Russian Nuclear Strategy

June 30, 2016

Speaker: Nikolai Sokov, CNS Senior Research Fellow

Video Seminar: Streamed live on Jun 27, 2016


The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted an event on “Russian Nuclear Strategy,” on June 27, 2016, featuring Dr. Pavel Podvig, Director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and Dr. Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The experts discussed the Russian nuclear arsenal— the largest in the world— and Moscow’s modernization plans, strategy, and view of the role of nuclear weapons in its security policy.

Dr. Sokov spoke on the evolution of Russian nuclear strategy from the fall of the Soviet Union to present day, highlighting the addition of a new nuclear mission in 1999 – deterring not just global nuclear war but also smaller-scale conventional attack through the threat of limited use of nuclear weapons.  The driver for that shift was the war in Kosovo, which, Sokov said, was seen in Moscow as a sign that force could be used by the United States and NATO against Russia over Chechnya. The new nuclear strategy was designed to address that and similar contingencies.

Deterrence of “regional conflicts” (as these scenarios were classified in the new Military Doctrine) relied on the threat of small-scale (less than ten) nuclear weapons against military targets (military bases and platforms that could be used by the United States and NATO in such an attack) to inflict tailored damage (as opposed to the “unacceptable damage” associated with large-scale, global wars).   That “de-escalation” strategy rests on the perceived asymmetry of stakes in a “regional conflict” – whereas for the United States and its allies such a conflict could be about “humanitarian intervention” or support of democracy, for Russia it would be about core security and sovereignty issues; thus it was calculated that the threat of even very limited nuclear use should be able to discourage the West from contemplating the use of force against Russia.

Sokov also explained that Russia’s shift toward nuclear de-escalation comes with serious limitations, including the  international norms against the use of nuclear weapons , as well as injunction against threatening nuclear use against  non-nuclear states and non-allies of nuclear states.  From the very beginning, he said, reliance on nuclear weapons was regarded as a “temporary fix” until Russia succeeds in modernizing its conventional forces. The use of long-range precision-guided conventional weapons last year in Syria, as well as the introduction of the notion of “non-nuclear deterrence” into the Military Doctrine in 2014, suggests that the project is probably succeeding. On the other hand, it remains unclear whether, indeed, reliance on nuclear weapons will decline as a result or conventional capability will be introduced in addition to the existing nuclear options.

Addressing the prospects for arms control, Sokov noted that the deadlock that has existed for more than a decade was primarily caused by a difference in frameworks: the United States sought to reduce nuclear weapons alone, whereas Russia has insisted that other elements of the security balance should be addressed, too, in particular long-range conventional weapons, missile defense, and space assets. Now that Russia is quickly catching up on modern conventional capability and on missile defense, Sokov argued, it might be advisable to revisit the long-standing US approach.


View the presentation slides

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