiration of service lives. For example, it was planned eventually to remove solid-fuel SS-24 from service completely because their service lives could not be extended, but 10-year service lives of liquid-fuel ICBMs, including heavy SS-18s, could be extended to 25-30 years. He also discussed continued deployment of Topol-M ICBMs and further modernization of these missiles.[40]

In hindsight, the "nuclear debate" of 2000 might look like a temporary deviation from a steady course that had been set in 1999-early 2000 and reflected in the National Security Concept and the Military Doctrine. After all, proposals for deep reductions were motivated primarily by a struggle for power and influence and were not rational from political, military, or financial perspectives. They were partially revised in a matter of months, and two years later almost completely reversed.

Nevertheless, that debate had some tangible consequences for Russia's nuclear policy. In the broad scheme of things, that debate helped to limit the extent of reliance on nuclear weapons in Russia's security policy and, perhaps even more important, limited the political and military role of strategic weapons in the nuclear arsenal. The original plans of Igor Sergeyev held the potential of giving excessive weight to the strategic triad: his 1998 plan to create the Strategic Deterrence Forces and, reportedly, to steer Chief of SRF Vladimir Yakovlev to the ministerial chair could have given permanent prominence to nuclear weapons in general, as well as to the strategic arsenal and to the mission of deterring the United States. After two turbulent years, strategic forces remain an important, but nevertheless subsidiary element of the Armed Forces and, moreover, reliance on nuclear weapons is still regarded as a temporary "fix" until conventional forces are modernized (the probability of genuine military reform and modernization of conventional forces is outside the scope of this paper). Barring an unexpected deterioration of Russia's security environment in the near future, there is a fair chance that in the end the modernization of conventional forces will advance sufficiently to enable a decrease in reliance on nuclear weapons.

The partial "nuclear revival" of 2002 should not be accorded excessive significance. The high profile of nuclear weapons in defense policy, retention of old, Soviet-time ICBMs, and continued ICBM modernization are rational from the perspective of the Russian political and military establishment and could not have been avoided under any circumstances. The withdrawal of the United States from the ABM Treaty, continued eastward enlargement of NATO, and the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia are all viewed in Russia as a potential threat, and would not have been left without a response (including, first and foremost, a higher profile for nuclear weapons). Of greater importance is the fact that under the leadership of Igor Sergeyev and his allies in the SRF, the Russian response could have been more forceful and large-scale.

A broader consequence of the "nuclear debate" is the stronger political control over military affairs and the appointment of a civilian (a former intelligence general, to be sure, but nevertheless an outsider from a professional military point of view) as Minister of Defense. The split within the military establishment, which was triggered by Anatoliy Kvashnin, gave Vladimir Putin the role of ultimate referee, who could choose one or the other side and enforce his own preferences. Such a line was always more difficult when Boris Yeltsin (or, before him, Soviet leadership) had to face a "united front" of uniformed military. The situation is far from genuine civilian control over the Ministry of Defense, but nevertheless represents an important departure from the Soviet tradition of military dominating military affairs.


[1] Petr Romashkin, "Nuzhny li Rossii raketnyye voyska,"
[2] Aleksandr Golz, "General-terminator," Itogi,, 5 July 2000.
[3] Aleksandr Shaburkin, "V vooruzhennykh silakh gryadet bolshoy peredel,", 12 July 2000.
[4] Vladimir Temnyy, "Ministr oborony proigral,", 12 July 2000.
[5] Vladimir Yermolin, "Zvezdnyye voyny," Izvestiya,, 15 July 2000.
[6] Sergey Sokut, "Igra bez kozyrey," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 15 July 2000, p. 6.
[7] "Rossiyskiy Genshtab planiruyet usilit gruppirovki voysk na Yugo-Zapadnom i Tsentralno-Aziyatskom strategicheskikh napravleniyakh," Interfax, 12 July 2000.
[8] "Minoborony Rossii dorabotayet kompleks predlozhenii po razvitiyu vooruzhennykh sil strany," Interfax, 12 July 2000.
[9] Vladimir Temnyy, "Yadernoye raskulachivaniye,", 4 July 2000.
[10] "Ministerstvo oborony dorabotayet kompleks predlozheniy po razvitiyu vooruzhennykh sil strany," Interfax, 12 July 2000.
[11] Mikhail Timofeyev, "Sopernichayshchiye klany v Minoborony ne vyrabotali edinogo mneniya o putyakh voyennogo stroitelstva. Predmet razdora raketnyye voyska," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 13 July 2000, p. 1.
[12] Vladimir Yermolin, "Mech nad yadernym shchitom," Izvestiya, 13 July 2000, p. 2.
[13] Ilya Bulavinov and Ivan Safronov, "Poka otkladyvayetsya…" Kommersant-Daily,, 13 July 2000.
[14] "V Sochi President RF vstretitsya s ministrom oborony," RBK News, 16 July 2000.
[15] "I. Sergeyev i nachalnik Genshaba Anatoliy Kvashnin v srochnom poryadke vyleteli v Sochi," RBK News, 16 July 2000.
[16] "I. Sergeyev: vozmozhnyye varianty reformy RVSN svedeny k minimumu," RBK News, 17 July 2000.
[17] Yevgeniy Krutikov, "Termoyadernaya voyna," Izvestiya, 18 July 2000.
[18] Vadim Solovev, "Skandal otlozhen: glavnyye bitvy po voyennomu reformiromaniyu vperedi," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 18 July 2000, p. 1.
[19] Vladimir Yermolin, "Vladimir Yakovlev: sudbu raketnykh voysk opredelit politicheskoye resheniye," Izvestiya,, 5 July 2000.
[20] For details see Nikolai Sokov, "Russia Unites Nuclear Forces," Jane's Defense Weekly, 10 February 1999, 23-25.
[21] Vladimir Temnyy, "Sovbez kushayet sladkuyu parochku,", 10 August 2000.
[22] Nikolay Petrov, "Putin ne uvolil ni Sergeyeva, ni Kvashnina," Kommersant-Daily, 12 August 2000.
[23] "Sovet Bezopasnosti prodlil zhizn; raketnym voyskam,"
[24] Vladimir Atlasov, "Dalshe otstupat nekuda," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 12 August 2000.
[25] "Sudba rossiyskikh vooruzhennykh sil reshena,"
[26] Vladimir Temnyy, "Dvoyevlastiye v Minoborony zakonchilos,"
[27] Aleksandr Bekker, "Armiyu oboshli s flangov," Vedomosti, 14 August 2000, p. 1.
[28] Igor Danilov, "Itogi zasedaniya Soveta Bezopasnosti RF: boyevaya nichya v polzu voyennoye reformy," Interfax, 14 August 2000.
[29] "Vitse-premyer RF oprovergayet soobshcheniya o sokrashchenii raskhodov na natsionalnyy oborony v budushchem godu," Interfax, 14 August 2000.
[30] Andrey Korbut, "Sovbez soglasilsya s predlozheniyami Genshtaba," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 15 August 2000, p. 3.
[31] Dmitriy Safonov, "Khozhdeniye po kadrovomu krugu," Izvestiya, 2 May 2001, p. 3.
[32] Vladimir Georgiyev, "Rossiya peresmotrit svoyu yadernuyu strategiyu," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 11 March 2003, p. 2.
[33] Vladimir Georgiyev, "Armiya-Pravitelstvo: 1:0 v polzu raket," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 21 June 2002, p. 2.
[34] "Anatoliy Kvashnin: U nas na vooruzhenii ostanutsya tyazhelyye rakety,", 19 June 2002.
[35] Nikolai Novichkov, "Russia to Retain MIRVs Beyond START II Deadline," Jane's Defense Weekly, 28 August 2002.
[36] "Rossiya sokhranit tyazhelyye rakety 'Satana',", 16 August 2002.
[37] Salavat Suleymanov, "Moskva gotovitsya dat obratnyy khod," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 16 August 2002, p. 6.
[38] Dmitriy Litovkin, "Rakety poletyat v druguyu storonu," Izvestiya, 15 August 2002, p. 4.
[39] "Missile Trains," Moscow Times, 12 August 2002, p. 4.
[40] "'Satana' ostanetsya na dezhurstve do 2016 goda," Vremya novostey,, 16 December 2002.

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