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Should Russia waste its money on nuclear weapons

Charlie Ganske at Russia Blog has a thoughtful post about whether Russia should focus its energies on maintaining a nuclear arsenal, or on preventing the breakup of the Motherland.

Today’s Washington Times features a story on Russia’s successful test of a maneuverable re-entry warhead. While this may bolster the national pride of Russian scientists and provide opponents of U.S. missile defenses with another talking point, the billions of rubles spent do nothing to address the real threats to Russia’s territorial integrity and security.

I think Charlie is right that the biggest threat to Russia right now is that of instability and militant Islam on it’s Southern borders – although I’m not sure that I’d go so far to suggest that Siberia may become China’s most northerly province. But I do think that he perhaps underestimates the benefits that nuclear weapons bring to Russia, and the relative cheapness of updating the nuclear arsenal compared with addressing deeper, more structural problems such as corruption in the military.

Spending money on addressing the structural problems that beset Russia’s convential military forces (“conventional”, “nuclear” – I feel like I’m back in the Cold War) is, without doubt, going to be of immense benefit to Russia. But restructuring the army is an expensive, and long term project. The problems of addressing corruption in society as a whole are going to be even more challenging. Spending money on nuclear weapons, on the other hand, is, comparatively cheap, and carries large short term benefits (or, to put that more precisely, avoids a great deal of short term damage).

I know it’s a cliche, but nuclear weapons really do carry cachet on the world stage. There is a belief among many states that nuclear power buys influence in global affairs. In the UK, where I live, updating our nuclear arsenal, small though it may be, has become a hot political topic. There are plenty for updating the arsenal, and plenty for turning our nuclear submarines into scrap, but the government seems convinced of the necessity to upgrade. I have no idea of the situation in France, but China is looking to boost it’s nuclear stockpile, and the US isn’t exactly neglecting nuclear research either. (And that’s before we even consider states like Israel, Iran and North Korea). These countries don’t spend all this money on nuclear bombs for fun – they spend it because they respect the nuclear arsenals of their competitors, and want to make sure that their arsenals are respsected also.

I personally don’t buy into their logic, but it is the logic that they use. And they are the people playing the game. It’s what they think that really matters in interstate relations.

One of the main reasons that Russia faces trouble on its borders is the general perception that it is a weak state – a belief shared not just by other states, but by disaffected groups within Russia itself. If Russia’s nuclear arsenal loses the respect of other states around the world, Russia loses respect (in the sense of fear, rather than love, of course) One that respect goes, so does a big chunk of what remains of Russia’s influence and bargaining power in the world. States hostile to Russia will take note of this, and feel emboldened to further provoke instability on and within Russia’s borders.

Although Russia does need to invest in long term projects to ensure its security, it also needs to spend a considerable amount of time, effort and, yes, money, on firefighting. It is hard to push the Cold War to the back of our minds, but perhaps in the early 21st Century, we would do better to look at Russia’s nuclear investments more as a defensive, rather than an agressive stance.

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