The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review was the first one to have a specific chapter detailing a “Tailored Strategy for Russia”. On face value this makes sense, after all, Moscow is the only other nuclear superpower. With relations between the two countries in a downward spiral, a sober assessment of the situation and clear proposals to address the most pressing issues would be welcomed. Unfortunately, the authors of the NPR misinterpreted Russian strategy, proposed solutions that didn’t solve alleged problems, and missed the real challenges threatening bilateral relations.
First, the document stated that Russia (as well as China) has since 2010 “increased the salience of nuclear forces in its strategies and plans”. While it’s hard to say precisely what the authors of the NPR had in mind, the 2014 update of Russian military doctrine (which followed the Crimean crisis) reproduced word for word the nuclear related paragraphs of the previous 2010 document. Not only were nuclear weapons not assigned new roles, the 2014 doctrine also pioneered the concept of “non-nuclear deterrence”, which would take over some of the functions that had previously been reserved for nuclear weapons. With Russia getting more and more comfortable with its conventional capabilities, as demonstrated in the Syrian campaign, its reliance on nuclear weapons is actually decreasing.
Second, the NPR postulated the idea of a Russian “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, aimed at using tactical nuclear weapons during a conventional conflict to end it on terms favorable to Moscow. The problem with this concept was that it isn’t supported by actual Russian doctrine, which foresaw only two conditions for nuclear use: WMD attack or a conventional defeat, putting the very existence of the state at risk. So, its proponents had to assume that Moscow had a secret nuclear doctrine contradicting the official one, and base their theory on indirect evidence of Russian exercise, capabilities and statements – all rather unconvincing. The one explanation for the persistence of this theory (to say nothing of it making its way to the NPR) I was able to relate to, came from a US colleague, who said, “we had plans for a limited first use in Europe during the Cold War, it would be only logical if you had such plans as well”.
While the NPR misidentified the challenges coming from Russia, the proposed responses also underperformed. They included de-facto increasing the role of nuclear weapons in providing US security, in particular developing a low yield warhead for the Trident SLBM and a new nuclear SLCM to provide instruments to confront Moscow at lower rungs of the escalation ladder. Those would include “holding at risk […], what Russia’s leadership most values” or in other words “escalating to de-escalate”. The SLCM was also touted as an instrument of returning Moscow to compliance with the INF treaty, though the conditions attached suggested that the authors of the NPR were being disingenuous.
Since few in the Moscow expert community believed in the “escalate to de-escalate” concept, the possible US response to an unlikely event didn’t hit the headlines. But new US systems generally failed to impress Russian experts. As one retired Russian general put it during a closed event, “We lived with US SLCMs until quite recently, it is hard to see how bringing them back would influence any of Moscow’s policies”. The low yield SLBM warhead received even more skepticism, a number of Russian military experts were confident it would never materialize. Alexey Arbatov described the idea as “quite absurd”, adding that “strategic nuclear submarines cannot be used in a calibrated, selective way”.
The extension of the number of conditions under which the US might consider nuclear use was seen as a bigger problem. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated, that it was deeply concerned with Washington’s readiness to consider nuclear use as a response to non-military scenarios and US planners, which “may view practically any use of military capability as a reason for delivering a nuclear strike against anyone they consider an “aggressor.” However, the most unexpected Russian response came on March 1, when President Vladimir Putin devoted a large part of his annual address to discuss nuclear issues, presenting five new strategic nuclear systems (an ICBM, a nuclear-powered cruise missile, an unmanned underwater vehicle, hypersonic aircraft missile system and a hypersonic boost glide vehicle).
Of course, the United States (much less the authors of the NPR) were not the only recipient of Vladimir Putin’s speech. Less than three weeks before the Presidential elections it was summing up the achievements of the presidency (hence grouping a number of systems at different stages of development) and reaffirming the security of Russian citizens. However, it provided a good reality check to the US views of Russian nuclear doctrine and highlighted some overlooked issues.
Putin’s presentation gave another hard blow to the “escalate to de-escalate” concept. Moscow invested years of effort and millions of dollars in new systems aimed at penetrating US missile defenses and increasing Russian second-strike capability ill-suited for a limited de-escalatory use. President Putin also specifically addressed the authors of the NPR saying, “any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.”
The new systems on display were costly, complicated and redundant against both current and near-term US capabilities, there also appeared to be a lot of questions concerning their mass production, operation and maintenance. But those weapons covered two important issues: burying any idea of using US missile defenses to help facilitate nuclear war with Russia and reminding Washington that this kind of war is crazy, ugly and there is no way it could remain limited.
Finally, President Putin’s speech also had an invitation to a dialogue with the US. While the proposal to “devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization” was less full of substance than one might wish for, it was a welcome improvement compared to the NPR, which all but ignored the arms control issue.
Whatever one might think about Russia’s hidden agenda, its nuclear doctrine, official statements and force development are all consistent with concerns over the possibility of a counterforce strike from a technologically superior power or a military conflict getting out of hand and escalating to strategic nuclear level. And this brings us to a final point, not covered by the NPR: Russian nuclear-related rhetoric.
While the majority of high-level Russian statements on nuclear weapons are repeating basic and widely accepted notions (“Moscow will use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack”) or showing support for strategic stability (“the US also has weapons against which Russia has no defense”), the very fact of recurring referrals to nuclear weapons is a disturbing symptom, manifesting bigger problems in US-Russian strategic relations.
Some of those statements might target the domestic audience or even have a coercive element to them. But mostly they reflect the uncertainty over US understanding of the “rules of the nuclear game”. Moscow fears that Washington might consider full-scale conventional or even limited nuclear war with Russia. Whatever one thinks of those fears, the US cannot simply ignore a key issue of the doctrine of a major nuclear rival. At best, they should be addressed in strategic stability talks. At the very least, Moscow’s threat perceptions should form a base of any “tailored strategy for Russia”.
The new NPR failed to take into account real Russian nuclear doctrine and concerns, this doesn’t mean that US policymakers should continue doing so.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.