Russian Missiles Fuel U.S. Worries
By ADAM ENTOUS And JONATHAN WEISMAN
The U.S. believes Russia has moved short-range tactical nuclear warheads to facilities near North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies as recently as this spring, U.S. officials say, adding to questions in Congress about Russian compliance with long-standing pledges ahead of a possible vote on a new arms-control treaty.
U.S. officials say the movement of warheads to facilities bordering NATO allies appeared to run counter to pledges made by Moscow starting in 1991 to pull tactical nuclear weapons back from frontier posts and to reduce their numbers. The U.S. has long voiced concerns about Russia's lack of transparency when it comes to its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, believed to be many times the number possessed by the U.S.
Russia's movement of the ground-based tactical weapons appeared to coincide with the deployment of U.S. and NATO missile-defense installations in countries bordering Russia. Moscow has long considered the U.S. missile defense buildup in Europe a challenge to Russian power, underlining deep-seated mistrust between U.S. and Russian armed forces despite improved relations between political leaders.
The Kremlin had no immediate comment.
Republican critics in the Senate say it was a mistake for President Barack Obama to agree to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, or New Start, without dealing with outstanding questions about Moscow's tactical nuclear weapons. New Start would cap the Russian and U.S. deployed strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 per side. It doesn't address tactical weapons, which are smaller and for use on a battlefield.
Senior administration officials say New Start, like most arms treaties before it, deals only with strategic nuclear weapons, adding that only after it is ratified can Washington and Moscow begin to negotiate a legally binding, verifiable treaty to limit tactical warheads in Europe.
The positioning of Russian tactical nuclear weapons near Eastern European and the Baltic states has alarmed NATO member-states bordering Russia. They see these as potentially a bigger danger than long-range nuclear weapons. Tactical weapons are easier to conceal and may be more vulnerable to theft, say arms-control experts.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said he raised concerns about the weapons this month with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior defense officials in Washington.
"Being a NATO member, of course, someone could say, 'Don't worry.' But when you're living in the neighborhood, you should always be more cautious," Mr. Azubalis said. He added that American officials "expressed worry but they also don't know too much" about where the weapons are and the conditions under which they are kept.
Classified U.S. intelligence about Russia's movement of tactical nuclear weapons to the facilities has been shared with congressional committees.
During a September hearing on the new arms-reduction treaty, Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, spoke of "troubling" intelligence about Russia without saying what it was, adding it "directly affects" the arms-control debate. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) countered that it had "no impact" directly on Start, without elaborating.
Sen. Christopher Bond (R., Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, refused to comment directly on the tactical nuclear warhead issue, but he said the Russians cannot be trusted to make good on their arms-control promises. "We know from published reports of the State Department that the Russians have cheated on all their other treaties, Start, chemical weapons, [biological weapons], Open Skies," he said.
U.S. officials say Mr. Obama's revised approach to missile defense, and warming personal ties with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, have fostered cooperation in key areas, from isolating Iran to opening new routes to transport gear to Afghanistan.
But mistrust runs deep, U.S. diplomatic cables released by the organization WikiLeaks over the weekend showed. A February cable quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates telling a French official that Russia was an "oligarchy run by the security services," despite Mr. Medvedev's "more pragmatic vision." A Gates spokesman declined to comment.
Two senior Obama administration officials didn't deny the tactical warhead issue has arisen in private discussions with lawmakers, but said the 1991 pledges, known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, weren't legally binding on either side and were difficult to verify.
Administration officials say U.S. and Russian negotiators plan to turn their attention to tactical nuclear weapons, as well as larger strategic warheads that aren't actively deployed, as soon as New Start goes into force. "If we don't ratify Start, we're not going to be able to negotiate on tactical nuclear weapons," one said.
Poland's minister of foreign affairs, Radosław Sikorski, called Start a "necessary stepping-stone" on the way to a deal to reduce tactical arsenals.
Western officials say the Russian military views its aging arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons as a way to compensate for its diminished conventional capabilities, and as a hedge against the U.S.'s expanded missile defenses and China's growing might.
U.S. officials point to steps Russia has taken to meet its arms-control obligations over the last two decades, including reducing the number of nuclear-weapons storage sites, once many hundreds, to as few as 50. But officials are skeptical Russia has fulfilled all of its pledges to destroy and redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in line with the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.
According to the U.S. assessment, Russia has expanded tactical nuclear deployments near NATO allies several times in recent years. An example is Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. A State Department cable from April 2009 said Russia had warned it would take countermeasures, including putting "missiles" in Kaliningrad, in response to expanded U.S. missile defenses in Europe.
U.S. officials believe the most recent movements of Russian tactical nuclear weapons took place in late spring. In late May, a U.S. Patriot missile battery was deployed in northern Poland, close to Kaliningrad, sparking public protests from Moscow.
Some officials said the movements are a concern but sought to play down the threat. Russian nuclear warheads are stored separately from their launching systems, U.S. officials say.
In the fall of 1991, the U.S. had about 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas, most assigned to NATO, according to the Arms Control Association. The U.S. destroyed about 3,000 as a result of the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Today, the U.S. is believed to have some 1,100 tactical nuclear warheads, of which about 480 are nuclear gravity bombs stored in six European countries.
Estimates on the number of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in fall 1991—just before the fall of the Soviet Union—ranged from 12,000 to nearly 21,700. At a May 2005 conference, Moscow said its arsenal "has been reduced by four times as compared to what the Soviet Union possessed in 1991," and was "concentrated at central storage facilities...."
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, this month reiterated the position that Russia won't withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons behind the Urals until the U.S. takes its battlefield weapons out of Europe.
—Stephen Fidler contributed to this article.