Moscow Clarifies Its Nuclear Deterrence Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 80

(Source: USNI)

President Vladimir Putin issued a decree (ukaz) that signed into law a new strategic document: “The Foundations of Russian Federation State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence (“Osnovi Gosudarstvennoy Politiki Rossyskoy Federatsii v Oblasty Yadernogo Sderdzivanya”). The adopted planning text describes the reasons Russia requires a robust nuclear deterrence capability, the possible threats it hopes to avoid by threatening to use nuclear weapons against unfriendly foreign states and their alliances (namely, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—NATO), and the possible scenarios for using its nuclear arsenal. Unlike the United States, which regularly publishes a “Nuclear Posture Review” (“NPR”), the “Foundations on Nuclear Deterrence” has been publicly issued for the first time, though similar documents were apparently put together previously—the last one reportedly in 2010—but remained classified (Kommersant, June 3).

Present-day Russia has long ago abandoned the Soviet public stance of not using nuclear weapons first. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “The ‘Foundations’ document only lists the circumstances under which nukes may be used, but Russia will never initiate such use” (, June 3). Crucially, however, for Moscow an adversary “initiating the use of nukes” necessitating a Russian response does not necessarily have to mean an enemy carrying out an actual first nuclear strike. The “Foundations” document insists Russian nuclear deterrence capabilities are defensive weapons of last resolve intended to deter aggression, but the array of threats that require nuclear deterrence is wide and, to a large extent, vague. It includes not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their potential delivery systems but also the deployment of missile defenses (MD) “by the adversary” in space or in neighboring countries, or the deployment of conventional forces on land or sea that could threaten Russia. Potential adversary actions that may trigger a direct nuclear response are listed as: attacks using WMD on Russia or its allies; the launch of ballistic missiles potentially carrying WMD targeting Russia or its allies (possibly even single missile launches); a purely conventional “aggression” that may threaten Russian statehood; “coercion by the adversary of critically important state and military installations that may negate the launch of [Russia’s] nuclear forces in reply” (apparently meaning, for instance, a disabling hack of Russian command and communication systems or the dreaded “decapitation” attack using different possible means that may put out of action Putin or his top generals) (, June 2).

In any case, the reasons to use nuclear warheads are widespread and open to interpretation, effectively giving the Kremlin the legal right to ratchet up the threat whenever it pleases, keeping its adversaries constantly on edge. Unlike the US “NPR,” the Russian equivalent is just several pages long and does not contain any technical data about weapons systems or other factual details. The nature and details of a possible Russian nuclear response are deliberately left secret, including under what scenario Russia would launch a massive strike involving all its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and its long-range cruise and submarine-based ballistic nuclear missiles, or when a limited nuclear strike may be warranted. In Article 15, “Foundations” specifically insists, “The ambiguity for a potential adversary of the scope, time and place of the possible use of nuclear deterrence capabilities” is the prerequisite for successful nuclear deterrence (, June 2).

The Russian nuclear strategy document does not specify any countries as potential adversaries, but the US and its allies are clearly envisaged as the “probable foe” (veroyatniy protyvnik). Nuclear expert General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin, who took part in nuclear arms control treaty negotiations that ended the Cold War, told journalists the publication of “Foundations” could be a signal sent to President Donald Trump to “force him to agree to the extension of the 2012 New START treaty.” New START expires in February 2021 but can be extended for five years by a simple declaration from US and Russian leaders, without any protracted Congressional ratification process (, June 2).

Trump has recently announced the US is withdrawing from the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies after accusing Russia of violations (see EDM, May 28). Moreover, the Trump administration is reportedly entertaining the possibility of resuming underground nuclear tests, banned since 1992. Russia and China have been accused of secretly running low-yield nuclear tests. Russia has signed and ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test–Ban Treaty (CTBT), unlike the US and China, which both signed but had not ratified it. Moscow has strongly denounced and threatened retaliation if the US withdraws from Open Skies and resumes nuclear tests (Vesti, May 23). Unilateral action undermining the CTBT and the Open Skies treaty would, in fact, be universally condemned, including by many US allies. At the same time, many members of the Russian military and nuclear industry (Rosatom) have long lobbied to resume testing; therefore, Washington taking the responsibility for breaking the ban is seen as beneficial to Moscow. New START is different. Russia wants an extension, though the conditions the US is putting forward (mostly, involving China in the agreement) are seen as unacceptable (, May 12).

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has expressed “respect and understanding” of the “Foundations nuclear pasture document, with which “Russia defends its national interests and security.” Zhao used the occasion to once again denounce “unilateral [US] actions and hegemony” (RIA Novosti, June 3). As the US-China confrontation escalates over many issues, both sides are seeking out allies. Trump is apparently ready to make some “nuclear deal with Moscow” and has invited Putin to Washington sometime in the fall of 2020 for a G7 meeting. Russia has been excluded since 2014, when a (then) G8 meeting in St. Petersburg was canceled in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. The latest Trump-proposed expanded G7 meeting apparently also could involve South Korea and Australia as additional participants.

In Moscow, Trump’s G7 proposal is seen, in essence, as an anti-Chinese gathering and a duplicitous attempt by Washington to undermine the Beijing-Moscow axis without giving Russia anything of substance in return. Trump’s reelection is problematic, he cannot give Putin much of what the latter wants anyway (Kommersant, June 1). While politely refusing the floated invitation, Moscow insists it is only interested in an immediate full and unconditional restoration within a G8, which Trump cannot deliver without the agreement of the grouping’s other members. The US leader can prolong the New START treaty unilaterally at any time before its expiration, and such a move would certainly be appreciated in Moscow. But that may not be enough to push Putin into accepting the G7 invite without, for example, the Chinese leader also present.