When the U.S. government announced it was withdrawing from the INF treaty due to Russian violations of the treaty that are now universally acknowledged, a flood of critical article immediately ensued.
However, virtually none of those articles mentioned Russian nuclear strategy or policy, reflecting these commentators’ ongoing ignorance of both subjects and refusal to take into account Russia’s nuclear behavior and the reasons for it.
Without a proper understanding of Russian nuclear policy, not to mention strategy, formulation of an appropriate Western strategy and policies becomes that much more difficult.
But recent trends suggest that Washington’s decision was not misconceived and that nuclear weapons continue to hold not just a place of priority in Russian procurements but are also seen as usable weapons.
Nuclear weapons remain the priority in Russian procurement for the new defense plan through 2025 as in the previous plan through 2020.1
And this occurs even though doctrinally and,in practice, the Russian government and military proclaim their emphasis on non-nuclear deterrence in current and future military planning.2
Additionally, there is evidence that Russia has violated not only the INF and other arms control treaties like the CFE treaty but is also violating the New START treaty that is supposed to expire in 2021. When Russia submitted its statement of its nuclear weapons holding for the New START treaty earlier in 2018 it noted that it had destroyed 116 missiles, yet added 26 MIRVed missiles that carry up to 10 missiles each.
This declaration means that it was adding rather than subtracting missiles.3
Similarly Vladimir Mikheev, Advisor to the First Deputy General Director of Concern for Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET) said that Russia was installing EW systems on X-101 and X-102 cruise missiles carried by the TU-95, Tu-160, and TU-22M3 strategic bombers.
Russia also reported that the X-101 is the newest Russian air-ground cruise missile that is designed to avoid radar visibility. It can be equipped with a nuclear warhead and its range amounts to 4500 KM (2800 Miles).4
As former Pentagon official Dr. Mark Schneider has observed, if the Backfire bomber, (NATO designation for the TU 22-M3) which was not declared to be a heavy bomber, carries either the KH-1-1 or Kh-102 that is a violation of the New START Treaty since it converts the TU-22M# (Backfire) into an undeclared heavy bomber.5
Beyond these disquieting developments, President Putin has recently announced that although Russia does not have a strategy for preemptive nuclear use, it does have a launch on warning doctrine.6
And one can also doubt the assertion that Russia does not have a strategy for preemptive nuclear use as Russian analysts and officials have made it clear that the entire preemption debate has been classified.7
Indeed, the assertion that Russia does not have a nuclear preemption strategy directly contradicts the statement of former Chief of the General Staff, Retired General Yuri Baluyevsky, the author of the 2010 defense doctrine, who stated in 2014 that the conditions for preemptive nuclear strikes were contained in the classified nuclear doctrine.8
And in 2015, Ilya Krammik, the military correspondent for RIA Novosti wrote that Russia’s 2010 defense doctrine, despite the opinion of most Western observers “further lowered” the threshold of “combat use” of nuclear weapons.9
Evidently Putin has disregarded the fact that that launch on warning is one of the riskiest and most destabilizing models for using nuclear weapons.10
Furthermore Putin has also recently announced that the Avangard hypersonic nuclear missile will be deployed in 2019, although not all Western analysts are convinced that the hypersonic missiles Putin has frequently advertised will actually be ready for deployment.11
No less disquieting is the fact that in the recent Vostok-2018 exercises Russian forces and the Ministry of Energy conducted large-scale exercises to restore electric grids and power supply after an attack.
In other words, Russia rehearsed an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) operation, and its aftermath strongly suggesting that it either expects one or is intending to launch one.12
Significantly Moscow sought to conceal the purpose of the grid recovery exercise and divorce it form Vostok-18 by suggesting it was done to prepare for the Siberian winter.13
Furthermore, we now know that Moscow has rehearsed nuclear operations, e.g. a nuclear strike against Sweden in 2013.14
This occurred in the context of overflights and subsequent nuclear threats against all of the northern European states from the UK to Finland and dovetails with the apparent GPS jamming of Norway and Finland during the recent NATO Trident Juncture exercise.15
Finally, Putin has threatened all of Europe that any state that hosts US INF-capable missiles, will be targeted with nuclear weapons as if that is not already the case.16
And Col-General Victor Yesin, former CINC of Russia’s nuclear weapons has now also threatened that if Washington leaves the INF treaty and deploys missiles in Europe Russia could shift to a preemptive strike doctrine in the expectation of a NATO nuclear strike or conventional attack in tandem with the U.S. missile defense system on its nuclear C4ISR that would destroy its nuclear capability.17
Moreover, Russia’s Perimetr’ defense complex, the so-called “Dead Hand” of the 1980s is not only alive and functioning but has also been modernized and improved.18
These remarks are noteworthy because they reflect Russia’s belief despite the laws of physics and dozens of official briefings by the US, that the U.S. is planning a first strike on Russian nuclear weapons.
Therefore, Moscow believes it must answer or retaliate if not preempt in kind by launching on warning, i.e. even before being attacked since warning has proven to be notoriously unreliable.
Since NATO has already said that no new U.S. nuclear missiles will be deployed in Europe and U.S. missile defenses cannot take out Russia’s nuclear weapons we have before us a threat assessment that inclines more than a little, to hysteria and worst case analysis.
This threat assessment, taken in tandem with Russian procurements, the fact that nuclear weapons are fully integrated with conventional weapons and operations across the spectrum of conflict, the fact that with over 20 programs now being developed for counterforce, countervalue, short, intermediate, and long-range capabilities,can we really believe that Russia is complying with the New START treaty and is renouncing the first-strike use of nuclear weapons?
Moreover, it would appear that the aspects of Russian strategy presented here comprise at least part of Russia’s “Theory of victory” in a nuclear contingency.19
These facts from Russian threat assessments, procurements, exercises, treaty violations, and deployments of nuclear-capable systems in Crimea, the Western Military District, Kaliningrad, and the Black Sea undermine confidence in Russia either as a reliable partner for arms control or in its professions that it is moving away from nuclear to conventional scenarios.
Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
- Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russia’s Military Modernization Plans: 2018-2027, “Program On New Approaches To Russian Security (PONARS),” Eurasia Policy Memo, No. 495, November, 2017.
- For example, “Russian Navy To Focus On Strategic Non-nuclear Deterrence – Commander-in-Chief, ”http://tass.com/defense/983872, January 1, 2018; for doctrinal information, Voyennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii, December 26, 2014, www.kremlin.ru; Natsional’naya Strategiya Bezopasnosti Rossii,www.kremlin.ru, December 31, 2015.
- https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/russia/2018/russia-181109-sputnik01.htm, November 9, 2018.
- Communication from Mark Schneider November 9, 2018.
- “Zasedanie Diskussionnogo Kluba Valdai,” October 18, 2018, http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/58848.
- Mark B. Schneider, “Russian Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategy and Politics, XX, NO. 1, 2017, pp. 126-127.
- “Russia Classifies Information on Pre-emptive Nuclear Strikes-Military,” BBC Monitoring, Former Soviet Union, September 5, 2014, www.dialog.proquest.com/professional/professional/docview/1560021754?accountid=155509.
- Ilya Kramnik, “Cold Calculation Apocalypse. NATO HAS Taken Notice of the Russian Nuclear Threat,” www.lenta.ru, February 3, 2015, quoted in Mark B. Schneider, “Russian Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategy and Politics, XX, NO. 1, 2017, p. 127.
- Alexander Golts as quoted by Paul Goble, “Putin’s Valdai Club Remarks On Nuclear War Not New But Very Worrisome, Golts Says,” www.windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, October 20, 2018.
- Michael Kofman, “Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 1 – Kinzhal, Sarmat, 4202),” https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/tag/hypersonic/, March 4, 2018.
- Peter Vincent Pry, “The Danger Of Russia’s Largest Military Exercise-Understanding Vostok-18,” “https://www.newsmax.com/platinum/military-exercises-emp-peter-pry-vladimir-putin/2018/10/08/id/885399/ October 8, 2018.
- Damien Sharkov, “Russia Practiced Nuclear Strike On Sweden: NATO Report, www.newsweek.com, February 4, 2016.
- Gwladys Fouche and Nerijus Adomaitis,”Joining Finland, Norway Says Russia May Have Jammed GPS Signal In Arctic,” Reuters, November 13, 2018.
- “INF: Vladimir Putin Threatens To Mirror US Deployment Of Nuclear Missiles In Europe,” www.msn.com, October 24, 2018.
- l“Dead Hand” Alive and Modernized,”? www.russiadefensepolicy.blog/2018/11/12/dead-hand-alive-and modernized/November 12, 2018.
- Brad Roberts, The Case For U.S. Nuclear Weapons In the 21stCentury, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015, pp. 106-140.