Russia’s New National Security Concept: The Nuclear Angle

Nikolai Sokov
January 19, 2000

The new National Security Concept, published on January 14, 2000, [1] was signed by Acting President of Russia Vladimir Putin on 10 January and represents an edited version of the Draft Concept adopted by the Russian Security Council (Russia’s analogue to the US National Security Council) on October 5, 1999. [2] It replaces the National Security Concept signed by Boris Yeltsin on December 17, 1997.

As it is intended to establish general guidelines for national security policy, the Concept only briefly makes note of nuclear strategy. This is because the Concept defines the economic crisis and domestic social and political instability as the main threats to Russian national security. Nevertheless, there are some relatively new aspects of the nuclear policy. These aspects are “relatively” new because they were introduced de facto in the summer of 1999 and in writing in the fall of 1999 (in the above-mentioned Draft National Security Concept and the Draft Military Doctrine [3]).

The key articles of the new Concept pertaining to nuclear weapons are the following:

  • “The most important task of the Russian Federation is to implement deterrence in the interests of preventing aggression on any scale, including with the use of nuclear weapons, against Russia and its allies.”
  • “The Russian Federation should possess nuclear weapons capable of guaranteed infliction of a predetermined damage to any aggressor state or coalition of states under any circumstances.”
  • One of the principles concerning the use of force by Russia is “the use of all forces and means at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, in case it needs to repel an armed aggression, if all other measures of resolving the crisis situation have been exhausted or proved ineffective.”

These points can be found, almost verbatim, in the October 1999 draft.

The 1997 doctrine contained the first two articles, but the third one read differently: “Russia reserves the right to use all forces and means at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, in case an armed aggression creates a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation as an independent sovereign state.”

The difference boils down to the conditions for using nuclear weapons and their mission. No longer are nuclear weapons reserved solely for extreme situations; now they can be used in a small-scale war that does not necessarily threaten Russia’s existence.

The key to this innovation can be found in another article of the 2000 National Security Concept, which states that the peacetime organization and deployment of the armed forces “must be able to reliably defend the country from an air attack [the 1999 draft discussed air and space attacks], work jointly with other military units and organizations to repel aggression in a local war (or armed conflict), and implement strategic deployment to complete tasks in a large-scale war.” Further details can be found in the 1999 draft Military Doctrine.

The meaning of the language regarding an “air attack” is simple: after Kosovo, Russia is no longer certain that it can effectively defend itself from a relatively limited conventional attack and feels that in such a situation it may have to resort to nuclear weapons. The scenario was played out in the summer of 1999 during the “Zapad-99” maneuvers which simulated a NATO attack on Kaliningrad Oblast, a small enclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania. According to the scenario, Russian conventional forces were unable to hold for more than three days, and to avoid defeat Russia selectively used nuclear weapons to demonstrate that it took the situation seriously and was not afraid of escalation. In other words, nuclear weapons were used to “de-escalate” the conflict.

The final point that has to be made regarding the 2000 National Security Concept concerns the types of conflicts in which nuclear weapons may be used. The document is rather vague in this respect, but offers important clues which are in keeping with the 1999 Draft Military Doctrine and publications by Russian military theoreticians. According to the Concept, peacetime armed forces are intended for a local war, defined as the smallest-scale military conflict involving Russia and another state. A larger-scale war requires strategic deployment.

Several recent publications distinguish between three types of wars: local, regional, and global. [4,5] (There is also the notion of an armed conflict involving Russia and non-state actors, such as terrorist and nationalist groups inside and/or outside the country.) Nuclear weapons are intended for use at the regional and global level. Thus, two scenarios for nuclear weapons use are possible. One is a large-scale attack that cannot be deterred by peacetime forces: this will qualify for early use of nuclear weapons to de-escalate the war or defeat the enemy. Another is a small-scale war that initially could have been handled by peacetime forces alone, but then escalates to a higher level when additional countries join the hostile party. The “Zapad-99” scenario, by virtue of the involvement of NATO, clearly falls into the “regional” category.

The 2000 National Security Concept continues–possibly even completes–a transition in Russia’s defense policy that began with Kosovo. This transition began with a meeting of the Security Council in April 1999 that was prepared and guided by Vladimir Putin, continued with the testing of the new mode of operations in a series of maneuvers in the summer and early fall, and was formalized in two drafts adopted in October (the National Security Concept and Military Doctrine). Now that Russia has the new National Security Concept, the only missing element is the Military Doctrine, which will probably be adopted soon.

The hallmarks of the new defense policy are (1) the perception that NATO uses force freely and will not hesitate to use it against Russia over political disagreements, and (2) a realistic appreciation of how Russia’s weakened conventional forces are unable to resist a large-scale conventional attack by NATO. Nuclear weapons are seen as the only reliable means to dissuade NATO from using force against Russia, and the harsh language of the recent official documents is clearly intended to ward off this perceived threat.


[1] Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, No. 1 (174), January 14, 2000.
[2] Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, No. 46 (169), November 26, 1999.
[3] “Voyennaya Doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii: Proyekt,” Krasnaya zvezda, October 11, 1999.
[4] V. Prozorov, Yadernoye sderzhivaniye v teorii primeneniya RVSN (Moscow: Petr Velikiy Academy, 1999).
[5] V. Levshin, A. Nedelin, M. Sosnovskiy, O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voyennykh deystviy, Voennaya mysl, No. 3, May-June 1999, pp. 34-37.

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