Public Russian Nuclear Weapons Use Doctrine–Willing to go First if Necessary

Further to the discussion of use of nuclear-armed cruise missiles (SLCMs) carried by Russian submarines at this March 2020 post,

Subs and Russian Nuclear Weapons Doctrine, Note Cruise Missiles

Russia has just published its first, public document on policies for the use of strategic nuclear weapons. The document does not rule our first use of those weapons in certain circumstances, nor does it seem to preclude first use of tactical nuclear weapons (which may well be how those carried by the navy’s SLCMs are classified even if some targets are in North America) as part of what may be a non-public “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine (more at the first quote below).

First, at Defense One:

Russia Puts Defensive Face on Its Nuclear Doctrine Ahead of Arms-Control Negotiations

Moscow’s new strategic-arms decree appears to be an attempt to win advantage whether New START lives on or not.

Russia’s new strategic-arms decree adds a bit of ambiguity and defensive flavor, but its main task is positioning Moscow for a critical round of arms-control talks, experts said.

On its face, the document reiterates key points in Russia’s doctrine on the use of strategic nuclear weapons, as opposed to its smaller nukes. Strategic nukes, it says, may be maintained to ensure “sovereignty, territorial integrity, deter direct aggression against Russia or allies, and in the event of aggression preclude escalation,” according to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia [originally Center for Naval Analyses, website here]

However, Kofman notes some ambiguity in the language, particularly around the idea of using nuclear weapons during a war to bring about a resolution. 

“Notably, the standard formulation of ‘cease hostilities on terms favorable to Russia’ (or Russian interests), was changed to ‘conditions acceptable’ to Russia & allies, which is a more fair reading of the escalation management strategy,” Kofman wrote Thursday on his blog.

“Paragraph 5 states that Russia sees nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of deterrence, that they are to be used in extreme circumstances and as a forced measure. I think that’s not a very honest portrayal of how nuclear weapons are viewed by the Russian military,” he wrote. “But the purpose of this document is to position Russian views as defensive only…and to counter the claims of those who say Russia has an escalate-to-de-escalate strategy.” 

A country with such a strategy would consider using nuclear weapons — likely tactical ones — at the beginning of a conflict, aiming to press its adversary into quick negotiations [emphasis added].

The document also adds drones to its list of threats, mirroring recent changes to Russian military doctrine generally, says Kofman…

The document is significant mostly because of its timing. The United States has indicated indirectly that it will abandon the New START Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads and strategic launch platforms each country can deploy, and pursue instead a new agreement that covers new drones, missiles, and other submarines in development or production by Russia and China. The man that President Trump has selected to lead that negotiation is Marshall Billingslea, the current nominee to be undersecretary of state for arms control. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, has put the nomination on hold as he waits for an explanation from the White House for the firing of two inspectors general. That suggests that Billingslea, once confirmed, will have precious little time to negotiate an incredibly ambitious trilateral arms deal [and seems most unlikely China will go along, see: “China could lose 95% of ballistic, cruise missiles under strategic arms control pact, says new analysis”]

 Earlier at Defense News:

New Russian policy allows use of atomic weapons against non-nuclear strike

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday [June 2] endorsed Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, which allows him to use atomic weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the nation’s critical government and military infrastructure.

By including a non-nuclear attack as a possible trigger for Russian nuclear retaliation, the document appears to send a warning signal to the U.S. The new expanded wording reflects Russian concerns about the development of prospective weapons that could give Washington the capability to knock out key military assets and government facilities without resorting to atomic weapons [emphasis added].

In line with Russian military doctrine, the new document reaffirms that the country could use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state.”

But the policy document now also offers a detailed description of situations that could trigger the use of nuclear weapons. They include the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies and an enemy attack with conventional weapons that threatens the country’s existence.

In addition to that, the document now states that Russia could use its nuclear arsenals if it gets “reliable information” about the launch of ballistic missiles targeting its territory or its allies and also in the case of ”enemy impact [including non-nuclear, see start of this article] on critically important government or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the incapacitation of which could result in the failure of retaliatory action of nuclear forces.”..

Russia has offered to extend the New START, which expires in February 2021, while the Trump administration has pushed for a new arms control pact that would also include China. Moscow has described that idea as unfeasible, pointing at Beijing’s refusal to negotiate any deal that would reduce its much smaller nuclear arsenal.

Finally, a more detailed examination of the public doctrine is here:

New Document Consolidates Russia’s Nuclear Policy in One Place

No doubt NORAD, amongst many others, is paying very close attention to it. On the other hand, with Trump as president one almost wonders if the US now has a coherent nuclear weapons use doctrine that he a) understands and, b) is committed to.

Related posts:

China, or, Why the US Needs to Continue in the New START Nuclear Weapons Treaty With Russia

Hypersonics? What Are They Good For? What About Arms Control?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

6 thoughts on “Public Russian Nuclear Weapons Use Doctrine–Willing to go First if Necessary”

  1. On verra and good luck with PRC:

    Mark Collins


  2. A friend knowledgeable of both USSR/Russia and matters nuclear adds:

    “The Russian nuclear doctrine is not just a whim of the current leadership but derives from bitter historical experience and their assessment of the US/NATO actions to move the alliance eastwards, in contradiction to understandings that the Russians thought they had received on that subject.

    It also reflects Russian assessments of the capabilities that PGMs and stealthy aircraft have given the USA: i.e., potentially successful decapitation strikes against C2 and strategic assets. Both Russia (and the USSR) and the USA have always maintained flexibility in nuclear decision making. The only restriction has been not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states; but the caveat for NATO members would be that in essence they are all nuclear states, given the bedrock nuclear policy of the alliance.”

    Mark Collins


  3. More in piece at “War on the Rocks”:

    “Revelations about Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy

    Looking Ahead

    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.”

    Mark Collins


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