Red Glare: The Origin and Implications of Russia’s ‘New’ Nuclear Weapons

red glare

Crazy.” “Dr. Strangelove weapons.” These were just two of the more colorful reactions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revelation of new exotic nuclear delivery systems in a March 1 speech. The system receiving the most attention is a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile with intercontinental range, though the Status-6, a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed long-range underwater vehicle, has also drawn comment. Why would Russia, which has over 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads that can already be delivered from existing ballistic and cruise missiles, invest in these new, exotic — and, according to some, crazy — systems?

The answer is deeply rooted in two of the defining events of modern Russian and Soviet history: the Great Patriotic War (or World War II) and the Cold War. Far from being crazy, these “new” Russian nuclear weapons have their origin in an abiding fear and respect for U.S. nuclear and missile defense capabilities. This history has implications for the future of U.S.-Russian arms control, which will remain bleak absent a return to limitations on missile defense to address Russia’s longstanding concerns.

Stalin and Defending Against the Bomb

The roots of Russian insecurity go back to the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. While the traditional barriers to invading Russia — vast spaces, harsh weather, and Russian fighting spirit — held against German ground forces, the same cannot be said of aerial attack. Soviet air defenses were inadequate to counter Luftwaffe air raids, vaulting over the barriers and striking the Soviet interior.

While the Soviets were eventually able to adjust the organization and equipment of their air defenses, the Red Army was well aware of the damage done to Germany by their allies’ massive strategic bombing campaign. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscored that in the next war, traditional Russian defensive advantages would count for nothing. The horrifying Nazi devastation of the Soviet Union took years — next time, it might only take days or even hours.

Stalin launched crash programs to build atomic bombs and the means to deliver them. Notably, he also undertook a series of efforts to ensure defense of the Soviet Union against the atomic bomb. First, he launched air defense organizational reforms, culminating in the 1949 creation of a separate branch of the Soviet armed forces focused on strategic air defense. This created an enduring bureaucratic advocate for air and, later, missile defense. Then, in 1950, Stalin created a research and development organization focused on surface-to-air missiles that was essentially co-equal with the atomic bomb and offensive missile projects. Surface-to-air missiles were key to defending against high-flying nuclear bombers and, in the future, ballistic missiles. The Soviets, living with the searing memory of the Great Patriotic War linked to the possibility of nuclear war, took strategic defenses extremely seriously.

Stalin’s efforts bore fruit a decade later when, in 1960, a Soviet surface-to-air missile downed an American U-2 spy plane. Less well-known is that the Soviets performed their first successful test intercept of an intermediate-range ballistic missile less than a year later. By the mid-1960s the Soviets had greatly expanded the areas of the country protected against air attack and begun deployment of a missile defense system around Moscow.

Fear of Checkmate: Soviet Views of the Missile Defense Competition

Even so, the Soviets were well aware of the limits of both their offensive and defensive forces relative to the Americans. The United States in the mid-1960s had a vastly more capable offensive nuclear force — if it invested as extensively in missile defense as the Soviets had, it would likely have had an equally huge advantage in that area as well. A CIA estimate from 1966 assessed likely Soviet responses to various proposed U.S. missile defense deployments, concluding:

While we worry about their strengths and our vulnerabilities, they worry about our strengths and their vulnerabilities … From their point of view either the [missile defense] Posture A or the Posture B program would threaten eventually to degrade the deterrent power of their strategic attack forces.

The Soviets took missile defense so seriously that they did not want to lose a competition in the field. Better that neither side have missile defenses than the United States be superior in offense and defense. Thus, despite intense interest in missile defense for both strategic and bureaucratic reasons, Soviet leaders were eager for an arms control agreement to end the competition. A Special National Intelligence Estimate in 1970 assessed that the Soviets would be interested in arms control limits on missile defense based in large part “on a fear that U.S. technology could put it ahead in this field.” Such limits were codified in 1972 as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Freezing missile defense also allowed the Soviets to agree to limits on the number of strategic nuclear weapons, as embodied in the agreements of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks. Yet as Brendan Green and I have described, limits on the number of arms did not limit competition over the quality of those arms. The United States began improving the accuracy of its nuclear weapons and the intelligence to find elusive targets like submarines and mobile missiles. By the early 1980s, Soviet leadership was increasingly fearful that the United States was developing the capability to neutralize the Soviet strategic deterrent with offensive strikes. The head of the KGB (and soon-to-be leader of the Soviet Union) Yuri Andropov concluded in 1981, “The US is preparing for war but it is not willing to start a war … They strive for military superiority in order to ‘check’ us and then declare ‘checkmate’ against us without starting a war.”

It was in this context that President Ronald Reagan announced in 1983 the Strategic Defense Initiative, a comprehensive missile defense program sometimes derisively called “Star Wars.” To the Soviets, already concerned about U.S. technical advantages in missile defense, the Strategic Defense Initiative was an obvious complement to existing U.S. capabilities to attack Soviet nuclear forces. Some Soviet calculations suggested that by the mid-1990s, when U.S. nuclear modernization was complete, a Soviet retaliatory strike following a U.S. nuclear first strike might only be able to hit 100 American targets. An even modestly effective missile defense could cut that number in half, while a highly effective missile defense might reduce the number of targets struck to fewer than ten. U.S. “checkmate” looked increasingly possible — perhaps even likely.

The Soviets began considering ways to neutralize the advantage of U.S. missile defenses. These included attacking space-based components of the system with anti-satellite weapons and building decoys for their existing missiles. More exotic asymmetric responses were apparently contemplated as well: A declassified article from the CIA’s professional journal notes, “General Secretary Yuri Andropov had considered such options as … developing and deploying underwater missiles that would not be affected by the space-based missile shield.” A 1983 U.S. intelligence assessment also noted the possibility that to counter U.S. missile defenses, the Soviets might eventually pursue “[n]uclear powered intercontinental cruise missiles” which “would have a greater payload capability, range, and ability to deploy advanced defensive electronics than present small cruise missiles.”

In summary, nearly 35 years ago the Soviet leadership, fearful of renewed missile defense competition and U.S. nuclear modernization, began to mull exactly the sort of systems Putin revealed this month. They did so not because they were crazy, but because they were deeply fearful that the United States would resume missile defense competition in parallel with a competition over the quality of strategic nuclear forces. The Soviets doubted they could keep up in either competition — much less both — so asymmetric responses were their only hope. Within a few years the Cold War wound down peacefully, but historical experiences continued to underlie Soviet — now Russian — fears of missile defense.

The Meaning of the Nuclear Precision Color Revolution: Russian Views Today

Through the 1990s Russian leadership had no substantial fears of U.S. missile defense, as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was still in place and the country was dealing with a variety of domestic concerns. However, in the early 2000s, the United States began to pursue national missile defense, eventually withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Russian leaders were deeply concerned. In June 2000, Putin, near the beginning of his first term as president, remarked:

… in the event of an official U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty Russia will be forced to consider the scenario whereby it may abandon its commitments not only under the START Treaty but also under the treaty of the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter range missiles.

The following year, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev “threatened the resumption of ‘three mighty programs [begun during the SDI era] to counteract asymmetrically the national missile defense of the United States,’” according to the declassified CIA article. Though it is unclear which programs exactly he was referring to, it is plausible that he meant the Status-6 and the nuclear-powered cruise missile.

Regardless, Russian leaders made clear they might “abandon” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deploy asymmetric means to counter U.S. missile defense. In this way, Moscow telegraphed the deployment of the treaty-violating SSC-8 missile, the Status-6, and the nuclear-powered cruise missile more than 15 years ago. No wonder Putin claimed in his recent speech, “no one has listened to us … You listen to us now.” The rationale for these deployments is essentially the same as the one that drove their origins during the Cold War: fear that Russian strategic nuclear deterrent would be undermined if it could not compete with the United States in weapons technology. Thus, just as in the 1960s, it is not U.S. capabilities today (which are very, very modest) or tomorrow that worry the Russians — it is U.S. capabilities over the course of a long competition.

However, there are two differences between Soviet fears of missile defense in the Cold War and Russian fears today. The first is the “precision revolution” in conventional munitions, which Russia has observed closely since the Gulf War in 1991. Based on these observations, the Russians now believe a massive first strike volley of conventional precision munitions could be effective in neutralizing much of their strategic deterrent. The second difference is the emergence of so-called “color revolutions” on the Russian periphery — successful uprisings against Moscow-friendly regimes that the Russians believe the West helped engineer.

Together, these two new fears have led Russian leadership to fear it might face Western-sponsored unrest, which the West will support with precision munitions. The Russians think they have seen this movie before in Serbia, Libya, Iraq, and, if not for timely Russian intervention, Syria. Unlike these other states, Russia has a nuclear deterrent — which is why missile defense competition looks, if anything, more ominous to the Russians today than to the Soviets in the 1980s. For the Russian leadership, the “new” nuclear systems are not crazy or Strangelovian — they are intimately connected to regime survival. 

Implications for U.S.-Russia Arms Control

None of the foregoing is intended to justify Russian behavior, particularly treaty-violating behavior. But it is important that U.S. policymakers understand the Russian perspective. Russian proclamations about missile defense are not mere propaganda, though they may overstate some of their views publicly to influence various audiences. So what does this mean for the nuclear relationship? First, U.S. leaders should recognize that no amount of explaining of the technical limitations of present or even potential U.S. missile defense capability is likely to change long and deeply held Russian views about missile defense competition.

Second, and more importantly, there is probably no future for formal, treaty-based U.S.-Russian arms control if the negotiations do not cover missile defense. The Russians sought unsuccessfully to include missile defense in the last round of strategic arms control negotiations (2009-2010). Today, with their “new” systems, they have a stronger bargaining position. This presents a dilemma for American policymakers, who clearly want to continue the ongoing U.S. deployment of limited missile defense capabilities against North Korea and Iran, even if they do not seek to neutralize Russia’s strategic deterrent, as the Kremlin fears. The instinct may be to simply proceed with missile defense despite the consequences for arms control.

Yet there are real benefits to arms control with Russia, and so the United States seeks to preserve existing agreements, especially the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Given that the Russians have made clear they think that treaty was linked to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the only solution may be to start from scratch, with a broader set of negotiations that seeks new mutually acceptable limits on intermediate-range systems, “new” Russian systems, and missile defenses. The recently postponed U.S.-Russia strategic stability talks may be a venue to explore these possibilities.

But if such an agreement is impossible, it likely spells the end of formal arms control for the foreseeable future. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will become a dead letter (if it is not already). Further strategic arms control after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires is unlikely. Would the United States — and especially the Senate — agree to a new treaty that does not cover Status-6 and the nuclear-powered cruise missile? Would the Russians agree to limit these systems without missile defense limitations? While tacit or non-treaty based agreements may be possible, the Russians have not shown much interest in these possibilities.

Putin’s revelation of these “new” systems no doubt had many motives, but one was surely to underscore that Russia has long taken U.S. offensive forces and missile defenses very seriously. Rather than dismissing these systems as mere destabilizing aberrations or an element of Putin’s election posturing, policymakers should grapple with the implications. Unfettered U.S. missile defense might be worth the slow unraveling of the current arms control regime, but policymakers should not fool themselves into believing there are no costs to the unconstrained pursuit of missile defense.


Austin Long is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of multiple studies on nuclear strategy.