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Russian Nuclear Weapons: Reason or Feelings?

By Konstantin Bogdanov

It is currently highly likely that a new (nuclear) arms race will develop. To avoid making errors of judgment, it is important to ask about Russian interests and the significance of Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile. It was mainly the nuclear weapons from the Soviet era that secured Russia’s status as an equal to the United States – a status which for some time the country found difficult to achieve. For precisely this reason, for the sake of prestige, the Russians aimed to maintain this status by adopting a very cooperative attitude. Unilateral decisions by the United States, such as the termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, were therefore felt all the more strongly as an affront. Partly as a result of military reforms, this phase has now come to an end.

From a military strategy perspective, the Russian nuclear arsenal serves to maintain a balance of power, and to compensate for qualitative and quantitative inferiority in conventional forces. The nuclear doctrine must also be read in its historical context, especially the national trauma of the German invasion in 1941. The defensive slant of strategic thinking, which has evolved historically, explains why the threshold for using nuclear weapons has been gradually raised with the increasing modernization of conventional armed forces.

There is a suspicion that Russia might take a gamble, hoping to create a fait accompli with limited nuclear strikes in the Baltic States. But all of the above makes this look like a gross distortion of reality. Nevertheless, the deliberate ambiguities of the Russian nuclear strategy and the possibility of unforeseen incidents also pose a considerable risk of escalation. For various reasons, this is less true of new weapon systems (hypersonic gliders, nuclear torpedoes, etc.), which have attracted much attention.

Thus the role of nuclear weapons for Russia is determined partly by emotional factors, but also in part it is a rational means of securing influence in the current dynamic world situation. Unfortunately, however, other conditions, which are necessary for nuclear deterrence to have any kind of stabilizing effect at all, are increasingly disappearing.

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