Moscow Announces Enhanced Revision of its Nuclear Doctrine

PeopleOther ♦ Published: June 18, 2024; 22:47 ♦ (Vindobona)

Russia's nuclear doctrine, particularly concerning its large arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), has become one of the most pressing issues in Euro-Atlantic security. Russia is planning to revise its nuclear doctrine, the Russian Foreign Ministry has announced. This decision is of course being made against the backdrop of the ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and the reactions of the West.

Russia plans to revise its nuclear doctrine due to its aggression against Ukraine and the West's support against Russian interests. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, CC BY 4.0

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies, as reported by ORF, that the experience of the "special military operation" and the behavior of Western states had shown that certain parameters of military doctrine needed to be adjusted. This also applies to the policy of nuclear deterrence.

Ryabkov emphasized that the international situation was becoming increasingly complicated and that a new formulation was therefore necessary. He did not give any details of the planned changes, nor did he specify a timeframe for the completion of the new doctrine. "In any case, everyone should understand that we are approaching this issue extremely responsibly," he added, as reported by ORF.

The current Russian nuclear doctrine generally allows the use of nuclear weapons in two cases: in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia or if an attack with conventional weapons threatens the country's existence. This vague definition has prompted some hardliners to urge the Kremlin to tighten the doctrine to force the West to take Russian warnings more seriously.

As recently as November 2022, the Kremlin emphasized the defensive nature of its nuclear doctrine. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow stated at the time that the most important task was to "avoid any military confrontation between nuclear powers". In its deterrence policy, Russia adheres to the principle that nuclear war is inadmissible, as there are no winners in such a war and it must never be unleashed.

The announcement of the planned changes is causing international concern and will be closely monitored, as it could have far-reaching consequences for the global security situation.

Russian nuclear doctrine is heading?

A recent report, by William Alberque from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), analyzes Russia's strategic nuclear doctrine and examines continuities and changes from the Cold War era through the collapse of the Soviet Union to the annexation of Crimea and the current war against Ukraine.

The international community is watching closely as Russia uses nuclear threats to blackmail Ukraine and the West and recently announced plans to deploy NSNW in Belarus. China is watching the conflict closely and drawing lessons for potential conflicts in the Indo-Pacific, particularly about Taiwan.

A particularly worrying development from a Western perspective is Russia's belief in its ability to achieve and maintain escalation dominance and to absorb losses of personnel and material on a scale unimaginable to the West. This tolerance for casualties could also be shared by China. Understanding Russian doctrine and military thinking on NSNW is therefore critical to maintaining deterrence against Russia, which is vital to the West's survival.

NSNW, as defined by the US Department of Defense, are "nuclear weapons intended to be used on the battlefield in military situations, as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons directed against cities, factories, and other larger targets to affect the enemy's conduct of war."

During the Cold War, there were extensive scientific publications and open debates about nuclear weapons by Russian military thinkers. These discussions continued during the U.S. wars in Iraq and the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and are also taking place in the context of the current war in Ukraine. Russian thinking on nuclear weapons, especially NSNW, shows continuity with certain currents of Soviet thinking, but with significant differences due to improvements in the accuracy and lethality of various artillery and missile systems.

Moscow sees its NSNW as an essential tool for deterring unwanted conflict, shaping the battlefield, limiting escalation, and ensuring victory in any conflict. President Vladimir Putin has emphasized that Russia's nuclear weapons guarantee its sovereignty and status as a great power and deter an inevitable US attempt to replace its rule.

Russia uses its NSNW to:

- Blackmail opponents,

- control escalation in conflict and near conflict situations,

- deter foreign powers from intervening in critical conflicts,

- force opponents to end the war on terms dictated by Russia,

- prevent conflicts from escalating from local to theater level, and

- prevent conflicts from escalating from the theater to the strategic level.

Recent developments reinforce these observations. Russia has sent direct nuclear signals to the U.S. and NATO in the Ukraine war and recently strengthened its control over the near abroad and its threat posture towards NATO by deploying NSNW in Belarus. The calm reaction to Finland and soon Sweden joining NATO suggests that Russia sees no need to fundamentally change its NSNW position in the Nordic region. Russia does not appear to view the U.S. NSNW arsenal as a significant threat. While reflecting U.S. interest in air-launched nuclear bombs, Russia has developed an assortment of short- and medium-range NSNW options to gain an advantage in crisis management, escalation, and war termination.

The U.S. and its allies should monitor Russian-language military debates, focus on changes to Russia's force posture, examine military exercises, improve awareness of Russia's nuclear-security doctrine, and increase experts in NSNW thought and doctrine within their governments and partners.


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