Putin’s New Nuclear Doctrine
In June 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an edict on “On the foundations of state policy in the field of nuclear deterrence.” This is a first because the previous versions of this document were classified and previous unclassified Russian written doctrinal pronouncements on nuclear weapons use at the Presidential level were part of longer documents on military doctrine. Notwithstanding the significance of Putin’s new edict, there are major inconsistencies in the new document. Moreover, Putin is making unprecedented (for a doctrinal document) nuclear first use threats while simultaneously denying Russia’s policy provides for such a course of action.
Putin’s decree represents a major, but incomplete, victory for the hardline faction in the Russian military who support the first use of nuclear weapons and want to talk about it in public. Major General (ret) Vladimir Dvorkin commented that the purpose of the edict was to “…force him [President Trump] to agree to the extension of the 2012 New START treaty.” While there is no logical reason nuclear threats should “force” a U.S. President to extend a seriously flawed arms control treaty, the Russian default mode is if Russia does not like what is going on in the world, it resorts to making nuclear threats. Still, while it is unusual for Russia to combine doctrinal statements and nuclear targeting threats, it is not unprecedented. In July 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a nuclear threat relating to Crimea by referencing Russia’s nuclear doctrine. Ironically, the unclassified 2010 version of the Russian nuclear doctrine (in effect until Putin’s June 2020 decree) would not apparently apply to Crimea since the loss of Crimea, which was not Russian territory to begin with, would hardly destroy the Russian state, which was supposedly the basis of their announced policy. The reason was that Russia’s 2010 pronouncement on nuclear weapons first use, which was presented as a new limitation on first use, was a deception. Even at the time, it was announced (February 2010), Colonel General Sergei Ivanov, then-Deputy Prime Minister and formerly Defense Minister, said, “In terms of hypothetical use of nuclear weapons by Russia, the new Military Doctrine does not differ from the one that was signed in 2000.” Indeed, in February 2015, Ilya Kramnik, the long-time military correspondent for an official Russian news agency RIA Novosti, wrote that the 2010 revision of Russia’s military doctrine “further lowered” the threshold of “combat use” of nuclear weapons.
According to Olga Oliker, Program Director, Europe and Central Asia, Crisis Group, Brussels, we are supposed to “rejoice” over Putin’s new edict because before this it was necessary to “…piece together Moscow’s positions and intentions from components of other documents (most notably a line or two in the country’s military doctrine statements from officials, exercises, force structure and the writings of Russia’s own specialists and strategists…)” While I see no reason to rejoice over the Putin decree, Ms. Oliker is correct insofar that it was necessary to piece together Russian nuclear strategy from these sources, however, it is rather amazing that she omits statements by senior U.S. civilian and military leaders, intelligence officials, the content of official reports and declassified intelligence reports on nuclear first use from her list of sources. The problem is that for two decades, Minimum Deterrence advocates and their apologists in the “expert” community for Russian nuclear first use policy ignored almost all of these sources. The only good news in Putin’s decree is that it is now more difficult for Russia’s apologists to continue to ignore the fact that Russia plans on nuclear weapons first use in circumstances that no Western leader would even consider using them. However, they will certainly try.
Significantly, it is imperative to point out that Russian nuclear doctrine has not been consolidated in one place. There are obviously classified and highly classified aspects of Russian nuclear doctrine that are not in the Putin decree. There is a separate published Presidential directive that deals with Naval nuclear weapons policy in the context of escalation. There are Defense Ministry documents that deal with Russian nuclear weapons use policy. One of the most important of these is the 2003 publication, “The Priority Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” which announced Russia’s nuclear escalate to deescalate policy stating, “De-escalation of aggression is forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by the actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons.” In the same year, Alexei Arbatov, Vice Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee and head of the International Security Center within the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said Russia had put more emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons “…although a selective first strike with strategic nuclear forces also is possible.”
In 2009, Russia announced that it was classifying its nuclear doctrine, including its plans for a pre-emptive nuclear attack. In August 2009, prominent Russian journalist Colonel (ret.) Nikolai Litovkin wrote that the Russian nuclear first use provision would be in the closed part of the new military doctrine and further maintained that, “Russia has recognized for itself the right to the preventive employment of nuclear weapons should we be attacked by some military bloc (like NATO).” In late December 2009, less than two months before the publication of the unclassified version of the new military doctrine in February 2010, Alexei Arbatov said, “Russia’s new draft military doctrine drawn up by a Russian Security Council commission contains a preemptive nuclear strike concept.” In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, former Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, 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.”
Thanks to Putin’s decree, we now know that Russian state-run RT (formerly Russia Today) and the independent Interfax news agency were accurate when they both reported Russian nuclear doctrine allows for nuclear weapons first use “…if the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation are under threat.” (Emphasis in the original). Paragraph 4 of Putin’s 2020 decree states, “The state nuclear deterrence policy is of a defensive nature and is directed at supporting the capabilities of nuclear forces at a level sufficient to ensure nuclear deterrence and to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state and to deter a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies in the event of the emergence of armed conflict by preventing the escalation of military activities and ending them on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies." In 2008, General of the Army Yuriy Baluyevskiy threatened preventive nuclear war using these criteria: “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.” A threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity may represent a still unannounced condition for Russia’s nuclear first use. If so, it is potentially very permissive because of its ambiguity. Both concepts could have more than one meaning.
Announced Conditions for Nuclear Weapons Use
Putin’s decree contains four announced conditions for nuclear weapons use, all of which involve first use of a nuclear weapon. It states:
- The conditions which determine the possibility for the use by the Russian Federation of nuclear weapons are:
- a) the receiving of creditable information concerning the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
- b) the use by an enemy of a nuclear weapon or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies;
- c) enemy actions against critically important state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the disablement of which will lead to a disruption of retaliatory operations of the nuclear forces;
- d) aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weaponry, which threatens the existence of the state itself.
According to Olga Oliker, “Some of this is old. But two things are new or newish. First is the clear statement that Russia can launch under warning of a ballistic missile attack. This is in line with Putin’s statements, but still notable to see in a formal document. Second, is the equally clear statement that an attack (military or otherwise) on Russia’s nuclear, command and related infrastructure, broadly defined, justifies a nuclear response. This has been a matter of speculation and often assumed to be true. Now it's confirmed." This is not completely accurate. Her later statement that "First use is allowed only in case of existential threat: to Russia or to its deterrent” is inaccurate. All four of Putin’s announced conditions allow for nuclear weapons first use. Paragraph 19 (A), (B) and (C) all contain conditions for nuclear weapons first use that are lower than even what appeared in the most alarming of the open-source reports concerning Russian willingness to use nuclear weapons first.
The most important revelation of paragraph 19 is that what was supposed to be a limitation on Russia first use of nuclear weapons adopted in the 2010 edition of the Presidential document on Russia military doctrine (paragraph 19 [D] in Putin’s decree), the existential threat criteria, was just one of several “conditions determining the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons by the Russian Federation…” Launch under attack is hardly new and is actually part of some of Russia’s narratives for Russia’s large strategic exercises, but not in the extreme form of the Putin decree. Similarly, “…the equally clear statement that an attack (military or otherwise) on Russia’s nuclear, command and related infrastructure, broadly defined, justifies a nuclear response,” was hidden by Russia for a long time but it is not new. In September 2017, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin, former Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, said, “Our military doctrine says that even a conventional attack on our nuclear installation will be considered the start of a nuclear war that will entail a massive nuclear retaliatory strike. That’s why no one will ever risk attacking a nuclear arsenal with conventional weapons.” He was not speculating but reporting fact. The formulation just released by Putin goes beyond conventional attacks and includes nuclear command and control facilities, which General Yesin did not mention. Thus, this could be an evolution of Russian doctrine lowering the nuclear use threshold. Alternatively, General Yesin may merely have spoken about only part of what was in their closed military doctrine.
There are a number of important aspects of the newly released language. First, as noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out, the Russian formulation is consistent with a nuclear response “possibly even [to] single missile launches…” This would be while the type of warhead on the missile or missiles is unknown. Second, the condition of a nuclear response to “other types of weapons of mass destruction…" is broader than the three previous formulations, which spoke specifically about chemical and biological attack. This is clearly a change in declaratory policy. Third, the use of “nuclear forces” rather than “strategic nuclear forces” in the provision related to non-nuclear attacks on nuclear and command and control facilities (paragraph 19 [C]) opens up the possibility of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack on a vast number of Russian military facilities, airbases, naval ships and Army bases and units. This is because dual capability (conventional and nuclear capability) is almost universal in Russia. The Russians are trying to effectively use the threat of nuclear escalation to negate our conventional and cyber capabilities. If they impose this targeting constraint upon us, we lose the war.
Moreover, there may well still be undisclosed conditions for Russian use of nuclear weapons as reported in the Russian press, including state media. In March 2020, state-run Sputnik News said that Russian nuclear doctrine provided for nuclear first use “…in response to large-scale conventional aggression.” This is clearly a lower use threshold than the official formulation of aggression that “threatens the existence of the state itself.” Russian press reporting of nuclear weapons policy different than the official line on nuclear strategy goes back to the very start of the Putin era. Noted Russia expert Stephen Blank writes that in 1999 there were Russian press reports that said that in the classified documents, Russia reserved the right for a nuclear response to conventional attacks on Russian nuclear forces or a ground invasion of Russian territory. Thus, we have evidence that Putin’s Paragraph 19 (C) condition goes back to 1999.
The 1999/2000 Putin nuclear doctrine provided for nuclear weapons first use in “situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation and its allies.” Alexei Arbatov and fellow Duma Deputy Petr Romashkin suggested that under Putin’s nuclear doctrine, Russian first use of nuclear weapons would be appropriate in response to contingencies like NATO’s past military action in Kosovo. In 1999, then Colonel General Vladimir Nikolayevich Yakovlev, then-Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, stated that “The need for Russia’s orientation toward expanded nuclear deterrence, which means including not only nuclear and wide-scale conventional wars, but also regional and even local military conflicts in the sphere of interests of the RVSN [ICBM force] and Strategic Nuclear Forces as a whole, is because of a number of objective reasons.” In October 2009, Nikolay Patrushev, the Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, revealed, “We have corrected the conditions for use of nuclear weapons to resist aggression with conventional forces not only in large-scale wars, but also in regional or even a local one….There is also a multiple-options provision for use of nuclear weapons depending on the situation and intentions of the potential enemy. ‘In a situation critical for national security, we don’t exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor.’” (Emphasis in the original). In October 2009, then-Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said, “Russia’s main threat is now coming from territorial and local conflict. So the country is developing a compact, mobile force with state-of-the-art flexible nuclear weaponry.” (Emphasis in the original). Provisions related to the use of nuclear weapons in local war apparently are in the classified part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine.
Russian Nuclear De-escalation of a War
Olga Oliker is still beating a dead horse about "escalate to deescalate" not being Russian nuclear strategy. Despite her statement about having to look at multiple sources, she argues that “…the combination of paragraphs four and 15 [of the Putin 2020 decree] may be understood as follows: Russia will use nuclear weapons only under the conditions delineated in paragraph 19. That is to say, it will not use them for simple battlefield advantage or to ‘escalate to deescalate.’ First use is allowed only in case of existential threat: to Russia or to its deterrent.” This is not a valid legal analysis. It discards two of the four conditions in paragraph 19 ([A] and [B]). As I have suggested above, paragraph 4 may be an unrevealed condition for nuclear first use, as General Baluyevskiy stated in 2008.
Ms. Oliker ignores the evidence that we have with regard to Russia’s introducing nuclear weapons in regional war exercises where there is clearly no “existential threat: to Russia or to its deterrent.” Indeed, Nikolai Sokov, who she approvingly quotes, wrote in 2014 that "…all large-scale military exercises that Russia conducted beginning in 2000 featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes." In 2016, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that Russia “simulated nuclear attacks on NATO Allies (eg, ZAPAD) and on partners (e.g., March 7 2013 simulated attacks on Sweden) …” Sweden hardly poses an existential threat to Russia or its nuclear deterrent. In 2017, then-DIA Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, said Russia is “the only country that I know of that has this concept of escalate to terminate or escalate to deescalate but they do have that built into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea…” He also said that he had seen no evidence that this policy was changing. The “Hard-core believers in ‘escalate to deescalate’” include not only the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report but the senior political and military leaders of the Obama and the Trump administrations, the Obama administration’s Defense Science Board, the Obama administration’s National Intelligence Council and the November 2018 report of the Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States.
There is nothing in Putin’s 2020 decree that indicates that his 2017 decree on the Russian Navy is still not Russian policy. The content of the 2017 decree contradicts Ms. Oliker’s assertion that Russia will not use nuclear weapons “…for simple battlefield advantage or to 'escalate to deescalate.'” The July 2017 Putin decree on the Russian Navy said, "During the escalation of military conflict, demonstration of readiness and determination to employ nonstrategic nuclear weapons capabilities is an effective deterrent," and the, "Indicators of the effectiveness of measures undertaken to execute the State Policy on Naval Operations are:….b) the capability of the Navy to damage an enemy's fleet at a level not lower than critical with the use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons."
In 2016, Ambassador Steven Pifer pointed out, "The 'de-escalation' doctrine, Putin's references to nuclear weapons in his public statements, and the broad modernization of Russia's nonstrategic nuclear forces suggest that the classified strategy could envisage use of those weapons in wider circumstances." Indeed, a 2011 RAND Corporation report by James T. Quinlivan and Olga Oliker, warned that Russia might, “…remove what it might interpret as threats to the survival of the state (its own or an ally’s) with small nuclear attacks that promise both definite effects on the battlefield and ‘de-escalation of military actions’.” Ms. Oliker got it right then except that the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons is lower than the survival of the state.
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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 Stephen Blank, “The Russian Military Faces the Future,” in Richard Weitz, “Can We Manage a Declining
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 Quoted in Schneider, The Nuclear Forces and Doctrine of the Russian Federation, op. cit., p. 20.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 21.
 “Russia to broaden nuclear strike options,” Russia Today, October 14, 2009, available at http://rt.com/news/russia-broaden-nuclear-strike/.
 Oliker, “New Document Consolidates Russia’s Nuclear Policy in One Place,” op. cit.
 Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike ‘de-escalation’,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2014, available at https://thebulletin.org/why-russia-calls-limited-nuclear-strike-de-escalation.
 The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015 (Brussels: NATO, January 2016),p. 18, available at http://www.
 Mark B. Schneider, “Russian nuclear “de-escalation” of future war,” Comparative Strategy, Volume 37, 2018 - Issue 5, March 25, 2019, pp. 361-372, available at https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/3SJzKYCQG6DKbZ6eh W5W/full?target=10.1080/01495933.2018.1526558.: Commission on the National Defense Strategy, “Providing for the Common Defense,” (Washington D.C.: Commission on the National Defense Strategy, 2018), p. 8, available at https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2018-11/providing-for-the-common-defense.pdf.
 “FUNDAMENTALS of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Operations for the Period until 2030,” op. cit., p. 12.
 Ibid., p, 16.
 Steven Pifer, “Pay attention, America: Russia Is Upgrading Its Military,” The National Interest, February 3, 2016, available at http://nationalinterest.org/feature/pay-attention-america-russia-upgrading-its-military-15094.
 James T. Quinlivan and Olga Oliker, Nuclear Deterrence in Europe, (Santa Monica Cal.: The Rand Corporation,
2011), p. xiv, available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/ RAND_MG1075.pdf.