Analysis & Opinions - International Relations and Security Network

Nuclear 'Constraint' in Russia

| February 16, 2010

The new military doctrine, signed by President Dmitry Medvedev on 5 February, contains a number of innovations compared to its 2000 predecessor, including explicit identification of threats and allies, the right to use troops abroad to protect Russian citizens and inclusion of fighting piracy in the list of the armed forces' missions.

Of all the innovations, however, it is was the decision to put NATO first on the list of sources of external military threats that has won more play in the international media and more comments from western policymakers.

Such an explicit reference to NATO might look like an unpleasant exaggeration to many, but should come as no surprise to anyone. Naming NATO as a 'classic' military threat is a misnomer. After all, the likelihood of an actual war between Russia and the alliance is very low. But it would be naive to insist that Russia should not be concerned with the alliance, especially given that Russia has no meaningful say in NATO's decision-making.

Even if Moscow suddenly agrees to abandon the notion of zones of influence, it would still have grounds to be concerned with the alliance, which seeks to re-invent itself to acquire global reach and new functions, such as a provider of complex security, including energy security.

Should the upcoming new NATO Strategic Concept transform the alliance into a provider of such security, one can easily imagine how a dispute over energy transit prices between Russia and one European country may become a cause for joint NATO action.

When considering Russia's perception of NATO's increasing reach, the sorry state of pan-European security mechanisms, in which Russia has a say, such the OSCE and the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe, so also be factored in.

But while references to NATO-related threats have won more play in the media, the innovations in the doctrine's provisions on nuclear weapons are clearly more significant.

For the first time since the adoption of the first-use policy, the Russian leadership has decided to constrain, if only somewhat, the use of nuclear weapons in a strategic document.

The 2010 doctrine says nuclear weapons can be used "in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened."

In comparison, the 2000 doctrine said nuclear weapons could be used "in response to large-scale aggression with use of conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation."

Significantly, the doctrine introduces the use of high-precision conventional systems that would allow for strategic deterrence along with strategic nuclear forces. In comparison, the previous doctrine referred only to the use of nuclear weapons for such deterrence.

The doctrine also notes that a major conventional conflict with a nuclear power may escalate into a nuclear war in what is an acknowledgment that nuclear weapons entail significant risks.

That said, the 2010 doctrine preserves its predecessor's overall stance on use of nuclear weapons, including the first-use policy and their deterrence role. As its predecessor, the new document asserts that Russia can use nuclear weapons in response to a WMD attack against Russia and/or its allies, and that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict.

What has been discussed by the doctrine's authors, but omitted from the final draft, is even more important.

One of the doctrine's authors, Deputy Secretary of the Security Council Baluevsky, confirmed to Interfax on 5 February that an earlier draft allowed for the use of nuclear weapons in response to the "threat" of the use of nuclear weapons or WMDs. That provision was deleted.

Nor does the new doctrine allow for the first-use of nuclear weapons in a local war as Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said it might in his 14 October 2009 interview with Izvestia.

Nor does the doctrine contain any provisions that would indicate that the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) may increase. There have been several reports indicating that an upgrade of the role of NSNWs may be in the works, including an observation by an "authoritative Russian military man" to western scholars in September 2009 that the role of tactical nuclear arms is being significantly upgraded.

Rather than referring to NSNWs, the doctrine reaffirms the importance of strategic nuclear forces intended to deal "prescribed damage" to the enemy under any conditions.

Another important omission from earlier drafts is "numerous scenarios" for the use of nuclear weapons. As recently as in October 2009, one retired Russian general familiar with the ‘essence' of the doctrine's then-draft said the new doctrine spelled out numerous specific scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons, which he described as excessive.

All these leaks of earlier drafts may have been ploys to influence the external audience's expectations of the actual doctrine, which would boil down to ‘it could have been worse.'

And, of course, we won't be able to fully ascertain whether Russia has indeed constrained the use of nuclear weapons and what its nuclear posture is unless President Medvedev decides to declassify the Principles of State Nuclear Deterrence Policy until 2020, which he signed along with the new doctrine on 5 February.

However, it is unlikely that the classified principles would explicitly contradict the doctrine.

That the doctrine constrains the use of nuclear weapons might reflect a decrease in dependence on nuclear weapons as an equalizer for the weakness of Russia's conventional forces vis-a-vis potential foes.

However, given that the conventional forces have not undergone any qualitative improvement since 2000, when the previous doctrine was signed by Vladimir Putin, it might be rather a reflection of the vision of Medvedev, which is reflected in the Strategy of National Security until Year 2020 that he signed off on in May 2009. That document committed Russia to pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons.

Medvedev also signed a joint statement with US President Barack Obama in April 2009 to commit the "two countries to achieving a nuclear-free world." That Medvedev chose not to wait for the upcoming US Nuclear Posture Review, which is due to be completed by the end of this year, may be a sign that he is confident in Obama's intentions.

The doctrine ends with a clause that "provisions may be adjusted" to reflect changes in threats to and the development of the country. Hopefully, the rapprochement between Russia and key NATO members will continue so that convergence of their interests in such fields as prevention of armed conflicts, counterproliferation and counterterrorism will have a lasting positive impact on both the international security environment and Moscow's perception of it in the next edition of Russia's defense doctrine.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saradzhyan, Simon.“Nuclear 'Constraint' in Russia.” International Relations and Security Network, February 16, 2010.

The Author