“It’s not known, “ Kristensen said bluntly. “Russia has some vague statements about its mission with weapons in various regions—so to speak. Their public doctrine does not help us a whole lot because it has two giant categories in which it comes down to the survival of the state.”
Modern Russia renounced the Soviet Union’s pledge to never use nuclear weapons first in 1993 as its conventional forces atrophied rapidly in the chaos of the 1990s. In 2010, it was suggested that Russia would issue policy guidance that would lower its nuclear threshold, but that did not exactly happen.
“When the doctrine was issued, the threshold actually went up, not down,” Olya Oliker, a prominent expert on Russian military forces at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote for The National Interest . “Russia’s doctrine then, and now, as this language was reaffirmed in 2014, allows for nuclear weapon use ‘in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.’”
In Oliker’s view, there is little evidence to suggest that the so-called de-escalation or “escalate to deescalte” doctrine exists. “Doctrine may not always define what countries actually do. But it seems relevant that a higher threshold was put in place in 2010, when debates suggested a lower one might come, and remained in place in 2014, when Russia revised its doctrine in response to a worsening relationship with the United States and its NATO allies,” Oliker wrote. “This is not to say that de-escalation is entirely out of the picture for Russia. In fact, it has its proponents. But the fact that Russian analysts and even the occasional official advocate for it publicly indicates to me that it is not, in fact, current policy.”
Indeed, other researchers have found scant evidence that Russia has lowered its nuclear threshold. “Clearly, the Russian threshold for employing nuclear weapons for signaling purposes is lower than the West’s,” Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC, Stanford University and a Ph.D. student at King’s College London wrote for War on the Rocks . “This explains the numerous examples of what Western policymakers call irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling . While it seems prudent to make the Russians ‘ think twice about nuclear threats, ’ Moscow’s saber-rattling does not equate to a lower threshold for using nuclear weapons. Russian doctrine, declaratory strategy, and strategic debate all indicate the opposite: Improved conventional and non-military capabilities will delay the point at which Russia may use nuclear weapons in conflict.”
Will the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional weapon reduce Russia’s dependence on nuclear weapons?:
The consensus among arms control experts is that Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory. NSNWs will still be a feature of Russian military doctrine, but there will be less emphasis on that aspect of the Kremlin’s power.
“It’s not going to do away with it, of course, but like in our military—once we got more advanced conventional weapons—our planners reduced reliance on tactical nuclear weapons,” Kristensen said. “It’s likely we will also see that happening to some extent in the Russian military forces.”
Sokov agreed with Kristensen’s assessment. “Conventional missions for these assets ( Iskander, Kh-101/102 etc.) are, in my view, more important than nuclear ones,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions are a ‘back-up’ for the case of a really big bad conflict , which has extremely low probability—basic deterrence in several variants. Conventional missions are about actual use in support of foreign policy – Syria is the example of the main role of these assets.”
Sokov believes that Russia is fundamentally changing its nuclear posture as its long-range conventional precision strike capabilities improve. “I believe that we are dealing with a fundamental, long-term transition in Russian posture and strategy with the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional assets,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions will decline in relation to conventional—that is, in relative, not absolute terms.”
Ultimately, Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons depends on policy makers not in Moscow, but in Washington. How the United States alters its posture to rely more on nuclear weapons (or not)—now that precision weapons are no longer the sole purview of the Pentagon—will determine to what extent the Russians will rely on their own nuclear forces.
“Whether reliance on nuclear weapons will decrease, too, like it did for the United States in the 1990s depends almost solely on the United States,” Sokov said. “Until recently, the United States held a monopoly on long-range conventional strike capability so it could afford reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Whether this US/NATO policy will continue now that monopoly is almost lost, remains to be seen. I am particularly concerned that NATO – especially the newer members – might want to enhance reliance on nuclear weapons and then Russia will certainly respond in kind—i.e., conventional missions will supplement nuclear instead of replacing them. That’s the key dynamic to watch in the next 5-7 years.”
Only time will tell.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest . You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.