Russian Nuclear Weapons: Reason or Feelings?
We are currently living in a time when it is highly likely that the world will witness the start of a new offensive arms race, including nuclear weapons. This is the result of a whole series of factors, from the dysfunctional state of global security organizations to breakthroughs in military technology. Under such conditions, it is critically important that the motives of the primary participants in such a race are understood – to prevent errors being made, and to avoid provoking a general deterioration in conditions, including through an artificial acceleration of the arms race.
What is the importance to Russia of having a major nuclear arsenal? Is it strategically essential in today’s world, and a tool of political realism – or is it merely a phantom pain following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a form of ressentiment of the former empire?
To answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand how exactly Russia benefits from owning nuclear weapons, and from its relationship as the “key” nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis the United States. There are several dimensions to this question, and the situation may look different in each one.
The international political perspective on nuclear weapons
Russia is the country that inherited the Soviet Union’s mantle in the field of nuclear arms control architecture. As such, with its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia also inherited the status of a top-league player. Furthermore, for many years after the collapse of the USSR, this position was extremely unstable, and was in many ways only formal in nature. All that remained in Russia were Soviet nuclear weapons and several documents guaranteeing its place on the global stage.
As a result, increased attention was paid to all forms of exclusive relations with the United States. During the 1990s, Russia underwent a period of major social and economic upheaval, against the backdrop of a sudden weakening in state power. By the early 2000s, Russia essentially could not be compared on equal terms with the top league of global states in any way – except for its parity in terms of nuclear deterrence and its special partnership role with the U.S. in nuclear non-proliferation. For this reason, it is impossible to overemphasize the role of a major nuclear arsenal. In legal terms, this had the same status as the U.S. arsenal in the series of agreements – START I, II, SORT and finally New START. Accordingly, any agreement in any one area that singles out Russia from the other global partners of the U.S. is highly valued and is seen as a major boost to Moscow’s influence on the global system of international relations as a whole.
It is precisely for this reason that Russia reacted so negatively to the U.S. exit from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Despite the violation of one of the basic principles of strategic stability (the destructive impact of defensive weapons on the balance of nuclear deterrence), at that time, as was the case thirty years earlier when this principle was first recognized, there was no possibility of creating an ABM complex – i.e. a missile defense system – that was capable of seriously affecting the retaliatory strike. However, the exit from the agreement was an act of folly by the American administration, which failed to take into account the concerns of partners and the long-term consequences. Russia looked like a failing state. The idea of “Russia in decline”, which was so popular in those years, seriously clouded the lens through which Western analysts perceived Russia. Nevertheless, in 2001-2002, Russia behaved extremely amicably toward the United States (indeed, in the most amicable way since 1994). Altogether, this encouraged the United States to withdraw from the treaty. Combined with the decision in favor of NATO enlargement that was made in 1997, this created the impression in Russia that it was being deliberately squeezed out to the margins of global politics, and – as had already occurred in its history – that a cordon sanitaire was being placed around it.
This is noticeable in the dramatic story of the collapse of the INF Treaty. This treaty, at least from the mid-2000s onward, generated if not harsh criticism then at least an extreme degree of skepticism in Russia. Furthermore, this sentiment was expressed by the highest representatives of the military and political leadership, including President Putin (who once called this treaty the “unilateral disarmament of Soviet Union”). Nevertheless, at precisely the time when the real threat arose that the exclusive system of mutual relations with the U.S. would be destroyed, the Russian leadership abruptly changed its rhetoric. They started calling the treaty (which has now, unfortunately, been annulled) “the cornerstone of strategic stability”, as had been the case with the ABM Treaty in the past.
This stage has now largely passed, as Russia has succeeded in recovering some of its former economic status and a share of its political influence abroad that it lost after 1991. For the past ten years, the Russian armed forces have also undergone a significant change, as a result of which pure nuclear deterrence is no longer Russia’s only way of retaining its military and political status in the world. Even so, as in former times, Russia places huge importance not purely on the possession of nuclear weapons, but on military and strategic parity in the nuclear arena with any other state in the world (in other words, with the United States, since the remaining countries are far inferior to Russia in this regard).
The military dimension: a balance on the continent
From a philosophical point of view, nuclear weapons are neither special-status weapons nor a political tool; they are a separate phenomenon whose influence dominates the art of war and international politics. Despite this, they do not lose either their political or military dimension, yet their importance extends beyond this.
The practical deterrent to be provided by nuclear weapons in Russia is primarily a function of the military and strategic balance on the continent. With its long borders with China, from the 1970s onwards the Soviet Union found it necessary to construct a system of deterrence in relation to the East, as well as the West. Under such conditions, it was extremely important to create a balance of power with regard to conventional weapons. This, and this alone, determined the degree to which nuclear weapons were involved in creating a continental deterrent within its borders.
Let us look back to the history of confrontation in Europe during the Cold War. From the 1960s onwards, NATO relied on the U.S. forward-based nuclear systems as a tool for leveling out the military balance. At that time, the Warsaw Pact countries were superior to NATO in terms of military manpower and the numbers of conventional weapons. It was no coincidence that for two decades, the Soviet Union insisted that these systems should be included in the count of strategic offensive arms (SOA) by the American side – a demand that was consistently rejected.
During the 1990s, the situation was reversed. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the deep social and economic crisis in Russia, and the eastward enlargement of NATO created a new asymmetry. Russia was now forced to level out the unfavorable continental balance through a greater reliance on nuclear weapons. It is no coincidence that over the last 10-15 years, the U.S. has actively linked the problem of further limiting and reducing SOA with a limitation and reduction in Russian tactical nuclear weapons – something with which Russia invariably refuses to comply.
This is the second reason why Russia is so concerned about the scale and potential of its nuclear arsenal: the direct military need to level the balance of power on the continent.
The stagnation in strategic relations between Russia and the West that persisted during the second half of the 1990s was followed by a general deterioration during the second half of the 2000s, despite a short-term improvement in relations between September 11, 2001 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Following the military and political crisis over Ukraine in 2014, the situation deteriorated even further.
Throughout this period, Russia focused its attention in particular on preserving and developing the potential of its nuclear deterrent. Trailing behind its neighbors from a military perspective in quantity terms, and lagging behind NATO headed by the U.S. in terms of quality (with respect to precision-guided weapons, drones, air power, naval power, automated command and control, reconnaissance, and targeting systems), Moscow rationally uses the fact that it owns nuclear weapons to assert the independence of its policy. This includes the zone that it considers to be the sphere of its exclusive interests – namely the post-Soviet territory.
Getting Russian nuclear doctrine right
It is extremely difficult to understand Russian strategic culture without taking into account historical memory, including the traumas of the still relatively recent past. Without a comprehensive consideration of the historical-cultural narrative that creates a “genetic memory” in the system of state government, attempts to interpret the behavior of a major player will regularly lead to wrong conclusions and errors in strategic planning.
For the USSR, the Cold War occurred in the shadow of the events of June 1941, and the military made every possible effort to prevent a similar defeat during the first days of the new war. Eyewitness accounts reveal that as a result, the Soviet Union was ready to start a pre-emptive war with large-scale use of nuclear weapons in Europe only on the basis of signs that NATO was making “preparations for a nuclear missile attack”.1 In the USSR, this was not seen as contravening the no-first-use principle that was officially declared in 1982. These actions were regarded as a retaliatory strike due to the “inevitability” of the enemy’s forthcoming nuclear attack.
However, for centuries previously, Russia had primarily regarded and constructed itself as a giant military-administrative mechanism for defending its vulnerable territory (and not infrequently for ensuring the simple physical survival of the population). Its continental borders were extensive and poorly defended, and on the other side were a sizeable number of enemy powers. To this day, Russian foreign policy, military strategy and art of war still bear the deep imprint of a defensive attitude that is hyper-sensitive to any potential threat from outside.2
The evolution of Russian nuclear doctrine is directly linked to these considerations. The sudden weakening of Russia’s military potential led in 1993 to a refusal even to officially declare the no-first-use principle. The military doctrine of 2000 was adopted during the period of maximum decline in the potential of the armed forces in Russia, the high point of the Second Chechen Campaign, and following the NATO operation in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. The result was a statement of willingness to use nuclear weapons first in the extremely vague case of a “critical situation for national security”, in the case of aggression against Russia involving the use of conventional armed forces.
However, as early as 2010, the next military doctrine raised the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons up to a more stringent level: now, aggression with conventional weapons had to pose a threat “to the very existence of the state”. At the very end of 2014, at the peak of the deterioration in relations with the West following events in Crimea and the war in the Donbass region, Russia retained this wording in the new version of the doctrine, adding it to the concept of “non-nuclear strategic deterrence”. In other words, Russia announced the emergence of a new capability associated with long-range, high-precision non-nuclear weapons intended to act as a further deterrent, which until that point was provided by nuclear arms. As a result of this combination of doctrinal provisions, the threshold for using nuclear weapons was implicitly raised in 2014 compared to 2010, without changing the basic doctrinal formulation.
In this way, Russia retained the right to compensate for its insufficient conventional weapons capability with the aid of nuclear weapons, to keep the general balance of deterrence. With this modernization of Russian military might and active rearmament (including the introduction of new types of precision-guided weapons and the creation of reconnaissance-strike systems), the dependence of Russian strategic deterrence systems on nuclear weapons was gradually reduced. In this regard, the situation has already moved significantly away from the brink of the 1990s and 2000s towards a reduction in nuclear risks, and Moscow is pursing such a policy intentionally.
Nevertheless, even in this picture, which is generally clear, it transpired that there was room for conflicting interpretations. For example, there are regular attempts to ascribe to Russia a conscious, rational strategy of using nuclear weapons to raise the stakes in a conflict with NATO, which Russia itself intends to provoke beforehand. This is the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” concept. A caricature scenario is often painted in which “hybrid aggression” against the Baltic states ends with Russian soldiers being immediately dispatched there as quick as lightning, and pre-emptively using tactical nuclear weapons against some NATO military base in Europe in order to force the Alliance to back off and recognize the annexation of the Baltic states as a fait accompli.
Such an interpretation of the Russian nuclear doctrine is extremely primitive, and proposed measures to compensate for it – a similar deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads for Trident II missiles – are logically contradictory and carry the threat of further destabilization.3 But mainly this contradicts the basic order of Russian strategic culture, which is deeply imbued with a defensive attitude, and traumatized by the history of military conflicts that have ended badly in the past. Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons first, and has directly stated this since 1993. However, the circumstances under which such a strategy is intended to be implemented are a major military defeat threatening the existence of the state in its current form. It is difficult to see how these conditions could be fulfilled in the scenario of an adventurous game of “nuclear poker” played around the idea of a “hybrid” invasion of the Baltic states with their subsequent annexation (even if one casts aside notions of a rational strategic benefit to Moscow if such steps were taken).
Does this mean that the Russian nuclear doctrine is of a purely defensive, “dove-like” nature, and that it does not threaten the stability or the continent? No, and this, too, should be cause for concern on all sides of the current military-political confrontation in Europe. First, for the reasons given above, Russia regards itself as a “besieged fortress” (in this sense, the past 5 to 10 years have only exacerbated the situation). Russia intentionally blurs the “red lines” regarding first use of nuclear weapons, implementing the well-known strategy of “deterrence through uncertainty”. The downside of such deterrence is the increased risk of nuclear war even in the early stages of escalation, which when they are reached cannot yet be perceived as being an existential threat.
The second problem is the tendency to analyze the behavior of the sides in the potential conflict between Russia and NATO from the perspective of rational players, consistently implementing well thought-through strategies. This assumption is misplaced for both sides in the discussion – both the apologists of the concept of “escalate to de-escalate” (which ultimately engenders new forms of tactical nuclear armament with the aim of reducing nuclear risks) and even their critics. Neither side is in any way able to counteract an “incident beyond the design base”, i.e. an unintentional escalation in which every next step is taken reactively and serves only to further exacerbate the conflict.
From an accidental military clash in the air or at sea, such a process may lead to the early stages of limited military combat, and from there to the first use of nuclear weapons. Such an incident will not develop according to any pre-war plans, let alone be influenced by any “tailored nuclear option” response strategy. The two sides will not reach for scenarios, but for their existing capabilities, including nuclear capabilities, and this is the direct path that inadvertently leads from a limited incident to a real war with nuclear weapons.
It is only possible to reduce the likelihood of such an outcome by working systematically to establish and consolidate political trust between Russia and NATO. This cannot be achieved by remaining solely within the logical framework of nuclear strategy or even within the logic of arms control.
“March 1st weapons”
One can now justifiably ask: but if Russia regards the role of nuclear weapons as being important yet limited and declining every year, why did it announce the development of what are in principle several new classes of nuclear weapons at once? These systems were presented by President Vladimir Putin in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018; for this reason, they are known within Russia under the collective name “March 1st weapons”.
It is somewhat premature to talk about these new weapons; the most contentious of them are still far from being ready for use, let alone serial production. As for those that are now ready (the Avangard and Kinzhal [“dagger”] missile systems), their deployment is still extremely limited, and they are only a minor addition to Russia’s present nuclear arsenal. They do not alter the military and strategic balance with the United States.
All these new systems are built around the concept of countering the thick ABM complex, although such a system neither existed in reality, nor was it part of any imminent plans by the United States. Some of the proposed systems (Avangard and the Poseidon intercontinental nuclear torpedo) go back to proposals made in the USSR during the second half of the 1980s as part of measures to counteract the prospective means of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
None of these are new nuclear weapons as such. It seems strange, but the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal has mostly been completed, and is already coming to an end (with the exception of the construction of submarines with Bulava missiles, which is continuing at full pace). The final major change, which is scheduled for first half of the 2020s, is the replacement of the Voevoda (“warlord”) heavy intercontinental missile (SS-18 Satan Mod 5/6) – whose service life has already been extended multiple times and is coming to an end – with the comparable, prospective Sarmat heavy missiles, which are just beginning flight tests.
These “March 1st weapons”, which have attracted so much attention, are examples of the military technology of the future. If you like, they are portents of a future that is yet to come, and which quite possibly will never arrive. From a certain point of view, the preliminary presentation of these newly developed weapons is one of the deterrent steps aimed at reviving the discussion about the problems of strategic stability (primarily the ABM complex). Hence, ultimately, the aim is to prevent the onset of a future in which monstrous systems such as oceanic torpedoes with extremely powerful nuclear warheads, or cruise missiles with nuclear-powered engines, will be required in order to carry out an effective retaliatory strike.
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One emotional element of Russian nuclear policy is in many ways the legacy of the traumatic experience of transformation that the country experienced from the end of the 1980s onward. The mood among the country’s population at the end of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and even at the very beginning of the 1990s, was unduly rosy, even naive. The expectation of full reintegration with the Western world has been replaced by feelings of resentment and disillusionment. As a result, the new generation of Russian elites took on a completely opposite attitude. Cautious and cynical toward the current situation, they had little trust in the West, its institutions and values, or its habit of relying on tools of real power in politics (“capabilities rather than intentions”).
It is precisely for this reason that one cannot expect the Russian elites to have a positive attitude toward future processes of deep nuclear disarmament, which for them is associated (perhaps unfairly) with a national catastrophe and loss of sovereignty. The experience of joint action with the U.S. during the 2000s and 2010s, including the dissolution of the ABM Treaty, also failed to add to a sense of optimism in this area.
The global order is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Currently, it is difficult to say in what precise way the process will consolidate again, what its mechanisms and collective security institutions will be, and what balance of power will be established (multipolarity, unipolarity or a new bipolarity).
Under these conditions, the system of nuclear deterrence is already viewed entirely pragmatically in Russia as a means of avoiding a major war or a new national catastrophe. We should note that similar processes are unfolding in at least two other leading nuclear powers in the world which are interested in preserving and consolidating their position: the United States and China. Nuclear deterrence as a guarantor of peace is an internally contradictory concept based on the fear of the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people. Nevertheless, it has long played an important role in the system of preserving international peace, and at a time in which the global order is undergoing transformation, with an unavoidable increase in the degree of uncertainty and the number of conflicts, this role should not be underestimated.
A rational, stable reliance on nuclear deterrence, however, implies raising the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, reducing uncertainty over the red lines, and possibly eliminating scenarios in which there is limited use of such weapons on the battlefield. It is precisely this aspect of the problem that will now become the source of the greatest risk, insofar as the collapse of the former system of international relations goes hand in hand with the collapse of the nuclear arms control system, and the loss of the culture of mutual expert discussions on doctrinal issues.
1 Гриневский, Олег (2004): Перелом. От Брежнева к Горбачеву. Москва, с. 71. [Grinevsky, Oleg (2004): The Turning Point. From Brezhnev to Gorbachev. Moscow, p. 71.]
2 Boston, Scott and Massicot, Dara (2017): The Russian Way of Warfare. Santa-Monica, CA. www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE231.html (accessed March 27, 2020).
3 Bogdanov, Konstantin (2020): “Not-so-nuclear War”.https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/not-so-nuclear-war/ (accessed March 27, 2020).
Konstantin Bogdanov (born 1979) is a senior research fellow at the Center for International Security, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Science (IMEMO RAS) in Moscow, Russia. He gained a PhD in Engineering in ITMO University (Saint-Petersburg). Before joining the IMEMO in 2018, he worked for about eight years as a columnist and pundit on politico-military and military-technical issues in leading Russian media.