The Scary Reasons NATO (and the World) Should Fear Russia's Nuclear Weapons
Russia faces real challenges in sustaining its military modernization efforts, given low oil prices, Western sanctions and the cost of operations in Ukraine and Syria. Despite that, Moscow looks set to continue the program. At its heart is nuclear weapons modernization. Russia’s most recent military doctrine, released in 2014, continues to emphasize the primacy of nuclear weapons in Russian defense policy, stating:
"Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against her and (or) her allies, and in the case of an aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the very existence of the state."
Three developments suggest a willingness by Russia to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks in a manner that lowers the threshold of nuclear war. First, the concept of preventative de-escalation is important. A recent IISS analysis explained de-escalation in which limited nuclear war could be used to:
"…de-escalate and terminate combat actions on terms acceptable to Russia through the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage upon the enemy. Such limited nuclear use may deter both nuclear and conventional aggression."
Second, the integration of conventional pre-nuclear and nuclear forces reinforces Russia’s coercive power against NATO in the pre-war ‘Phase Zero’ in a future regional crisis—for example, in the Baltics. And third, the Russians are clearly conscious of that coercive power given their recent nuclear signalling that suggests Russia continues to see such weapons as a means of national strength. Russia has undertaken sabre rattling through simulated nuclear strikes in large-scale exercises and aggressive probing of NATO airspace with nuclear-capable bombers. It has demonstrated the dual-role Kalibr NK sea-launched cruise missile in deadly strikes against Syria, and deployed dual-role Iskander short-range ballistic missiles into Kaliningrad in a manner that was highly threatening to NATO. That has been backed by public statements which reinforce Russia’s nuclear weapons capability and even explicit nuclear threats to NATO states, notably Denmark.
Russian nuclear forces are being swiftly upgraded with the focus on ICBM modernization, based on introducing the SS-27 ‘Yars’ road-mobile missile, and from 2018 the silo-based RS-28 ‘Sarmat’ heavy ICBM. Yars and Sarmat replace much of Russia’s aging Soviet strategic rocket forces with significantly more capable delivery systems. Russia’s Navy is transitioning to modern Sineva and Bulava sea-launched ballistic missiles, on the modern Borei class SSBNs, while the Russian Air Force is restarting the Tu-160 Blackjack production line to produce the updated Tu-160M2 bomber that eventually will be complemented by the ‘PAK-DA’ advanced bomber sometime in the 2020s.