A Closer Look At Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine

On June 1, Russia released a document detailing its nuclear doctrine. Though the 7-page document is much shorter than U.S. Nuclear Posture Reviews, it plays a similar role as a publicly available statement of the situations under which a country would use its nuclear weapons.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and former U.S. President Barack Obama

In some ways, this release is unprecedented. Though Russia has released information about its nuclear posture before, this is the longest and most comprehensive public statement of that posture to date. A similar document, signed in 2010, was classified.

Until now, much of what is publicly known about Russia’s nuclear doctrine was drawn from its 2014 Military Doctrine. The new document draws heavily from the sections of the 2014 document that dealt with nuclear weapons, but sheds new light on some issues, particularly having to do with Russia’s weapons developed after its withdrawal from New START.

The document confirms Russia’s adherence to a launch-on-warning posture, as discussed by President Putin in 2018. That means Russia would launch a nuclear strike once it received information that another country had launched missiles at Russia, leaving open the possibility that a technical failure or mistaken intelligence could lead to an unintended first strike.

It also leaves open a broad range of situations in which Russia could respond to an attack with nuclear weapons, including “critical state or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the failure of which will lead to the disruption of the retaliatory action of nuclear forces,” an attack with a nuclear weapon or other weapon of mass destruction, or a conventional attack that threatens “the existence of the state.” Though this largely corresponds with what experts had gathered from previous statements, it leaves open to interpretation the definition of “critical state or military facilities.”

Aerial view of the Vasilyevskaya Curtain, Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Military Archive, on Zayachy Island, in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The document’s release must be viewed in context. It articulates a launch-on-warning posture as part of a larger defensive role for nuclear weapons, yet history has shown that nuclear “false alarms” that might compel Russia to launch an inadvertent first-strike are not only possiblethey’re relatively common. A global No-First-Use agreement, accompanied by changes to nuclear force structure so that nuclear weapons are not kept ready to launch at a moment’s notice, would eliminate this very real risk.

In recent months, Russia has repeatedly, explicitly conveyed its willingness to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in 2021 and would leave the world without key limits on the two largest nuclear arsenals. These overtures seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the Trump administration, which has expressed its intention to replace the treaty with a trilateral agreement with China despite China’s persistent rejections of the idea. In light of U.S. withdrawals from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, the prospects for a New START renewal look dim.

Despite the lack of U.S. participation in international arms control efforts, however, it’s clear that the rest of the world sees the value in maintaining these hard-won agreements. Other signatories have worked hard to maintain the Iran Deal’s frameworks, even after the U.S. withdrew and in the face of its ongoing attempts to start a conflict with Iran. The Trump administration’s knee-jerk rejection to any international agreement reveals a fundamental inability to understand that an international agreement could be in the interest of all of its signatories.

Russia’s step to increase transparency while remaining clear about its faith in its nuclear deterrent, on the other hand, may be another acknowledgment that both countries stand to win from a return to arms control. The only way to make sure that nuclear weapons are never used is to eliminate them. But extending New START maintains progress made by earlier generations and leaves the door open for more ambitious negotiations in the future. It’s a key next step toward making sure nuclear weapons are never used again.

First image: “Medvedev Obama” by Mika V. Stetsovski is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Second image, open graph image (cropped), and thumbnail image: “RUS-2016-Aerial-SPB-Peter and Paul Fortress 03 (partial)” by Andrew Shiva (Godot13) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Background image: “Hypersonic rocket complex Avangard” by Министерство обороны Российской Федерации is licensed under CC BY 4.0