Putin Nukes Trump – Again
In October 2019, Russia engaged in what was apparently its largest announced strategic nuclear strike exercise in its history, Thunder (Grom)–2019. The exercise had many of the usual features of Russian large strategic nuclear exercises: personal involvement by the President of Russia Vladimir Putin in authorizing simulated nuclear strikes; a reported escalation scenario with Russian first use of nuclear weapons; large numbers of live nuclear missile launches; and a reported ending of a massive Russian nuclear strike. As usual, Russian strategic air defenses also played a role in Thunder-2019. The Russian Defense Ministry said that “The exercise was designed to test “the deployment and use of strategic forces against a threat of aggression.” (Emphasis added). This is probably the most candid description of the content of a nuclear exercise since the Zapid-1999 exercise in which Russia, for the first time, announced nuclear first use. The literal meaning of the statement “the deployment and use of strategic forces against a threat of aggression” is strategic nuclear preemption. Nuclear weapons’ use in an exercise against the “threat of aggression” is not deterrence or retaliation but pre-emptive first use. Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu stated that the exercise employed high-precision nuclear weapons. These were probably low-yield since few targets require high-precision, high-yield nuclear weapons.
The Thunder-2019 strategic nuclear exercise was reportedly the largest of its class. The announced duration was three days rather than the usual one. It continued the trend toward an increased number of live nuclear missile launches. This was the first large nuclear exercise in which there were intermediate-range Kalibr cruise missiles and 9M729 nuclear-capable cruise missile launches, which will be discussed below. Neither the U.S. nor any NATO state has counterparts for these weapons, so there is little likelihood they were being used in response to the U.S. or NATO first use. Even if we had comparable weapons, the probability we would use them in a conventional war would be close to zero.
According to noted Russian journalist Alexander Golts, “We’re talking about rehearsing ways to conduct all-out nuclear war. Such a war will start with the use of non-strategic forces (cruise missiles) and end with a mass nuclear strike, which will mean the death of everything living on Planet Earth,” and there was no room for “misinterpretation” about this. Setting aside his hyperbole about wiping out the human race (the savage Russian nuclear targeting in an all-out nuclear war could exterminate hundreds of millions of people, not billions), he is very perceptive.
Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed while Russia stages a large strategic exercise every year, “The main difference this time, compared to earlier years, was the unprecedented level of public relations promotion of Grom 2019, reflecting the growing importance of nuclear deterrence in Russian internal and external policies.” The amount of information released by the Russian Defense Ministry on the scope of the exercise was unprecedented. The Russian military also announced the details before the exercise, something that had never happened before. The exercise involved the majority of Russian ICBM launchers. This either never happened before or has happened but has never been revealed by the Russian government or in Russian press reports. It is unclear which of these alternatives is of greater concern.
According to Major General Yevgeny Ilyin at a Ministry of Defense briefing, the Grom-2019 exercises:
…will involve military units of the Strategic Missile Forces, long-range and military transport aviation commands, military units of the Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Military Districts, as well as the Northern Fleet.
- The total number of participants exceeds 12,000 people.
- It is planned to conduct 16 practical launches of cruise and ballistic missiles. For aviation operations, 10 airfields throughout the country will be used.
- Launches of air-launched cruise missiles and guided aircraft missiles will be carried out at four aviation training grounds of the Western, Southern, Central Military Districts and the Northern Fleet.
- The launches of two RSM-50 ballistic missiles (SS-N-18) will be carried out to the "Chizha" training ground. In addition, the "Yars" intercontinental ballistic missile (SS-29) and the "Sineva" ballistic missile (SS-N-23) will be launched to the "Kura" training ground.
- Practical launches of sea basing cruise missiles will be carried out at sea ranges in the Barents, Baltic, Black, Caspian seas, and the sea of Okhotsk.
- The exercise involves 213 launchers of Strategic Missile Forces.
- Aerospace Forces will involve up to 105 aircraft of different purposes to solve practical tasks. Five of them are strategic missile carriers.
- The naval component of the exercise consists of 15 surface ships and 5 missile-carrying nuclear submarines.
- The event will involve over 310 pieces of military and special hardware.
This is by far the most detailed description of a major strategic nuclear exercise made by the Russian Defense Ministry. Normally these exercises are not even given names in public announcements much less described in terms of an order of battle. While Russian Ministry of Defense public statements about Strategic Missile Force (RVSN) only exercises have occasionally stated the number of ICBM launchers involved, this has never been the case in the large nuclear exercises. The announced Strategic Missile Force component was over two-thirds of the estimate of about 300 deployed ICBMs. Russia’s September 2019 New START Treaty data indicate Russia had 513 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers. According to the Russian statement quoted above, at least 250 ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers participated in Thunder-2019.
On October 17th, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that “…crews of Iskander operational-tactical missile complex launched of (sic!) cruise missiles at the training grounds of the Southern and Eastern Military Districts.” A video released by the Russian Defense Ministry reportedly shows the launching of the SSC-8/9M729, the intermediate-range missile that violated the INF Treaty.
The same day Thunder-2019 started, the Russian Defense Ministry announced, “Over 8,000 missile and artillery troops held a simultaneous live-fire exercise at 30 training ranges in Southern Russia.” This was likely part of the Thunder-2019 exercise. It was probably announced as a separate exercise to evade the legal notification requirements relating to military exercises in Europe. The Iskander missiles (owned by the Missile and Artillery Force) were used in Thunder-2019. Since the Missile and Artillery Force own a broader range of tactical nuclear weapons than announced for the exercise (including Close Range Missiles and nuclear artillery), it is possible that a broader range of tactical nuclear weapons was used than was announced.
Even more ominous, Felgenhauer reported that “Practically all the RVSN intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) involved in Grom 2019 mimicked going through their launch sequences.” While this is the first time we have a detailed official order of battle for a Russian large strategic nuclear exercise, it seems consistent with the previous press reports that the Russian strategic nuclear exercises ended with a massive Russian nuclear strike. For example, in the 2010 large strategic nuclear exercise, there was a Russian press report that Russia had “simulated hundreds of missile launches and, “Throughout the world, the mushroom clouds rose skyward.”
The involvement of nuclear-capable non-strategic strike aircraft in the exercises is not clear. General Ilyin stated that 105 aircraft (100 of them were not strategic bombers but not otherwise identified) and 10 airbases were involved but provided no other detail. Hence, there may have been the involvement of air-launched non-strategic nuclear weapons since this is one of Russia’s major nuclear assets.
Of course, the ICBM and SLBM launches, real and simulated, were apparently targeted on the U.S. because of their range and because they are no longer really needed against peripheral targets due to Russian deployment of ground-launched and ship-launched cruise missiles. The nuclear cruise missile launches, based on the locations of the fleets involved, appear to have been mainly targeted on Europe. Actual launches in the Far East Military District and Kalibr launches from submarines and surface ships from the Pacific Ocean were obviously targeted against Far Eastern facilities, possibly including Japan and South Korea, in light of the range of these missiles. Russian Tu-95 heavy bombers reportedly launched legacy Soviet Kh-55 nuclear-only long-range cruise missiles. Since the launch was from the Arctic, they likely were simulating attacks against the U.S.
The Russians announced that the exercise would involve weapons based on “new physical principles.” What these are we do not know from open sources. The suggestion that this was a reference to hypersonic weapons does not make sense. First, weapons based on “other physical principles” is a term used in the former ABM Treaty to describe directed energy weapons. Secondly, Russia apparently did not have any operational naval hypersonic weapons at the time of the exercise. The only hypersonic missile known to be operational, the Kinzhal, was Air Force, not Navy, and the first launch of a Kinzhal from the Arctic didn’t happen until about six weeks after the Thunder-2019 exercise. Moreover, in November 2019, President Putin characterized “weapons based on new principles of physics” as a different category from hypersonic missiles. “New physical principles” weapons are clearly known unknowns.
Launch Problems in Thunder-2019
Russia reportedly had some launch problems during the Thunder-2019 exercise. One of the two planned SS-N-18 launches was cancelled because of technical problems. Reportedly, Russia had problems in launching Kalibr nuclear cruise missiles. The problem was, reportedly, that a new system designed to reduce launch time failed, and a backup system was used, which resulted in about a three-hour launch delay. This sounds like a problem that will be resolved. Typically, the Russia Defense Ministry denied there were any problems with the Kalibr launches. The Russian Defense Ministry also announced that the status of all SS-N-18 missiles would be reviewed. This is not a great problem for the Russians because the SS-N-18 and the submarine that carries it (the Delta III) are the oldest in the Russian inventory, and, reportedly, only one such submarine remains operational.
Thunder-2019 and Russian Nuclear Doctrine
The Russian statement about the Grom-2019 nuclear exercise provides additional evidence that the real Russian nuclear first use doctrine is different from what is contained in their official declaratory policy in their military doctrine publications. According to Maxim Starchak:
In particular, Major General Yevgeny Ilyin, the acting head of the Russian defense ministry's main directorate for international military cooperation, held a press conference for foreign military attachés the day before Grom 2019 kicked off. He reported that the exercise is not directed against other countries: "The maneuvers' scenario envisages the escalation of a situation in which there remains the potential for conflict along Russian borders that would pose a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state" (TASS, October, 14). However, General Ilyin's statement, in fact, contradicted the much higher bar set by the Russian Military Doctrine, which states that nuclear weapons could only be used in response to a nuclear attack or "aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
There is actually no conflict between General Ilyin’s description of the exercise, and Russia's proclaimed nuclear doctrine because its language conditioning nuclear first use in conventional war to “the very existence of the state” is propaganda. Russia classified its real nuclear first use doctrine in 2009 when the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Russia’s policy on “the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence” was going to be put into the “closed part” of its military doctrine. At the time, Russia did not want to appear nuclear trigger-happy in relationship to President Obama’s declaratory policy of nuclear zero. In the 2010 revision of Russia’s military doctrine, the threshold for nuclear weapons first use in conventional war either stayed the same (as stated by then-Deputy Prime Minister Colonel General Sergei Ivanov when the document was made public) or actually got worse. Ilya Kramnik, who had been the long-time military correspondent for an official Russian news agency RIA Novosti, wrote in Lenta.ru that the 2010 revision of Russia’s military doctrine “further lowered” the threshold of “combat use” of nuclear weapons. In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, who developed the 2010 revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine when he was Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”
Russia's actual threshold for nuclear weapons' first use in conventional war may be the language that General Ilyin used or similar to it. In 2008, General of the Army Baluyevskiy, then-Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, threatened preventive nuclear war: “We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons.” State-run RT (formerly Russia Today) and the independent Interfax news agencies both reported that Russian military doctrine allows for nuclear weapons first use in conventional war “…if the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation are under threat.” (Emphasis in the original RT reporting.) The meaning of a threat to “sovereignty and territorial integrity” is ambiguous enough that it may mean “any time it is in the national interest of Russia.” Any foreign military action in a border war, even a war started by Russia, could be deemed a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. “Sovereignty” may also be broadly defined, including Russia’s sovereign right to invade its neighbors. In 2012, Putin declared, “This concerns nuclear weapons, which remain a vital guarantee of Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and play a key role in maintaining global and regional balance and stability.”
In 2013, President Putin said, “Russia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are unconditional.” In 2014, President Putin characterized "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as "fundamental values," which are being threatened by "color revolutions," but which are guaranteed by Russia’s strategic forces. He also portrayed Russia as surrounded by enemies who want to dismember it and are only prevented from doing so by Russia’s military power, stating: “So, it is not about Crimea but about us protecting our independence, our sovereignty, and our right to exist. That is what we should all realize.” In 2015, he suggested Russian nuclear weapons’ use could have been possible during the Russian invasion of Crimea. In 2017, Putin said, “Only modern, powerful, mobile armed forces can ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country, protect us and our allies from any potential aggressor, from pressure and blackmail by those who don’t like an independent, sovereign Russia.”
The title of the 2010 document, which contains Russia’s classified nuclear doctrine, is entitled the “Fundamentals of the Russian Federation’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy,” and no successor document has been announced. Its content was never released to the public by the Kremlin. Dr. Stephen Blank writes that there are Russian press reports that say that in the classified document, Russia reserved the right for a nuclear response to conventional attacks on Russian nuclear forces or a ground invasion of Russian territory. We must remember all of the formulations made public by Russia in its various documents on military strategy, and even the reported version dealing with “sovereignty and territorial integrity” involve the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional war. Russia also reserves the right to retaliate by first use of nuclear weapons if chemical and biological weapons are used by an adversary without any conditions or limitations.
In December 2009, then-Commander of the Strategic Missile Force Lieutenant General Andrey Shvaychenko declared that “In a conventional war, they [the nuclear ICBMs]
ensure that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia, by means of single or multiple preventive strikes against the aggressors’ most important facilities. In a nuclear war, they ensure the destruction of facilities of the opponent’s military and economic potential by means of an initial massive nuclear missile strike and subsequent multiple and single nuclear missile strikes.” Because General Shvaychenko was the Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, he talked only about nuclear ICBMs. However, the same concept applies to other Russian strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces. Note the absence of any limitations on the type of economic targets that can be subjected to this massive nuclear attack. This is why Russian targeting for general nuclear war is savage. Only when nuclear weapons are used in a conventional war is there any concern about limiting collateral damage. As Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, stated in 1999, “…the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of de-escalating the military conflict,” and Russian forces “…should be capable of conducting ‘surgical’ strikes…using both highly accurate, super-low yield nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones…”
Thunder-2019 provides an object lesson on the nature of the nuclear threat the U.S. has to deter and the consequences if deterrence fails. We have to deter both the initial Russian first use of nuclear weapons in conventional war and a massively destructive nuclear strike in what they call “nuclear war.” The fanatic Minimum Deterrence nostrums of the American left who oppose U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs which seek to deter the full range of Russian nuclear capability risk making Thunder-2019 a grim reality.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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 Reported in “The Nuclear Forces and Doctrine of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, Testimony Prepared By: Dr. Mark B. Schneider,” House Armed Services Committee, October 14, 2011, available at http://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/3.26.12schneider.pdf.
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