Somehow, the notion that Russia has lowered its nuclear threshold has become a truism in recent years. Analysts and officials alike repeat the conventional wisdom that Russia’s doctrine is one of “escalate to de-escalate.” They reference Russian development of small-scale nuclear weapons, or nuclear “scalpels,” and Russian modernization more generally as evidence of the danger Russia poses. These arguments are used often, if not always, to indicate that the United States and its NATO allies should also consider lowering their nuclear threshold and/or developing new, smaller, more usable nuclear systems.
Having spent the last two decades studying the Russian armed forces, including Russia’s nuclear capabilities, I have been surprised by these statements. They do not track with what I know of Russian nuclear strategy, nor with how Russians talk about it, for the most part. De-escalation strategies were all the rage in Russia in the late 1990s, but they’d largely gone away in recent years. So why do so many of my colleagues in the U.S. believe in them? I decided to figure out what was actually going on.
With some help from Brina Malachowski, I traced the sources of these arguments and also sought to unpack what we do and do not know about Russian nuclear intentions. I wrote this up in a short report , available on the CSIS website. My conclusion is that the evidence for either “escalate to de-escalate” or micro-nukes is weak. Russia is certainly keen to remind the world (and especially the United States) that it is a nuclear power, and some of its politicians and pundits do this rather crudely at times, and intentionally so, but there is little evidence that Russia does not take nuclear weapons seriously, or that its threshold for nuclear use has truly been lowered. And if Russia is more eager to remind us all that it is a nuclear power, this stems not from its strength, but from its weakness, and specifically from its fear of U.S. and NATO conventional superiority. All of this argues not for lowering Western thresholds, which would suggest that the West doesn’t share Russia’s faith in its capabilities, but for playing to U.S. and NATO strengths.
What is an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy? In the late 1990s, Russian analysts wrote about the small-scale use of nuclear weapons to demonstrate credibility and resolve in conflict and thus convince an adversary to stand down. This is neither an inherently nefarious or a new idea. It echoes Herman Kahn’s writing on nuclear deterrence, to say nothing of some past U.S. doctrines. From Russia’s perspective, it was a strategy of conventional weakness. Russian planners worried then, as they worry now, that a conventional conflict could escalate to nuclear use. They sought something lower down on the escalation ladder to show resolve, and, lacking conventional capacity, posited that smaller-scale nuclear use might just do the trick. This approach was tested in the 1999 Zapad military exercise, notably with a strategic bomber in a tactical role. It went no further. Reportedly, then President Boris Yeltsin left the exercise indicating that its scenario was implausible, that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in this way. Shortly afterward, Russia, now under a new president, Vladimir Putin, took steps to start rebuilding its conventional capabilities.
Russia’s conventional rebuilding moved in fits and starts, until Moscow’s dissatisfaction with its performance in the Georgia war finally provided some real impetus for reform. And in the meantime, Russia tended to point to its nuclear capability as, at the least, a sign of its status and global importance, just as it had for years. More recently, in early 2010, there was talk that Russia would, indeed, drop its threshold for nuclear weapon use, and possibly allow for “preemption.” A new military doctrine was due, and officials hinted that it would include provisions for “preventive” nuclear strikes and deterring conventional attack. But when the doctrine was issued, the threshold actually went up, not down. 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.”
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. 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.