The demise of strategic arms control with the ever more likely expiration of the New START Treaty next February leaves nuclear deterrence as the only guarantee of national security for the nuclear weapons states. Responding to this situation, the Kremlin has come up with a policy paper called Nuclear Deterrence Policy Guidelines (NDPG) spelling out the principles of Moscow’s deterrence strategy. Roughly equivalent to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in the United States, such a document had previously remained unpublished, as an annex to the country’s Military Doctrine. Making it public now sends several important messages not to be ignored.
One is to respond to Western interpretations of the Russian strategy as providing for “escalation for de-escalation,” i.e., first use of nuclear weapons to avert defeat in a conventional conflict. The Kremlin paper says up front that “in the event of a military conflict, nuclear deterrence should prevent the escalation of hostilities and allow their termination on conditions acceptable to Russia and its allies.” This seems to corroborate the common Western view that, should Russian forces face the prospect of being defeated in a collision with NATO, they would use tactical nuclear weapons.
However, this provision in the newly published document is contained in the paragraph referring to the general strategy of deterrence, rather than in the section which sets out specific conditions for the use of nuclear weapons. It can be inferred from this that, in order to stop the fighting, Russia relies on the power of nuclear deterrence—its relevant capabilities and readiness—rather than on the actual use of nuclear weapons. This has allowed retired General Viktor Esin, former chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces, to claim that the Kremlin paper debunks Western interpretations as false. Indeed, the notion of a limited nuclear war has always been alien to Russian strategic thinking: unlike for the United States, any such “limited” war would be fought in, or close to, Russia’s territory.
Few people in NATO would probably agree. They may point to the language in the document that repeats the Russian Military Doctrine’s statement that Moscow would use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional aggression if the very existence of the state was in danger. Questions will remain, but at least Russia has officially responded to the “escalate to de-escalate” theory.
Another message is directed at U.S. NATO allies. The Russian deterrence policy paper makes it clear that deployment of ballistic missile defenses, INF missile systems—whether nuclear-tipped or conventional—and other advanced weapons in the territory of non-nuclear weapons states in the vicinity of Russian borders would make them targets of Russian nuclear deterrence. Recent developments in NATO, such as the development of small-yield nuclear weapons, or suggestions of moving U.S. tactical nuclear weapons even closer to Russian borders, have caught Moscow’s attention. In particular, deployment of new-generation U.S. INF systems to Europe, irrespective of the nature of their warheads, would be seen as a highly dangerous development.
Should this happen, Russian strategic command centers would be at risk of a decapitating strike. In that case, Russia’s nuclear posture would probably have to change, making it more aggressive. We are not there yet. The Kremlin’s NDPG names launch on warning as the basic response to nuclear attack. The way this is formulated in the paper can be read that the president may give the launch order once he is satisfied that the signal of an adversary’s missile attack received from the early warning system is authentic. Many Russian experts consider such a posture too risky, in view of potential malfunctioning of the warning system, which happened more than once during the Cold War. They consider a retaliatory strike that is launched after enemy warheads have actually exploded in one’s territory as both safer—in terms of preventing a possible mistake—and still capable of annihilating the enemy country. However, the development of U.S. missile defenses and the possibility of the deployment of weapons systems in space makes Russian nuclear strategists stick to launch on warning: the posture that Moscow has maintained from the Cold War period.
Finally, the Kremlin policy guidelines provide for the deployment of nuclear weapons in response to an attack against the critical national infrastructure that is responsible for controlling and employing nuclear weapons. This new provision may refer, for example, to cyberattacks that can disable Russian strategic command and control systems.
The publication of the Russian Nuclear Deterrence Policy Guidelines is a welcome step in the sense of producing more clarity on the issue. However, the timing of the publication suggests that the Kremlin takes a world without arms control seriously and is preparing for it. While there is a nod in the text to international treaties and commitments, there is also a general understanding that soon there will be none left. “Potential enemies” are not named in the guidelines, but the reference to “countries that regard Russia as a potential enemy” is crystal clear on that score.
In a world where major powers are unconstrained by mutual obligations regarding their most powerful arms, proper communication is key to avoid fateful mistakes. New arrangements including all relevant players and embracing all kinds of strategic weapons will take many years to negotiate. Never in the last half-century have Moscow and Washington lived under such conditions, and they have to not only build guardrails around their confrontation, but also allow a measure of mutual transparency. Discussion of military issues among professionals with the purpose of understanding the other side better is absolutely necessary. The U.S. NPR and now Russia’s NDPG present rich material for such dialogue. Adversaries should not be allowed to become enemies by mistake.