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Putin Deepens Confusion About Russian Nuclear Policy

October 25, 2018
Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

Last week, at an international gathering of academics and analysts, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would use nuclear weapons only in response to an attack on Russia. While some initial reports interpreted Putin’s comments to mean that Russia is adopting a nuclear “no first use” policy, this does not seem to be the case; his remarks were more likely meant to assuage U.S. fears that Russia has lowered its threshold for first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Unfortunately, Putin’s words have done more to obscure Russian nuclear doctrine than clarify it. This sort of ambiguity is not unique to Russia, but clarity surrounding nuclear doctrine—both Russia’s and the United States’—will become even more important as key arms control agreements continue to fray, diminishing the stability and transparency conferred by mutual compliance. In recent days, Russia has reiterated its concerns about U.S. compliance with the New START Treaty and President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in part due to allegations of Russian noncompliance. In the midst of such significant changes to the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks only muddy the waters further. 

Not a Shift in Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine

Despite early excitement over Putin’s remarks, a close reading does not indicate that a substantial shift in Russia’s nuclear doctrine is taking place. Responding to a question about his readiness to use nuclear weapons, Putin stated: “[O]ur nuclear weapons doctrine does not provide for a pre-emptive strike.” Instead, “[o]ur concept is based on a reciprocal counter strike... [T]his means that we are prepared and will use nuclear weapons only when we know for certain that some potential aggressor is attacking Russia, our territory. Only when we know for certain—and this takes only a few seconds to understand—that Russia is being attacked we will deliver a counter strike... Of course, this amounts to a global catastrophe, but I would like to repeat that we cannot be the initiators of such a catastrophe because we have no provision for a pre-emptive strike... But any aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and they will be annihilated.”

There is no consensus among United States-based analysts regarding the degree to which doctrinal phrases take on the same meaning in U.S. and Russian strategic cultures. For example, in addition to threatening swift retaliation if attacked, Putin also sought to dispel the notion that Russia would resort to using nuclear weapons preventively. While the official Kremlin translation of the remark uses the word “pre-emptive,” the Russian words he used (превентивный удар) is more accurately translated as “preventive strike.” While this may be a matter of arbitrary word choice, it is also possible that Putin sought to rebut U.S. analysts and policymakers who accuse Russia of reserving the right to conduct preventive nuclear strikes in a crisis to counter or discourage NATO mobilization. For example, Keith Payne, one of the drafters of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), wrote in 2016 that Russia “seeks to prevent any significant collective Western defensive opposition [to a Russian military operation] by threatening limited nuclear first-use in response.”

It is true that Russia’s nuclear doctrine does not preclude nuclear first use,1 but it is not clear that the particularly aggressive dynamic that Payne describes exists. Putin’s comments appear to rebut any notion that Russia would conduct a preventive nuclear strike, but in the context of previous contradictory statements, he failed to convincingly make that point. On Oct. 22, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, sought to clarify the president’s comments on Russia’s nuclear doctrine. While his explanation echoed Putin’s disavowal of a preventive nuclear first strike, it did not amount to a nuclear “no first use” policy because he stated that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an existential threat to the Russian state. 

A Response to the Nuclear Posture Review

Rather than a shift in nuclear policy, Putin’s statement should be interpreted as a direct response to the NPR’s claim that Russia has lowered the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.

The Trump administration’s NPR plays into existing Russian anxieties about NATO’s intentions. The document states that Russia “mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.” The NPR uses this concern not only to justify U.S. acquisition of “supplementary” nonstrategic nuclear capabilities; it also drives a modification of U.S. declaratory policy to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack.” The latter would constitute first use of nuclear weapons. Proponents of this policy argue that these changes are intended to avoid miscalculation by clarifying the circumstances in which the United States would use nuclear weapons, while preserving a certain level of ambiguity; however, in Russia, these policy changes have been met with alarm.

As Olga Oliker has written recently, most Russian strategists ... expect that a military clash with the United States would almost certainly lead to, if not begin with, a large-scale attack on Russia, including an early strike on its nuclear capabilities.Despite the Trump administrations claim that the NPR raises the threshold for nuclear use by reducing the risk of adversary calculation,Putin and other Russian officials clearly believe that the document in fact lowers the nuclear threshold. They have since appealed to U.S. officials to raise that threshold by reiterating the consequences of a U.S. nuclear strike of any type. This sentiment was echoed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a recent interview with French media, in which he called upon Russia and the United States to issue a joint statement saying that no one could win a nuclear war and therefore it should not be fought.

Putin Regularly Contradicts Himself

Inconsistencies in Putins statements about nuclear weapons are not uncommon. These rhetorical variations have largely coalesced around two interpretations of Russias nuclear threshold:

  • That Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only in response to (1) a WMD attack against Russia or its allies or (2) a conventional attack that existentially threatens the Russian state. This message is consistent with Russias 2010 and 2014 military doctrines, and was repeated nearly verbatim in Putins March 1 speech, during which he also unveiled Russias new strategic systems.
  • That Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack on Russian territory. This message is much more limited in scope, and was offered by Putin during an interview for the 2018 documentary “The World Order 2018.” This limited interpretation also matches Putins Oct. 18 statement at the Valdai Discussion Club.

Putins comments at Valdai diverged from Russias military doctrine by suggesting that Russia would only use nuclear weapons to retaliate against a nuclear strike on Russian territory. Given his continuously shifting nuclear rhetoric, however, this should not be interpreted as a change in Russias nuclear doctrine without further clarification. And the claim that Russian doctrine does not include preventive attacks, while potentially important, raises questions about what is meant by preventiveand whether it includes first use in all scenarios. If Putins or Peskovs remarks were intended to substantively revise Russian doctrine, they would have had to clearly articulate those nuances.

Despite Putins characterization of Russian doctrine as very clear and specific,the exact circumstances under which Russia would use nuclear weapons remain unclear. That is not unique to Russia, as U.S. officials have frequently contradicted themselves regarding the nuances of U.S. nuclear doctrine. Rather than strengthening deterrence, ambiguity surrounding U.S. and Russian nuclear thresholds is causing both sides to make dangerous assumptions about one anothers intentions.

In his Oct. 18 remarks, Putin himself acknowledged that his every wordwill be heavily scrutinized. He was not wrong. As policymakers deliberately choose to walk away from the transparency provided by key arms control agreements, their statements take on particular significance. To that end, both sides should make a concerted effort to clearly and consistently articulate the nuances of their nuclear policies.  


  1. Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine says: “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.”

The opinions in this article are solely those of the authors.


Abigail Stowe-Thurston

Abigail Stowe-Thurston is a research assistant for the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, she was a fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), where she lobbied on nuclear weapons policy and Pentagon spending.


Matt Korda

Matt Korda is a research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, he worked for the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO HQ in Brussels.


Hans M. Kristensen

Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons. He specializes in using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in his research.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy Naval Air Warfare Center, public domain.

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