The Myth of Russia’s Lowered Nuclear Threshold

September 22, 2017

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As Russia’s Zapad 2017 strategic exercise finishes, Russia-watchers and nuclear hawks will be looking for evidence of Russia’s alleged “lowered nuclear threshold”. This lowered threshold has become a key concern in recent years for Western policymakers watching Russia’s active military signaling. The official way of expressing this concern is to say that nuclear-armed regional adversaries should not think they “can escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.” That is, a regional adversary (such as Russia) will not get away with conventional aggression against U.S. allies (such as the Baltic countries) by threatening to use or using nuclear weapons.

The evidence provided for why Russia might use nuclear weapons early in a conflict falls into three categories. First, analysts point to the alleged nuclear “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine, which entails the early use of nuclear weapons in conflict to try and shock the adversary into submission. Second, they point to Russia’s large tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, ideal for early and limited nuclear strikes. Third, some argue that NATO’s inability to defend the Baltics along with Russia’s improved military capabilities provide a tempting opportunity to attempt nuclear blackmail against the alliance. Russia could quickly seize and secure key areas in the region, and consolidate her gains by threatening nuclear retaliation if NATO moves to retake the seized territories. Ideally (so goes the theory of nuclear de-escalation, anyway) this conundrum would force a weak-stomached adversary to cut its losses and sue for peace rather than risk large-scale nuclear confrontation.

Yet the evidence for a lowered Russian nuclear threshold is getting weaker by the day. First, there is very little hard evidence that de-escalation is part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine. In fact, Russia’s doctrinal statements indicate an increased rather than a decreased nuclear threshold. Second, the idea of lowering the nuclear threshold logically flows from a lack of conventional capabilities, while in fact Russia’s conventional capabilities are rapidly improving. Third, it is difficult to understand why Russia would want to pursue military adventurism that would risk all-out confrontation with a technologically advanced and nuclear-armed adversary like NATO. While opportunistic, and possibly even reckless, the Putin regime does not appear to be suicidal.

Make no mistake: Nuclear weapons remain essential to Russian national security, and the deterrent utility of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world remains significant. Nuclear weapons remain the single most important deterrent asset Russia has. Still, Russia today is less, not more likely to use nuclear weapons than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Advances in conventional and non-military capabilities have made Russia less reliant on using nuclear weapons to deal with security threats. Russia has a broader range of tools to signal her resolve to a potential adversary than she did a decade ago. Officially declared Russian doctrine over the past seven years confirms this increased range of options.

This was not always the case. Seventeen years ago, Russian leaders were indeed contemplating a lower nuclear threshold. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo made it clear that Russia’s conventional capabilities seriously lagged behind the West’s, leaving a deep and lasting impression on the Russian political and military leadership. Nuclear weapons came to be seen as Russia’s only trump card in the face of massive Western conventional (particularly air) superiority. This viewpoint produced a seminal article by Russian military theorists V. I. Levshin, A. V. Nedelin and M. E. Sosnovsky, “On the use of nuclear weapons to de-escalate military conflict”. The article explained how the limited use of nuclear weapons early in a conflict could convince an adversary of the risks associated with continuing aggression, thereby de-escalating the situation. There were several indications of a lowered nuclear threshold in this period, from the purported de-escalation strike with nuclear weapons in the 1999 Zapad exercise to the open-ended wording of the 2000 Russian military doctrine, which said nuclear weapons could be used “in situations that are critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.” Still, even at the height of perceived Russian conventional backwardness, the theory of nuclear de-escalation was never doctrinally codified or officially endorsed. Russia watchers were actively contemplating this reduced nuclear threshold at the time, but in a benign security environment, Western policymakers paid little attention to this strategy shift.

Over the next two decades, Russia’s prescriptive solutions to strategic challenges would change. Analysts still pondering the lowered Russian nuclear threshold pay too little attention to this shift, focus in part on outdated elements of Russian strategy.

Since the early 2000s, Russia’s declaratory nuclear strategy has actually become more restrictive. The current Russian military doctrine, issued in 2014, states that nuclear weapons can be used “when the very existence of the state is under threat,” compared to the more expansive conditions laid out in 2000. Nonetheless, many nuclear hawks claim that a classified document outlining nuclear deterrence strategy, which Russia retains in addition to the openly declared military doctrine, must spell out the nuclear de-escalation theory. This may be so: We have yet to see any leaked or other information on this. An alternate interpretation of the lack of official confirmation of the de-escalation theory is that this is not, in fact, a dominant aspect of Russian warfighting strategy. It would be nonsensical for the secret and public documents to blatantly contradict one another.

The nuclear de-escalation concept was also controversial inside Russia. A number of theorists questioned whether using or threatening to use nuclear weapons early on would produce the desired effect, i.e. a cessation of hostilities rather than compelling the adversary to escalate in kind. Both Russian officials and analysts emphasized that the 2000 doctrine, with its increased reliance on nuclear weapons, was intended for a transitional phase, until conventional forces and other capabilities could contribute to more effective and more credible deterrence consisting of a broader range of military and non-military options. Many observers wanted a less risky and less nuclear-focused deterrence strategy as soon as this would be viable.

By the late 2000s, discussions of “Russian strategic deterrence” had overtaken deliberations about nuclear de-escalation, and by 2010, this concept was part of the official military doctrine. The Russian strategic deterrence concept depicted the seamless integration of nuclear, conventional, and non-military capabilities to influence the adversary in times of peace, conflict, and war. The backbone of strategic deterrence was, of course, nuclear weapons. But crucially, it also entailed a range of assets, precisely in order to avoid an unhealthy dependence on nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional inferiority.

Non-nuclear deterrence involves both military and non-military assets that can convince an adversary that the costs of aggression against Russia would outweigh any benefit. These include precision strike capabilities, effective command, control, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities, effective strategic assets such as aerospace defense forces and special operations forces, information warfare capabilities, and non-military tools such as diplomatic, economic, and political instruments of influence. These non-nuclear tools would add to the combined credibility of Russian deterrence, particularly in deterring regional conflicts and emerging threats, such as color revolutions. Nuclear weapons were still central under the strategic deterrence concept, but rather than taking on an elevated role to compensate for a lack of conventional options, they shifted toward a more normalized role in deterring large-scale aggression.

By 2014, official Russian strategy documents reflected this development; the main novelty in the 2014 military doctrine was its introduction of non-nuclear deterrence: “A complex of foreign policy, military and military-technical measures aimed at preventing aggression against the Russian Federation through non-nuclear means.” At the height of Western post-Crimea stress syndrome and nuclear paranoia, the timing of this publication is interesting. If ever there was a perfect time to cement the Western perception of a Russian “madman” nuclear strategy, this would be it. The Russians missed it, opting instead for a concept that increased, rather than decreased, the requirements for nuclear use.

The more conspiracy-prone may claim this is a classic Russian diversionary tactic. The problem is that deterrence only works if your adversary actually understands what your intentions and capabilities are. Declared and non-declared nuclear doctrines that point in opposite directions not only seem absurd; they also confuse your adversary and make deterrence less effective. This is all the more reason to pay attention to the clear message in Russian official doctrine, now reflecting a deterrence concept that had been developing among Russian theorists for a decade.

Russia has been piling significant effort and resources into developing cutting-edge conventional capabilities, which further undermines the idea of a lowered threshold. Seeing the holistic Russian approach to strategic deterrence is essential for understanding the role of nuclear weapons in that strategy. The comprehensive modernization of Russia’s conventional armed forces and the development of a broad set of non-traditional tools of statecraft have enabled Russia to rely less on nuclear weapons to influence adversaries. To predict when and how Russia may use nuclear weapons, that is, Russia’s nuclear threshold, we need to understand how and when Russia may use these other tools to achieve similar goals.

The list of capabilities that give Russia increased flexibility in a potential conflict is long. The precision strike regime’s impact on Russian capabilities is by far the most significant leap providing enhanced conventional deterrence. Indeed, conventional precision strike capabilities may take over some of the tasks that Moscow previously assigned to nuclear weapons. Russian military theorists such as A. A. Protasov, V. A. Sobolevskii and V. V. Sukhorutchenko explain how conventional strategic assets could carry out demonstration strikes or strikes inflicting unacceptable damage on an enemy to force him into submission – precisely the kind of tasks nuclear weapons would carry out under a de-escalation doctrine. Although it is difficult to know whether Russian operational planning incorporates these changes, we do know that these capabilities are becoming available to Russia – should it want to use them.

Examples of the non-military tools Russia has been developing include offensive cyber capabilities, used for denial of services attacks in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, and most likely, for kinetic attacks against critical infrastructure in Ukraine. Russia’s improved information operations capabilities, as seen in the disinformation campaigns seen in several European countries, can erode the will of another state’s political leadership or population. According to Russian General Staff Chief Valeriy Gerasimov, the center of gravity in modern warfare is not the enemy troops, but the population’s willingness to fight. A combination of military and non-military pressure may be sufficient to sway this willingness without the use of nuclear weapons.

Here is the hitch: Although improved Russia conventional tools may be advantageous in that they postpone the point at which Russia introduces nuclear weapons into the fight, there are still unknowns regarding how Russia will use its nuclear weapons in all-out conflict. It’s true that Russia now has a range of options, including nuclear and conventional weapons and all other tools of statecraft, to demonstrate resolve or try to de-escalate conflict. But this doesn’t mean Russia wouldn’t still use nuclear weapons first. Its nuclear arsenal is different from those of Western countries, and its approach to the use of these weapons is different. Russia is still inferior in many areas, meaning that if it were to find itself in an all-out conflict with a technologically superior adversary, its conventional options would run out before, say, those of the United States. This may leave the Russians relying on the nuclear option.

Lastly, improved conventional capabilities may reduce Russia’s threshold for the use of force, since conventional escalation could be slower and more controlled. The broader point remains: Current Russian doctrinal developments and technological advances indicate more options and a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons in conflict.

The fixation with the alleged “lowered nuclear threshold” is a symptom of a larger challenge the West has not had to face for some time: a nuclear-armed adversary with mature capabilities and concepts designed to take advantage of Western weaknesses. Any war with Russia would be large-scale and messy, and nuclear weapons would loom large. Both sides would seek to take advantage of the other’s weaknesses; each would accuse the other of playing dirty, and both would seek victory by the means they have available. Any such confrontation could well turn into a nuclear crisis and, worst case, a large-scale nuclear war.

This is a danger that both Russia and Western countries appreciate. Indeed, Russia’s interest in averting a nuclear crisis is just as strong as the West’s. This is likely one key reason Russia is making both doctrinal and capability advances to augment nuclear deterrence with conventional assets. Russian military strategy is utility-maximizing, and the increasing variety of assets available to Russia reduces dependency on the nuclear option.

To suggest that Russia’s threshold for nuclear use has increased is not to say Russia does not actively use its nuclear arsenal for deterrent or containment purposes. Clearly, the Russian threshold for employing nuclear weapons for signaling purposes is lower than the West’s. This explains the numerous examples of what Western policymakers call irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling. While it seems prudent to make the Russians “think twice about nuclear threats,” Moscow’s saber-rattling does not equate to a lower threshold for using nuclear weapons. Russian doctrine, declaratory strategy, and strategic debate all indicate the opposite: Improved conventional and non-military capabilities will delay the point at which Russia may use nuclear weapons in conflict.


Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC, Stanford University and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London.


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