nuclear missile

New Document Consolidates Russia’s Nuclear Policy in One Place

June 04, 2020
Olga Oliker

Rejoice nuclear strategy nerds! On June 2, the Russian Federation published a brand new document titled “Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence.” In this six-page document, Russia has laid out its official position on nuclear deterrence.

This is the first time we’ve seen such a thing from Moscow. Any prior versions were classified. Thus, for decades, those of us who wanted to write about Russian approaches to nuclear weapons had to piece together Moscow’s positions and intentions from components of other documents (most notably a line or two in the country’s military doctrine), statements from officials, exercises, force structure and the writings of Russia’s own specialists and strategists (the military literature is summarized particularly well in an excellent recent two-part series from the Center for Naval Analyses). To be sure, none of us will stop reading the other documents, watching the exercises, reading the papers and listening to what officials say. But it is nice to have it all in one place.

And putting it all in one place is very much what this new document, which I’ll be calling “Foundations” for the balance of this essay, does. There is little that is strikingly new here. Rather, Foundations echoes things we have heard from officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and read in formal documents past. But by bringing them all together, it clarifies a few things. It also highlights some seeming inconsistencies. Importantly, as I know you are all wondering, “escalate to de-escalate” as defined by Western analysts and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is almost certainly still not Russia’s policy, but Foundations alone isn’t going to kill the debate.

I will not summarize Foundations or translate it in toto (the translations and paraphrases you’ll find here are my own, unless otherwise noted). If you want to read more about what’s in it, I commend to you this excellent piece by Nikolai Sokov, along with  Dmitri Stefanovich’s and Kristin Ven Bruusgaard’s and Pavel Podvig’s June 2 Twitter threads and discussions, among others. If you read Russian, Kommersant has put out a nice summary. An official translation will surely show up eventually. I expect more smart takes to follow between the time I finish drafting this text and its publication. I also expect (and may contribute to) detailed Talmudic readings in the weeks, months and years to come. In the meantime, however, I’m just going to talk about what jumps out at me, trying not to cover too much of the ground already covered by others, and what I think it means.

Foundations is broken up into four sections. These are:

  • General principles
  • Essence of deterrence (that is, what deterrence means to Russia)
  • Conditions under which Russia would shift to nuclear use
  • Roles of government institutions and agencies

According to the general principles, deterrence is a whole of government effort. Nuclear deterrence is defensive, meant to guarantee Russia’s ability to secure its sovereignty and territorial integrity (and that of allies). Nuclear weapons are only for deterrence. Their purpose is to prevent aggression against Russia (and its allies). Use is a last resort.

As Sokov writes, the discussion of deterrence and its essence owes a lot to Thomas Schelling. As he also notes, Foundations underlines that Russia’s approach appears centered around deterrence by punishment, in response to aggression, rather than deterrence by denial, or simply making aggression impossible.

Foundations tells us that Russia is looking to deter states and coalitions that view it as a potential threat and have the nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or the conventional capacity, to do it harm. It also lists the military dangers that make deterrence necessary. These are not triggers for nuclear use. I interpret the list instead as a delineation of the sorts of things that require Russia to maintain deterrent capabilities, that is, to fear aggression. They include possession and proliferation of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction and associated delivery vehicles by a range of states, deployments of missile defenses, medium and short-range cruise missiles, precision conventional and hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, combat UAVs and nuclear-capable systems deployed near Russia by potential adversaries. So, basically, the fact that countries have scary weapons means that Russia needs nuclear deterrence. The list also, notably, includes the deployment of nuclear weapons and delivery systems on the territory of non-nuclear states—this is surely about deployments of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. But it’s also not new. We have long known Russia’s position on NATO nuclear sharing.

Russian nuclear weapons are to be maintained at a minimally sufficient level. This of course, is in the eye of the force-builder. However, those of us who fear arms racing may take some comfort in this subpoint of paragraph 15.

OK, then, what about use? The section on use begins by repeating the formulation in the last two Russian military doctrines (translation from the Russian Embassy in the U.K.): “The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy." Like the doctrines, Foundations underlines that the president of the Russian Federation makes any decision to use nuclear weapons. However, unlike the doctrines, it then, in paragraph 19, outlines four conditions that could allow for (not require) nuclear use:

  • credible information that Russia is under ballistic missile attack (the missiles don’t have to be nuclear—this isn’t specified—but in many cases, it’s hard to tell before they land);
  • the use of nuclear or other WMD by an adversary against Russian territory or that of its allies;
  • adversary actions against Russian critical government or military infrastructure that could undermine Russia’s capacity for nuclear retaliation (so, for example, a cyber attack on Russia’s command and control—or perhaps one that targets Russian leadership could also qualify); and, finally,
  • conventional aggression against Russia that threatens the very existence of the state.

Some of this is old. But two things are new, or newish. First is the clear statement that Russia can launch under warning of ballistic missile attack. This is in line with Putin’s statements, but still notable to see in a formal document. Second, is the equally clear statement that an attack (military or otherwise) on Russia’s nuclear, command and related infrastructure, broadly defined, justifies a nuclear response. This has been a matter of speculation, and often assumed to be true. Now it’s confirmed.

What about “escalate to de-escalate”? The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, published in February 2018, asserts that Russia’s nuclear strategy is to threaten to use or use nuclear weapons early in a heretofore conventional, lower-stakes conflict for battlefield gain, including by deterring the adversary from further action. The CNA reports, cited above, also note that Russian military analysts write about how threats of escalation can de-escalate conflict, including in the nuclear realm (American and other strategic thinkers, Schelling among them, have also thought about things like this, of course, and not just in the nuclear realm). Russia’s naval doctrine talks of the importance of “demonstration of readiness and determination to employ nonstrategic nuclear use” to deterrence. But there’s nothing of this sort in paragraph 19 of Foundations (which also makes no distinction between strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons). Does Foundations, then, disprove the NPR?

Hard-core believers in “escalate to deescalate,” will find language in Foundations that would seem to support their arguments. That language is back at the beginning, under General Principles, in paragraph four. After talking about the defensive nature of deterrence, that paragraph states that Russian nuclear deterrence is intended to  “[deter] a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies, and in the case of a military conflict, [preclude] the escalation of military actions and [end] them under conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.”

So, what’s going on? One possible explanation is that from a deterrence standpoint, one threatens what one needs to threaten, but from a use standpoint, the bar is higher. Foundations does, after all, clearly delineate between deterrence and use. But while conditions for deterrence and use may, indeed be different, saying so in a strategic document, which is itself part of the overall deterrence framework, would seem to undermine credibility. The text may be also intentionally ambiguous—paragraph 15 of Foundations lists unpredictability of scale, time, and place of possible use of force as a key principle of nuclear deterrence. Alternatively, the ambiguity may be unintentional—Foundations is surely the product of several agencies in collaboration, although all in all, this six-page document is a fairly tidy text, so I doubt it.

Perhaps more plausibly, the combination of paragraphs four and 15 may be understood as follows:  Russia will use nuclear weapons only under the conditions delineated in paragraph 19. That is to say, it will not use them for simple battlefield advantage or to “escalate to de-escalate.” First use is allowed only in case of existential threat: to Russia or to its deterrent. But if those conditions are met, and Russia decides to use nuclear weapons, Russia will do so intending to prevent further escalation and end the conflict as favorably (or acceptably) as possible for itself. The American version, usually articulated in the conventional context, is “deter [and]…[s]hould deterrence fail … win.” Russia’s take seems to include an intermediate step of re-establishing deterrence, and potentially the acceptance of something short of full victory.

That Foundations, one purpose of which is surely to signal intent to other countries, is still going to be read differently by different audiences speaks to the difficulty of communicating strategy clearly. But it also speaks to the importance of trying. Each clarification alters the debate, raises more questions and, in the end, contributes to transparency, better mutual understanding and, yes, deterrence.


Olga Oliker

Olga Oliker is the program director for Europe and Central Asia at International Crisis Group.

Photo by U.S. Senior Airman Clayton Wear shared in the public domain as a U.S. government work.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.