Russia’s new strategy for nuclear war
19 Jun 2020|

Russia has published an official executive order (ukaz) titled ‘Basic principles of state policy of the Russian Federation on nuclear deterrence’.

It entered into force on 2 June when it was signed by President Vladimir Putin. This is the first time in the almost 30-year history of the Russian Federation that an explanation of Russia’s nuclear warfighting policy has been made public.

The relatively short, six-page document sets out a series of blunt messages designed to impress on its potential enemies just where Russia stands. While it considers nuclear weapons ‘exclusively as a means of deterrence’ and characterises their use as ‘an extreme and compelled measure’, this official declaration sets out in some detail the conditions that could trigger nuclear conflict.

The clear messages are ‘the inevitability of retaliation’ in the event of nuclear attack on Russia and that Russia intends to maintain forces capable of inflicting ‘guaranteed unacceptable damage’ on a potential adversary. Precisely what such unacceptable damage might involve is not spelled out, but in the Cold War it implied that the enemy would cease to exist as a modern functioning society.

The main military risks that might evolve into direct military threats to Russia are identified as:

  • build-up by a potential adversary of conventional forces that possess nuclear weapons in the territories of states contiguous with Russia and its allies, as well as in adjacent waters
  • deployment, by states that consider Russia as a potential adversary, of missile defence systems, medium- and short-range cruise and ballistic missiles, non-nuclear high-precision and hypersonic weapons, strike unmanned aerial vehicles, and directed-energy weapons
  • development and deployment of missile defence assets and strike systems in outer space
  • possession by states of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction that can be used against Russia and its allies, as well as means of delivery of such weapons
  • uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, their delivery means, and technology and equipment for their manufacture
  • deployment of nuclear weapons and their delivery means in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Most importantly, this document sets out publicly for the first time the situations in which Russia would contemplate using nuclear weapons as follows:

  • arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of Russia and/or its allies (i.e. a launch on warning)
  • use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against Russia and/or its allies
  • attack by an adversary against critical government or military sites of Russia, disruption of which would undermine nuclear force response actions (i.e. a so-called decapitation strike against the political and military leadership)
  • aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

The executive order also notes that the decision to use nuclear weapons is taken by the president of Russia, who might, if necessary, inform the leadership of other states and international organisations about Russia’s readiness to use nuclear weapons or about the decision taken to use nuclear weapons, as well as about the fact that nuclear weapons have been used.

This Russian statement presents welcome areas of clarification. But some of them are distinctly worrying: especially the clause that confirms Russia’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is one of launch on warning. This has always been recognised as a very risky concept because it is crucially dependent upon early warning systems not malfunctioning, which might not be a dependable basis on which to go to nuclear war.

Nuclear attack indicators are likely to face even shorter warning times in the future with the deployment of hypersonic manoeuvrable glide vehicles, as well as such devices as directed-energy weapons. Strategic warning is already being complicated by the deployment by the US of prompt global strike ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, which makes the task of differentiating between conventional and nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles in a crisis practically impossible.

The other issue of concern surrounds Russia’s declaratory policy that it will consider using nuclear weapons against a conventional attack ‘when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy’. This is the so-called escalate to de-escalate element of Russian nuclear strategy involving the threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons against an overwhelming NATO conventional attack. This, of course, is the mirror image of NATO’s own Cold War nuclear policy of deterring an overwhelming Russian conventional attack on Europe. An interesting question here is what constitutes Russian territory, given Putin’s attitudes to what he terms ‘the near abroad’—the territories of former Soviet republics, such as the Baltic countries, where there are large numbers of ethnic Russians.

It is probably not a coincidence that the release by Moscow of this unprecedented public document about Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy and its war-fighting implications comes at a time of the complete breakdown in talks between the US and Russia about nuclear arms control and verification. Both sides have stopped talking to each other about this central issue to global nuclear security. By comparison, in the Cold War, crucial nuclear arms control treaties were signed and resulted in agreed verification and inspection measures that were quite intrusive.

Now, such important arms control treaties as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Treaty on Open Skies have all been terminated by the US, in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respectively. In addition, New START, the treaty between the US and Russia that limits each side to 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads (although both have total deployed and non-deployed nuclear warheads in excess of 6,000 each), is due for extension early next year.

Washington is insisting that China be included in any such strategic nuclear treaty, but China has resolutely refused. The bets are that New START also will be terminated, especially if President Donald Trump is re-elected. That would herald the way to a full-blown strategic nuclear arms race.