Russia and strategic non-nuclear deterrence

Capabilities, limitations and challenges
Chatham House briefing Updated 10 August 2021 Published 29 July 2021 ISBN: 9781784134853
Photo shows vehicles of a Russian motor rifle brigade in line performing military exercises on a plain

Valeriy Akimenko

Senior Research Analyst, Conflict Studies Research Centre

New developments in Russian long-range precision-guided weapons strongly support the idea that the country’s leadership has been giving a greater priority to non-nuclear strategic military deterrence. The cases of Ukraine and Syria demonstrate Russia’s willingness to use military force, and prove that its non-nuclear deterrent has matured from theoretical concept to firm reality.

A picture is emerging of a flexible, integrated and versatile package of deterrence and war-fighting capabilities, with non-nuclear missile, electronic warfare and other systems complementing the nuclear arsenal that remains the foundation of Russia’s strategic deterrent.

However, the growing emphasis on non-nuclear weapons is surrounded by uncertainty, both conceptually and practically. As a national security concept, Russian strategic deterrence is expansive, combining elements of containment, deterrence and coercion, military and non-military, nuclear and non-nuclear. For Russia, the value of nuclear weapons remains undiminished, certainly as a deterrent and arguably as a weapon.

This briefing paper examines Russian military non-nuclear deterrence as it exists today. It outlines its capabilities, and explores its potential limitations and inherent ambiguities.