Will Russia Further Lower Its Nuclear Weapons Use Threshold?}
The day before the snap drill was announced, the Russian Defense Ministry indicated there would be a drill involving the Iskander-M nuclear-capable missile system in the Southern Military , which is one of the areas for the snap drill. In August 2020, Russia announced a “special tactical exercise,” which involved simulated Iskander missile launches and the inspection of the “special hardware of the missile .” “Special” is a word used in Russia to describe nuclear weapons.
In late July 2020, the Russian nuclear-armed ICBM force (the RVSN) staged a major exercise involving operations in a nuclear war, including radiological decontamination of the ICBM launchers, which were on “combat patrol routes.” They were clearly fighting a mock nuclear war. In late June, July and August 2020, there were also threatening flights by Russian nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft near the U.S., NATO allies, Ukraine and Finland. In August 2020, on the same day as the Iskander exercise involving “special weapons,” General Shoigu participated in an exercise of the mobile ICBM force.[iii]
The Caucasus 2020 (Kavkaz 2020) exercise, the largest planned exercise for 2020, will be, according to the Russian Defense Ministry and its Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, a “special exercise.” The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the exercise will involve 80,000 troops, but Russia will not honor the Vienna document’s mandatory inspection provisions because of a contrived interpretation of this agreement. The probability of Russian simulated nuclear weapons use in such an exercise is very high. Kavkaz-2016 reportedly simulated the Russian launch of cruise missiles carrying non-strategic nuclear weapons.
In August 2020, Russia conducted a major naval exercise near Alaska, involving 50 ships and 40 aircraft, which involved cruise missile launches.
This pattern of preparation for war will likely continue and involve nuclear-capable forces.
In June 2020, Russia released a decree by President Putin on Russian nuclear deterrence policy, the first of its kind made public, which indicated a much lower threshold for nuclear weapons first use than was evident in the unclassified military doctrine publications released in 2010 and 2014. While much of the substance of Putin’s nuclear decree apparently goes back a long time, it clearly has new elements in it. Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolay Patrushev has characterized it as a “new Doctrine.” As Dr. Stephen Blank observed over 20 years ago, in Russian military doctrine, “Essentially there is no clear firebreak between conventional and nuclear scenarios in the open sources.” The 2020 decree presents a major but incomplete victory for the most hardline elements in the Russian military. The most fanatic of Russia’s generals want an open declaration of nuclear preemption as Russian strategy. In November 2018, the Russian Federation Council voted to urge the Kremlin to adopt a pre-emptive nuclear strike strategy against NATO and authorized it. (It already was secret Russian policy).
Putin’s decree indicates that Russian state-run RT (formerly Russia Today) and the independent Interfax[iv] news agency were accurate when they both reported Russian nuclear doctrine allows for nuclear weapons first use “…if the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation are under threat.” [v] (Emphasis in the original). Paragraph 4 of Putin’s 2020 decree states, “The state nuclear deterrence policy is of a defensive nature and is directed at supporting the capabilities of nuclear forces at a level sufficient to ensure nuclear deterrence and to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state and to deter a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies in the event of the emergence of an armed conflict by preventing the escalation of military activities and ending them on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.”[vi]
In reviewing Putin’s decree, Russian expatriate Dr. Nikolai Sokov has pointed out, “Today, it is also easy to imagine a situation when the “existence” of Russia would not be threatened, but its ‘territorial integrity’ would—for example, an attempt to use force to return Crimea to Ukraine. The change of language may be explainable, but the presence of two very different definitions of nuclear threshold is not.” It actually is. The decree is not the entire Russia nuclear weapons use policy, which has always been included in classified documents.
In 2014-2015, there were a number of high level Russian nuclear threats relating to Ukraine, which were inconsistent with the announced Russian nuclear doctrine. Dmitry Adamsky of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy noted regarding Ukraine that Russia was “…engaged in nuclear signaling aimed to distance Western support out of fear of escalation, possibly also to soften further sanctions.” In 2015, President Putin said that during the Crimea crisis, he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert if it were necessary. In July 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a nuclear threat relating to Crimea by referencing their nuclear doctrine. In September 2014, then-Ukrainian Minister of Defense Colonel General Valeriy Heletey wrote, “The Russian side has threatened on several occasions across unofficial channels that, in the case of continued resistance, they are ready to use a tactical nuclear weapon against us.”
The importance of these nuclear threats is that they were made to support blatant Russian aggression. Putin’s justification for the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Crimea crisis was that Crimea “is our historical territory. Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them.” As Dr. Stephen Blank has pointed out, protection of ethnic Russians was the rationale for Russian military intervention in Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and Moldova. In 2015, Putin linked the protection of ethnic Russians to nuclear weapons use. Thus, the territorial integrity of Russia was changed to include the just conquered territory. In June 2017, Putin declared Russia would defend Crimea “with all means available to us.”[vii] The reason these statements appear to go beyond published Russian nuclear doctrine at that time is that that the published version was never complete. It still isn’t complete, but it is apparently closer to it than ever before.
Russian linkage of nuclear weapons first use to “sovereignty” is very disturbing because of the ambiguous nature of this concept and its potential permissiveness. In 2008, General of the Army Yuriy Baluyevskiy, then-Chief of the General Staff, declared that to “defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons.” In 2007 Putin declared, “The nuclear weapons remain the most important guarantee of Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and play a key role in maintaining the regional balance and stability.” Putin has said some amazing things about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, making these criteria potentially very permissive. President Putin has characterized cyber espionage (not cyber-attack) as “a direct violation of the state’s sovereignty…” In August 2020, President Putin stated that the Union State Treaty with Belarus obliges the parties to “to help each other protect their sovereignty, external borders and “stability. This is exactly what it says.”
Paragraph 19 of Putin’s decree listed four specific conditions for nuclear weapons first use:
The conditions which determine the possibility for the use by the Russian Federation of nuclear weapons are:
a) the receiving of creditable information concerning the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
b) the use by an enemy of a nuclear weapon or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
c) enemy actions against critically important state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the disablement of which will lead to a disruption of retaliatory operations of the nuclear forces;
d) aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weaponry, which threatens the existence of the state itself.[viii]
All four of Putin’s announced conditions allow for nuclear weapons first use in non-nuclear warfare. Paragraph 19(A), (B) and (C) all contain conditions for first use that are somewhat lower than even what appeared in the most alarming of the open source reports concerning Russian willingness to use nuclear weapons first. The supposed limitation of nuclear weapons first use in conventional war in previous editions of Russian military doctrine to situations in which there was an existential threat to Russia turned out to be a deception since all four of the conditions allow for first use of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear war.
The condition allowing for a nuclear response to the use of “other types of weapons of mass destruction…” (paragraph 19[C]) is broader than the three previous formulations in the military doctrine documents which spoke specifically about chemical and biological attack. This is clearly a change in declaratory policy. Michael Kofman from the Center for Naval Analysis has pointed out it is “…unclear how weapons of mass destruction are defined, some Russian military writing posits conventional capabilities as having strategic effects similar to nuclear weapons.” There are other possibilities, such as a very damaging cyber-attack.
The condition on the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks on “nuclear forces” rather than “strategic nuclear forces” in paragraph 19(C) opens up the possibility of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack on a vast number of Russian military facilities, airbases, naval ships and Army bases and units. This is because dual capability (conventional and nuclear capability) is almost universal in Russia.[ix] The Russians are trying to use the threat of nuclear escalation to negate effectively our conventional and cyber capabilities. If they impose this targeting constraint upon us, we lose the war. Kofman’s suggestion that this is limited to cyber-attacks on nuclear command and control facilities contradicts the plain meaning of the provision. It clearly includes nuclear delivery vehicles and weapons. The provision can also be read to include cyber-attacks, but it certainly is not limited to cyber-attacks on nuclear command and control, which are not even mentioned. State documents on nuclear weapons use issues that do not contain “sloppy language.” Russian doctrinal writing in 1999 indicated that a nuclear strike might be used in response to conventional attacks on targets that are not even military.
The implicit meaning of the condition in paragraph 19(A) is that the launch of a single ballistic missile at Russia would be a justification for a Russian nuclear strike even before it was known what type of warhead the missile carried. This was made explicit in August 2020 when two senior officers of the Russian General Staff, Major General Andrei Sterlin and Colonel Alexander Khryapin, writing in the official newspaper of the Defense Ministry Red Star, noted that “. . . there will be no way to determine if an incoming ballistic missile is fitted with a nuclear or a conventional warhead, and so the military will see it as a nuclear attack.” They added, “Any attacking missile will be perceived as carrying a nuclear warhead” and, “The information about the missile launch will be automatically relayed to the Russian military-political leadership, which will determine the scope of retaliatory action by nuclear forces depending on the evolving situation.”
This is irresponsible in light of the potential consequences to Russia, but it is classic Putin. Indeed, in 2015, Putin declared that “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one thing: If a fight’s inevitable, you must strike first.” Applying street fighting tactics to nuclear war is not the smartest thing to do if a nation wants to survive. Yet, In March 2018, Alexander Velez-Green of the Harvard Belfer Center wrote, “Military Thought has published at least 18 articles in support of preemption against NATO from 2007 to 2017.” Military Thought is the journal of the Russian General Staff. In 2014, Dr. Sokov wrote that “nuclear exercises have been conducted with targets in Europe, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even the continental United States,” further adding that, “…all large-scale military exercises that Russia conducted beginning in 2000 featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes.” In January 2016, the annual report by the Secretary General of NATO indicated Russia in its Zapad (West) exercises not only simulated nuclear attacks against NATO but that in 2013 Russia simulated nuclear attacks against Sweden, which is not a NATO nation. This is inconsistent with Russia’s declaratory policy concerning so-called negative assurances. Negative assurances pledge no nuclear weapons use against non-nuclear nations that are not allied with a nuclear power.
This emphasis on pre-emption is particularly dangerous because Russia plans to use nuclear weapons, including nuclear armed ICBMs, as part of its “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” strategy.[x] Part of it is the concept of “escalation dominance.” According to Dr. Blank, “arguably [escalation dominance] is merely a part of a much broader nuclear strategy that relies heavily upon the psychological and intimidating component of nuclear weapons.” In 2009, Lieutenant General Andrey Shvaychenko, then-Commander of the Strategic Missile Force (RVSN), outlined the role of the nuclear ICBM force in conventional war. He said, “In a conventional war, [the nuclear ICBMs] ensure that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia, by means of single or multiple preventive strikes against the aggressors’ most important facilities.”[xi] The most amazing thing about this statement is the implication that the introduction of strategic nuclear weapons in conventional war would not start a nuclear war.
In 2017, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart affirmed that Russia is “the only country that I know of that has this concept of escalate to terminate or escalate to deescalate but they do have that built into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea…”[xii] He also said that he had seen no evidence that this policy was changing.[xiii]
Despite what Russia says about its possible response to the launch of even a single Western ballistic missile, Russia will clearly be launching nuclear-capable Kinzhal ballistic missiles against NATO in the event of a war. Paragraph 19(A) and (C) may be intended to deter conventional attacks on Russian territory in the event of a Russian invasion of NATO Europe. Paragraph 19(C) can justify a nuclear response to a conventional attack on almost any Russian military facility because virtually all Russian forces are nuclear-capable. Indeed, in 2018, President Putin stated Russia is developing nuclear weapons for “all types of forces.”
Putin’s decree contained implicit nuclear attack threats directed against NATO. In August 2020, the government-owned Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta made these threats explicit:
We will not analyse what kind of warheads they have, nuclear or not, and in any case, at the time of launch, decision will be made on a retaliatory strike to deliver a missile strike on the territory of the state from which the launch was carried out in our direction,” said military analyst Alexander Perendzhiev, member of the Officers of Russia expert council. Moreover, according to him, we are talking not only about countries where such missiles are produced but also about the countries that have allowed to host such missiles.[xiv]
Putin’s June 2020 nuclear decree clearly is not the entirety of Russia’s nuclear first use strategy. It did not supersede Putin’s 2017 decree on the Russian Navy. There are classified elements, including provisions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes. (Russian announced in 2009 that is was classifying its nuclear doctrine. Putin’s 2020 decree appears to be a partial reversal of this policy.) [xv] In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, who developed the 2010 revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine when he was Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”[xvi] In 2003, then-Russian Minister of Defense Colonel General Sergei Ivanov explained why these plans were kept secret. He told a reporter:
What we say is one thing. That sounds cynical, but everything that we plan does not necessarily have to be made public. We believe that from the foreign policy viewpoint, it is better to say that. But what we actually do is an entirely different matter.
There are certainly other secret aspects of Russian nuclear weapons use doctrine. According to state-run RT, “It follows from the document that nuclear deterrence is aimed at ensuring that the potential adversary understands the inevitability of retaliation in the event of aggression against Russia and its allies.” This is more permissive than Paragraph 19. In March 2020, state-run Sputnik News said that Russian nuclear doctrine provided for nuclear first use “…in response to large-scale conventional aggression.” This could allow a nuclear response to a conventional attack that would not be a threat to Russia’s existence. Moreover, what Russia is really talking about is not a response to aggression against Russia but a counterattack against Russian aggression, as was indicated in their nuclear threats related to Ukraine.
A hardline but very well-connected Russian journalist, Colonel (ret.) Nikolai Litovkin talked about what it would take for Russia to “push the button.” (Emphasis in the original). He wrote that while Russian strategy was defensive:
At the same time, a number of scenarios have been identified in which Russia could deploy nuclear weapons.
First, this pertains to the “build-up of general forces, including nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, in territories adjacent to the Russian Federation and its allies, and in adjacent offshore areas.”
Second, the “deployment of anti-ballistic missile defense systems and facilities, medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, strike drones, and directed-energy weapons by states that consider the Russian Federation to be a potential adversary.”
Third, the “creation and deployment in space of anti-ballistic missile defense facilities and strike systems.”
Fourth, the “possession by countries of nuclear weapons and (or) other types of weapons of mass destruction able to be used against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies, as well as the means to deliver them.”
Fifth, the “uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, their means of delivery, and technologies and equipment for their manufacture.”
And sixth, the “deployment of nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles in non-nuclear states.”
Moscow also sets forth additional situations in which it is ready to take “extreme measures.” Among them is the “receipt of reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of Russia and (or) its allies,” as well as the “enemy deployment of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia and (or) its allies.”
Furthermore, the command to deploy nuclear weapons will be given in the event of an “enemy attack on critical state and military facilities of the Russian Federation which, if incapacitated, would disrupt a nuclear response,” as well as “aggression using conventional weapons that threatens the existence of the Russian state.”
According to Marek Menkiszak, head of the Russian Department at Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, “…the list of moves which could fall under the Russian definition of ‘threatening’ is impressive, and contains both offensive and defensive actions by a potential adversary.” The Litovkin version of Russian nuclear first-use policy indicates that these “concerns” are really conditions for “pressing the button.” He is apparently saying that in addition to Paragraph 19 criteria in the Putin decree, just about any serious threat to Russia justifies first use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, it appeared in Russian state media without any disclaimer concerning whether or not this is state policy. Litovkin’s conditions for nuclear weapons’ first use are actually similar to Russia’s nuclear missile targeting threats, which have involved missile defense facilities, troop deployments and non-existent U.S. INF missile deployments in Europe. Russia, including President Putin, has even threatened nuclear decapitation attacks against the U.S. with hypersonic missiles. Under Putin’s information warfare policy, nuclear threats are used “to achieve immediate strategic advantage.”
An August 2020 Red Star article, attributed to the General Staff, characterized the four conditions in the Putin decree as “redlines.” It also indicated that the political leadership would determine the scale of the nuclear response before they knew if the ballistic missile attack against Russia was nuclear. The response to a single missile launch against Russia, even without knowing the kind of warhead it carried, “will no doubt be crushing.”[xvii] Again, this is monumental stupidity because the consequences to Russia are ignored. This is irresponsibility turned into an art form.
The strong emphasis on escalation control in the original public discussion of nuclear first use in 1999 may be eroding, although there is still a considerable difference on initial nuclear first use. Keep in mind that the description of Russian targeting by General Shvaychenko cited above involves nuclear ICBM attacks “against the aggressors’ most important facilities.” This sounds more Soviet-like than the description of escalation in the doctrinal literature of 1999, which said Russia would “not to provoke the aggressor into escalating the use of nuclear weapons without a justified reason,” according to a First Deputy Defense Minister.
The new Russian nuclear doctrine in the context of massive modernization of Russian nuclear forces and constant nuclear first use exercises is very disturbing. It makes it critically necessary to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent capability.
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.
[i] “Are Russian Military Deliveries to Armenia during Fighting in Tovuz Accidental?,” Turan News Agency, August 13, 2020, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/ 2433241217/ fulltext/1735CF59B993DB8DD7A/2?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1735CF59B993DB8DD7A/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_173f7746b79
[ii] “In a Broad Context,” Krasnaya Zvezda Online, April 30, 2011. Translated by World News Connection. World News Connection is no longer available on the internet
[iii] “Russian defence chief visits nuclear missile unit – TV report,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, August 11, 2020, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2432434299/fulltext/173 5CFAB5F96948C9F9/3?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1735CFAB5F96948C9F9/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_173f785a34a
[iv] “Updated Russian military doctrine has no preemptive nuclear strike provision – source,” Interfax, December 10, 2014, available at http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?pg=6&id=558118
[v] “Preemptive nuclear strike omitted from Russia’s new military doctrine – reports,” RT, December 10, 2014, available at http://rt.com/politics/213111-russia-nuclear-preemptive-strike/
[vi] “Putin approves state policy on nuclear deterrence – text,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, June 4, 2020, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2409183356/fulltext/ 171E6F03B7B7D7382ED/2?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=171E6F03B7B7D7382ED/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_1728171393a
[vii] “Russia will defend Crimea with all possible means: Putin,” United News of India, June 15, 2017, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/1909584353/fulltext/173CA7D85A64B2AA7/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=173CA7D85A64B2AA7/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17464fc5947
[viii] “Putin approves state policy on nuclear deterrence – text,” op. cit.
[ix] Alexander Mladenov, “Best in the Breed,” Air Forces Monthly, May 2017, p. 51
[x] “Senate Committee on Armed Services Hearing on U.S. Strategic Command Programs,” Political Transcript Wire, April 4, 2017, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/ professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/ 1902238886/fulltext/167BE8951294B52C4B4/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1 67BE8951294B52C4B4/1&t:cp=maintain/Resultitationblocksbrief&t:zo neid=transactionalZone_16859081e63
[xi] “Russia may face large-scale military attack, says Strategic Missile Troops chief,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet
Union, December 16, 2009, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/ 460433852/fulltext/173438170CB2F81FF58/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=173438170CB2F81FF58/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_173de004188
[xii] “S Armed Services Hearing on Worldwide Threats,” Political Transcript Wire, May 23, 2017, available at https: //dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/1902238886/fulltext/1738266AFAE364AFE88/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1738266AFAE364AFE88/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_1741ce58604
[xiv] “Russian pundits discuss new rules for use of nuclear weapons,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, August 19, 2020, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/24351 60686/ fulltext/1738C5577584F127A6B/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=1738C5577584F127A6B/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17426d445a8
[xv] “Army; Closed Part of New Military Doctrine to Define Legal Aspects Of Forces’ Employment, Nuclear
Weaponsâ€•Gen. Staff,” Interfax, August 14, 2009, available https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professional newsstand/ docview/443749342/fulltext/173D4BAD9862D0C73B8/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewss tand&t:ac=173D4BAD9862D0C73B8/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_1746f39a927
[xvi] “Russia classifies information on pre-emptive nuclear strikes – military,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, September 5, 2014, available at Interfax-AVN military news agency, Moscow, in Russian 0728,0752,0826Sep
14/BBC, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/1560021754/fulltext/ 17344A2E7A6775A1A7F/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=17344A2E7A6775A1A7F/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_173df21b673
[xvii] “Russian pundits discuss new rules for use of nuclear weapons,” op. cit.