I didn’t actually get around to reading the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) when it came out, so I did not know that it misrepresents Russian nuclear doctrine.
I’ve discussed this issue before. Official Russian doctrine proposes that, in the event of a threat to the continued existence of the Russian state, Moscow would order nuclear strikes to end a conventional conflict. One scenario is that a regional conflict—such as in Georgia—escalates to involve US forces. Once the United States gets involved, its conventional military superiority kicks in and Russia is on the verge of a catastrophic defeat that imperils the existence of the regime. Under these circumstances, Moscow needs to deter the United States to ensure its survival. That is, it must convince Washington that the next steps will lead to a massive nuclear exchange. But how to do that? The war is already under way, so there’s no ex ante “red line.” The answer, according to official doctrine, is to launch a limited strike to force the United States to come to the table.
This is, I should note, a dangerous gambit. Russia, as the NPR correctly notes, seriously underestimates the dynamics involved. It seems rather unlikely that the United States would back down. Still, the doctrine is clear, and it isn’t completely out of line with the broader idea of using limited nuclear attacks to demonstrate resolve.
However, the NPR implies that Russia will use nuclear weapons to “lock in” a conventional victory, such as the conquest of the Baltic States. It suggests that Russia has been lowering the nuclear threshold—in essence, adopting a nuclear war-fighting doctrine of one kind or another. As Oleg Oliker and Andrey Baklitskiy argue, this is incorrect:
The notion that Russia might use nuclear weapons on the battlefield may originate in arguments in a 1999 paper published in the Russian military journal Voennaia Mysl. The authors, military officers and analysts V. I. Levshin, A. V. Nedelin, and M. E. Sosnovskii, posited that the use of nuclear weapons in a heretofore conventional conflict could demonstrate credibility and convince the adversary to stand down for fear of further escalation. The argument for more nuclear steps on the escalation ladder has been made more recently as well. It was even promised by a senior Russian official prior to the release of a new military doctrine almost a decade ago. However, neither that doctrine nor the one that followed it in 2014 (the most recent) in fact lowers the nuclear use threshold. As one of us has argued previously, the official statements, followed by a doctrine that did not deliver on them, suggest that proponents of a lowered threshold ultimately lost a bureaucratic fight. To this day, Russian “escalation” advocates occasionally publish an article, still hoping to change the policy — but continue to fail.
They emphasize that Russian nuclear doctrine, in fact, signals a high threshold for nuclear use.
Nor does Russian doctrine call for the use of nuclear weapons if Moscow is losing a conventional conflict. To the contrary, military doctrine clearly states that nuclear weapons will be used only in response to an adversary using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction and/or “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” One can argue what does and does not qualify as existential jeopardy, but the scenarios in which Western analysts envision Russian nuclear escalation — most of which involve ending a conventional conflict — seem to fall short by most definitions.
You can make a case, as some of my friends do, that we should ignore official Russian doctrine when it comes to developing American capabilities. That doctrine could, of course, change, And no one can be entirely sure what would actually happen in the event of a fluid battlefield environment. Thus, it might be prudent to ensure that the United States enjoys a greater variety of limited and low-yield nuclear options. I’m skeptical of this position. Indeed, I worry that, in their world, the United States would respond to crisis de-escalation by retaliating with nuclear weapons. If we take the Russians at their word, the whole point of the initial attack is to demonstrate that a full-scale exchange is the next step. So, that could be very bad news.
Regardless, the NPR is sloppy on this point. Instead, it implies that crisis de-escalation is about achieving a Russian victory, and that Moscow has systematically lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in a pivot toward a war-fighting posture. The result? The Russians have pointed to the NPR as evidence of US aggressiveness while calling it out, correctly, for getting their doctrine wrong.
By and large, Russian analysts are confused by NPR’s assertion that Russia has adopted a so-called “escalate-to-de escalate” approach to nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think we have lowered our nuclear threshold,” says Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “In fact, we are moving in the opposite direction, investing in long-range non-nuclear deterrence capabilities to give us more options before nuking you. Even then, I doubt Russia sees limited nuclear use in Europe as a viable option.”
The only thing about the NPR that truly bothers Moscow, Frolov says, is the lowering of the U.S. threshold for use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, such as a cyber attack, “which is absurd.” Low-yield warheads on existing launch systems also bothers Moscow, because they wouldn’t know what kind of yield was thrown at them.
While these aspects of NPR might bother Moscow, the document’s understanding of Russia may be flawed. According to Podvig, “NPR got the basic Russian strategy wrong.” Rather than early use or escalate to de-escalate, Russia seeks to project uncertainty about its readiness and capabilities as a deterrent.
“From this point of view, there is not much in NPR that would affect that. Or, indeed, from any point of view,” Podvig said. “Whatever ideas Russia may have about nuclear use, I don’t see how a low-yield Trident warhead would change that.”
There is also an underlying assumption in NPR that Russia’s nuclear doctrine is offensive, that it would somehow be used in conjunction with a conventional attack to intimidate the U.S. and its allies into not responding to Russian aggression against another state. This may not be the case, as Russian doctrine explicitly envisions playing the role of defender.
“Some policymakers believe Russia has an offensive nuclear strategy, but there is nothing to support this since asymmetric escalation when you’re winning is not really credible,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank in Virginia. “Rather, Russia has adopted NATO’s strategy of flexible response.”
Needless to say, it’s embarrassing that the NPR simply takes up attempts by American nuclear hawks to paint Russian nuclear doctrine as something other than what it actually is. This is not a good look for the most important American policy document on nuclear weapons. Given that more aggressive nuclear posture is potentially divisive among US allies, the NPR needs to make the case without containing errors.
Overall, this episode contributes to the general impression of an administration run by ideologues who lack the discipline to even make the “best case” for their policy priorities.
So, pretty much par for the course.