The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian ‘De-Escalation:’ A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem


There is a growing certainty in the West that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate”  nuclear strategy, which lowers the bar for nuclear weapons use to a terrifyingly low level.  Importantly, it’s referenced as fact in the Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review , which argues that the United States itself therefore needs new low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia at lower levels of conflict. But the evidence of a dropped threshold for Russian nuclear employment is weak. Moreover, even if this was Russia’s doctrine, a shift to more American reliance on lower-yield nuclear weapons would be the wrong solution to the problem.

Understanding Russian Doctrine

What do people mean when they say “escalate to de-escalate?” The words themselves are not particularly helpful. Any action that is neither a perfectly symmetrical nor smaller response to adversary action is escalation. Any threat (nuclear or otherwise) to raise the costs of conflict is a threat of escalation. And countries both escalate and threaten to do so fairly regularly as they seek to convince adversaries to rethink plans. The fact is that most escalation is intended to, well, de-escalate.

Western analysts have developed a range of descriptions of Russian nuclear strategy that all fall, with varying degrees of consistency and contradiction, under the “escalate to de-escalate” umbrella. The new NPR and political scientist Matthew Kroenig hold that Russia intends to use nuclear weapons early in a conflict to attain an advantageous battlefield outcome. So does current Pentagon official Elbridge Colby. Juri Luik and Tomas Jermalavicius believe Russia would turn to nuclear weapons in the face of imminent battlefield defeat: e.g., to make up for conventional inferiority in a conflict with the NATO alliance. Evelyn Farkas holds that Russia simply likes escalation, nuclear and otherwise.

The notion that Russia might use nuclear weapons on the battlefield may originate in arguments in a 1999 paper published in the Russian military journal Voennaia Mysl. The authors, military officers and analysts V. I. Levshin, A. V. Nedelin, and M. E. Sosnovskii, posited that the use of nuclear weapons in a heretofore conventional conflict could demonstrate credibility and convince the adversary to stand down for fear of further escalation. The argument for more nuclear steps on the escalation ladder has been made more recently as well. It was even promised by a senior Russian official prior to the release of a new military doctrine almost a decade ago. However, neither that doctrine nor the one that followed it in 2014 (the most recent) in fact lowers the nuclear use threshold. As one of us has argued previously, the official statements, followed by a doctrine that did not deliver on them, suggest that proponents of a lowered threshold ultimately lost a bureaucratic fight. To this day, Russian “escalation” advocates occasionally publish an article, still hoping to change the policy — but continue to fail.

Nor does Russian doctrine call for the use of nuclear weapons if Moscow is losing a conventional conflict. To the contrary, military doctrine clearly states that nuclear weapons will be used only in response to an adversary using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction and/or “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” One can argue what does and does not qualify as existential jeopardy, but the scenarios in which Western analysts envision Russian nuclear escalation — most of which involve ending a conventional conflict — seem to fall short by most definitions.

In the past, Russia’s bar for nuclear use has been both higher and lower. In 1993, Moscow dropped the no-first-use pledge it inherited from the Soviet Union. In 2000, however, following the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia, Russia’s new military doctrine allowed for first use in case of large-scale conventional aggression against Russia or its allies. It is plausible that at this time, plans indeed looked something like “escalate to de-escalate.” But soon after that, proponents of reliance on nuclear weapons found their views eclipsed by Russian government decisions to instead invest in conventional forces. At the time, this was mainly because Russia believed most of its battles would be smaller-scale. Today, however, Russia is increasingly confident that its conventional capabilities can play at least some of the strategic deterrence roles historically played by nuclear weapons.

A Secret Plan to Escalate?

Those who believe in a lowered Russian threshold for nuclear use thus believe that Russia’s formal doctrine is intentionally disingenuous. Indeed, speculation about a secret annex to the doctrine that clandestinely lowers the nuclear threshold abounds. But as Kristin ven Bruusgaard has pointed out in in War on the Rocks, if Russia’s goal is deterrence, a stated strategy of restraint at odds with a real strategy of escalation seems counterproductive. Deterrence works best when the adversary understands which actions will trigger an undesirable response.

Three categories of evidence are offered to support the argument that Russia’s true nuclear threshold today is lower than its doctrine indicates: exercises, capability, and rhetoric. Like other nuclear states, Russia runs exercises that involve nuclear weapons. The vast majority of these test strategic readiness, command and control, and interoperability. In a handful of recent cases, various sources have reported that nuclear use was simulated in otherwise conventional Russian exercises, supposedly boosting the evidence for “escalate to de-escalate.” It does not, however, appear that scenarios for these exercises fit the model of a small-scale nuclear strike early in a conflict—as one of us has argued in the past. If one believes the strikes happened, conditions of a battlefield defeat posing an existential threat to the state are more plausible. However, as Bruno Tertrais explains, the evidence for simulated nuclear use in large conventional exercises is itself not fully convincing. Importantly, Russia’s most recent large-scale military exercise focused on its Western flank, Zapad 2017, did not have any evident nuclear strike component, despite positing a conflict with the NATO alliance.

Then there’s Russian capability, specifically smaller-scale, shorter-range nuclear capabilities suitable for the battlefield. Russia maintains a substantial legacy arsenal of nonstrategic weapons, which some may believe suggests a willingness to use them. Moreover, in recent years, Moscow has emphasized the development of new warfighting systems that can be deployed with either nuclear or conventional firepower, the oft-touted Iskander being one example. Russia is also working on hypersonic systems. Finally, the “accidental” leak of plans (in the form of a presentation slide) for a nuclear torpedo in 2015 fueled speculation that Russia is thinking creatively about nuclear warfighting (although the destructive power of the purported weapon would surely have strategic, not merely “de-escalatory,” effects).

Some may argue that capability is evidence enough of possible “escalate to de-escalate” plans, and the West should therefore respond in kind. This is wrong, for two reasons: First, weapons can be used for all sorts of things, and one cannot plan for all possible contingencies — only those that seem plausible. Russia could also, in principle, plan to set off all of its nuclear weapons at once, or fire some of them into space. If a possible strategy is not supported by the evidence, it should not drive planning.

Second, the argument that capabilities prove intent works both ways. The United States also has low-yield nuclear capabilities (and will have more if proponents have their way). Should Russia therefore expect the United States to use nuclear weapons first if American conventional forces were losing, say in a fight against Russia over Ukraine? Indeed, such an approach would be consistent with the American doctrine outlined in the new Nuclear Posture Review.

But while the review may make this scenario less ludicrous than it was in the past, Russia would still be dangerously paranoid to base its planning on the possibility. There is no evidence of U.S. plans to start an offensive war against a major nuclear power like Russia or China, much less to use a preemptive nuclear strike to “de-escalate” a conventional conflict once it went wrong.

So what is Russia’s very large nonstrategic arsenal for, and why is it emphasizing dual-use systems? First, as regards the nonstrategic arsenal as a whole, Russia is quite simply loath to give up something it has a lot of without getting something else in return. Second, Moscow knows that its nuclear capabilities make Brussels and Washington nervous. Russians did not discuss a nuclear role for the Iskander—and, indeed, rejected the possibility—until the Western press started describing the system as dual-capable. To be blunt, if not reassuring, Moscow has noticed that an emphasis on dual-capable systems keeps the West off-balance, and sees that as a clear benefit.

This brings us to the last category of evidence for a clandestine lowered threshold: Russian rhetoric. While some Russian pundits recklessly talk of turning countries to ash, senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have been far more careful with their threats. Putin may mention that the Crimea crisis could, in some contingencies, have led him to place nuclear weapons on alert. However, this never happened, and it is something of a stretch to interpret that as meaning he would have used a tactical nuclear weapon to end a conventional conflict. Moreover, in the face of recent nuclear rhetoric from America’s own president, the comments Putin has made seem almost circumspect.

Putin’s rhetoric is meant not to signal plans to use nuclear weapons recklessly, but rather to remind any who may have forgotten that Russia is a nuclear weapons state. While this is prospectively destabilizing, it does not indicate a deep occult doctrine, much less a doctrine that has been consistently and publicly rejected. Russian rhetoric reflects the fact that Russia, much like the Soviet Union before it, sees NATO posing a threat that needs to be deterred. Moscow continues to believe, and Russian generals in private conversations emphasize, that any conventional conflict with NATO risks rapid escalation without “de-escalation” — into all-destroying nuclear war. It must therefore be avoided at all costs. This logic is consistent  with that put forward by American scholars who have argued that nuclear weapons kept the peace during the Cold War. The success of the nuclear peace, in this view, lay in the threat of extreme escalation, not the bespoke step-by-step deterrence the Nuclear Posture Review seems to advocate and that the postulated Russian “de-escalation” doctrine would implicitly endorse.

Today, however, Russians worry that the United States may have stopped believing in the magnitude of the risk, a concern that has surely increased with the release of the new Nuclear Posture Review. Russian exercises, brinksmanship, and occasional saber-rattling are therefore meant in part to remind the United States (and NATO) that major nuclear powers do not fight wars with each other because the dangers of doing so are simply too great.

Indeed, the actual escalation scenarios often on the minds of Russians get little attention in the West. Moscow is deeply concerned about the prospect of “air-space war” against Russia along the lines of NATO campaigns in Yugoslavia in 1999 or the Iraq wars of 1990 and 2003. There also seems to be a genuine fear that a U.S. conventional counterforce strike against Russian nuclear forces will leave Russia’s second-strike capability small enough to be absorbed by eventual U.S. missile defense capabilities. Development of new, “more usable” nuclear weapons would increase those worries. And it is easy to see how even a conventional U.S. air campaign targeting command and control systems, many of which are dual-use, could be seen in Moscow as putting “the existence of the state in jeopardy” and thus allow a nuclear response.

None of this is to say that Moscow’s nuclear policies are purely defensive. There is evidence to suggest that a coercive element also exists, even if a “de-escalatory” one does not. A coercive nuclear strategy is one in which nuclear weapons are used not (or not only) to deter an adversary from taking violent action against oneself or an ally, but also to try to change their behavior, policy goals, and intentions more broadly. Dmitry Adamsky has postulated that Russia includes its nuclear capability in an integrated coercion strategy that also incorporates conventional, cyber, and information tools, but that its actual plans and weapons match neither Russia’s rhetoric nor plausible intent. Ven Bruusgaard also describes a Russian view of deterrence, nuclear and otherwise, that integrates coercion, although she does not believe the actual nuclear threshold has been lowered. The Nuclear Posture Review, too, notes the possibility of coercive Russian nuclear threats, although it seems more confident in Russia’s ability — and intent — to back them up. Neither Adamsky or Ven Bruusgaard provide specific goals for Russian coercion or evaluate if those goals were met. Meanwhile, recent U.S. government statements regarding North Korea and much of the Nuclear Posture Review itself suggest the development of a coercive element in Washington’s nuclear strategy as well. Its effectiveness, however, is no less questionable.

The Lesson for Washington

So how should the United States be responding to Russia’s nuclear strategy? The best prescription seems to be sticking to conventional weapons to fight and deter conventional wars while relying on existing robust nuclear arsenals to deter nuclear attack. Washington already has conventional capabilities to deter and counter any large-scale conventional aggression which are likely sufficient even for some categories of nuclear first strike. In addition, the United States has both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons (though we are at pains to think of any scenario that would require the use of lower-yield capabilities). Note that this equation wouldn’t change even if Moscow was hiding its true intentions. The combination of America’s conventional might and variety of nuclear options is more than enough to make anyone think twice about the advantages of trying to “escalate to de-escalate” in an actual fight with the United States.

If anything, U.S. emphasis on new lower-yield capabilities — effectively an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy of the sort many attribute to Russia — would undermine the deterrent balance, potentially triggering the very sorts of crises low-yield proponents hope to avert. This is because American development of new nuclear capabilities suitable for warfighting would call into question America’s military superiority and the sufficiency of its existing conventional and nuclear forces. Here, the United States could stand to learn from the Russian experience. Moscow is right to emphasize non-nuclear deterrence, but its rhetoric on nuclear weapons and eager pursuit of dual-use systems has limited, if not undermined, the credibility of its stated high threshold for nuclear use. Indeed, the ways in which Russia’s behavior has led others to question its strategy demonstrates that the higher and clearer one’s nuclear threshold, the better. Coercive advantages, themselves questionable, are surely not worth the risk of deterrence failure.


Olga Oliker directs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @OlyaOliker. Andrey Baklitskiy is an arms control and nonproliferation consultant at PIR Center, Moscow. You can follow him on Twitter @baklitskiy.

Image: Vitaly V. Kuzmin