By Vladimir Kozin
On 2 June 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Decree No. 355 on the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence. The adopted document, which has the status of a military strategic guidance of national importance, defines the military dangers and threats for neutralizing which nuclear deterrence is carried out, its key principles, and the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons.
The document replaces a normative act of similar content adopted ten years ago that has been in force up to the current year, and mainly retains the main content of the Russian Nuclear Doctrine.
It is still defensive in nature and can be described in lapidary form as based on the principle of “conditional defensive nuclear deterrence’. This means that Russian nuclear weapons can be used only in a retaliatory strike against a potential adversary if it uses nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Russia and/or its allies, as well as in case of aggression against it with conventional weapons, “when the very existence of the state is threatened’.
The new Foundations thus retained the two-link wording on the use of nuclear weapons, which was reflected in a similar document approved by then President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, as well as in the ‘nuclear section; of the country’s current Military Doctrine, approved in December 2014 by President Vladimir Putin. As it can be seen, the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only as a last resort and forced means and only in response to certain hostile actions of a potential adversary.
In contrast to the updated Russian nuclear strategy, the U.S. nuclear strategy known as NPR, approved in February 2018, provides for the use of nuclear weapons in 14 cases, eight of which are deliberately vaguely worded in order to expand the range of grounds for the use of nuclear missiles in a first preventive and pre-emptive strikes. This makes it possible to qualify the current United States nuclear strategy as having at its core the principle of “unconditional offensive nuclear deterrence”. By this indicator, President Donald Trump could claim to be reflected in the Guinness Book of Records.
The new Russian Foundations do not contain any provisions on “escalation to de-escalation” or the use of low-yield nuclear warheads. The new directive does not specify a possibility of emplacing nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear states, while such provisions are contained in the current U.S. nuclear strategy.
The provision of the ‘nuclear section’ of the 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation that the decision to use nuclear weapons is made by the President of the Russian Federation has been reiterated in the updated act, but with clarification: if there are conditions that determine the possibility of their use. The President of Russia may, if necessary, inform the military and political leadership of other states and international organizations about the readiness of the Russian side to use nuclear weapons or about the decision taken on their use, as well as about the fact of their actual use.
The 2020 Fundamental set forth four conditions for the use of nuclear weapons: in the event of reliable information on the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territories of Russia and its allies; the adversary’s use of nuclear weapons or other types of WMD across the territories of Russia and its allies; the adversary’s influence on critical state or military facilities of Russia, the destruction of which will disrupt the response of its nuclear forces; and the use of conventional weapons of mass destruction.
The document draws attention to the fact that deterrence should be guaranteed and uninterrupted in terms of the duration of its use in peacetime and wartime, and should provide for the inevitability of retaliation and unacceptable damage to a potential adversary under any circumstances by means of a nuclear deterrent force consisting of land, sea and air-based nuclear forces.
The deterrence is carried out by the Russian side not only in relation to some individual potential adversaries of Russia, but also in relation to military coalitions (blocs and alliances) that possess nuclear weapons and/or other types of WMD or have significant combat potential of general-purpose forces, and consider it as a potential adversary.
Six types of military threats to the Russian Federation that may require the use of nuclear weapons have been identified in the updated posture:
1. The build-up by potential adversaries in the territories adjacent to Russia and in the sea areas of the general-purpose force groupings which include nuclear weapon delivery vehicles;
2. The deployment of medium- and shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles, missile defense systems and facilities, high-precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, UAVs and directed energy weapons;
3. The development and deployment in space of missile defense and strike systems;
4. The possession by other states of nuclear and/or other types of WMD and their means of delivery that can be used against Russia and/or its allies;
5. Uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, their means of delivery, technologies and equipment for their manufacture;
6. Deployment on the territories of non-nuclear states of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. The aforementioned military dangers reflect the further development of various types of weapons by foreign states and fielding their weapons in the forward-based areas in relation to the Russian Federation. In this regard, attention is rightly drawn to the adaptability of deterrence to military threats stemming from outside.
It is fundamentally important that the document signed on June 2nd does not contain any provisions that would consolidate Russia’s desire for attaining nuclear superiority.
On the contrary, it includes wording on the need to reduce the nuclear threat and prevent the aggravation of interstate relations that could provoke military conflicts, including with the use of nuclear weapons. Compliance with international arms control obligations has been declared, unlike the United States, which has only verbally declared its commitment to them and, in fact, has openly demonstrated a negative attitude towards 13 international accords in this area, including seven of them related to nuclear weapons.
There is no maximum validity period for the updated Moscow’s nuclear posture. Thus, Russia remains restrained in its potential use of nuclear weapons indefinitely.
Vladimir Kozin is a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. He writes frequently about nuclear weapons.