Revelations about Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy
On June 2, the Kremlin published an unprecedented six-page document entitled Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence. Although this statement of Russia’s official position on nuclear deterrence policy does not overturn current military doctrine, it is notable for identifying the range of threats that Russia seeks to deter with its nuclear forces, clarifying Russia’s approach to nuclear deterrence, and articulating the conditions under which Moscow might escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Given Russia’s nuclear stockpile of approximately 4,310 warheads and the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West, such issues are vital to global peace and security.
The set of public statements, or declaratory policy, on nuclear deterrence matters — especially for American analysts — because it gives insight into how the role of Russian nuclear weapons has evolved over time in response to technological innovation, international challenges to the security of Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, and internal debates in Moscow over the details of military policy and how best to ensure a credible nuclear deterrent posture. Despite sharing some similarities with the deterrence policies of the United States — such as maintaining a nuclear triad to address threats to the survivability of land-based forces and considering limited nuclear options to deter further escalation or de-escalate a conflict — important elements of Russia’s approach to nuclear deterrence are unique.
Analysts should read Principles of State Policy extremely carefully and with a Russian lens. Importantly, Russia experts should appreciate that Moscow is animated by a persistent fear that Washington seeks to neutralize Russia’s strategic deterrent. As a result, the military is fixated on preemption to prevent a disabling first strike, even as the political leadership has traditionally resisted pre-delegating nuclear authority. The document also shows that Russian nuclear doctrine has focused more on ensuring deterrence and less on nuclear coercion for aggressive aims.
American Views on Russian Nuclear Policy
American strategists need to understand how the contents of Principles of State Policy fit into the larger body of evidence about Russia’s nuclear decision calculus. As a start, the new document indirectly addresses Western concerns that Russian strategy embraces limited nuclear employment in future regional conflicts to signal its resolve and “compel an end to a conventional conflict” that Russia starts. In other words, Moscow would seek to “escalate to de-escalate” “a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”
U.S. policymakers mistakenly consider this de-escalation concept in primarily coercive terms by which Russia lowers the nuclear threshold to consolidate battlefield success. Then, they elevate this interpretation into an ominous component of Russian military doctrine that must be countered, as reflected in the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and other official statements. In fact, “escalate to de-escalate” and other concepts for controlling escalation have been discussed for decades in Russian military journals. However, the phrase appears nowhere in official Russian doctrine. Though Principles is consistent with the Russian preference to leverage the risk and uncertainty of potential nuclear escalation to enhance its deterrence of adversaries, it avoids language that would reinforce U.S. misconceptions.
Experts have speculated about a classified document with almost the exact same title, “Principles of State Policy in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence Until 2020,” that was approved by then President Dmitry Medvedev in Feb. 2010 on the same day the military doctrine was issued. That document, unlike either the 2020 Principles or official Russian government doctrine from both 2010 and 2014, reportedly contained references to nuclear preemption. The latest version of official Russian military doctrine, which was released in 2014, states that
The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.
One reason for speculation that the secret doctrine was different from the published text was the 2010 debate on the subject within the Russian leadership. Preemption advocates like Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian security council, and Gen. Yuri Baluevsky, a former chief of the general staff, saw preemption as a way to counter the threat of America’s conventional prompt global strike capabilities. Detractors, including Col. Gen. Viktor Esin, a former chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces, didn’t see preemption as credible in that role. A decade ago, Russian opponents of preemption apparently won the battle over the 2010 official doctrine. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what was in the secret variant and whether there is a secret version of the new Principles document.
Troublesome incremental changes in Russian nuclear declaratory policy continued to appear, notably in the 2017 naval doctrine, which contends that “demonstrating the willingness and determination to employ force, including non-strategic nuclear weapons” strengthens deterrence in conditions of an escalating military conflict. In 2014 during the Ukraine conflict, President Vladimir Putin and other officials reinvigorated the public discussion on nuclear operational policy and simultaneously launched a nuclear saber rattling campaign to signal Russian national interests while preserving ambiguity about how far their actions would go. Putin again underlined the threat posed by a disarming strike that uses non-nuclear, high-precision weapons against key sites of Russia’s military infrastructure, telling a meeting of the Valdai Club in 2015 that such weapons are “comparable in their effect to nuclear weapons.”
Principles enumerates similar dangers that drive Russia’s need for a nuclear deterrent — none of which are surprising or new. Besides global strike capabilities, the document lists the possession and proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the deployment of missile defenses, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, combat drones, and other nuclear-capable systems near Russia, including U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe that are part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.
In Clause 10, Principles also essentially reiterates the language of the 2014 military doctrine, stating that nuclear deterrence is ensured when Russian nuclear weapons, support forces and facilities, as well as command and control systems are maintained at a level of readiness that “guarantees the infliction of unacceptable damage on an aggressor in whatever situation.” Thus, there is no downshifting to a less demanding requirement, such as assured retaliation, for strategic nuclear forces.
What’s New in Russian Nuclear Strategy?
What is new and most striking in Russian nuclear strategy is how Principles handles the possible employment of nuclear weapons if deterrence fails. Section III on “Conditions under which the Russian Federation Transitions to the Use of Nuclear Weapons,” especially Clause 19, specifies four conditions that could lead to nuclear use. The first such condition is the possession of reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles to attack Russian territory and/or its allies. This situation opens the possibility for Moscow to launch Russian nuclear weapons on warning of a nuclear attack instead of delaying retaliatory action until confirmation that targets are destroyed or alternatively launching while an attack is underway. Developed during the Cold War, the “launch on warning” option was considered by both sides as a means to strengthen nuclear deterrence by helping to guarantee retaliation. But, if adopted, launch on warning is also associated with the significant risk of false warning alerts and an accidental launch. The second condition is the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against Russian territory and/or its allies. Next, the third condition has to do with actions taken against Russian critical government or military installations by an adversary that would have the effect of disrupting Russia’s capacity for nuclear retaliation. Finally, the fourth condition in which Russia could employ nuclear weapons is in the event of aggression against Russia using conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state.
Putin and other officials have hinted at launch on warning, but such statements have not previously appeared in official documents. Even then, it is unclear whether the leadership really means launch on warning or the current posture of launch while under attack, supported by the semi-automatic Perimeter system. This system reportedly involves a degree of pre-delegation of authority to ensure that decapitation does not prevent retaliation. The third subclause of Principles’ Clause 19 is also noteworthy as it raises concerns about threats to the nuclear enterprise that are not specified but likely include cyber attacks against command and control infrastructure and/or attempted leadership decapitation.
It’s possible that the debate over a launch on warning and preemptive strikes is not resolved by the new document. It’s also possible that Moscow is concerned about potential U.S. missile deployments in Europe. With the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Col. Gen. Esin predicted that the United States would return ground-based nuclear missiles to Europe and, because of such missiles’ short flight time to Russian targets of about six minutes, Moscow would “abandon the doctrine of retaliatory strike by ‘launch under attack’ [otvetno-vstrechnyy udar] and move to the ‘doctrine of preemptive strike’ [uprezhdayushchiy udar].” It is curious that Principles only specifies launch on warning for ballistic missile attacks. Is this phrasing intended to fuel Western opposition against the return of Pershing II or similar intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Europe, or is it related to Russia’s geography problem that constrains warning time when U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles are launched from the Atlantic Ocean or closer to Russia?
In 2019, the United States tested both a ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missile and ballistic missile, and dismissed Putin’s proposed freeze on missile deployments (preserving about 100 of Russia’s non-INF Treaty compliant SSC-8/Novator 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles). However, the United States disavows intentions to return nuclear intermediate-range missiles to Europe. Both sides are also developing conventional and nuclear prompt global attack capabilities, including hypersonic weapons that similarly raise concerns about crisis stability given their greater maneuverability to change direction and avoid defenses. Some experts worry that such weapons may lead states fearing a nuclear attack in a crisis to respond promptly on warning — or even preemptively.
Principles also mentions the role of “uncertainty” in deterrence, which — at one level — is evidently a factor underlying Putin’s nuclear threats. With respect to uncertainty in ensuring a survivable second-strike capability and nuclear command, control, and communications, both Soviet history and U.S. experience are again instructive. Although it invested in a more survivable triad, Washington has faced the vulnerability of its land-based forces and, like Moscow, seeks to maintain a resilient nuclear command, control, and communications system despite myriad challenges, including some from new Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons. American policymakers historically debated a launch on warning posture — especially for U.S. ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles — yet resolved, according to a Reagan administration nuclear employment policy directive, not to irrevocably rely on a launch on warning posture but to “leave Soviet planners with strong uncertainty as to how we might actually respond to such warning.”
From the standpoint of national policy, Principles, which was issued by presidential decree (ukaz), is a reminder that Putin is the most actively engaged Russian leader on nuclear weapons since Nikita Khrushchev. Putin is far more successful than Khrushchev in rebuilding Russian military and nuclear capabilities without breaking the economy or losing power while also perhaps the most nuclear attentive current leader of any contemporary nuclear weapons state. Principles reminds us that, like the American president, the Russian president has the responsibility to decide the use of nuclear weapons. Putin is unusually blunt in signaling Russia’s willingness to exploit its nuclear strength and declares the active deterrent relevance of nuclear weapons such as in the event that the United States or NATO attempt to use force to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This coercive form of nuclear signaling reflects the Russian emphasis on deterring major powers by means of intimidation and the punishing use of Russian nuclear forces.
Russian Nuclear Forces
Putin has presided over Russia’s most extensive and costly nuclear modernization program since the Cold War, which has led to the development of six new nuclear systems designed to ensure a robust deterrent and capabilities for multiple contingencies. Russia’s exotic new systems — especially the Avangard nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicle that will sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile and the multi-megaton Poseidon, a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed torpedo with transoceanic range — while not necessarily designed to achieve greater destruction than the current arsenal, are not counted under New START Treaty limits but vividly challenge assertions of U.S. nuclear primacy. They give credence not only to deterrence but also to Putin’s demands to “listen to us now” and take Russian interests seriously. For reassurance, which reflects the other side of the coin that nuclear war is best avoided, Putin embraces the reality of mutual assured destruction, and disavows that Russia would attempt all-out preventive nuclear strikes — but hasn’t ruled out more limited preemptive strikes.
What about a potential Russian fait accompli operation against a U.S. ally or partner that Moscow could terminate with the limited use of low-yield nuclear weapons in accordance with the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” concept? Current and former Western officials infer aggressive intentions from increased Russian deployments of tactical and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, including the SSC-8, from Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, and from their own confirmation bias in reading Russian military statements about nuclear use for de-escalation. Indeed, the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review asserts that “Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit nuclear first-use threats.” American conflict scenarios start with Russian aggression and shift to the Russian first use of nuclear weapons in either demonstration or small strikes to coerce NATO to abandon allies.
Given Russia’s large and growing stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons, providing credible response options to deter limited nuclear attacks is a prudent measure. One such response option involves modifying some W76 Trident II warheads to include survivable low-yield W76-2 warheads on U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarines. These modifications, which do not increase the total U.S. nuclear stockpile, strengthen the package of available limited nuclear options to demonstrate U.S. credibility and will to respond to even limited Russian nuclear first use, helping ensure that attempted Russian aggression will fail.
On the other hand, U.S. statements and analyses about Russian writings on escalation are frequently problematic or incorrect, relying on quotations out of context or Russian military debates about proposed changes to doctrine. Of course, Russians do not write about how they will seize the Baltic states and lob a few nuclear missiles at NATO allies to convince them to abandon the fight; at the same time, there is no expectation embedded in Russia’s strategy that they can escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, as U.S. officials frequently allege. Rather, a willingness to escalate is deemed essential for deterrence by providing a means to impose costs, increasing the risk of what comes next, or denying the opponent his objective. The deterrent logic of resorting to escalation with the limited use of nuclear weapons could be to compel the United States and its allies to back down when Russian critical assets are under aerospace attack, as noted in Clause 19. Other than demonstrating a readiness and resolve for deterrence, official Russian doctrine does not specify how Moscow might employ its non-strategic nuclear weapons.
With this detail in mind, Western readers should resist misinterpreting Clause 4 in Section I about “General Principles,” which states that, besides deterring aggression against Russia, the objective “in the event of a military conflict” is to “prevent the escalation of military actions and end them under conditions acceptable” to Russia and/or its allies. In previous official statements, the standard formulation was to end conflict on “favorable” terms; now, it expects only “acceptable” conditions. Perhaps this change is another signal that Russian doctrine should not be erroneously characterized as “escalate to win.” Principles goes on to underscore the defensive nature of nuclear deterrence, the aim for sufficiency in force requirements, and that Russia considers nuclear weapons solely as a deterrent — the use of which would constitute an extreme and necessary measure.
This interpretation is not to deny that Russian planners probably have secret nuclear weapons employment guidance that specifies a range of possible options for integrating conventional and nuclear forces in support of global or regional objectives. However, Principles is not that document. Instead, it outlines Russian ideas about deterrence and only hints at deterrence/employment trade-offs.
Consider the Audience and the Context
Principles of State Policy Nuclear Deterrence is clearly aimed at multiple audiences. The Kremlin seeks to signal its updated declaratory policy to domestic stakeholders — like the Russian military and defense community, as well as diplomats dealing with security and arms control. Moreover, the document is meant to shape opinion among international opponents and potential partners.
Nevertheless, it will not resolve all the debates about Russian nuclear policy. The document’s timing follows Washington’s termination of the INF Treaty after Moscow refused to come back into compliance. It is probably no accident that Principles emerged while the U.S. is engaged in its own nuclear modernization program. Russians perceive further U.S. improvements to strategic forces, both conventional and nuclear, as part of a continuous effort to stalk Russia’s nuclear deterrent and deny Moscow a viable second-strike option.
Another reason that Principles should be read through a Russian lens involves Russia’s long preoccupation with forestalling the risk of potentially fatal first blows — from preempting its adversaries in 1914, which led to disaster and defeat in World War I, to the opposite decision in 1941, when Stalin rebuffed the General Staff for advocating a preemptive attack against the German army massing on the border. The German invasion led to catastrophe and near defeat for Russia before its arduous and costly victory in World War II. From this experience, the Russian military learned not to cede the initiative or wait to act until the enemy lands its devastating first blows but, instead, to anticipate and when feasible preempt the enemy. This lesson is arguably not the right one for either the circumstances in 1941 or the nuclear age. Even if it’s only a coincidence that Principles emerged at the beginning of June, in between the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War, which was rescheduled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the remembrance of the German attack on June 22, it should be remembered that Russia’s attention to preemption — both as an opportunity and a threat as from a surprise nuclear strike — has strong historical roots.
Debate over Russian nuclear intentions will not end with the publication of Russia’s new statement about its deterrence policy — nor should it since both the United States and Russia consider the nuclear deterrence mission as the bedrock of their national security. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers and analysts should read Russian statements and publications more carefully to avoid succumbing to confirmation bias. A better understanding of Russian intentions and perspectives would help advance critical analyses of the nuclear policy challenges facing the United States and its allies.
It’s doubtful that Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence will impact the current stalemate in nuclear arms control, although that may be one of its motivations. The document mentions that Russia’s principles for nuclear deterrence are in compliance with arms control obligations and universally recognized norms of international law. However, there is little in Principles that will likely energize the Trump administration to negotiate an extension of the New START Treaty or settle on a concrete plan to build on it.
What this new document could do is structure future strategic stability talks, which Moscow and Washington agreed to resume in May. Given misconceptions about doctrines, policy directives, and intentions, there is an advantage in seeking improved explanations and airing disagreements, especially in the nuclear realm where miscalculations can have catastrophic consequences.
Cynthia Roberts is a professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York, and a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense