Moscow’s official statements since February 24, 2022, concerning possible nuclear escalation should the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) directly intervene in the Russo-Ukrainian war represent a deliberate policy of strategic deterrence. Possible escalation to a world war between the US and Russia is acknowledged by both sides, which are seeking to navigate its avoidance, and featuring in White House deliberations on the level of weapons and hardware support that Washington and its allies can provide to Ukraine. The risk of nuclear conflict caused by the war in Ukraine and the wider US-Russia crisis raises critically important questions about how to judge the level of escalation and discern the red lines on the part of both Moscow and Washington. Thus, the Russo-Ukrainian war is occurring in the context of a potential confrontation between two nuclear powers, with each trying to establish where lies the point of no return on the path toward strategic nuclear exchange (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14, 21, 2021).
In their co-authored two-part article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (NVO) in October 2021, Russian military experts Andrei Kokoshin, Viktor Yesin and Aleksandr Shlyakhturov stress the importance of “non-nuclear deterrence.” This had long been advocated by Kokoshin prior to it being adopted in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine. As the authors explain, “Non-nuclear means of strategic deterrence in the form of long-range high-precision weapons in the usual equipment of various types of basing are also developing rapidly in Russia. It can be considered that a major contribution to the policy of non-nuclear deterrence of the Russian Federation is the strengthening of groupings of Russian general-purpose forces in the corresponding sectors carried out in recent years. Including in the western direction, where we have to confront NATO forces.” They add that non-nuclear deterrence extends to the Ground Forces, referring to a seminal article on this theme in the General Staff journal Voyennaya Mysl’ (Military Thought) in April 2021 (Voyennaya Mysl’, No. 4, 2021, pp. 20–28).
Kokoshin et al., highlight the “containment paradox” in deterrence theory: “Deterrence is ensured by demonstrating the threat of using military force in various variants, including nuclear weapons. Deterrence, on the one hand, is designed to prevent a war, an escalation of a conflict (crisis) situation, an escalatory dominance of the opposing side, and, on the other hand, to demonstrate the reality of one or another variant of the use of military force. This is the paradox of containment.” Clearly, non-nuclear deterrence systems, essentially long-range precision-guided munitions, are more readily usable in conflict than resorting to nuclear weapons; these were deployed and used by the Russian military in Ukraine. But the authors have in mind the employment of such weapons between nuclear powers in the escalation of a crisis. In fact, convention high-precision stand-off missiles also have the potential to cause catastrophic damage by, for instance, targeting nuclear power plants and highly toxic chemical industries—which Moscow has so far mostly avoided in Ukraine—seen as a step below the nuclear threshold (the 11th of the 12 steps on the escalation ladder) (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14, 2021).
Significantly, the authors attack the concept of “escalate-to-de-escalate” as “extremely dangerous and doubtful.” And they are equally critical of the concept of “limited nuclear war,” noting that domestic and foreign experts highlight the high degree of uncertainty caused by using just one tactical nuclear weapon. This is supported by reference to an influential article in Voyennaya Mysl’ in November 2019. S. A. Ponomarev, V. V. Poddubny and V. I. Polegaev assert, “In our opinion, the readiness to use nuclear weapons to a limited extent is a strong incentive to deter a conventional regional or world war,” adding the reservation, “However, in this case, the threshold for its unlimited use is significantly lowered, and the aggressor may not have a non-nuclear alternative to get out of the military conflict” (Voyennaya Mysl’, No. 11, 2019, p. 98).
In terms of the war in Ukraine, determining the level of risk of a direct clash between Moscow and Washington necessitates understanding the level of war and the danger of crossing either side’s red lines. Despite the war being fought on a large-scale between Russia and Ukraine, it remains local; other countries are not direct parties to the conflict, meaning it has avoided escalating to a regional war. Of course, the US and its allies, together with a number of non-NATO countries, have imposed severe economic sanctions on Russia, characterized by Moscow as an “economic war.” In addition to the political warfare and information warfare transcending Ukraine’s borders, there is the lingering threat of vertical escalation by the Russian military within Ukraine; some predict Moscow may soon use chemical, biological or even tactical nuclear weapons. However, it is worth recalling that Putin’s nuclear warnings to the West implicitly and explicitly refer to strategic systems and not to tactical nuclear weapons (Krasnaya Zvezda, April 22). So long as the Russian-Western standoff does not become a world war, the risk of nuclear conflict remains low.
For now, wider war appears some way off, as Moscow has numerous conventional military escalatory options at its disposal, ranging from assigning a massive airpower role to the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), destroying critically important targets or even simply boosting its conventional firepower on the battlefield. For example, the Tu-22M3 long-range bomber can deliver the FAB-5000M-54 free-falling high-explosive bomb. The mass of the warhead reaches 4,200 kilograms, and the mass of the explosive is 2,210.6 kilograms. As a non-nuclear option, the VKS has at its disposal a high-power aviation vacuum bomb, informally named the “Father of All Bombs” (drawing by analogy on the US Air Force’s GBU-43/B, nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs”). Some military specialists consider this to be the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the world (Gazeta.ru, April 19).
In reality, Russia’s Armed Forces possess enough conventional firepower to render the tactical nuclear option unnecessary in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the risk of nuclear use primarily relates to an escalatory response to the United States/NATO entering the war. For the time, the West has ruled out physical intervention. As Kokoshin and his co-authors warn, “Many domestic and foreign experts rightly point out that it is unacceptable to unleash any war between nuclear powers, any direct military clash, since neither side will be ready to admit defeat in a war using conventional means. An armed clash between the allies of the nuclear powers should also be considered very dangerous” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 21, 2021).