Russia's New Nuclear Strategy: Unanswered Questions

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Russia’s newly released nuclear strategy document has done little to clarify the country’s policies, and raises more questions than it answers.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence

There is no doubt that the publication of this document is aimed at the US, which has recently called into question a number of agreements in the field of arms control, often based on arguments of Russian non-compliance. The publication of the Basic Principles is another attempt to show that the US is responsible for crisis in the arms control regime. Still, the six-page document leaves plenty of unanswered questions.

The Essence of Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence

For the first time, the Basic Principles state that ‘guaranteed deterrence’ is one of the highest national priorities. This was implied by the president's previous speeches and other policy documents, but was enshrined in neither the National Security Strategy nor in the Military Doctrine

The newly released document also states that the use of nuclear weapons should be regarded as a measure ‘compelled’ on Russia, and claims that Russia expands maximum efforts into mitigating the nuclear threat. But there is no explanation for this statement, despite its significance. Nor is there any explanation as to what exactly Russia's policies on mitigating nuclear threats are, what priorities it has (if any), what is meant by nuclear threats in general, and what or who represents a nuclear threat. All have been left unexplained. 

Paragraph 9 of the new document stipulates that nuclear deterrence is designed to persuade an adversary that retaliation will always be unavoidableYet the next paragraph explains that nuclear deterrence is assured by the presence of fit-for-action nuclear forces and Russia's readiness to use them. In other words, Moscow considers it important not only to possess fit-for-service nuclear forces, but also to demonstrate their readiness through exercises of the nuclear triad or their units, or through statements of politicians and defence officials. Western observers should not, therefore, be surprised when future Russian politicians utter nuclear threats in response to any action deemed potentially dangerous to Russia, for this is part of the state policy.

This is followed by a list of military threats which Russia deems adequate to deter with nuclear weapons. These include the build-up of operational forces with nuclear weapon delivery vehicles in territories adjacent to Russia – a passage which evidently refers particularly to NATO aircraft, the potential carriers of B61 nuclear bombs, the deployment of which has recently been discussed in Germany and Poland

It is interesting to speculate whether China, with its nuclear capabilities, is a potential adversary in this context. In general, the Basic Principles name no specific countries or military alliances that Russia considers a potential threat.

Special attention should be given to what the new Basic Principles document defines as dangers in various strategic conventional forces deployed by potential adversary states. These include missile defence, medium- and short-range cruise and ballistic missiles, high-precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, unmanned combat aerial vehicles and directed energy weapons. 

But how does one define which countries consider Russia as an adversary? Is a statement made by a country’s leadership which explicitly considers Russia a hostile state required? For example, former Prime Minister Theresa May called Russia a ‘strategic enemy’ back in 2018. Is that sufficient? Is such a declaration enduring and valid on her successors? 

And what about others? For example, in December 2019, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a media interview that he did not consider Russia an enemy. Would this be enough as far as Russia is concerned?

And what about the possibility that a country’s declaratory position on Russia is divided or uncertain? In the US, former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats obviously believes that Russia is a threat. However, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale refrained from calling Russia a threat and said it was only a competitor. So, whose opinion is decisive in this case? 

Ultimately, it appears that France – with its hypersonic medium-range cruise missile, ASN4G, under development – is a target for Russia's nuclear deterrence, notwithstanding the fact that France does not call Russia an enemy. And what definition will be given to Germany if it wants to equip its Heron TP unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles? Will it automatically become a threat subjected to nuclear deterrence? Perhaps this paragraph was introduced in order to separate the US from China, which does not call Russia an enemy. But it is certainly not very persuasive.

The Russian list of threats which could be met with nuclear deterrence extends to space arms, deployment of nuclear weapons in the territories of non-nuclear weapon states, and the very existence of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But there is nothing about the existence of fissile materials used for nuclear weapons production. The same can be said about the threat of nuclear terrorism. Threats posed by unrecognised or undeclared nuclear states are not mentioned either. Is Russian nuclear policy dismissive of these challenges? We know that it is not, but for some reason none are mentioned in the Basic Principles.

Conditions for the Use of Nuclear Weapons

Paragraph 18 specifies that the decision on the use of nuclear weapons is the responsibility of the President of the Russian Federation. But what if he is incapacitated or seriously ill? Yes, the Russian Constitution specified that if the president is unable to perform his duties, these shall be transferred to the prime minister. But perhaps a more specific outline of decision-making procedures in a force majeure situation could have been usefully included in the Basic Principles. 

For the first time, Russia has made it publicly known that the reception of any data on a missile launch targeting the country is enough to trigger a nuclear retaliatory strike. The implication here is that it does not even matter if the missile actually carries a nuclear warhead. And this danger has a history: we know that Russia’s missile warning system was triggered falsely in 1983, and that the world was saved from a disaster only because a Russian officer – Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov – refused to take responsibility for the outbreak of a nuclear war on the basis of suspicious alert information. Who can guarantee that today’s officers will act in a similar vein? 

Interestingly, the new document also specifies that Russian nuclear deterrence policies are based – among other things – on the assessment of its defence capabilities in the context of the protection of such countries as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Although not novel, such a definition remains highly debatable, for the inclusion of any non-nuclear countries in Russia’s nuclear planning threatens escalation. It also contradicts Russia’s declaratory policies. For instance, Russia argues against the deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear NATO countries. But, while it does not deploy its own nuclear weapons on the territory of the Collective Security Treaty Organization countries, it effectively declares that these countries are free to include Russia's nuclear weapons in their defence policy planning. 

Another declared reason for the potential use of nuclear weapons is in response to aggression with the use of conventional weapons, leading to a situation that threatens Russia’s very existence. This thesis has been repeated in a variety of documents, but still remains unclear. What is meant by the ‘threat to the state’s existence’? This is a pertinent question that requires further clarification. 

Press Secretary of the President Dmitry Peskov explained the Basic Principles by claiming that Russia will not use nuclear weapons first. However, three out of four reasons for the potential use of nuclear weapons as described in the latest document are not de facto nuclear threats, so the implication must be that Russia could, nevertheless, be ready to initiate a nuclear strike. 

The latest Basic Principles document includes concepts which are too nebulous, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Sadly, therefore, its publication has not made Russia's nuclear policy any clearer, safer or more predictable. All it has done is leave us with many questions. 

Maxim Starchak is an expert on nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Canada.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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