Incirlik air base

Russian Strategists Debate Preemption as Defense Against NATO Surprise Attack

March 14, 2018
Alexander Velez-Green
We at Russia Matters have long believed that some of the most crucial questions related to U.S. policies toward Russia have no easy answers and deserve to be debated by knowledgeable experts. How Russia’s leadership perceives the option of using pre-emptive force is one such question. This article presents one point of view—not as the final word on the subject, but to serve as an opening for further debate, which we look forward to continuing on this website.

Russian military and civilian leaders have long debated what to do in the face of a NATO surprise attack. One group of authoritative military strategists believes that, in the near future, defensive operations alone will be unable to stop such an attack; consequently, they are arguing for Russia to adopt a doctrine of preemption to protect its territorial integrity and vital interests. This doctrine would authorize the first use of strategic nonnuclear or limited nuclear attacks on NATO military or civilian targets once an attack on vital Russian interests seemed imminent.

The Kremlin has apparently rejected calls for preemption thus far, excluding it from the country’s successive unclassified military doctrines. But if NATO’s offensive strike forces continue to outmatch Russian defenses, or are perceived to do so, then it is this author’s view that Moscow may well pivot toward preemption, significantly increasing the risk of major war—including nuclear war—between NATO and Russia. U.S. and NATO policymakers should act now to dissuade a possible shift toward preemption by enhancing the alliance’s force resilience in Europe, cyberspace and outer space, but doing so in a way that is unlikely to exacerbate Russian fears of a NATO surprise attack.

A Nation Under Siege

Russian military strategists whose work has been reviewed for this article predominantly believe that the United States—abetted by its NATO allies—is on a quest for global hegemony.[i] From their perspective, Washington sees Russia as an obstacle to this absolutist objective and, as a result, is deliberately trying to prevent Russia from regaining its status as a great power.[ii] And it’s doing so in ways that they assess threaten several Russian vital interests.[iii] First, they argue that NATO expansion has eroded Russia’s western geographic buffer, immediately threatening Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.[iv] At the same time, Russian strategists accuse Washington of using “color revolutions” to install Western client states on Russia’s borders.[v] These states, they fear, could be used as bases for military or subversion operations against Russia in the future. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also repeatedly accused Washington of trying to instigate a color revolution in Russia itself.[vi] On top of all of this, relatively low oil prices and Western sanctions have crippled the Russian economy, further undermining Moscow’s global influence.[vii]

Some top Russian military thinkers writing in Military Thought, essentially the in-house journal of Russia’s General Staff, argue that these geopolitical trends are paralleled by equally troubling ones in the military arena. The General Staff is somewhat analogous to but more powerful than the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; and although its journal (officially published by the Defense Ministry) is not a perfect predictor of changes in Russian military policy, U.S. intelligence analysts widely accept it as a reliable indicator of how senior Russian military strategists perceive the strategic environment, and how they are thinking about managing different threats.[viii] A review of Military Thought articles on strategic affairs published since 2007 reveals several themes in Russian analysts’ view of the emerging strategic landscape.

First, Russian strategists expect that fighting in a future war with NATO will take place at once unfathomable speeds.[ix] Proliferated sensors on satellites, uninhabited aerial systems (UASs), or drones, and information networks will allow the West to see farther than before.[x] At the same time, the United States and its allies will be able to use cyber, directed-energy, electromagnetic and hypersonic weapons to strike Russia faster than before.[xi] In addition, according to some Russian strategists, many of these same technologies will let NATO find and hit targets across wider target areas than before.[xii] This will leave broader swathes of Russian territory vulnerable to NATO attack from the very start of a conflict, making it even harder for Russian forces to conceal or defend potential targets. Lastly, some Russian strategists anticipate that the West will use new technologies—such as robotic swarms made up of hundreds of UASs—to test their defenses in unprecedented ways, only increasing the likelihood of a Russian defeat.[xiii]

This ability to strike faster, farther and in new ways will put a larger number of Russian targets into immediate danger than ever before. Some of Russia’s top military strategists are unsure of their nation’s ability to defend against these threats, especially if the United States can maintain its technological edge. A subset of this group takes it a step farther and argues that the offensive side, rather than the defensive, will have a decisive advantage in the future.[xiv] They find that defensive operations alone are unlikely to be able to protect Russian vital interests from enemy air, space and cyber attacks. Some Russian strategists also suggest that the threat of nuclear retaliation might no longer be able to deter aggression against Russia in the future. That is, if they are right about this emerging offensive advantage, then if Russian forces allow the enemy to attack first, Russia may have limited nuclear retaliatory options left.

The ongoing development of new ways to potentially neutralize a nation’s nuclear deterrent threatens to exacerbate this fear. Some Russian experts and government officials are particularly concerned by the possibility that, in the event of a crisis or conflict, the United States might try to cripple Russias nuclear forces using conventional weapons, in the belief that Russia would be unlikely to respond with nuclear force since doing so would trigger nuclear retaliation by the United States.[xv] As far as specific attack methods, some Russian strategists worry that the United States could one day use a combination of advanced ballistic missile defenses and hypersonic weapons to conduct a disarming first strike.[xvi] Their concerns about the survivability of Russia’s second-strike capability may grow further as Russia comes to rely more heavily on modern computing technology or satellites for nuclear command-and-control and early warning. This could leave their nuclear forces more vulnerable to allied cyber and anti-satellite attacks, respectively. Russian fears may also grow if autonomous military systems come online that could allow the West to better target Russia’s nuclear delivery vehicles, as some U.S. scholars warn.[xvii]

A Doctrine of Preemption

Many of Russia’s senior military strategists thus believe that the United States is intent on imposing its will on Russia in order to fulfill its hegemonic ambitions, and they are worried that Russia’s military might not be able to defend against future NATO military action or deter it by the threat of nuclear retaliation. Confronted with this dismal strategic outlook, some of Russia’s top military thinkers—including Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Sergei Bogdanov, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Victor A. Vinogradov, Col. Sergei Chekinov, and others[xviii]—are advocating for a doctrine of preemption to protect Russia’s territorial integrity and other vital interests.

Based on these strategists’ writing, aA Russian doctrine of preemption would be fundamentally defensive in intent. It would authorize the first use of strategic nonnuclear or limited nuclear strikes against U.S. and NATO targets as soon as a Western attack on Russian vital interests seemed imminent. Preemption could occur in a crisis or prior to the outbreak of military hostilities. Or, in contrast to common U.S. and European interpretations of the concept of “preemption,”[xix] it could take place in the early stages of an escalating conflict—again, as soon as it seemed to the Kremlin that Russia’s vital interests were in jeopardy.

These types of preemption differ from the Russian concept of otvetno-vstrechny udar (OVU). Russian experts define OVU as: “A form of responsive measures of Strategic Nuclear Forces ordered after analysis of all reconnaissance and early warning data so that the transmitting of launch orders to a major portion of delivery systems and the launch of those systems are carried out before the first impact.”[xx]

OVU may also be characterized as a “retaliatory offensive strike” (i.e., “we are not going to be first but we are not going to be second either”).[xxi] Per these definitions, OVU is a retaliatory option intended for use as soon as Russian forces confirm that an adversary nuclear attack is underway. In this sense, OVU may be understood as a sister of the U.S. concept “launch under attack.”[xxii]

Preemption, by contrast, is a proactive operation. It would occur once intelligence showed that a major enemy attack on Russian vital interests was imminent—but before that attack had actually begun. This is similar to some U.S. definitions of “launch on warning.”[xxiii] But “launch on warning” has traditionally been defined as a response to a nuclear attack that is either imminent or underway. In contrast, the Russian advocates of preemption today reviewed for this article say that preemption should be used to deter or defeat nuclear or nonnuclear threats to Russian vital interests.

The State of the Debate

Again, Russia has not publicly adopted a doctrine of preemption at this time. This is evidenced as much by Russian strategists’ persistent calls for its adoption as by its omission from unclassified Russian military documents. The Kremlin’s evident unwillingness to endorse preemption indicates that there is substantial opposition to such a doctrine in the halls of power. Open sources offer little insight as to who makes up that opposition, or why they oppose preemption, but their influence is clear. At the same time, however, there is evidence that preemption is under serious consideration by Russia’s national security elite. The evidence supplied here falls into three categories: Military Thought articles, public statements and military exercises and investments. 


Military Thought has published at least 18 articles in support of preemption from 2007 to 2017.[xxiv] The arguments advanced differ in two key aspects: whether preemptive strikes should use nuclear or nonnuclear weapons and whether preemptive strikes should target military or civilian targets.

On the first aspect, the majority of articles did not specify whether preemptive strikes should use nuclear or nonnuclear weapons or both. At the same time, at least three articles specifically endorsed nonnuclear preemption.[xxv] For example, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Vasily Burenok and Col. Oleg Achasov wrote in 2008: “[N]on-nuclear deterrence should be understood as a demonstration of readiness to carry out a threat of causing by non-nuclear means reciprocal or anticipatory damage to vital interests and targets of potential aggressors, which would consciously exceed the benefits from the aggression itself”[xxvi] (italics added).

One article, in contrast, argued strongly in favor of nuclear preemption. As Col. (Ret.) V.I. Polegayev and Col. V.V. Alferov wrote in 2015: “It is highly unlikely that strategic deterrence can be exercised against a country (or coalition of countries) that is identified as a potential adversary, in order to prevent it from initiating a full-scale or regional war, with conventional weapons. It can only be exercised under the threat of preemptive nuclear attack… Accordingly, national documents must clearly designate conditions to be put in place for de­escalating aggression by a preemptive direct or indirect nuclear strike.”[xxvii]

Preemption advocates also differ over target selection. Some strategists argue that preemption should focus on destroying U.S. and NATO military forces so that Washington no longer believes it can win a war against Russia. If Western officials don’t think they can win a war against Russia, the argument goes, then they would be far less likely to move forward with one. To that end, they say that Russian preemptive strikes should target key nodes and assets in the NATO battle network, such as ground-, air- and sea-based strike assets; command-and-control networks; and military satellites. For instance, former deputy chief of Russias air defense science and research center, Col. V.A. Zakharov, wrote in late 2014: “Defensive operations alone will hardly set back the aggression. An active defense matching up to the adversary’s offensive thrust must be the right option. It makes sense, therefore, to deploy an active global defense system capable of taking on the adversary’s aerospace attack weapons by an anticipatory or retaliatory strike”[xxviii] (italics added).

Rear Admiral O.V. Alyoshin and Captains 1st Rank A.N. Popov and V.V. Puchnin argued similarly in 2016 that the Russian navy should be tasked with destroying NATO sea-based “global strike assets before they can move to the line of weapon employment.”[xxix]

Other advocates say that preemptive strikes should target U.S. and NATO critical economic and social targets. Burenok and Achasov, for instance, listed “nuclear and hydroelectric power stations” as possible targets for preemptive strikes.[xxx] Advocates in this vein suggest that such attacks would help to frighten Western publics and policymakers into abandoning support for a war against Russia. This conception of “preemption” also differs from U.S. and European uses of the term, which tend to define preemption in strictly military terms. Also of note, current scholarship shows that deliberately targeting an enemy’s civilian population is not historically an effective form of coercion.[xxxi] Even so—particularly as new capabilities allow for more discriminate targeting—Russian strategists may prove sensible in examining how early escalation against non-military targets could place targeted populations on the psychological defensive, yielding the strategic initiative to Russia.

Public Statements

The same timeframe—2007 to 2017—saw multiple public statements in favor of preemption. In 2009, for instance, then-secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said of the 2010 Russian military doctrine, which was still being developed at the time: “[T]he possibility of using nuclear weapons is provided for, depending on the conditions of the situation and the intentions of the probable enemy. In situations critical for national security, a preemptive (preventative) nuclear strike, among other [means], against the aggressor is not excluded.”[xxxii]

The unclassified version of the 2010 doctrine ultimately made no mention of preemptive nuclear strikes.[xxxiii] However, Patrushev’s statement suggests that nuclear preemption was under serious consideration by senior policymakers at the time.

Likewise, in 2012, then-chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov suggested the possible use of preemptive strikes on U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe in the event of a crisis, saying: “Taking into account a missile-defense system’s destabilizing nature, that is, the creation of an illusion that a disarming strike can be launched with impunity, a decision on preemptive use of the attack weapons available will be made when the situation worsens.”[xxxiv] Makarov, who resigned six months later, did not specify whether such strikes would be nuclear, nonnuclear or both. But, as with Patrushev, his comments indicate that preemption was again under serious consideration by Russian decision-makers for use against NATO.

Russian media reports surfaced in late 2014 that the military had repeatedly lobbied Moscow to authorize the use of preemptive nuclear strikes to deter or fight off Western aggression in the unclassified version of the 2014 military doctrine.[xxxv] As in 2010, the unclassified version of the publicly available 2014 doctrine ultimately did not authorize preemption.[xxxvi] Nonetheless, the reports suggest that preemption—particularly nuclear preemption—maintained a constituency among Russian national security officials.

On that note, U.S. analysts should not dismiss the possibility that some form of preemption has been authorized in a classified version of Russia’s military doctrine. Indeed, that’s precisely where Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, former chief of the General Staff and co-author of the 2010 Russian military doctrine, says such an authorization would be located.[xxxvii] This may be unlikely, especially if one believes that the deterrent effect of a doctrine of preemption is maximized by publicizing it. However, Russian policymakers may fear that warning NATO would nullify the doctrine’s effectiveness by giving Western nations time to adapt to absorb or evade Russian preemptive strikes. In that case, they might assess that preemption would have maximum military and psychological impact—and consequently, the best chance of coercing a NATO surrender—if it is kept as a surprise.

Moreover, while Russia has not publicly adopted a doctrine of preemption to date, and may not have adopted one covertly either, there is reason to believe it may do one or the other in the near to medium term if two current trends persist:. That is, if, in the face of bilateral tensions, Moscow continues to see the United States as intent on imposing its will on Russia (by military force if required) and if, at U.S.-Russian relations are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. At the same time, if trends in the military environment place Russian defenses at an increasing disadvantage relative to NATO strike forces, then Moscow may feel it has no choice but to compensate for its weakened defenses by acting preemptively.

Military Exercises and Investments

The Russian military has exercised preemptive strike capabilities at least five times in the past two years. In July 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Iskander-M missile crews would practice delivering preemptive strikes on “tactical missile systems and other remote critical targets determining the combat potential of a hypothetical enemy.”[xxxviii] Similar exercises were announced in October 2016 and February 2017.[xxxix] Furthermore, in May 2017, the ministry announced that the Russian Aerospace Forces would conduct a command-staff exercise to preempt an adversary missile attack.[xl] And in August 2017, the Western Military District press service reported that an Iskander-M missile brigade would also exercise its preemptive strike capability.[xli]

Of note, Russian forces did not exercise preemptive strike capabilities during Zapad-2017. This omission may be best understood as further evidence that Moscow has not yet adopted a doctrine of preemption. However, it should not be seen as confirmation that the Russian government has abandoned consideration of this approach. So long as credible reports show, first, that Russian strategists are persuaded of an impending offensive advantage and, second, that arguments for preemption are under serious consideration by Russian decision-makers, NATO should treat a Russian pivot to preemption as a real possibility.

Finally, in June 2017, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report on Russian military power in which it assessed that Russian strategists believe that “more proactive or even preemptive action” may be required to counter future enemy attack. DIA reported that Russian investments in unspecified deep-strike capabilities indicate Russia’s desire for the ability to preempt NATO attack.[xlii] These capabilities likely include the Iskander, Kalibr and Kh-101 missiles.[xliii]

Possible Conditions for Preemption

Proponents of preemption agree it should only be used in scenarios that pose a critical threat to the Russian state. They offer few specifics beyond that. However, there is reason to believe that any imminent threat of a NATO-Russian military contingency on or near the Russian border—for instance, in defense of the Baltic nations—could trigger Russian preemption. One of the reasons is that NATO is ill-equipped to signal limited intent in a war with Russia. In a Baltic scenario, for instance, NATO would likely limit its objectives to restoring NATO member states’ sovereignty as opposed to a maximalist goal of regime change in Moscow. But it would have a hard time persuading Russia of that in at least two respects.

First, should a future crisis arise on Russia’s doorstep, NATO may find it difficult to mobilize forces in a way that doesn’t set off Russian fears for the survivability of the country’s nuclear deterrent. If Russian officials are led to believe that NATO can neutralize their nuclear deterrent, then—rather than give the West an opportunity to launch a disarming strike under the pretense of preparing for a limited conventional (i.e., nonnuclear) war—they may be incentivized to move first so as to frighten Western societies into backing down, or at least to degrade the U.S. and allied strategic first-strike capability. The likelihood of such an outcome is raised by the dual-use nature of several emerging technologies. As seen by Russian analysts, nonnuclear strike assets like cyber, hypersonic, electromagnetic and directed-energy weapons could be used for a limited conventional offensive or as part of a disarming attack. Waiting to find out how the West plans to use a particular set of systems could be fatal.

Second, even if Russian officials don’t believe that their nuclear deterrent is in immediate danger, it’s not clear that the Russian state could afford to fight a war on or near its borders. That’s because any large-scale military conflict on Russia’s doorstep would most likely implicate troops and systems operating within Russian territory. That is, NATO would be hard-pressed to roll back Russian aggression in the Baltics or elsewhere without contending with Russian air defense assets and troops operating inside Kaliningrad or elsewhere in Russia’s Western Military District.[xliv]

But NATO strikes on targets in Russia would directly violate Russia’s territorial integrity. The 2015 Russian national security strategy defines “ensuring the inviolability” of Russia’s territorial integrity as a vital national interest.[xlv] Depending on the visibility, severity and nature of such a violation, the Russian leadership may assess that “the very existence of the state [is] in jeopardy.” Per Russia’s 2014 military doctrine, such a threat could be met by nuclear escalation.[xlvi] The Kremlin may be willing to use limited nuclear strikes to de-escalate a conflict, as some have argued.[xlvii] But that would be a decidedly suboptimal outcome—inasmuch as Moscow (like Washington) wants to avoid nuclear war—especially if nonnuclear preemption prior to the outset of a conflict might de-escalate it before it started. 

Dangers of Preemption

A Russian doctrine of preemption—its defensive intentions notwithstanding—would significantly increase the risk of major war between Russia and the United States. The significance of this risk is difficult to overstate given today’s geostrategic environment. The potential for a misfired barrage or midair collision, for instance, to trigger a crisis in Syria is not insignificant. At the same time, military tensions are rising on NATO’s eastern frontier. And Russia’s heightened interference in Western democracies raises the risk that conflict in the information, cyber and political realms could spill over into the military dimension.

If Moscow adopts a doctrine of preemption, it would severely complicate efforts by U.S. policymakers to manage escalation with Russia in a future crisis or conflict. As Russian strategists note, changes in the strategic environment are already reducing the time available to policymakers to manage a crisis or conflict. The rapid entry of multiple new technologies into the battle space will also create destabilizing ambiguity, making it harder for decision-makers to tell if an attack is imminent or not.

A doctrine of preemption, if adopted, would exacerbate these trends. A perceived need to act first may lead Moscow to use force before it has time to confirm that a NATO attack is actually imminent. At the same time, if U.S. policymakers are aware of Russian plans for preemption, they may be incentivized to preempt Russian preemption. Such a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack,”[xlviii] whereby each side faces growing incentives to strike first, would increase the risk of nuclear or nonnuclear preemption due to miscalculation or misunderstanding. The risk of such escalation would be magnified further if the United States and Russia are unable to restore military-to-military contacts, a key mechanism for avoiding escalation due to misperception. Unfortunately, according to a recent analysis out of Moscow, Russian military planners currently give insufficient attention to the possibility that escalation might arise unintentionally due to the types of misperceptions described above.[xlix]

Nonnuclear preemption leading to a conventional NATO-Russian war would of course have devastating consequences on its own. At the same time, however, the growing perceived fragility of Russia’s—and possibly the United States’—nuclear deterrent means that policymakers may be faced with heightened “use or lose” pressures in future crises or conflicts. That is, if they do not use their nuclear weapons quickly, they might lose them to an enemy first strike. Such first-use pressures might originate in outer space, for instance, where both sides rely on dual-use satellites for conventional and nuclear command, control and communications. If these satellites were implicated early on in a crisis or conflict, one or both sides might feel impelled to escalate, for fear of losing the ability to do so if they wait.[l] A doctrine of preemption would only intensify those pressures and fears, increasing the risk of nuclear escalation.

Blunt, Evade, Retaliate

Washington should take a proactive approach to dissuading Moscow from adopting a doctrine of preemption. Policies should focus on persuading Moscow that the United States and its allies can absorb and respond effectively to Russian preemption. By convincing the Kremlin that preemptive strikes are highly unlikely to achieve their desired military or political effects, the United States and allies can help to deter Russia from adopting such a policy in the first place. Importantly, none of the following recommendations should heighten Russian fears about potential U.S. or NATO surprise attack. The proposed changes do not include new or additional strike capabilities. Nor would they alter the correlation of forces in Europe beyond what Moscow should reasonably tolerate.

To start, the United States and NATO should invest heavily in cyber and outer space resilience. Much is already being done to ensure that NATO’s battle network can withstand a Russian cyber offensive during a contingency on the alliance’s eastern frontier.[li] These investments should be expanded. So too should attention to and investment in enhanced cyber defenses and resilience for U.S. and European critical infrastructure. Improved protection for non-military targets is essential if governments are to insulate civilian populations from attacks intended to frighten the West into submission.

The alliance should also heighten efforts to ensure that a Russian anti-satellite offensive can neither delay nor prevent it from repelling a Russian attack. Special attention should be given to disaggregating NATO’s satellite constellations. This means shifting to larger numbers of cheaper, more easily replaceable satellites, so that it is harder for Russian forces to disable a critical mass of satellites, and so that even if some satellites are disabled NATO has more satellites at the ready. NATO should also invest in aerial platforms—such as UASs—to act as back-ups for satellites responsible for communications, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and other functions in case they are compromised during a crisis or conflict.

NATO can take additional steps in the near term to blunt or evade Russian preemption in the European theater and to ensure its own ability to retaliate effectively.

Blunting may be achieved by additional deployments of integrated air and missile defenses, short-range air defenses (SHORAD) and counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) systems. Hardening key NATO military installations may also help to blunt the effects of Russian kinetic preemption.

But interceptors and hardening will only do so much in the face of a concerted Russian effort. NATO forces should be trained, equipped and exercised to revert to distributed operations once a Russian offensive is detected. Maritime force posture should reflect this emphasis. A critical mass of naval forces should be kept at sea in periods of tension—prior to crisis—in order to provide Russian forces with as few targets in vulnerable naval bases as possible.[lii] In addition, NATO should reinvest in its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, including frigates, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and undersea sensor arrays.[liii] ASW units may deter preemptive strikes by undersea vessels if the adversary believes that such strikes are unlikely to succeed. They can also secure sea lanes so as to provide NATO vessels with as much maneuvering space as possible in crisis or conflict.

Ground-based air forces must also be ready to disperse to pre-established networks of runways from which they can conduct dispersed air operations. These forces include the F-22s, F-35s and other advanced manned and unmanned fighters needed to maintain superiority in NATO airspace. They also include bombers, refueling tanker aircraft, ISR aircraft and other platforms. Aircraft stationed as far afield as the United Kingdom may be vulnerable to Russian undersea or aerial preemptive strike.

Mechanized infantry, artillery and support units should likewise be ready to deploy rapidly from vulnerable garrisons. They—and their air and sea counterparts—must also be able to sustain communications while on the move and without revealing their locations in a contested electromagnetic environment. NATO member states should invest accordingly in protected communications, offensive jamming, decoys and deception.[liv] Additional investments in automation may yield a crucial electronic warfare advantage for the United States and its allies.[lv]

The Pursuit of Stability

The security of the United States and Russia alike rests upon decreasing the chances of runaway escalation in the event of future crisis or conflict. Doing so, in turn, requires injecting as much time as possible into the crisis- and conflict-management processes, so that decision-makers on all sides can find opportunities to de-escalate a crisis or conflict before it spins out of control. Finding that time in the coming years will be increasingly difficult as novel military technologies hasten the pace of warfare, shrink the battle space and heighten ambiguity.

Ensuring that NATO can withstand Russian preemptive attacks on military—or indeed, economic and social—targets is a critical first step toward finding that time. Not to remedy NATO’s existing vulnerabilities to Russian preemption would be to invite the same. This, in turn, would only further destabilize the NATO-Russian military relationship.

Enhancing NATO resilience without spooking Russia will be made all the more difficult by the Kremlin’s belief that the United States is intent on imposing its will on Russia. The challenges are thus real and manifold. But U.S. and NATO policymakers must confront them head-on so that even if NATO and Russia do stumble into “Cold War 2.0,” as many have warned,[lvi] that war never goes hot.


Alexander Velez-Green

Alexander Velez-Green (@Alex_agvg) is a research associate with the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of the CNAS report "The Unsettling View from Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Preemption."


  1. [i] Ye. O. Savchenko, “The U.S. National Security Strategy and Its Implementation in Today's Conditions,” Military Thought, 4 (2016), 18-23; and S.G. Chekinov and S.A. Bogdanov, “Russia’s Military Strategy: Looking Ahead,” Military Thought, 4 (2016), 24-38.
  2. [ii] A.L. Khryapin, D.A. Kalinkin, and V.V. Matvichuk, “Strategic Deterrence Against the U.S. Global ABM System and Prompt Global Strike Capabilities,” Military Thought, 1 (2015), 1-6; and D.A. Pavlov, A.N. Belsky, and O.V. Klimenko, “Military Security of the Russian Federation: How It Can Be Maintained,” Military Thought, 1 (2015), 17-25. 
  3. [iii] For comprehensive yet accessible analyses of how Russian policymakers identify their vital interests, see Andrew Radin and Clint Reach, “Russian Views of the International Order” (RAND, 2017),; and Simon Saradzhyan, “Prospects for U.S.–Russian relationship during Donald Trump’s presidency (pre)viewed through the prism of the two countries’ vital national interests” (Russia Matters, January 13, 2017),
  4. [iv] “Transcript: Interview with Sergei Ivanov,” Financial Times, June 21, 2015,
  5. [v] Valery Gerasimov, “The World is on the Brink of War,” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, March 15, 2017,; Valery Gerasimov, “The Syrian Experience. Hybrid Warfare Requires High-Tech Weapons and Scientific Substantiation,” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, March 9, 2016, See also V.A. Kiselyov and I.N. Vorobyov, “Hybrid Operations: A New Type of Warfare,” Military Thought, 2 (2015), 28-36; and S.G. Chekinov and S.A. Bogdanov, “The Features of Military Security in 21st Century Russia in Conditions of Globalization,” Military Thought, 2 (2016), 1-16.
  6. [vi] Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski, “Putin says U.S. stoked Russian protests,” Reuters, December 8, 2011,; and Darya Korsunskaya, “Putin says Russia must prevent ‘color revolution,’” Reuters, November 20, 2014,
  7. [vii] V.B. Andrianov and V.V. Loyko, “Employment of the Russian Armed Forces in Critical Situations in Peacetime,” Military Thought, 1 (2015), 148-151. 
  8. [viii] Take, for instance, the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine. This set of ideas was made famous in a 2013 article by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff. It highlights the role of nonmilitary aspects of future warfare. The “doctrine” has since become a fixture in American analysis of the Russian way of war. But careful readers of Military Thought were not surprised by Gerasimov’s pronouncements, since these very ideas had appeared in the journal as early as 2005. See, for instance, Col. A. V. Raskin, “On Network-Centric Warfare,” Military Thought, 2 (2005); and Ye. F. Podsoblyaev, “Theory of Stand-Off Wars: Debatable Points,” Military Thought, 1 (2006). For Gerasimov’s article, see Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, February 26, 2013, http://
  9. [ix] V.N. Gorbunov and S.A. Bogdanov, “Armed Confrontation in the 21st Century,” Military Thought, 1 (2009), 16-30; and V.A. Vinogradov, “Trends in the Conduct of Operations in a Major War,” Military Thought, 4 (2013), 32-37.
  10. [x] A.A. Rakhmanov, “Network Centric Control Systems: Natural Trends, Problems, and Solutions,” Military Thought, 1 (2011), 100-111; and V.I. Litvinenko and I.P. Rusanov, “Basic Trends in Firepower Employment in Modern-Day Operations (Combat Actions),” Military Thought, 4 (2014), 40-48. 
  11. [xi] S.G. Chekinov and S.A. Bogdanov, “The Nature and Content of a New-Generation War,” Military Thought, 4 (2013), 12-23; and V.V. Matvichuk and A.L. Khryapin, “A Strategic Deterrence System Under New Conditions,” Military Thought, 1 (2010); 43-49.
  12. [xii] I.N. Vorobyov and V.A. Kiselyov, “On the Innovative Development Concept in the Armed Forces,” Military Thought, 3 (2009), 51-57; and I.N. Vorobyov, “Analysis of Theoretical and Mathematical Development of Netcentric Warfare,” Military Thought, 2 (2012), 39-54.
  13. [xiii] S.G. Chekinov and S.A. Bogdanov, “A Forecast for Future Wars: Meditations on What They Will Look Like,” Military Thought, 4 (2015), 90-98.
  14. [xiv] I.N. Vorobyov and V.A. Kiselyov, “Analysis of the Effectiveness of Defensive Operations,” Military Thought, 1 (2007), 17-25; and V.I. Lumpov and V.V. Karpov, “Analysis of the U.S. Strategic Triad,” Military Thought, 1 (2012), 143-161.
  15. [xv] James M. Acton, Alexey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, Petr Topychkanov, Tong Zhao, and Li Bin, “Entanglement: Russian and Chinese Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017), 24 et seq.
  16. [xvi] Vladimir Dvorkin, “Hypersonic Threats: The Need for a Realistic Assessment” (Carnegie Moscow Center, August 2016),
  17. [xvii] Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike: Intelligence, Counterforce, and Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 38 no. 1-2 (2015), 38-73; Paul Bracken, “The Cyber Threat to Nuclear Stability,” Orbis, 60 no. 2 (2016), 188-203; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security, 41 no. 4 (Spring 2017), 9-49.
  18. [xviii] Chekinov and Bogdanov, “The Nature and Content of a New-Generation War”; and Vinogradov, “Trends in the Conduct of Operations in a Major War.”
  19. [xix] Karl P. Mueller, Jasen J. Castillo, Forrest E. Morgan, Negeen Pegahi, and Brian Rosen, “Striking First: Preemptive and Preventive Attack in U.S. National Security Policy” (Rand Corp., 2006),
  20. [xx] Eugene Miasnikov, Viktor Esin, and Viktor Koltunov, “Comments on U.S. Discussion Papers: On Definitions in the Discussion of De-Alerting,” presented at the seminar on “Re-framing De-Alert: Decreasing the Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems in the U.S.-Russia Context” in Yverdon, Switzerland, June 21-23, 2009,
  21. [xxi] “Reframing Nuclear De-Alert: Decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. and Russian arsenals” (EastWest Institute, 2009), 
  22. [xxii] Miasnikov, Esin, and Koltunov, “Comments on U.S. Discussion Papers.” Hon. Walter B. Slocombe, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, has defined “launch under attack” as “a responsive attack ordered after confirmation that a major attack is actually in progress.”
  23. [xxiii] Miasnikov, Esin, and Koltunov, “Comments on U.S. Discussion Papers.” Slocombe has defined “launch on warning” as “an attack ordered on the basis of a determination that an adversary was committed to a nuclear attack on the US, but before that attack had actually started.” Others, by contrast, have defined “launch on warning” as the “ordering and carrying out U.S. missile launches after early warning sensors indicate an incoming nuclear missile strike but before enemy missiles hit their targets on American soil.”
  24. [xxiv] See, for instance, A.I. Malyshev, “Military Strategy of the Russian Federation in the Early 21st Century,” Military Thought, 3 (2007), 54-65; Burenok and Achasov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence”; I.N. Vorobyov and V.A. Kiselyov, “From Present-Day Tactics to Network-Centric Action,” Military Thought, 3 (2011), 70-79; V.A. Zakharov, “Antiaircraft Forces in a Global Active Defense System,” Military Thought, 4 (2014), 57-65; V.I. Polegayev and V.V. Alferov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence in the Strategic Deterrence System,” Military Thought, 3 (2015), 7-15; A.P. Korabelnikov, “Promising Trends in the Development of Aerospace Defense Forms and Methods in Russia,” Military Thought, 4 (2015), 145-155; V.I. Vladimirov, “Rationale for Airborne Electronic Warfare at Operational Depth for Information Superiority,” Military Thought, 2 (2016), 23-29; Alyoshin, Popov, and Puchnin, “The Naval Might of Russia in Today's Geopolitical Situation”; and V.V. Kruglov, “Military Forecasting: Current State, Potential, and Implementation of Results,” Military Thought, 4 (2016), 80-86. For additional sources, see Alexander Velez-Green, “The Unsettling View from Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Preemption” (Center for a New American Security, April 2017),
  25. [xxv] See, for instance, Burenok and Achasov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence”; Rakhmanov, “Network Centric Control Systems: Natural Trends, Problems, and Solutions”; and Vorobyov and V.A. Kiselyov, “From Present-Day Tactics to Network-Centric Action.”
  26. [xxvi] Burenok and Achasov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence.”
  27. [xxvii] Polegayev and Alferov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence in the Strategic Deterrence System.”
  28. [xxviii] Zakharov, “Antiaircraft Forces in a Global Active Defense System.”
  29. [xxix] Alyoshin, Popov, and Puchnin, “The Naval Might of Russia in Today's Geopolitical Situation.”
  30. [xxx] Russian strategists often stress the importance of destroying the adversary’s “critically important” sites (e.g. communications lines; factories; electric, hydroelectric, or nuclear power stations; and transportation infrastructure) in order to prevent or stop aggression against the Russian state. See—for just a few examples—O.V. Alyoshin, A.N. Popov, and V.V. Puchnin, “The Naval Might of Russia in Today's Geopolitical Situation,” Military Thought, 3 (2016), 14-20; V.M. Burenok and O.B. Achasov, “Nonnuclear Deterrence,” Military Thought, 1 (2008), 1-6; and Chekinov and Bogdanov, “The Nature and Content of a New-Generation War.” For a deeper analysis of this theme in Russian military thought, see “The RF Navy vs Your ‘Critically Important Facilities,’” 7 Feet Beneath the Keel [blog], March 29, 2015,
  31. [xxxi] Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); and Michael Horowitz and Dan Reiter, “When Does Aerial Bombing Work? Quantitative Empirical Tests, 1917-1999,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45 no. 2 (2001), 147-173.
  32. [xxxii] Vladimir Mamontov, “Russia is Changing and So Must Its Military Doctrine,” Izvestia, October 14, 2009,
  33. [xxxiii] The 2010 Russian military doctrine read as follows: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”
  34. As Olga Oliker writes, this language set a higher bar for nuclear use than that set in earlier Russian military doctrines. The 2014 military doctrine uses identical language. However, that threshold may not be as high as it seems: it all hinges on how Russian policymakers define a threat to “the very existence of the state.” If, for instance, the Kremlin assesses NATO violation of Russia’s territorial integrity to be an existential threat, but NATO cannot realistically counter a Russian incursion in NATO territory without striking assets in Russia, then nuclear use may be on the table early in or prior to a NATO-Russian war. See Olga Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2016), 3,
  35. [xxxiv] Andrew E. Kramer, “Russian General Makes Threat on Missile-Defense Sites,” The New York Times, May 3, 2012,
  36. [xxxv] “Preemptive nuclear strike omitted from Russia’s new military doctrine—reports,”, December 10, 2014,; and “Russia Refused to Allow for Preemptive Nuclear Strikes in Its Military Doctrine,”, December 10, 2014,
  37. [xxxvi] “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.”
  38. [xxxvii] “Russia classifies information on preemptive nuclear strikes—military,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union—Political, September 5, 2014.
  39. [xxxviii] “Training launches of Iskander-M system conducted at Totsk firing range - Russian Defense Ministry,” Interfax, July 29, 2015. 
  40. [xxxix] “Iskander missile brigade in the ZVO [Western Military District] is brought to the highest degree of combat readiness,”, October 6, 2017,; Anton Valagin, “Ivanovskaya Oblast Iskanders Will Deliver Preemptive Strike,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta Online, February 13, 2017,; and Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Summary of Report on Russian and FSU Nuclear Issues,” February 14, 2017.
  41. [xl] Andrey Serdechnov, “RF Aerospace Forces Conduct Command-Staff Exercises to Preempt a Missile Attack,” Izvestia Online, May 3, 2017.
  42. [xli] Western Military District Press Service, “Russian Western Military District Brigade to Simulate Iskander Launch in Exercise,” August 3, 2017.
  43. [xlii] U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, June 2017, 22.
  44. [xliii] U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power, 35.
  45. [xliv] Elbridge Colby and Jon Solomon, “Facing Russia: Conventional Defence and Deterrence in Europe,” Survival, 57 no. 6 (November 2015), 24.
  46. [xlv] The Russian Federation’s National Security Strategy, Presidential Edict 683 (December 2015), Galerias/fichero/OtrasPublicaciones/Internacional/2016/ Russian-National-Security-Strategy-31Dec2015.pdf.
  47. [xlvi] “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” December 25, 2014,
  48. [xlvii] Elbridge Colby, “Russia’s Evolving Nuclear Doctrine and its Implications” (Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, January 2016),
  49. [xlviii] Thomas C. Schelling, “The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack” (The RAND Corporation, May 28, 1958). See also, Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).
  50. [xlix] Acton, Arbatov, Dvorkin, Topychkanov, Zhao, and Bin, “Entanglement,” 10-11.
  51. [l] James N. Miller, Jr. and Richard Fontaine, “A New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability: How Changing Geopolitics and Emerging Technologies are Reshaping Pathways to Crisis and Conflict,” (Center for a New American Security, September 2017); Elbridge Colby, “From Sanctuary to Battlefield: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space,” (Center for a New American Security, January 2016); and Alexander Velez-Green, “The Collapsing Battlespace: NATO-Russian Nuclear Stability in an Era of Technological Upheaval,” in The 2017 UK PONI Papers, ed. Cristina Varriale, Royal United Services Institute, September 2017, 1-4. See also Acton, Arbatov, Dvorkin, Topychkanov, Zhao, and Bin, “Entanglement.”
  52. [li] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO Cyber Defence,” May 2017,
  53. [lii] Jon Solomon, “Parrying the 21st Century First Salvo,” Center for International Maritime Security, July 7, 2016,
  54. [liii] Jerry Hendrix, “NATO Must Strengthen Its Anti-Submarine Capabilities to Meet the Russian Threat,” National Review, May 25, 2017,
  55. [liv] Paul Scharre, “Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare” (Center for a New American Security, December 2015),
  56. [lv] Colin Clark, “The War Algorithm: The Pentagon’s Bet On The Future Of War,” Breaking Defense, May 31, 2017,
  57. [lvi] Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mikhail Gorbachev: ‘It All Looks as if the World Is Preparing for War,’”, January 26, 2017, See also Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa, “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” The New Yorker, March 6, 2017,; and Ray Sanchez, Nic Robertson, and Don Melvin, “Russian PM Medvedev equates relations with West to a ‘new Cold War,’”, February 15, 2016,

Photo by Cory W. Bush shared in the public domain.

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