A brief statement by the Russian defense minister last week raised questions about Russia's commitment to the unilateral initiatives of 1991-1992, in which the United States and the Soviet Union and then Russia pledged to remove tactical nuclear weapons from their surface ships and submarines.

What Sergei Ivanov said was that Russia has eight submarines with nuclear weapons at sea - five of them are ballistic missile submarines and three -multipurpose (or attack) submarines. Ivanov's statement got some attention in Russia (but, characteristically, was completely ignored in the United States - by the administration, the media, and the expert community). The consensus seems to be that if there are any nuclear weapons on those attack submarines, these must be the R-55 Granat (SS-N-21) long-range sea-based cruise missiles. The Granat missile is a naval version of the Kh-55 ALCM [UPDATE 09/18/06: I was told that it is not - these are quite different missiles. So, it should be "naval equivalent of Kh-55"], which is in many respects comparable to the U.S. Tomahawk. The argument has been made that since the Soviet military always considered long-range cruise missiles to be strategic weapons, the return of nuclear Granat missiles to submarines would not violate the 1991-1992 commitments.

Well, not really. As I describe below, a fairly strong argument can be made that these commitments cover the long-range sea-launched cruise missiles.

They long-range SLCMs were indeed discussed during the START negotiations with the Soviet Union trying to get them into the treaty and the United States rejecting that "both on the ground that nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles are not strategic weapons and on the ground that limits on nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles are inherently unverifiable" (the quote is from the U.S. article-by-article analysis of the treaty). Eventually, the solution was found in the form of the United States and the Soviet Union making identical unilateral declarations in which they promised not to deploy more than 880 of those. Conventional cruise missiles as well as non-deployed or short-range (less than 600 km) nuclear ones were not included in this limit.

Although mentioning long-range SLCMs in a document that accompanies the START Treaty (but is not part of it) does seem to suggest that they have something to do with the strategic forces, just as the Soviet Union insisted, the fact that SLCMs were not included in the treaty is probably a stronger sign that there was an understanding that they are not. So, the treaty record is inconclusive at least.

The debate about nuclear SLCMs took a new turn on September 27, 1991, when President Bush introduced a number of measures related to strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Here is what he said about sea-based cruise missiles:

the United States will withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons from its surface ships and attack submarines, as well as those nuclear weapons associated with our land-based naval aircraft. This means removing all nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from US ships and submarines, as well as nuclear bombs aboard aircraft carriers.
As we can see, the long-range sea-based cruise missiles were included into the "tactical" category and not just rhetorically - the United States actually committed to withdraw these missiles.

Announcing the reciprocal Soviet initiative, Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union, said in his address on October 4, 1991:

All tactical nuclear weapons will be removed from surface ships and multipurpose submarines. These weapons, as well as all nuclear weapons of ground-based naval aviation, will be stored in centralized sites. Part of them will be eliminated. [...] we propose to the United States to eliminate totally, on a reciprocal basis, sea-based tactical nuclear weapons.
Here, long-range SLCMs are not mentioned explicitly, which, given that the Soviet Union believed they are strategic weapons, seems to leave the door open for interpretations. But at that time there was no doubt about whether the Soviet pledge covered long-range SLCM. It was understood that the declarations on SLCM that the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to submit will contain zeros (article-by-article analysis, emphasis added):
On September 27, 1991, as part of a far-reaching initiative on nuclear weapons, the President announced that the United States will withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons from its surface ships and attack submarines, meaning that all nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles will be removed from U.S. ships and submarines. Therefore, although the U.S. will continue to abide by its political commitment to provide an annual declaration of planned deployments, the annual U.S. declaration will be zero as soon as the Department of the Navy completes implementation of the President's directive. Likewise, consistent with President Gorbachev's October 4, 1991, statement on the withdrawal of Soviet naval tactical nuclear weapons, the annual Soviet declaration is also expected to be zero.
This analysis was apparently written before the breakup of the Soviet Union, for it does not mention Russia at all. The breakup, however, did not change the situation very much - Russia confirmed all Soviet obligations regarding tactical nuclear weapons. There was one difference, though, that may be relevant in this case. When President Yeltsin of Russia announced his first arms-control initiative on January 29, 1992, he included SLCMs into the "strategic" paragraph:
First. In the field of strategic offensive armaments. [...] We are also stopping production of corresponding types of sea-based nuclear cruise missiles. At the same time we are ready, on a reciprocal basis, to liquidate all the existing nuclear long-range sea-based cruise missiles.
In the "tactical" paragraph Yeltsin repeated Gorbachev's pledge to remove all tactical weapons from submarines and said that Russia will eliminate 1/3 of them:
Second. Tactical nuclear weapons. Large-scale measures for their deep cuts have already been taken, simultaneously with the USA. [...] Russia will eliminate one-third of its sea-based tactical nuclear weapons [...]
As far as I can tell, whoever prepared Yeltsin's speech knew about the "SLCMs-are-strategic" Soviet position and made sure that it was affirmed in the statement. But I would note that the main reason that position existed in the first place was that the Soviet Union was trying to limit U.S. cruise missiles, not to preserve its own. After the United States said it will withdraw all its sea-based cruise missiles unilaterally, sticking to this position made little practical sense. Still, some may say that having placed SLCMs into the "strategic paragraph" Russia confirmed that it did not accept their classification as "tactical" and therefore it is under no obligation to remove them from its submarines.

Not at all. Moving words around matters, but what matters more is the practical policy that a country implements. The United States not just said Tomahawks are tactical, it actually removed them from ships together with other tactical weapons. Russia may have never agreed that its SLCMs are tactical, but it acted as if they were - as far as I can tell, Russia had withdrawn its nuclear cruise missiles from submarines in the early 1990s. I haven't yet seen the declarations on SLCMs from that time (I'm trying to locate them), but I'm quite certain that had the Russian declaration contained anything different from zero in 1994, when the treaty came into force (or every year after that), we would have known about it. And submitting zero confirmed (albeit indirectly) that Russia agrees that SLCMs are covered by the presidential initiatives.

The bottom line is that I don't find the theory about Russia's believing that SLCMs are strategic and therefore exempt from the presidential initiatives very plausible. In practice Russia acted as if it accepted their classification as tactical weapons and complied with it for a long period of time, which means that this definition has become legally binding. Another strong argument here is that the United States withdrew its SLCMs and Russia clearly committed itself to reciprocity. Taken together, these arguments don't leave much room for the "strategic" theory.

If not long-range SLCMs, could Ivanov's nuclear weapons be short-range (anti-ship) cruise missiles or torpedoes? In theory, yes. But this would be an absolutely clear violation of the 1991-1992 obligations. That would have certainly caught attention in the United States, its lack of attention to the developments in Russia notwithstanding.

Interestingly, the annual declarations that the United States and Russia are supposed to submit, should cover short-range cruise missiles as well. This information is supposed to be confidential, so we probably won't see it, but the U.S. government would have it. And again, it certainly expects to see only one number there (article-to-article analysis, emphasis added):

the Parties agreed to exchange, on a confidential basis, annual information on the number of deployed nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 600km. Only the Soviet Union possesses nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles in this range. The number of such cruise missiles is not included in the 880 limit referred to in the declarations. Again, consistent with President Gorbachev's statement of October 4, l99l, on the withdrawal of naval tactical nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union declaration should be zero.
Of course, at the times when the United States and Russia seem to believe that abandoning their treaty obligations is not a big deal, I would not be surprised if Russia one day just submitted a declaration with non-zeros in it. But I would still expect that this to be known (if only from the likes of Curt Weldon). This is probably not a very convincing argument, but my experience tells me that we would have.

So, what are those nuclear weapons on multipurpose submarines Sergei Ivanov was talking about? I would certainly like to know it myself. I must note that one should never underestimate the ability of Russian officials to make misleading statements (to put it mildly), so it is quite possible that there were no nuclear weapons there and what Ivanov really meant was that these submarines are nuclear capable. But if those three submarines did carry nuclear warheads, they probably did so in violation of the commitment that the Soviet Union and Russia made in 1991-1992.

UPDATE 02/14/13: A few important notes. The Helsinki 1997 Joint Statement contains this sentence:

The Presidents also agreed that in the context of START III negotiations their experts will explore, as separate issues, possible measures relating to nuclear long range sea launched cruise missiles and tactical nuclear systems [...]

This clearly indicates that Russia does not consider long-range SLCMs as tactical weapons and the United States agrees with this position. Also, a story on Russia's plans to deploy SLCMs on its submarines, Global Security Newswire provides the following quote from the Pentagon:

"In 1991, the United States and the then-Soviet Union, as a political commitment, voluntarily agreed to cease deploying any nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles on surface ships or multipurpose submarines. The United States has no definitive information that the Russian Federation is not abiding by this political commitment," Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush said in a prepared statement to GSN.
I would guess that if the Russian declarations did not contain zeros, this statement would have been different.

Finally, ArmsControlWonk provided a link to an actual U.S. SLCM declaration in one of the WikiLeaks cables.