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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Russian Nuclear Doctrine

On 02 June 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the Fundamentals of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence. Until this week, the mechanism and principles of decision-making in the development and use of nuclear weapons were a state secret. This is the first such document that was published in Russia or the USSR, which implies that the Russian Federation can use nuclear weapons in response to an attack. The Ministry of Defense explained under what condition Russia can inflict a crushing blow on the enemy, including with the use of nuclear weapons.

Russia does not build its policy on the principle of "escalation for the sake of de-escalation", the NATO countries and Ukraine are talking about the possibility of a nuclear war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said 03 March 2022. According to him, the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia are described in the military doctrine. "We have it there there is no escalation for the sake of de-escalation, as Western analysts are trying to impute to us. But the talk about nuclear war is now underway. I ask you to look very carefully at the statements that were made and at the characters who made these statements," the minister said in an interview.

There are four scenarios in which Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons, that is, to go beyond nuclear deterrence.

  • obtaining reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles attacking Russia;
  • the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against Russia;
  • some impact on objects, the failure of which will lead to the disruption of the response of nuclear forces;
  • aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.

The condition is connected with the response of Russia upon receipt of information about ballistic missiles attacking its territory or the territory of its allies, the material says. This will be notified by the missile attack warning system. It is noted that the answer will follow in the case of the use of any weapons of mass destruction, both nuclear and conventional. Such aggression against the country will be defined as an attempt to "destroy Russia as a state."

Head of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Major General Andrei Sterlin and leading researcher at the Center for Military Strategic Studies of the Military Academy of the General Staff, Doctor of Military Sciences Colonel Alexander Khryapin wrote about this in an article in the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper on 07 Augsut 2020.

The end of Cold War prompted a reversal of roles in the attitudes of Washington and Moscow towards nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the West built up a nuclear posture to counter perceived Soviet conventional superiority. After the Cold War, Moscow eventually came to rely on a large and robust nuclear posture to counter perceived Western superiority in everything else - conventional weapons technology, economic resources, and so forth.

Moscow has seemingly concluded that it required not only nuclear parity with the USA in strategic nuclear forces, but also theater and operational tactical parity with all the other nuclear states of the Eastern Hemisphere combined. The United States, safely ensconced in the Western Hemisphere, can draw a distinction between long range "strategic" weapons that threaten the homeland, and shorter range "theater" or "tactical" weapons which do not. Russia does not have this luxury - all nuclear weapons pose a strategic threat to the motherland.

In 1993 the General Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation were approved. The most distinct departure of the new Russian nuclear doctrine from the Soviet one was Russia‘s abandonment of the principle of no-first-use (introduced by Leoinid Brezhnev in 1982).

The General Provisions declared that “Russia will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state that is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except when: a) such a state being allied to a nuclear-weapon state perpetrates an attack against the Russian Federation, its territory, the Armed Forces and other military forces or against its allies; b) such a state, jointly with a nuclear-weapon state, perpetrates or supports an invasion or an armed attack against the Russian Federation, its territory, Armed Forces and other military forces or against its allies”.

This wording dated back to the end of the 1960s; it is associated with the efforts to strengthen the regime of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by providing security guarantees to non-nuclear-weapon states. In one way or another, all NATO members, China and Japan as nuclear states or the allies of nuclear powers, the Baltic states, and Central and Eastern European countries, should they join NATO or WEU (Western European Union), fell under these categories.

Few people in the West took the old Soviet doctrine of "no-first use" seriously. They understood Russia‘s new nuclear doctrine to reflect Moscow‘s intention to rely mainly upon nuclear deterrence in order to compensate for its conventional weakness and keep its status of a world power. These changes were a clear message to them, especially to the Baltic states and the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) that they would become exceptions if they joined NATO, or the WEU, or supported any Western intervention in Russia or the near abroad.

The text of the 2000 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation included new conditions for the use of nuclear weapons: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack using nuclear and other types of weapons of mass distraction, as well as in response to large-scale aggression with conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation”.

Under the Obama administration, the United States sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and set a goal to achieve a nuclear-free world. According to Alexei Arbatov, at that time Washington was focusing on missile defense and high-precision non-nuclear long-range systems, i.e. on defensive and offensive non-nuclear means. The Americans offered Russia deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Moscow refused, arguing that the United States was seeking to devalue Russian nuclear deterrence — the basis of Russian security and status.

Russian nuclear policies were officially represented in the new Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation approved by President Dmitry Medvedev on February 5, 2010 and in the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation through 2020 approved by the Russian President on May 12, 2009.

The major tasks facing Russia in terms of deterring and preventing armed conflicts include “maintaining sufficient level of strategic stability and nuclear deterrence capability”. According to the Military Doctrine, the condition for the country’s using nuclear weapons is as follows: “the Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack against itself or its allies with the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened”.

To this effect, the document set the task to maintain the composition and state of combat and mobilizational readiness and training of the strategic nuclear forces, their infrastructure and command and control systems at a level guaranteeing the infliction of the assigned level of damage on an aggressor under any conditions of war initiation. Other tasks include maintaining nuclear deterrence potential at the prescribed level and ensuring introduction of up-to-date systems of weapons, military and specialized equipment to the strategic nuclear forces.

The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, which has sections covering the potential use of nuclear weapons, says nothing about the power of the nuclear weapons that might be utilized, nor is there any mention of warheads with either high or “low” yields in TNT equivalents. Those sections of the official doctrine do not even categorize Russian nuclear weapons into strategic vs. tactical varieties. Two circumstances are listed as a basis for their potential use: the first — only in response to the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation and/or its allies; and the second — in the event of aggression against Russia that employs conventional weapons to the point that “the very existence of the state is threatened.” In other words, only reciprocal actions are permitted in either case.

Russia’s new Military Doctrine of 2010 changed the phrase that used to read “in response to large-scale aggression with conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation” to read “in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened”. The latest wording, at least on the declarative level, was seen by some to have raised the threshold of using nuclear weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin December 26, 2014 approved the new military doctrine of Russia. According to the new version of the doctrine, Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies. The military activity of the NATO Alliance in recent years on the territory of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, in the three Baltic States, as well as the events in Ukraine, showed that Russia was simply obliged to make some changes to its military doctrine, which has remained unchanged since 2010.

According to the 2014 version of the military doctrine, the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons when threatened the very existence of the state. The 2014 Russian military doctrine accepted the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in response to an adversary’s conventional attack, if it poses an existential threat to Russia. The doctrine was interpreted by many experts in the West as an "escalate to de-escalate" policy. In December 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia must strengthen its nuclear forces. Maintaining and modernizing the nuclear forces will be a key priority for the Russian military in 2016, according to the Chair of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov.

The Russian military doctrine does not have the concept of “extended nuclear deterrence”, like the United States and some NATO member countries. The concept of “extended nuclear deterrence” as part of global offensive nuclear deterrence means dispersing nuclear weapons outside the US and deploying them in countries that do not have their own national nuclear forces, such as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, a number of NATO diplomats and US military experts drew attention to Russia's nuclear arsenal expansions and modernization as well as claimed that the country is working on combining hybrid war with nuclear weapons deployment. "What is disturbing, and I would say destabilizing is… the discussion they [Russian leaders] are having over their plan to escalate in order to de-escalate," US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), STRATCOM Commander Admiral Cecil Haney said in a speech at the Center for Strategic International Studies 22 January 2016. Haney explained the US position that "any adversary… that thinks they can escalate out of a general conflict has to think again." Such a strategy, he noted, "will be extremely costly."

Russia stressed to its four Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear state partners that claims of it lowering its threshold for nuclear weapon use and increasing its military doctrine's reliance on nuclear weapons were untrue. According to Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry's Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Vladimir Leontyev, Russia's military doctrine does not say much on nuclear weapons and the clauses that are there have not been changed in two editions in a row. "At the conference, where doctrines were also discussed, we talked about the basic theses of the Russian military doctrine, including those related to nuclear weapons… We stressed that these theses have not changed for two military doctrine editions in a row. The thesis that our reliance on nuclear weapons is seemingly intensified is incorrect, to say the least," Leontyev said 17 September 2016.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in February 2018 that the country would only consider using nuclear weapons in response to an attack involving nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in response to a non-nuclear assault that endangered the survival of the Russian nation.

In his now famous address to lawmakers in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated that under Russian nuclear doctrine, nuclear weapons may be used only in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia, or an act of conventional aggression so severe that it threatens the existence of the Russian state. "As such, I see it as my duty to announce the following: Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any other range, will be considered a nuclear attack on the country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences," the head of state emphasized.

Amid NATO's deployments ever-closer to Russia's borders, the US's construction of its anti-missile shield in Romania and Poland, and Washington's plans to spend over $1 trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal, Russia's Defense Ministry has justified its own new or upgraded strategic weapons as tools meant "to enhance [the] defense capacity of Russia" and "prevent any aggression against [the] country and its allies."

Alexei Arbatov also noted that the core of the new 2018 American nuclear doctrine is the selective, limited use of nuclear weapons in response to the selective, limited use of such weapons by Russia. Previously, this was not emphasized. Now the document says that Russia has the concept of “escalation for the sake of de-escalation,” and in response to this, the US is modernizing its nuclear triad (intercontinental missiles, strategic submarines and bombers). The Americans want to convince Russia that any escalation of the usual conflict will not force the West to surrender, that it will respond, and an escalation will begin, which will cost everyone much. “This is the most serious innovation, which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous. It lowers the nuclear threshold, creates the possibility of nuclear war, even in the case of a local, accidental non-nuclear military collision, whether in Syria or in the Baltic or Black Sea region. We just need to pay serious attention to this,” said Arbatov. In turn, Yevgeny Buzhinsky is convinced that the conflict with the use of nuclear weapons will end in the exchange of strategic strikes between Russia and the United States. “For me, this is absolutely obvious. Any military man understands that it is impossible to stop a nuclear conflict!”, the expert noted.

A committee of the Russian parliament's upper house recommended to the Kremlin to review the nation's rules for the use of nuclear weapons. They said participants in 21 November 2018 hearings organized by the Federation Council's Committee for Defense and Security suggested that the presidential Security Council should draft a new version of the nuclear doctrine. The lawmakers said in their nonbinding recommendations cited by the news agencies that the revised version of the doctrine should, in particular, spell out a response to a hypothetical use of hypersonic and other nonnuclear strategic weapons against Russia.

The proposals come two days after President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of top military officials to discuss a response to U.S. threats to pull out of a key nuclear arms treaty. The U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty "wouldn't be left without an answer from our side," Putin said at the November 19 meeting in Moscow, adding that the Kremlin was ready to discuss the matter with Washington.

In general, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is possible, as the official representatives of the Russian Federation have repeatedly stressed, only in the context of general and complete disarmament, while ensuring equal and indivisible security for all, including those possessing nuclear weapons, as provided for by the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

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Page last modified: 03-03-2022 17:30:39 ZULU