Russia’s nuclear posture has evolved since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, nuclear weapons became a way to compensate for Russia’s ill-prepared conventional troops. This led to the creation of Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which conceives of using tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict to force an adversary into a political settlement. In recent years Moscow’s nuclear doctrine became increasingly intertwined with its hybrid warfare strategy, keeping the West uncertain of Russia’s intentions and threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal
The USSR became the world’s second nuclear state in the world in 1949, after successfully testing its first nuclear bomb. At the peak of the Cold War, amid the arms race with the United States, the Soviet Union had approximately 40,000 nuclear warheads. Following its collapse in 1991, the new Russian state inherited an important nuclear weapons production complex, which since then has been drastically reduced. A signatory of the 2010 New START Treaty with the United States, the Russian Federation pledged to deploy no more than 1,550 operational strategic nuclear warheads and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers by 2018. As of today, Moscow has a military stockpile of approximately 4,300 nuclear warheads, and an additional 2,700 are retired and awaiting dismantlement. According to the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, out of these 4,300 warheads, Russia had 1765 operational strategic nuclear warheads and 523 deployed launchers and in March 2017.
The same project divides Russia’s arsenal into the following parts. The first leg of its triad is its strategic rocket forces, which are estimated to have 286 operational missile systems that can carry a total of 958 warheads. Moscow’s strategic fleet consists of twelve operational strategic submarines, capable of carrying 176 missiles with 752 nuclear warheads. Finally, the air force is made up of 66 strategic bombers, carrying approximately 200 long-range cruise missiles and bombs.
In addition to its strategic arsenal, Moscow possesses tactical nuclear weapons – their exact number is however approximate since there is no official treaty to document and limit their proliferation. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in February 2017 estimated Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear arsenal to consist of almost 2,000 warheads, although other estimates advance smaller numbers.
Russia’s Nuclear Posture
Russia’s nuclear strategy since the end of the Cold War may be divided into two components. The first is global nuclear deterrence, a continuation of the USSR’s nuclear policy throughout the Cold War. It deters potential nuclear strikes on Russia by threatening to retaliate with the state’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
The second component of Russia’s nuclear posture entails using tactical nuclear weapons to deter large scale conventional war, and is often called the “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine. It conceives of nuclear weapons as usable instruments in a conventional conflict, to be used if Russia is engaged in a conflict that it cannot win in favourable conditions conventionally or when the security of the state is endangered. The “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine entails Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional battlefield to arrive at a political settlement, without escalating in a full-fledged nuclear war or large scale regional war. It presumes that when faced with the use of tactical nuclear weapons, an adversary unwilling to escalate would cease all hostilities and attempt to compromise with Moscow. However, this strategy is a double-edged sword: if ready and willing to escalate, the adversary could trigger a large scale nuclear retaliation or counter-offensive, at Russia’s detriment.
The “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine first appeared in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in various state documents and within academic circles, with broad engagement parameters. Tactical nuclear weapons could notably be used in a regional war. Moscow was prompted to elaborate such a strategy to compensate for the ill-preparedness of its forces compared to those of NATO, notably after its display of force in Kosovo in 1999. This doctrine likewise responded to the Transatlantic Alliance’s enlargement, at a time when the latter was slowly drawing closer to Russia’s borders after successive waves of enlargement. However, the most recent Russian military doctrines (published in 2010 and in 2014) do not explicitly elude to the “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, establishing narrowed down engagement parameters regarding the use of nuclear weapons compared to earlier documents. According to the 2010 and 2014 military doctrines, nuclear weapons may only be used in the case of a large scale conventional attack on the state or if its very existence is endangered. Statements from Kremlin officials and recent events, such as military deployments including nuclear capable components, suggest that tactical nuclear weapons could indeed be used by Russia in a limited conflict. This ambiguity may be voluntary, as Russia’s nuclear doctrine has become a key element of its hybrid warfare strategy in recent years.
Integrating Nuclear Deterrence into Hybrid Warfare
It would be a mistake to consider Russia’s nuclear strategy as unrelated to the current “informational” or “hybrid” warfare that Moscow is waging on the West. In order to project itself on the international scene as a great power and destabilize neighbouring countries along with NATO, Moscow increasingly uses hybrid warfare, which some refer to as the Gerasimov Doctrine. Hybrid warfare limits reliance on direct conventional force, and instead uses a wide range of hostile actions, such as cyber warfare, intimidation, disinformation or the use of propaganda. It may be used as a geopolitical tool to exert influence on other countries or to weaken and divide political or military alliances.
Russia’s nuclear strategy is a key component of its overall use of hybrid warfare on the West. The threat of using nuclear weapons, coupled with the opacity regarding the use of tactical nuclear weapons enables Moscow to keep the West off balance and uncertain of Russia’s next move. This allows Russia to appear as a bigger threat than it represents, to ensure compliance on several policy questions and to divide and weaken NATO while preventing its enlargement (notably with respect to Sweden and Finland). Moscow did not hesitate to engage in nuclear sabre-rattling in the past years: bomber patrols were re-activated in 2007, several military exercises included fake nuclear strikes on European targets, and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were deployed in Kaliningrad in 2016.
Likewise, Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine was fully integrated into the country’s hybrid warfare strategy, by becoming more opaque and vague in the past years, keeping the West and NATO destabilized. Due to the vagueness regarding the use of tactical nuclear weapons, NATO is unaware of what could trigger a nuclear response from Russia and would thus be unwilling to take risks in case of a conflict with Moscow, be it of limited or large scale. According to the ECFR, the risk of Moscow employing nuclear weapons would be high if “Russia believed it could depict its nuclear use as a result of miscalculation or as an unauthorized decision provoked by reckless actions on the part of NATO”. In the face of Russia’s opacity regarding the use of nuclear weapons, NATO must preserve a clear nuclear posture if it wants to ensure a greater stability in areas where Moscow makes use of hybrid warfare, such as in the Baltic States.
Photo: The K-114 Tula nuclear submarine at a pier of the Russian Northern Fleet’s naval base in the town of Gadzhievo (2011) via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
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