The evolution of Russia’s views from nuclear towards non-nuclear deterrence has been comprehensively explored.
This evolution can be traced through doctrinal milestones. It stems from the 2000 Military Doctrine’s emphasis on nuclear deterrence against all threats, including conventional, at a time of military weakness. It is further evidenced in the 2010 Military Doctrine’s imposition of stricter conditions for nuclear use. This was coupled with the introduction of the concept of ‘strategic deterrence’ as a combination of military and non-military deterrence. These shifts accompanied a major overhaul of the military and an unprecedented rearmament programme with massive investment that was to span a decade. The final stage in the evolution was reached with the enshrinement, in the 2014 Military Doctrine, of the notion of non-nuclear deterrence, underpinned by further substantial conventional advances.
As a national security concept, Russian ‘strategic deterrence’ is expansive and includes military and non-military, nuclear and non-nuclear, defensive and offensive deterrence tools. It applies when at peace and at war. In effect, it combines elements of containment, deterrence and coercion, with the aim of ‘using all means available to deter or dominate conflict’. The Russian Ministry of Defence’s Military Encyclopaedia defines ‘strategic deterrence’ as:
The entry lists measures classed as ‘use-of-force’ (silovyye), which include nuclear use, and ‘non-use-of-force’ or non-military (nesilovyye), which include ‘political, diplomatic, legal, economic, ideological, scientific-technical and others’. Although not identified specifically, information operations, and cyber operations as their subset, must be assumed to be part of the latter, as must a set of ‘hybrid’ measures that span both categories.
Russian military writings now talk about deterrence or containment through intimidation (sderzhivaniye putem ustrasheniya), even though historically this was used to frame the deterrent policies of other, hostile nations, with connotations suggestive of ‘nuclear blackmail’: US Cold War policies were described by Soviet leaders as containment through intimidation. Yet recently, the intimidation element of Russia’s own deterrent policy has been on prominent display, as has Russia’s nuclear deterrent, including with clearly aggressive rather than defensive intent. In the latest escalation of tensions with Ukraine in the spring of 2021, for instance, the means by which Russia strove to attain whatever objectives it had were, beyond any reasonable doubt, an exercise in intimidation.
Recently, the intimidation element of Russia’s own deterrent policy has been on prominent display, as has Russia’s nuclear deterrent, including with clearly aggressive rather than defensive intent.
Russia invariably frames its military and non-military action alike as defensive. Yet the dynamics of deterrence are reciprocal, with concomitant complications including provocation, arms races or inadvertent escalation. In short, this concept of ‘strategic deterrence’ fails to appreciate that deterrent action could be construed as offensive by the other side. The country’s leadership could thus fall victim to its own conceptualization of deterrence as a response to perceived aggression. Furthermore, problems arise when it transpires that Russia’s and NATO’s concepts of what constitutes defensive action are at odds with each other. For instance, if Russia considered its annexation of Crimea to have been a defensive manoeuvre to prevent NATO’s encroachment through Ukraine, it could take similar action elsewhere. And, as it has done over Crimea, Russia could proceed to using threats, including nuclear, to prevent any resistance or intervention.
The 2014 Military Doctrine defined non-nuclear deterrence as:
Military and political leaders have signalled an increased emphasis specifically on non-nuclear military deterrence. In 2019, Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov spoke of ‘an urgent task in the development of military strategy to substantiate and improve nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence measures’. In December 2020, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the potential of the non-nuclear deterrent. While ‘the first task is to maintain the high combat readiness of the nuclear forces [and] the development of all components of the nuclear triad,’ he said, ‘second, it is equally important to strengthen the potential of non-nuclear deterrent forces, first of all precision weapons’.
Under the broad umbrella of strategic deterrence, nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence are, in addition to elements such as force posture, to be executed via demonstrative deployments, demonstrative use of force and a single strike, or grouped strikes, to inflict ‘unacceptable’ damage. The intention is to manipulate the adversary’s cost-benefit calculus, rather than aiming for pure prevention or effective defence.