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Russia's nuclear doctrine: whom and why the Kremlin is ready to fire rockets

The Fundamentals of State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence, which Vladimir Putin signed on June 2, 2020, is, in fact, the latest version of Russia's nuclear doctrine. This is the first such document that was published in Russia or the USSR. Russian service with the BBC explains the meaning of Russia's nuclear doctrine.

Photo: Shutterstock

Previously, the mechanism and principles of decision-making in the development and use of nuclear weapons were a state secret.

The goals and objectives of the nuclear deterrence policy appeared mainly in closed documents, for example, in military doctrines that were not published in the USSR and Russia, and their positions could only be learned from the words of statesmen.

This gave rise to speculation and interpretation not only in the press, but also among the military. Now such a document has been published, it has clarified a lot, but experts now find in it provisions that can be interpreted very widely.

What is nuclear deterrence

The document answers two questions: what Russia wants to achieve with nuclear deterrence and in which case it can use nuclear weapons.

In other words, the document contains a list of what needs to be done in order for Russia to aim its nuclear missiles at you, and what - in order for it to launch them.

One of the main qualities of nuclear weapons is that they do not need to be used. It provides security not by application, but only by the threat itself, the possibility of its use. This is "nuclear deterrence" - the principle that underlies strategic stability.

And “strategic stability”, in turn, is the state in which the world has been for many decades - the absence of open military conflicts between the largest world states.

We are talking about countries with weapons capable of destroying the entire civilization. Therefore, strategic stability applies to literally everyone.

The nature of this stability is changing, as the factors that ensure it change - new types of weapons and new technologies appear, treaties are concluded and terminated, international terrorism is intensified, and new countries acquire nuclear weapons.

And since the Russian document deals with one of the two largest world nuclear arsenals, it will certainly also have an impact on strategic stability.

On the subject: The United States will tighten control over the export of nuclear and missile technologies to Russia

What Russia considers a threat

The doctrine says that Russia needs nuclear deterrence in order to counter certain threats.

Among them there are threats that include nuclear weapons - the presence of a state of its own or the deployment of a foreign one on its territory, which can be used against Russia.

Other points either do not talk about nuclear weapons at all, or they do it very vaguely.

For example, a buildup in the adjacent territories of conventional army groups, which include nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, is considered a threat. But a ballistic missile, not necessarily equipped with a nuclear warhead, can be considered a delivery vehicle.

Other threats include the deployment of missile defense systems, intermediate and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, high-precision non-nuclear and hypersonic weapons, attack unmanned aerial vehicles, directed energy weapons, and the deployment of weapons in space.

This provision was introduced into the doctrine after the development of strategic non-nuclear weapons in various countries.

Russia is also investing forces and resources in such weapons as the Kinzhal hypersonic aircraft missile, the Avangard planning unit, and the Peresvet laser complex.

Under what conditions can Russia use nuclear weapons

The second important part of the doctrine is a list of scenarios in which Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons, that is, to go beyond nuclear deterrence.

There are four such scenarios:

  • obtaining reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles attacking Russia;
  • the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against Russia;
  • a certain effect on objects whose failure to cause a breakdown in the response of nuclear forces;
  • aggression against Russia using conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.

There are also very vague wordings here. For example, ballistic missiles can be anything - nuclear or non-nuclear, intercontinental or medium-range.

The enemy's impact on critical objects is also not defined in any way - the object can be blown up, or it can be disabled by a hacker attack.

However, all of this could entail a nuclear strike.

These formulations, which can be interpreted very broadly, according to Russian expert, senior researcher at the Center for International Security at IMEMO RAS Konstantin Bogdanov, appeared intentionally in the document.

“One can see there an attempt by the military-political leadership to retain maximum freedom of maneuver in very specific moments related to the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons,” he said.

According to Bogdanov, the document specifically “shaded” the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.

“This is an element of the national nuclear strategy called“ containment through uncertainty ”. This is a deliberate use so that the opponent does not calculate in the event of a serious conflict ... roughly speaking, he does not optimize the pressure, realizing that he will not be hit with nuclear weapons up to here, ”the expert said.

Bogdanov admits that such a game is rather risky, since the enemy may be mistaken, believing that he has not yet crossed the “red line,” while the Russian military will already give the order for a nuclear strike.

On the subject: Nuclear tests in the Pacific: why dozens of years later, the threat from radiation has not subsided

Why do they criticize the doctrine in the West

Another provision of the doctrine, which may be paid attention in the West, is contained in the part that refers to the goals of nuclear deterrence.

The fourth paragraph of the document says: "The state policy in the field of nuclear deterrence [...] guarantees [...] in the event of a military conflict - preventing the escalation of hostilities and their termination on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies."

The term "escalation" recalls that in the West, Russia's nuclear strategy is often referred to as the Escalate To De-Escalate principle - "escalate to defuse."

This refers to the principle of the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear threat previously spelled out in the doctrine. Russia really allows itself to use nuclear weapons in response to an enemy attack without it.

This principle is perceived in the West as the desire of the Russian leadership to reduce the threat of war against Russia as a reciprocal threat of turning an ordinary conflict into a nuclear one.

Figuratively speaking, Russia is accused of threatening a potential adversary with an overreaction - a pistol in response to a knife, so that the adversary would surrender and retreat.

However, this wording in the current document is also rather vague. RIAC expert Ilya Kramnik believes that there are no grounds to suspect Russia of “escalating for the sake of de-escalation”.

“To say that nuclear weapons can be used as a means of de-escalation of the conflict, in my opinion, is irresponsible, because the foundations themselves, and this is stated in the text more than once, are aimed at preventing the use of nuclear weapons,” He told the BBC.

Kramnik believes that in this part the authors of the doctrine simply once again formulated the principle of nuclear deterrence, rather than hinting at some special strategy.

However, in another part of the document, the possibility of using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons is openly spelled out - in the event of "aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened."

At what point can Russia launch nuclear missiles

Alexander Ermakov of the Russian International Affairs Council notes that the current doctrine declares a very important principle - a clear and clear indication that Russia will respond with a retaliatory strike in the event of a nuclear attack. That is, the decision on a retaliatory strike will be made not after an atomic explosion on its territory, but not preemptively, but only after the launch of enemy missiles.

The USSR did indeed declare the principle of not delivering a nuclear strike first. Russia subsequently did not clearly discuss this principle.

On the one hand, it did not declare its refusal to preemptively attack. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin, in his famous speech that in a nuclear war the Russians “like martyrs will go to paradise, and they [opponents] will simply die,” announced publicly that Moscow shares the principle of retaliatory strike when the decision about it is adopted after receiving information about the missile attack on Russia.

Such a scenario nearly led in 1983 to a nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, when as a result of a computer failure the system gave a signal about a missile attack, and only the officer on duty Stanislav Petrov saved the world from a nuclear war, refusing to trust the equipment.

Alexander Ermakov believes that in Russia the current system of early warning systems takes into account such errors: “These are all declarations, that is, what is announced. What is written in the instructions of officials at the facilities ... It is not at all necessary that all this be written there. "

On the subject: Using virtual reality, a Russian journalist became the president of the United States and decided the fate of a nuclear war with Russia

Why doctrine needed at all

The very appearance of such a document, experts say, is already a big event that will positively affect stability.

“There has never been such a document,” says Konstantin Bogdanov. "The Americans regularly update their nuclear doctrine, Nuclear posture review, and Russia has never even come close to having such a document."

“All that we have on nuclear doctrine is two paragraphs in military doctrine and a huge amount of speculation related to official publications and statements of high-ranking leaders,” Bogdanov explains.

“Now we at least have a certain framework, which is signed by the head of state and which is a kind of offer to the world community - we behave like this,” the expert says. "Institutionalization is a kind of nuclear weapon."

Ilya Kramnik agrees with him: “To speak is still better than to fight. When major military powers know more about each other's intentions, this reduces the field of uncertainty, the field of speculation, in which various dangers and threats can grow. The mutual availability of information on plans, intentions and probable schemes of reactions to certain threats among the nuclear powers makes life easier. ”

According to Bogdanov, despite the general vagueness of the wording, many of his provisions clarify Russian military policy in various fields.

He called such a provision a statement about a nuclear strike in response to the launch of certain missiles without specifying their class: “This is an absolutely clear signal about how Russia sees the management of military risks in regional issues. In the problem of medium-range missiles. This is a perfectly clear signal that was spelled out at the doctrinal level. Not a statement that we are offended, but that we are changing our planning in this way. "

Finally, as Ilya Kramnik noted, "for Russia, this is also a powerful step towards the openness of information about military planning."

“We are, after all, a traditionally closed country, and when there is some exchange of information on the nuclear side thanks to the system of treaties, primarily START and, in principle, the negotiation process, then in general about the general principles of military command, the decision-making system, information threats there is no outside military doctrine, ”the expert said.

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