The Necessary U.S. Response to Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine

The Necessary U.S. Response to Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine
AP Photo/Elena Ignatyeva, File
The Necessary U.S. Response to Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine
AP Photo/Elena Ignatyeva, File
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After decades of neglect, the decline of the United States’ nuclear arsenal is being addressed by the Pentagon.  This is driven in large measure by the growth and modernization of the Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals.  Their nuclear doctrines are salient as well.  While Chinese nuclear doctrine remains deliberately opaque—which is, in itself, worrisome and a threat to strategic stability—Russian doctrine and statements from officials have emphasized the need to maintain their nuclear arsenal and evinced a willingness to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.  

For decades, the considerable growth of the Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals did not generate an effective response from the United States.  The Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, takes important steps to reverse the decline in the U.S. arsenal. 

While these efforts are important, there is a menace to strategic stability.  This is the “escalate to de-escalate” component of Russia’s nuclear doctrine. That is, Russia might use nuclear weapons to compel the termination of a conventional conflict.  This is significant for three reasons.  First, it emboldens Putin to undertake aggression because he anticipates that the threat of nuclear use may cause NATO to yield.  Second, it increases the threat to the U.S. military and allies.  Third, there is also an adverse psychological component for NATO decision-makers and the public.  This is a Russian effort at intimidation which seeks to shape NATO allies’ perceptions of how Russia will act in a crisis or war in the expectation of coercing NATO in a crisis.  For these reasons, it compels a response by the U.S. government to deter the Russians from contemplating nuclear use and to reassure allies of the credibility and strength of U.S. alliance commitments.

Though the growth and modernization of the Russian conventional and nuclear arsenals are transparent, there is a debate over Russian nuclear doctrine.  The skeptics’ case is that Russian nuclear weapons would never be used in this fashion.[i]  According to this argument, Russian doctrinal statements may possess a razor’s edge but should be discounted by everyone else, as they are directed toward other audiences.  Presumably, those are Russia’s major potential foes:  the U.S., other NATO members, and the PRC.  The result is a form of strategic ambiguity—the Russians talk about first use but, for the skeptics, the Russians would never really do what their doctrine requires.

The skeptics’ criticism is misplaced.  The response of the United States must be to take its adversary at its word and deed.  The growth, doctrine, and expressions of intent by Russian officials, in particular, cannot be ignored by Washington as they are not by its allies.  The U.S. must respond by taking two major steps to vouchsafe its security and the security of its allies.

First, the U.S. and its allies should remove the ambiguity coveted by the Russians by developing and deploying the capabilities to deter escalation.  It is incumbent upon NATO to ensure that Russia cannot control escalation or the pace of conflict through its calibrated use of nuclear weapons.  Accordingly, NATO must possess a range of capabilities that enable it to respond to Russian limited nuclear use.  This is necessary to convince Moscow that it will not gain anything through the initiation or escalation of a conflict.  To the contrary, it has much to lose.  In essence, the Russians should never have an incentive to initiate a conflict, much less escalate one.  

To accomplish this requires the expansion of conventional and nuclear capabilities, including forward-deployed heavy brigades, more tactical nuclear weapons, and the return of sea-based intermediate range systems deployed in Europe.  Ideally, a land-based intermediate range system could be deployed, but this is prohibited by the 1987 INF Treaty.  A directly related issue is whether the U.S. should stay in the INF Treaty given Russian violations through the development and testing of intermediate-range missile systems.  As Moscow has de facto abrogated the Treaty, Washington may choose to liberate itself from its limitations.  Were it to do so, an advantage would be the development and deployment of a land-based intermediate force that would augment the theater rung of the escalation ladder, which has been absent for a generation, thus tightening the linkage between the U.S. and its European NATO allies and buttressing deterrence of Russia.  Such a system might be deployed to other theaters, such as the Asia-Pacific to reinforce deterrence against China.

However critical, capabilities are only half of the deterrence equation.  The other half concerns political variables such as willpower and credibility. 

Accordingly, the second step the U.S. should undertake are the efforts taken by the administration and its allies to convey to Moscow that ambiguity will not be accepted.  Were Russia to challenge the U.S. directly, or an ally, the U.S. would respond at the appropriate level of force.  In general, the greater the capabilities present to NATO’s leadership, the larger the menu of responses, including nuanced, limited options.  The declaratory policy of the U.S. does this to a considerable degree, including through the administration’s statements, SACEUR’s, those of U.S. allies, and the NATO Secretary General.  Other actions, such as the re-establishment of the U.S. Second Fleet is also an important signal.  But this should go further and be organized around a consistent message to counter and eliminate Russian ambiguity through deterrence by denial.  Every NATO leader should speak the language of denial.  Its grammar is straightforward:  If Russia aggresses, it will be defeated.  Moscow will not achieve its military or political objectives under any circumstances.  Should it escalate, the costs will be far greater than any benefit.

Russia may covet ambiguity about nuclear use to advance its political objectives.  But NATO cannot be ambiguous about its response.  Extant and deployed capabilities and demonstrated, consistent political willpower is the foundation of NATO’s deterrence by denial strategy, and central to eliminate the value of ambiguity for Russia. 

Lastly, if this situation were to increase tensions, the fault lies with Russia.  It was Moscow’s decision to seize Crimea, invade Ukraine, and threaten NATO members with nuclear attacks, knowing full well that NATO is not aggressive but is a defensive alliance with no territorial ambitions.  NATO had waned in prominence since the Balkans stabilized two decades ago.  Putin singlehandedly reversed this and energized the alliance.  If NATO’s response is more pointed than desired by Russia, that response is a direct consequence of Russia’s actions.

Bradley A. Thayer, P.hD., is the author, with John M. Friend, of  How China Sees the World:  The Rise of Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.


[i] For example, see Olga Oliker and Andrey Baklitskiy, “The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian ‘De-Escalation:’ A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem,” War on the Rocks, February 20, 2018, available at:

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