Understanding Putin’s Nuclear Decision-Making
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The Ukraine invasion has instigated a soul-searching of conventional wisdom about international politics, about the use of force in the modern era, and about Russian strategy. If Putin could launch a full-scale invasion of a sovereign country in modern-day Europe, he could do anything, goes the mantra. Nuclear saber-rattling has produced significant concern that the Russian president would also consider crossing the nuclear threshold. With fighting around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, Europe is bracing for a potential nuclear catastrophe. Norwegian authorities recently notified all families to keep a stock of iodine at home for children and people under 40 in case of a nuclear incident. Potential nuclear war is the topic of daily news shows and podcasts across the transatlantic region.
Many have raised the issue of whether Putin has lost touch with reality. Others maintain that his calculations remain rational given his increasingly extreme worldview. Some argue his nuclear decision-making may have acquired religious overtones. Pundits struggle to categorize Putin’s decision-making as rational, when it produced a military operation based on deeply flawed political and military assumptions. The prevalent explanation is that the move from an authoritarian system to a personalist dictatorship has produced idiosyncratic decision-making, including a situation where military commanders were notified at the very last minute of operations in Ukraine.
Although a convincing case can be made that parts of the military community were kept in the dark about the impending plan, including lower-echelon commanders, claiming that military leaders and the General Staff were kept in the dark remains speculative. The massive troop surge around Ukraine took place over months and included unprecedented actions such as transferring units from across the full range of territorial commands. By February, Russia had amassed a force ready to invade Ukraine. Western pundits raised flags along the way, including when final indicators such as field hospitals and blood reserves were moved forward. There is no way Russian commanders and military planners did not know, even if they did not know the fine details.
An article published in a Russian military newspaper weeks before the invasion indicates debate about the invasion in Moscow. It identifies many of the problems, political as well as military, that the Russians have encountered in a full-on onslaught against Ukraine. The level of precision is remarkable, even predicting how Western countries would consider supplying Ukraine fighter aircraft. The author strongly warns against a full invasion and points to “bloodthirsty politologs” deluding themselves that this can work.
So, what is the situation now? Is there a debate in Moscow about the role of nuclear weapons in the ongoing conflict? Is Putin debating the nuclear taboo in splendid isolation? Although Western policymakers describe Russian nuclear signaling in the ongoing crisis as reckless, Russian actions so far closely follow what Russia has conveyed regarding the role of nuclear weapons in a conflict like Ukraine: deterring it from escalating to a larger war. The nuclear activity we have seen thus far suggests that Putin is not the sole decision-maker impacting nuclear movements. In other words, it may be premature to throw what we know about the Russian nuclear playbook out the window. Although we cannot predict whether that playbook will remain valid, it is useful to revisit nuclear decision-making in Russia and how it could impact Putin’s nuclear choices.
Russian Nuclear Consultation
A first key point regarding Putin’s nuclear decision-making is that he does not have a single nuclear button that he could push in splendid isolation. Instead, there are three nuclear briefcases in Russia: one with the president, one with the defense minister, and one with the general staff chief. Most reporting indicates that at least two out of those three suitcases are needed for issuing an order to launch nuclear weapons. That means that, in contrast to the United States, two physical suitcases that are controlled by two different people are required to use nuclear weapons. One of those two would have to be the president, as according to Russian declaratory policy regarding the decision to use nuclear weapons . The general staff would also need to accept the order as valid before it went out into the military unit controlling the nuclear weapons.
This raises the question of what Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov would say if Putin suggested nuclear options. Would they hesitate or protest? Would they bring the idea to his table? Many resorted to plain old Kremlinology to describe their faces when Putin issued the order to “introduce a special combat regime” in the deterrent forces. Shoigu looked particularly unhappy. There is speculation about elite support for the invasion given the unprecedented response and outcry against, as well as within, Russia. In fact, Shoigu is the man many point to when deliberating the possibility of a palace coup. The question is if he would have broad enough support within the other parts of the security policy elite. Although pundits argue that if ever there were conditions for a coup in Russia, it would be now, most also rate it as unlikely.
Military Advice to President Putin
If Gerasimov, Shoigu, and the general staff’s Main Operational Directorate, who conducts nuclear planning, were asked for advice regarding nuclear use, what would they tell the president? We cannot know, but Russian deterrence concepts, doctrinal guidelines, and planning concepts suggest that they would be unlikely to advise Putin to use nuclear weapons in the current situation. Ukraine probably remains a local conflict according to the Russian military lexicon: “a war pursuing limited military-political objectives when military actions take place within the borders of the warring states and affecting mainly the interests (territorial, economic, political, etc.) of these states.” As pointed out by Michael Kofman in the WOTR podcast last week, Russia is reserving some of its forces, including precision-guided munitions, for the eventuality that this becomes that kind of confrontation. The Russian hesitation to use these forces conveys that this is still a limited conflict that can be contained.
Russian nuclear signaling thus far has been designed to persuade the West to stay out of this conflict. In other words, this signaling is intended to deter the escalation of this local war to the next level on the Russian conflict spectrum: a regional war. Russian nuclear signaling has been aimed at enhancing the readiness and survivability of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. Some may be instigated by Putin: The “special combat regime” he introduced early in the conflict remains an unknown preparedness level in the Russian nuclear forces. This could suggest signaling that was not designed primarily in the general staff, and that they had to determine what precisely to do to fulfil this order. Shoigu later clarified that it entailed increased manning of strategic nuclear force units.
But other measures to enhance readiness and preparedness in the strategic nuclear forces may result from standard operating procedures, existing plans, and training regimes. The Norwegian defense minister cited enhanced military measures surrounding Russian nuclear weapons in the High North, but clarified that the Russian activities remained, in their nature, defensive. These measures are not necessarily the result of decisions made by Putin himself. Rather, their objective may be to ensure and sustain the survivability and combat readiness of these forces in a period of increased tension. As Russian conventional forces are being placed under strain, the survivability of these weapons becomes more important to Russia.
The General Staff may have other suggestions for Putin on how to signal with his nuclear forces to increase pressure on Ukraine. The Russian concept of strategic deterrence purports gradually increasing pressure on an adversary. Russian non-nuclear deterrent forces can be used to inflict strategic damage, and should also be used to ensure that local wars and armed conflicts will not escalate. We have not yet seen Russian conventional forces employed specifically to inflict unacceptable damage on a potential adversary, sufficient to produce surrender.
Russian deterrence and escalation management concepts entail that using non-nuclear deterrent forces could serve as a warning to the adversary of a move toward the nuclear threshold. Increased use of dual-capable systems is one indicator to look for in this regard. Russia has now used its novel dual-capable air-launched ballistic missile, the Kinzhal, and pundits are debating whether this should be read as such a signal or not. Another signal, of course, would be movement of the Russian arsenal of sub-strategic nuclear weapons in central storage. Russian strategists are of course aware that Western intelligence will be watching this indicator closely.
Another indicator of increased willingness to escalate to observe is the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin. Putin may also want to avoid World War III and capitalize on his nuclear assets for what they are worth before moving to actual employment. If talking about or moving nuclear weapons around suffice to convince Ukraine to capitulate, he may prefer that. A preoccupation with his historical legacy may inhibit him from going down in history the first leaders since World War II to employ nuclear weapons in combat.
Finally, Russian nuclear employment could be preceded by attempts at legitimizing such action. Russian descriptions of the conflict, Western sanctions, or Western actions perceived as constituting existential threats to Russia would be concerning. This is, doctrinally, the threshold at which Russia would consider a nuclear response. Current doctrine describes that such existential threats could result from military attacks with weapons of mass destruction or conventional forces against Russian territory. This means that an attack against Russia with a weapon of mass destruction — biological, chemical, or nuclear — could be construed as an existential threat. As a result, the Russian accusations about Ukrainian weapons programs are concerning in this regard. But so far, Russia has not construed any Western actions — or Ukrainian actions — as existential threats
The unprecedented nature of the Western response to Russian aggression has produced a situation where the Russians, too, are in unchartered territory. It could well be that Putin again miscalculates regarding the cost and consequences of his actions with respect to breaking the nuclear taboo. His military advisors, too, may resort to this final option, if and when they run out of other options. For now, a range of factors indicate that the Russian leadership is not there. Putin still seeks to deter Western intervention by signaling red lines, including in relation to no-fly zones, arms deliveries, and economic warfare. The Russian president still grasps that a direct confrontation with the West, and crossing the nuclear threshold, would produce the most dangerous situation Russia has ever faced.
Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a postdoctoral fellow/assistant professor of political science at the University of Oslo, where she is a part of the Oslo Nuclear Project. She has researched and analyzed Russian security and defense policy in government and academia for the past 15 years.