Excessive focus on the potential for Russia to carry out a demonstrative or localized attack for coercive purposes obscures the real purpose of Russia’s nuclear weapons.
What is the myth?
Western officials continue to describe Russian nuclear doctrine as one of ‘escalating to de-escalate’ (E2DE). The key proposition here is that Russia’s threshold for using nuclear weapons is very low, and that Russia will employ nuclear weapons early in a conflict because its leaders believe that this will lead to ‘de-escalation’ through inducing the adversary to capitulate and cease hostilities. Implicit is that the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons is insignificant, and that Russia believes it could use nuclear weapons for coercion with impunity.
The further implication of this is that Russia could pursue coercive strategies against NATO countries through threats of, or actual, nuclear use. Western policymakers are concerned that this approach is difficult to defend against with conventional force. Furthermore, if nuclear threats by Russia are successful, that may encourage it to engage in other types of coercive behaviours. In the context of the invasion of Ukraine, speculation about Russian nuclear strategy has significantly increased, in turn reinforcing the myth of a very low Russian threshold for nuclear use.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Several influential Western analysts responsible for formulating US policy have proposed this Russian ‘theory of victory’ in the past decade. They claim it may incentivize Russian attacks against NATO unless the West takes drastic measures to mitigate it. These analysts posit that Russia believes the West is risk-averse or unable to stand united in the face of a severe crisis. Their propositions and the ensuing debate even produced a shift in US nuclear policy in 2018, when a new Nuclear Posture Review recited this interpretation of Russian nuclear doctrine.
Some scholars and analysts have also repeated this aspect of Russian nuclear policy as a truism. Mark Schneider has consistently argued that Russian nuclear doctrine is ambitious and aggressive. David Johnson has argued that any declared Russian policy indicating a higher nuclear threshold should be interpreted as a deception strategy. US officials have used the argument to legitimize US nuclear modernization. Ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine has stimulated more analysis in the same vein.
Why is it wrong?
Describing Russian nuclear strategy as ‘escalate to de-escalate’ is an unproductive simplification. It produces dangerous misunderstandings that in turn underestimate what it will take to deter Russian nuclear use. An exaggerated focus on limited, coercive nuclear use has led analysts to overemphasize one narrow scenario of nuclear compellence as the sole problem which Russian strategy poses.
The emphasis on very early nuclear use in Russian military doctrine is also outdated, stemming from the late 1990s and early 2000s when doctrine officially stated that the nuclear threshold had been lowered. Since at least 2010, however, Russian nuclear doctrine has evolved to account for improvements in its conventional military capabilities. This doctrine could again change as a result of the shortcomings in Russian general-purpose forces revealed in Ukraine. But Russian nuclear doctrine has seemingly not adjusted for this in the period since the full-scale attack on Ukraine started in February 2022: Russian officials continue to insist that Russia would only consider using nuclear weapons when the existence of the state is under threat – that is, when Russian territory is being attacked.
The Western emphasis on the risk of coercive nuclear use conflates shifts in Russian foreign policy ambitions with a shift in nuclear strategy. It was only after 2014 that many Western analysts started arguing that Russia had become a revisionist power with expansionist goals, and that it could well consider employing nuclear weapons to promote such goals. This changed the analysis of what Russia might do with the arsenal of sub-strategic nuclear weapons it had already possessed for years.
Increased sub-strategic nuclear capabilities produced an interpretation that the early and limited use of nuclear weapons for compellence purposes was more likely, and that nuclear escalation would be inherently attractive to Russia. This ignored the fact that these sub-strategic nuclear weapons also fulfil a key deterrence task for Russia – preventing the outbreak of regional wars. This interpretation thus represented a view of what Russia could do with its weapons, rather than an accurate reflection of how Russian strategists conceive of the problem.
The ‘escalate to de-escalate’ idea neglects the key task of Russian nuclear strategy, which is to threaten first use for deterrence. This primary task of Russian nuclear weapons is clearly conveyed in all Russian strategy documents of the post-Cold War era. Russian capability developments – in the strategic and non-strategic realms – align with these key tasks of deterring large-scale war and regional wars that threaten the very existence of the state. This is the essential challenge Russian nuclear strategy poses: how to deter nuclear use in those circumstances. Few nuclear-armed states formulate a different objective. This objective of de-escalating conflict is also explicitly stated in US nuclear operations policy.
In short, the myth of a Russian fascination with nuclear coercion exaggerates Russia’s confidence in its ability to control escalation. The Russian doctrinal threshold for nuclear use has not changed despite significant shifts in the security environment since 2014. This indicates that Russian leaders remain concerned about the prospect of nuclear war. Statements by Vladimir Putin in the past couple of years reinforce this impression. Russian nuclear signalling during the war against Ukraine has thus far demonstrated that this threshold is higher than the proponents of the Russian nuclear de-escalation theory have claimed. Russia has sought to compel Ukraine over a long period, but remains reluctant to employ nuclear weapons to achieve this objective.
What is its impact on policy?
The conviction in the Western policy community that Russian doctrine is one of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ has produced a shift in strategy in response. ‘Russia’s irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture’ loom large when NATO deliberates its military posture in Europe. The alliance’s primary response to the threat of potential Russian nuclear adventurism has been to reinforce conventional forces along its eastern periphery. The US has also adjusted its nuclear policy by producing new, low-yield nuclear options that should more effectively deter Russia through the threat of reciprocal limited nuclear strikes.
Although there is potential utility in reducing the intimidatory value of Russia’s low-yield arsenal, Western policy remains oriented towards deterring the wrong type of threat. The more significant deterrence challenge the West faces is containing nuclear escalation in the event of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. Russia is unlikely to seek out a scenario it would be unlikely to win; but it would consider nuclear weapons use in that event. This is a more difficult deterrence challenge, which the West cannot solve by acquiring new nuclear capabilities.
What would good policy look like?
To effectively deter or influence Russian behaviour, US and NATO deterrence strategy must build upon a correct interpretation of Russian strategy. If Russia’s nuclear threshold is higher than proponents of the ‘escalate to de-escalate’ thesis argue, then Western deterrence strategy should be adjusted to that challenge.
If Russia contemplates first use of nuclear weapons only in the face of significant conventional strikes against the Russian homeland, a priority should be to reduce the likelihood of conflict materializing between Russia and the West. NATO is currently beefing up its presence and capability along Russia’s border: a sensible move given Russia’s military actions. But Western leaders should pay attention to the Russian concern at the potential for deployment of systems on NATO territories, such as forward-deployed nuclear-capable assets, or long-range precision strike assets, that could target Russian strategic systems. Nuclear and conventional capabilities play different roles in Russian and NATO strategy. This in turn means that the two sides place asymmetric value on the survival of those capabilities.
If direct war between Russia and a major Western power did materialize, Western planners and strategists would need to carefully deliberate how they initiated strikes and sustained military operations against Russia. Russian first-use policy does not mean that any conventional strike against Russia would immediately trigger nuclear retaliation. But strikes against Russian strategic systems would be certain to generate significant risk of nuclear escalation. In the fog of war, the West would have to consider carefully how to apply maximum pressure on Russia across the military and non-military domains.
Finally, Western leaders must invest and believe in crisis management mechanisms that can effectively ensure war termination before escalation to nuclear war. It is unlikely the West could defeat Russia militarily and completely without the latter resorting to the use of nuclear weapons: Russia has invested in the world’s largest nuclear arsenal to make just such an eventuality impossible. A (near-)peer adversary with a large nuclear arsenal cannot be forced to complete capitulation. This forces a rethink of how Western states deliberate theories of victory, war termination, and potential post-war coexistence with their adversaries.
Publication date: 23 August 2022