While Russia accepts the possible use of nuclear weapons as a legitimate battlefield tactic, and its threshold for such use is far lower than for Western nuclear powers, its persistent nuclear threats should be recognized as primarily political posturing unrelated to any probable nuclear use.
What is the myth?
The circumstances under which Russia might use nuclear weapons have been the subject of lengthy and heated debate. This is in part because of mixed messages from Russia itself. Published nuclear doctrine describes a very limited set of circumstances predicating a nuclear response by Russia. But this is at odds with consistent public rhetoric from President Vladimir Putin down through the entire information apparatus of the Russian state, which has frequently made both implicit and explicit nuclear threats.
Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is incessant and emphasizes readiness to use these weapons. But its aim is to extract the maximum possible practical value from their mere possession, with or without actual intent to use. The impact of these threats builds on an intensive and highly effective programme by Russia’s extended network of influencers abroad promising almost inevitable escalation to nuclear war if Russia’s plans are opposed. While the constant Russian nuclear refrain suggests greater willingness to consider nuclear use in real life, in turn based on Russia’s demonstrated greater willingness to inflict mass destruction and mass casualties in pursuit of its aims, the rationale behind these threats is to increase Russia’s own operational latitude without actually having to go to war, by undermining Western will to resist.
This campaign has been effective in creating an impression that Russia has an exceptionally low threshold for nuclear use, and that a wide range of circumstances or ‘provocations’ could cause that threshold to be crossed.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
In a January 2022 joint statement by the five main nuclear powers, Russia was said to have reaffirmed that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The text in Russian, however, says instead that nuclear war must not be razvyazana – ‘unleashed’ or ‘allowed to get out of hand’. In practice, Russia continues to threaten nuclear use against its adversaries regardless of any such commitment. Strident nuclear discourse has in fact become an integral part of Russia’s domestic war rhetoric, incessantly rammed home by state propaganda.
Russia’s message of ‘catastrophic escalation’ is routinely endorsed by sympathetic commentators and academics abroad. The resulting success of Russia’s nuclear threats in deterring international countermeasures has been striking, with even defence chiefs from NATO nations directly echoing Russian talking points.
Russia’s doctrine provides for nuclear first use in a conventional war when the country’s ‘very existence’ is at risk. But this has not prevented a wide range of risks in any war, even one started by Russia, being described as existential. It is argued that there need not even be a war. International sanctions and even ‘aggressive statements’ by Russia’s victims have repeatedly proved sufficient to trigger renewed nuclear threats.
Western political leaders have themselves confirmed that Russia has succeeded in shaping their behaviour through nuclear intimidation. This is made most explicit in the artificial limitations on aid and support to Ukraine, which Western powers have explicitly, and misguidedly, linked to fear of a nuclear response by Russia.
Why is it wrong?
A wide range of experienced analysts outside Russia have concluded that, as opposed to threatened use for coercion or military advantage, Russia’s nuclear weapons would only actually be used in extremis. This view holds that Russia’s nuclear arms are a political, defensive deterrent, and thus unlikely to be employed. It further suggests that advances in Russia’s conventional capabilities have made it less likely to need to resort to the use of nuclear weapons. A third, related argument holds that an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ approach – demonstrative use of nuclear weapons as a war termination or prevention strategy – is not among the options Russia would consider. The debate is further complicated by the layering of Russia’s nuclear capabilities, from non-strategic to strategic weapons.
The contributions of Russian commentators on nuclear policy should be treated with scepticism, but in many cases they too have played down the likelihood of nuclear use. The arms control specialist Nikolai Sokov holds that Russia’s nuclear doctrine is defensive and that it reserves nuclear use ‘exclusively for situations when Russia is attacked’, albeit in a broader range of circumstances than the widely recognized criterion of an attack ‘which threatens the existence of the state itself’. Meanwhile, the former Russian military intelligence officer and Carnegie Moscow analyst Dmitri Trenin has argued that the notion of a limited nuclear war has always been ‘alien’ to Russian strategy.
Informed analysts outside Russia have also noted a trend for the threshold for Russian nuclear use to become higher, not lower, as Moscow’s conventional military capabilities have improved from their nadir in the 2000s. Kristin Ven Bruusgaard observed in 2017 that ‘Russia today is less, not more likely to use nuclear weapons than it was 10 or 15 years ago’. Olga Oliker has also argued there is little evidence Russia has lowered its threshold for nuclear use. ‘Rather, Russia’s statements and behavior indicate more a desire to leverage its status as a nuclear power,’ she says.
This does not mean that there is no danger. Disagreements over the precise threshold for Russia to use nuclear weapons risk obscuring the key point that that threshold is far lower than for Western nuclear powers. Acceptance of the possibility of nuclear warfare permeates Russia’s military theory and practice. The moral dimension of nuclear use is also far less of a constraint for Russia than for democracies, as is also the case with other actions in Russia’s conduct of war that cause revulsion abroad – most recently highlighted in Ukraine.
At the same time, Russia’s nuclear arsenal has been prioritized for renewal and diversification, including work on low-yield devices. This programme could add ‘thousands’ of new low-yield and very-low-yield, sub-kiloton warheads, some just 10 tons in TNT equivalent. Russia also continues to upgrade its nuclear command and control systems, regarded as a vital second-strike and warfighting capability.
Moreover, while Russia’s nuclear doctrine posits its nuclear weapons as ‘exclusively’ a deterrent, it also sets out specific criteria for their employment. Each of these criteria allows for nuclear first use, in circumstances that no Western leader ‘would even consider’. Russia’s shifting first-use posture in the late 1990s and into the 2000s – a pivot from ‘no first use’ to ‘first use if necessary’ to ‘assured first use if Russia’s survival is at stake’ – demonstrates its reliance on a nuclear arsenal for both deterrent and warfighting purposes.
The risks of miscalculation, meanwhile, have been strongly emphasized by Russia in its campaign of intimidation but do nevertheless exist. These range from inadvertent escalation to mistaken assessment that Russia itself is under nuclear attack, to a misguided faith in Russia’s nuclear superiority or its superior will and determination.
However, while all of these factors demonstrate that Russia’s attitude to nuclear use is significantly different from that of a NATO nuclear power, this attitude does not set preconditions for reckless, pointless or suicidal nuclear attacks in response to marginal threats.
What is its impact on policy?
As noted above, the most direct and obvious success of Russia’s nuclear threats is in constraining Western support for Ukraine. But Russia capitalizes far more broadly on the perception that it must not be impeded, offended or, most of all, defeated. Western self-deterrence is regularly publicly expressed in ways that will provide additional confidence to Russia’s planners assessing the likelihood of a proportionate or escalatory response.
In part this results from a separate policy failing: Western failure to respond to Russia’s nuclear rearmament. This means there are few credible options for responding in the event of Russian use of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs), which in turn enhances their intimidatory power. In other words, the threat of massive US retaliation alone is inadequate if Western nuclear deterrence is to remain credible.
What would good policy look like?
Good policy means responding soberly to Russian nuclear threats, while at the same time ensuring that any actual nuclear use cannot go unanswered.
Russia has weaponized nuclear rhetoric to great effect, evident in the near-panic that ensues every time President Putin mentions the possibility of nuclear use. The international community should recognize that this is a routine element of Russian state communications, and should take the long view in assessing such propaganda rather than reacting to each new occasion when it is employed. Consistent long-term policy is called for instead.
In order to close the deterrence gap, NATO must re-examine and re-emphasize its own nuclear deterrent in such a way as to address the threat, however remote, of low-yield nuclear weapons being employed for limited military objectives and localized effect. It must better calibrate its own capabilities to the developments in Russia’s arsenal, and address the gaps in NATO’s escalatory ladder that have formed as a result.
Conventional and nuclear, defensive and offensive, symmetrical and asymmetrical military countermeasures must be demonstratively available for use for maximum effect in deterring any consideration of nuclear use by Russia. The gulf in non-strategic nuclear capability demands policy adjustment, beyond the step already taken to fit a number of low-yield warheads to strategic submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Cheaper and more credible delivery platforms, distinguishable from those designed for a strategic nuclear strike, are essential.
This is not to argue for a full-on nuclear arms race. Rather, it is essential to signal resolve, which is often lacking, as well as to demonstrate potential, which at the moment is also absent. Defensive action against the use of NSNWs, such as the hardening of high-value targets, must be considered. A coordinated division of labour is necessary both within NATO and more broadly. NATO’s non-nuclear member states and other like-minded non-nuclear nations must also contribute towards advanced conventional deterrent capabilities, including missile defence and a full range of stand-off fires.
The Kremlin should not retain its monopoly on public discussion of nuclear use, and nuclear threats must be responded to robustly rather than with panic. Russia should be challenged directly over its own toxic and irresponsible domestic and international nuclear statements. Above all, situations that would warrant a limited nuclear response by Western nuclear powers, such as Russian use of NSNWs or other weapons of mass destruction, should be discussed publicly in order to reduce Russia’s confidence in Western self-deterrence. All of these measures would render Russia’s nuclear threats even less realistic, and hence a less effective tool for intimidation.
Publication date: 23 August 2022