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In September 2020, state-run RT (formerly Russia Today) published an article that appears to reveal a program for cheating with regard to the limit in the New START Treaty on deployed warheads by means of covert deployment of mobile ICBMs. Since RT published the article in Russian but not in English, it was not intended for Western consumption. It was translated by the Teller Report, which does many original translations from Russian language media. The article stated, “Russian troops operate new ICBMs in mine and mobile versions. Different types of ICBMs have their own advantages. For example, mines are certainly better protected from being hit by cruise missiles or other air attacks. The rocket is located at a considerable depth and is protected by reinforced concrete caps, said Alexei Podberezkin, director of the Center for Military-Political Research at MGIMO, in a conversation with RT.” "Mines" is not a reference to silo launchers, which are referred to in the article as "stationary launchers." “Mines” with “reinforce[d] concrete caps” are apparently a hard and deeply buried facility, which we call tunnel facilities with blast doors.

The Soviet Union had a history of cheating on arms control agreements, including by means of covertly deployed mobile missiles. In January 1984, the first Reagan Administration’s report to the Congress on Soviet Noncompliance with Arms Control Agreements concluded that Russian activities regarding the SS-16 ICBM at Plesetsk “…are a probable violation of their legal obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of SALT II prior to 1981 during the period when the Treaty was pending ratification and a probable violation of a political commitment subsequent to 1981.” The October 1984 report of the General Advisory Committee of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) concluded that "…the SS-16 apparently has been maintained at Plesetsk since the signing of the Treaty, in violation of Soviet commitments relative to that [the SALT II] treaty.”

Starting in 1999, senior Russian Generals from the Strategic Missile Force and the manufacturer of the SS-16 listed this missile (using the Russian name for it) as one of the ICBMs that had been deployed by the Strategic Missile Force.

On February 15, 1991, the White House released the President’s (George H.W. Bush) report on "Soviet Noncompliance with Arms Control Agreements," which announced the discovery of covert deployment of SS-23 short-range mobile ballistic missiles in three former Warsaw Pact Eastern European states.[1] This was deemed in the report to be “The most serious concern related to the implementation of the INF Treaty…”[2] The SS-23 was one of the Soviet missiles that should have been destroyed under the 1988 INF Treaty. The report concluded that there was “strong concern that the Soviets has or had SS-23 missiles that were not declared and dismantled in accordance with Treaty provisions.”[3] According to the Department of State, we found out about the covert SS-23 deployment because, “In January [1992], the government of East Germany announced it was closing a missile base and that it would begin to scrap the missiles deployed there.”

There is nothing in the New START Treaty that deals with basing mobile ICBMs in underground tunnel facilities. There have been no subsequent agreements relating to tunnel facilities; if they are not declared, they are not inspectable, and certainly there are no procedures in the New START Treaty for inspecting tunnel facilities. Basing mobile ICBMs in tunnel facilities would have been banned by the original START Treaty since the START Treaty prohibited the basing of ground-mobile ICBMs outside of “restrictive areas.” The concept of basing limitations to “restricted areas” does not appear in New START. Under New START, the concept is "basing area," which "…means an area within an ICBM base for mobile launchers of ICBMs, in which deployed mobile launchers of ICBMs are based and in which fixed structures for mobile launchers of ICBMs are located.” This concept does not capture a tunnel facility. Even so, the covert deployment of covertly produced mobile ICBMs (possible in light of the elimination of the START Treaty’s monitoring regime) in underground tunnel facilities would be a violation of New START. The problem would be detection and proof of the function of the facility.

If the Russians are going to base mobile ICBMs in tunnel facilities or are already covertly doing so, they will obviously deny it and refuse to extend the New START verification regime to these facilities. While most hard and deeply buried facilities are very resistant to nuclear attack, tunnel facilities are a partial exception to this. The large entrances that are required for the mobile ICBMs allow accurate nuclear strikes to collapse these tunnels. The facilities may very well survive, but the missiles in them may be unable to leave the facilities. The reference to air attack and cruise missiles in the RT article is apparently a reference to conventional air attacks and conventional cruise missiles. Conventional weapons have very little capability against deep underground facilities. During Operation Allied Force in the former Yugoslavia, a large scale conventional attack on Pristina’s underground airfield failed to knock it out of action.

The situation is different with regard to nuclear attack. Unlike very hard and very deeply buried nuclear command and control facilities, which are very difficult to destroy, tunnel facilities are substantially more vulnerable to nuclear attack. An accurate nuclear hit on an entrance of the tunnel could collapse it. The main part of the facility itself could survive, but it could be impossible to get the missiles out on a timely basis. Thus, declared tunnel facilities for the legal basing of mobile ICBMs, as distinct from covert, underground tunnel facilities, do not make sense if a party is in an arms control regime, which would make them subject to inspection. Assuming that they are minuscule in scope compared to China's underground great wall, the survivability of these facilities would be degraded by inspections. Also, while under New START limits, the Russians can legally deploy more mobile ICBMs than they currently have, this would not significantly increase the number of their deployed warheads without cheating because Russia is close to the New START limit on deployed warheads. Russia is also close to completion of the deployment of Yars ICBMs in declared units. Thus, tunnel facilities could be a means of hiding extra missiles, which would allow for a larger number of deployed warheads than the 1,550 allowed under the New START Treaty.

Repeated statements between 2011 and 2018 by the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Force, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, have indicated Russia has 400 ICBMs, about a hundred more than is possible under the declared Russian numbers for their total strategic nuclear force.[4] In December 2019, Russian state media again reported that "Spread around the country in silos and on truck-mountable containers are about 400 ICBMs, each with multiple nuclear warheads as their payload.” Based on Russian declarations of their total force of strategic nuclear delivery systems under the New START Treaty, Russia cannot have more than about 300 ICBMs. Thus, cheating may already be going on.

Russian falsification of arms control data is not new. The 1984 Report of the ACDA General Advisory Committee quoted above noted that the Soviets deliberately falsified the SALT II database concerning the number of ICBM launchers.” The motive was to cover up the covert deployment of mobile SS-16 ICBMs at Plesetsk.

There is other evidence that Russia has more ICBMs than is possible under Russian data declarations under the New START Treaty. In December 2018, Colonel General Karakayev said that “…the nuclear potentials of the sides have [been] reduced more than 66% since the signing of START I.”[5] This is a major departure from the normal Russian position. At the United Nations in April 2018, First Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N Dmitry Polyanskiy declared that "Russia cut its nuclear arsenal by over 85 percent as compared to its stockpiles at the height of the Cold War.” If one uses the late Soviet reported number of over 10,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads for the calculation,[6] the difference between an 85% reduction and a 66% reduction is almost 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads above the supposed New START Treaty allowed level of 1,550. This is much higher than any recent open source estimate of deployed Russian strategic nuclear warheads. For example, in 2018, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Russia had 2,522 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. This could only be possible if there is a covert force of Russian mobile ICBMs. This is possible because we have not monitored Russian production of mobile MIRVed ICBMs since the expiration of the START Treaty in 2009 because such monitoring is not allowed under the New START Treaty.

Why does Russia believe that it needs more nuclear warheads that are possible under the very permissive New START Treaty provisions? As Putin said in November 2020, “I want to emphasize that, despite the constantly changing nature of military threats, the nuclear triad remains the primary, key guarantee of Russia’s military security." His assertion that Russian strategic nuclear capability "neutralizes the threat of a large-scale military conflict” is another way of saying that he plans to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any major conflict. In June 2020, Putin signed a decree adopting a very low threshold of nuclear weapons first use. As noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer has pointed out, “Russian rulers are, indeed, quite convinced that only by deploying superior conventional and nuclear military forces, can Russia deter or at least survive a looming all-out war with the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.” The extra warheads that can be obtained through cheating can have a significant impact on warfighting. Contrary to popular wisdom, there are a very large number of targets that have military significance.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.


[1] “Soviet Noncompliance with Arms Control Agreements,” (Washington D.C. White House February 6, 1991), p. 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Some 400 ICBMs are on combat duty in Russia – RVSN commander,” Interfax, December 16, 2014, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/1636603843/fulltext/175BE460BC1503EBBBD/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=175BE460BC1503EBBBD/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17658c4db59: “Russian Strategic Missile Troops have about 400 ICBM launchers – commander,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, December 17, 2013, available at https:// dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/1468597532/fulltext/175BE4928382DC49ABF/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=175BE4928382DC49ABF/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17658c7fccc; “Russia’s RVSN has some 400 ICBMs on duty – commander,” Interfax, December 15, 2016, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professional newsstand/docview/1849162981/fulltext/175BE4E574127DACD70/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=175BE4E574127DACD70/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone17658cd274e.; “Ordnance; Russian Strategic Missile Forces comprise approx. 400 ICBMs – commander.” Interfax, December 17, 2017, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/ professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/ 1963335174/fulltext/17078CBBA9F16F6BAD1/1?Accountid =155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac =17078CBBA9F16F6BAD1/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_171134a8a8a.; “Russian Strategic Missile Force armed with about 400 ballistic missiles — Defense Ministry,” TASS, December 15, 2016, available at http://tass.com/defense/919518.; “Army; Russian Strategic Missile Forces comprise approx. 400 ICBMs – commander, Interfax, November 13, 2017, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/ professionalnewsstand/docview/1963796939/fulltext/17078CBBA9F16F6BAD1/2?Accountid =155509&site =professional newsstand&t:ac=17078C BBA9F16F6BAD1/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocks brief&t: zoneid=transactional Zone_1711354130f.; “U.S. to seek ways of leveling capacities of Russian strategic nuclear forces-Gen. Karakayev,” Interfax, December 17, 2018, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/ professional/ professionalnewsstand/docview/2157833980/fulltext/170A12F3A8169524B30/1?accountid=155509&site= professionalnewsstand&t:ac=170A12F3A8169524B30/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone1713bae0b2d

[5] “U.S. to seek ways of leveling capacities of Russian strategic nuclear forces - Gen. Karakayev,” op. cit.

[6] “FACTBOX – Strategic Missile Forces Day in Russia,” Sputnik, December 17, 2018, available at https://dialog .proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2157472585/fulltext/170A13075F1754EEEB6/1? accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=170A1307 5F1754EEEB6/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcit ationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_1713baf472d

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