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Russian Nuclear Weapons Policy


Joseph Stalin Russian nuclear arms policy during the Cold War was largely reactionary, in response to the Americans aggressively campaigned strategies to “deal with” communism. When the Americans adopted George F. Kennan’s policy of “containment” of communism rather than outright conflict, Russia responded by refusing to be contained. Stalin was able to get a foot in the door in most of Eastern Europe before the West could figure out what he was up to, and by the time they did, policy differences were too great to agree on anything, and Europe remained divided as was decided at the Yalta conference in 1945.

Thus the Americans moved on to “new look” where the Russians were “staved off” by the threat of massive retaliation. This newly amplified fear of a Communist-dominated world was precipitated by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. Discussions had been planned for the Paris Summit regarding control of nuclear weapons, but they fell apart when President Eisenhower refused to apologize for spying on the USSR. Khrushchev was justified in his walkout; since the Americans were clearly caught red-handed (a U2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR). The New Look policy spawned an atmosphere of suspicion and competition between the superpowers. The US had no idea what was happening in Russia, and the sheer numbers of different missiles being tested and paraded about led them to believe in the existence of a “missile gap” that they were on the short side of. The reality was that their capabilities remained approximately equal, but the Americans had no way of knowing this since inside information was extremely difficult to come by. The Russians produced more different types of missiles which experienced limited deployment while the Americans focused on wide deployment of a single system. Thus the Americans increased productivity to “catch up”, which cased the Soviets to increase productivity, resulting in an arms race. The policy of the day was MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction, and it placed the world in a very dangerous situation which came to a head in Cuba in 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis ushered in a new era of “détente” or relaxing of tensions which resulted in multiple agreements between the superpowers that limited the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1963 the United States advocated a “flexible response” doctrine which would allow the superpowers to respond with force but without missiles. There was a mixed response in the USSR, as some generals were of the opinion that “it is completely possible that a war can be conducted with only conventional weapons (Colonel-General A.S Zjoltov in Militarische Theorie und Militarische Praxis) while the leadership seemed to be of the opinion that any war “inevitably would take the form of a nuclear missile war” (Defense Minister Malinkovsky in Pravda, 25 October 1961)

After the Paris Summit failure, the superpowers focused more on reaching small goals rather than attempting to agree on a method for complete and immediate disarmament. In 1959 a treaty was signed by 12 countries, including the USSR and the USA which created a demilitarized zone in Antarctica, and forbade the presence of any sort of nuclear arms in that region. In 1963 the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by both superpowers. This treaty put an end to above-ground nuclear test explosions, but failed to take a stand on underground, space or sea-floor testing. The treaty also did not apply to the missiles themselves, only the warheads, so testing of ICBMs was relatively unaffected. In addition, it bypassed the issue of “peaceful nuclear explosions”, since an agreement on the subject could not be reached (the US was in favor of a ban, the USSR was not).

November of 1958 saw the USSR submit a proposal to ban the use of nuclear weapons in outer space, but this treaty was not signed until 1967. However, it too had its loopholes, as the outer space treaty did not preclude a missile from having a ballistic trajectory which took it into low earth orbit for less than one full rotation. In 1969 it was again the Soviet Union that suggested (after the issue had been debated in the United Nations) a treaty that would reserve the ocean floor for peaceful purposes. This treaty was signed in 1972, although at that time methods for detecting violations of the treaty were in their infancy.

The issue of nuclear proliferation was also addressed in conferences between the superpowers, in an attempt to head off the arms race and prevent other countries from entering into it. In 1967 they both submitted drafts of a treaty to that effect and by 1970 it became a reality. The basic premise of the nonproliferation treaty was that non-nuclear weapon states pledged to stay non-nuclear, and the nuclear weapon states promised to help the non-nuclear weapon states if they got into trouble with another nuclear weapon state. The treaty also advocated the sharing of nuclear technology for peaceful means.

Another method of curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons was to create “nuclear weapon free zones”, as had been done with Antarctica. Central Europe was proposed as a possible free zone, but since Europe was rife with nuclear weapons from several countries by the time this was proposed, no agreement came about. The only real nuclear weapon free zone that was agreed on was South America in 1967 established by the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Denuclearization of Africa was also proposed but never realized due to the possibility of South Africa becoming a nuclear weapon state. Iran and Egypt in 1974 were in favor of a free zone being created in the Middle East but Israel would not agree to any of the terms. Also in 1974, India exploded its first nuclear bomb, prompting Pakistan to suggest that a free zone be created in South Asia. This was of course blocked by India, and as of recently both countries are now in possession of nuclear weapons.

The issue of disarmament of the superpowers was finally addressed in the SALT talks of the early 70s. In SALT I, which was signed in 1972, maximum numbers of nuclear weapons were established for a period of five years and an agreement was reached regarding ABM or Anti-Ballistic Missile systems, which were limited to 2 each (later reduced to 1 in 1974). Due to the prohibitive cost of ABM systems, even the single allowed system was not used. The SALT II talks (signed in 1979) limited weapon types and delivery systems to 2,400 under the Vladivostok summit which would later be reduced to 2,250 by 1980. This was a major stepping stone in disarmament since the numbers of specific types of more powerful nuclear weapons (especially MIRVed missiles) were limited severely from previous numbers. This treaty did not, however, address the issue of development of new systems like the “backfire” bomber and MX missiles.

In 1980, US President Jimmy Carter withdrew from the SALT II agreement over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and proclaimed a “Carter Doctrine” wherein the United States would “preserve their access to the Persian Gulf by any means necessary”. This created a fear of a second missile crisis, and a proposal for a “no first use” treaty by Andrei Gromjko was rejected by Carter. However it did open the door for negotiations regarding the elimination of INF, or theater nuclear weapons, including the “zero option” proposal (unconditional removal of all European INF forces).

In 1982 the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks or START began between Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and American President Ronald Regan. Regan later disregarded both the INF talks and START when he pledged to rebuild America’s nuclear arsenal. Regan then okayed the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (or Star Wars as it became known), a space-based anti-missile system. The INF talks were abandoned when Regan placed American Pershing and Tomahawk missiles in Europe. The talks were later resumed in 1985 between Regan and Konstantine Chernenko.

Later in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union agreed to the “zero option” plan for removal of INFs from Europe and proposed complete disarmament of the two superpowers by the year 2000. However, Regan was adamant that SDI not be included in the negotiations, and it was not until 1987 that Gorbachev agreed to the terms and the INF agreement was signed.

1991 was a year of sweeping change in the Soviet Union, which saw the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the signing of the START agreement by Gorbachev and Bush and a declaration from NATO that the Soviet Union was no longer an enemy. Boris Yeltsin came into power and re-created Russia from the USSR, thus ending the Cold War and the danger of nuclear confrontation between the USA and the Russia.

Nikita Khrushchev
Leonid Brezhnev
Yuri Andropov
Konstantine Chernenko
Mikhail Gorbachev
Boris Yeltsin



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