Is the West Rearming Russia?

Ottawa and the G-8 might be financing a new nuclear storehouse
Later, many of the scientists told me they’d been deeply offended by Weldon’s remarks. It was American nuclear rearmament, along with its increasingly belligerent foreign policies, they said, that had made a Russian response necessary.

There’s no lack of evidence to suggest American aid has already freed up money for Russian rearmament. At the meeting of nuclear weapons designers where Curt Weldon spoke in Moscow last December, I had lunch with several top scientists from Sarov, the ultra-secret research centre north of Moscow where most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons were designed. They were bullish about their research budgets. “Young people are attracted into the research programs now. The Russian government stabilized funding, and it’s now increasing,” Alexander Chernyshev, deputy head of research at Sarov, told me.

To get a second opinion on this assertion, one need look no further than the Russian government’s own news agency, ria Novosti. As numerous reports from ria attested over the last year, when it comes to nuclear rearmament, the Russian military is back in the money. It is lavishly favoured by a government that has managed to tuck $10 billion into a rainy day “stabilization fund” slated to reach $17 billion by 2005 while posting budget surpluses in the $3.75-billion range annually since 2001, building up $80 billion in gold and currency reserves, and slashing foreign debt.

Seen as a whole, one can see why the U.S. Congress is worried about the many elements of Russia’s new nuclear ambitions. Here’s a partial to-do list from the Kremlin: for the airforce, modernization of all fifteen of its Tup-olev-160 bombers, capable of carrying a dozen 200-kiloton nu-clear-tipped
cruise missiles on inter-continental mis-sions; for space command, resump-tion
of work on the Soviet missile defence systems aban-doned after the Anti-Ballistic Missile (abm) Treaty was signed in 1972; for the land forces, reversal of a decision in the 1990s to scrap the rail-based nuclear arsenal; for nuclear weapons research, a further development of tactical nuclear weap-ons, and continuation of nuclear stock-pile-related experiments, 132 of which Russia has conducted since ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in April, 2000.

To keep the nuclear forces at hair-trigger readiness, Moscow’s new Cold Warriors—President Putin and the thousands of kgb officials he has recruited into key positions—repeatedly conducted nuclear war games last year with Russian air, sea, and ground forces, simultaneously launching mock nuclear attacks on targets across Russia, and at sea against simulated U.S. and U.K. targets. Then, early this year, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov, commander of the Russian Navy, told the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that the navy was restructuring to emphasize new nuclear submarines, adding to the ten new submarines launched between 1992 and 1997, and the one additional intercontinental, missile-capable nuclear submarine recommissioned after repairs were completed in 2002. This announcement followed word from Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, chief of the navy’s General Headquarters, of long-range plans to maintain a fleet of twelve intercontinental missile-carrying nuclear submarines, less than the twenty-six still in service, but only two fewer than the U.S. heavy missile submarine fleet.

Meanwhile, Russia’s work on a new generation of conventionally armed nuclear submarines has reportedly accelerated, with the first ship due to enter service in 2007. Igor Kudrik, a Russian naval analyst with Norway’s Bellona Foundation, says funding for the first of these ships is fully committed, and that work on others of its class will begin in 2010. Last year, work on a new submarine-launchable intercontinental missile also got under way at Moscow’s Institute of Thermo-Equipment (mit), where Soviet-era Pioneer, Topol, and Topol-M missiles were designed. In 2001, the navy ordered forty new sea-launchable ballistic missiles, the first new order in a decade.

One also has to remember the international dimensions of Russia’s nuclear renaissance. In 2002, world-wide shipments from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s principal weapons exporter, jumped twenty-seven percent, to $4.7 billion. And, as if to prod U.S.-supported Pakistan into retaliatory action, Russia is talking to India about leasing them Tu-22 nuclear attack bombers, and Akula nuclear submarines, and about selling them ballistic missiles.

At the end of my tour at Zvezdocka, Oleg Frolov launched into a long dockside
presentation on why Canada should commit funds, not just for submarine dismantlement, but also to the scrapping of the Kirov, a gigantic nuclear attack cruiser mothballed there. When he was done, I asked him if there wasn’t something discordant about Russia asking Canada for aid to dismantle its decommissioned nuclear fleet on one bank of the Dvina River while Russia is lavishing its own money on the construction of a new fleet on the other bank? Frolov seemed somewhat taken aback, as if he considered the question impertinent. But his answer was ready enough: “Back in the Cold War days, they were turning out four nuclear submarines a year over there,” he said, gesturing across the river to Sevmash. “What they’re doing these days just doesn’t even compare.”

That’s pretty much the same answer as the one I got from Canadian foreign minister Bill Graham in Moscow last fall. “Of course we’d prefer it if they spent the money on healthcare,” Graham admitted when I pressed him about Canadian aid in the face of Russian military expansion. But I could be sure, he added, that Ottawa was weighing the pros and cons of its new venture in Russian realpolitik.
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