Resurgent Russia: Understanding NATO’s Nuclear Problem

Focusing solely on the threat stemming from Russia’s assertive nuclear posture and ambitious nuclear modernisation programme, may blind NATO to the wider challenge of countering Russian influence. The Alliance will need to understand the Kremlin’s full-spectrum approach to warfare in order to counter it, particularly in a Europe that seems more divided than ever.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, relations between NATO and Russia have reached their lowest point since the Cold War. The relationship is often framed in terms of conflict and competition, although both actors claim to desire the same thing: the projection of stability in Europe. Despite the apparent mutual interest, conceptions of stability differ greatly between NATO and Russia. In turn, this difference is impacting the way in which nuclear weapons are seen by both sides.

Not only is Russia investing heavily in modernising its nuclear arsenal, but Moscow has resumed war-gaming with nuclear weapons and has ratcheted up its rhetoric with explicit references to nuclear use. This includes identifying Denmark as a potential nuclear target and protecting Russian interests in Crimea with direct nuclear threats.

The West views this nuclear brandishing as destabilising, and the support of rebels in Ukraine as a violation of the established order. If Russia claims to desire stability how might we explain these actions, and what role does nuclear weapons really play for Russia?

A resurgent Russia

Russia’s recent weakness is the exception in its long history, not the norm. Immediately following the Cold War, Russia underwent huge upheavals – not just militarily as it withdrew from now-independent states, but also economically and socially. It faced a civil war in Chechnya and revolutions on its doorstep. Russia’s international position diminished to the point where talk of “a world without Russia” became normal. From the Russian perspective not only did the West take advantage of its momentary weakness and expand into its near abroad, the West also fuelled instability by supporting democratisation.

Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and its rhetoric on nuclear weapons is a response to this. Instead of promoting instability, Moscow believes these actions increase border security and minimises the volatility on Moscow’s doorstep. Intervention into Ukraine is justified by Russia’s economic, military and moral authority as a great power – similar to US interventions in South America during the 1970s, or European interventions in post-colonial Africa. For Russia it also means that the West will no longer be able to pursue their own destabilising revolutions on its borders and the limiting of Western influence in areas such as Georgia and Ukraine.

On a practical level, following the end of the Cold War, Russia’s military was in disarray. To offset any threats faced while its forces reorganised, Moscow removed its Soviet-era ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons – effectively declaring a willingness to use nuclear weapons to mitigate regional threats. Russia has since sought to increase its capabilities and today possesses a continuous spectrum of force and escalation spanning local, regional and strategic levels.

Although much of Russia’s modernisation efforts of its nuclear arsenal can be explained by the traditional life-cycle of military hardware, the new capabilities sought by Moscow increase the survivability of arsenals but also give Moscow the ability to overcome missile defence systems and the capability to rapidly increase the number of operational nuclear weapons if needed. A prime example of this is the introduction of road- and train-mobile missiles (such as the RS-24 and Barguzin) which are harder to detect and destroy and are capable of carrying multiple warheads that can both bypass and overwhelm missile defences. Alongside this, Russia is developing hypersonic weapons which are designed to overcome missile defences, as well as a new advanced class of submarines (the Borey-class) and associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

For regional threats, Russia maintains a policy of “escalating to de-escalate” whereby, if considered necessary, Moscow would deploy small nuclear weapons to de-escalate a situation on its borders. In addition, as it relates to strategic threats beyond Russia’s immediate borders, Moscow is investing heavily in modernising its rocket forces. The two processes complement each other: Small nuclear weapons signals a willingness to launch larger ones, while strategic forces provides confidence that any ‘limited nuclear war’ will remain limited. Rather than McNamara’s “full spectrum deterrence” in which actors seek to ensure that a credible nuclear response exists at all stages of the escalation ladder, Russia’s current doctrine has elements of both asymmetric escalation and assured retaliation.

Clearly Moscow hopes conflict will not reach the point of nuclear war, and its primary concept of victory relates to its conventional forces. To achieve this, Russia has reorganised its armed forces and invested heavily in precision strike capabilities such as new cruise missiles and air-delivered munitions.

This is complemented by other areas of influence, including the use of cyber, economics and control of energy supply. While these were once sources of Russian instability, today Moscow seeks to integrate them into a coercive framework and these capabilities now form part of Russia’s overall strategic aims.

With the maturing of Russia’s military, some hoped that nuclear weapons would become less important to Moscow’s military planners over time; instead we have seen nuclear aspects integrated further into conventional domains. Although it is still evolving, in short, Russia has developed a full spectrum of means – nuclear and non-nuclear, traditional and non-traditional – to exert influence and achieve its strategic toolkit.

NATO’s Reaction

Despite prospects for renewed co-operation coming in early March, NATO-Russia relations have declined considerably over the past three years. The NATO Joint Communiqué following the Wales summit 2014 spoke of “partnership” with Russia and regretted that although “the conditions for that relationship do not currently exist… Political channels of communication… remain open”.

Just two years later in Warsaw the Communiqué was much more downbeat and deemed “Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force” a source of instability. It cited these as fundamentally challenging the Alliance, damaging Euro-Atlantic security, and threatening NATO’s long-standing goal of a whole, free and peaceful Europe.

At the beginning of 2017 I was fortunate enough to participate in a NATO Dialogue. When speaking to practitioners, they are keen to emphasise that NATO is and remains a nuclear alliance; and that nuclear weapons continue to be the bedrock of NATO’s security.

For deterrence the Alliance maintains a posture based on “an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defence capabilities”. However, the emergence of Russian hybrid warfare has posed a challenge to NATO and its previously calibrated responses, thus in this sense the Alliance is still rediscovering its strategic culture.

Although it may be tempting to suggest that NATO develop a matching doctrine, unlike Russia (which is a single actor), NATO is an alliance whose members are guided by consensus and have different resources, capabilities and priorities. In addition to alliance dynamics, NATO members are publicly committed to democratic norms and containing informational warfare through means such as “troll armies” runs counter to these values.

As such, the Alliance has thus far restricted itself to increased troop rotations, alliance cohesion and assurances. While practitioners see consensus as a source of strength, critics suggest this limits the effectiveness of the Alliance and previous experiences give us “reason to worry if NATO ever has to maintain solidarity and combat effectiveness in a fair fight”.

Given that NATO remains a nuclear alliance and can already inflict unacceptable losses on Russia, focusing solely on the nuclear may blind us to the wider challenges of countering Russian influence, particularly in a Europe that seems more divided than ever. Rather than escalate through placing nuclear weapons closer to the edge of NATO, restraint can in fact demonstrate a welcome commitment to stability.


Karl Dewey is a Proliferation Editor for Jane’s Intelligence Review.


Explore our related content