The Elusive Russian Nuclear Threshold

November 26, 2019
Nikolai Sokov

The following is an excerpt of an article published in PONARS Eurasia.

(PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo) The role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s national security policy moved to the center of attention last year following the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which contained recommendations based, in part, on the assumption that Russia had reduced its nuclear threshold under an “escalate to de-escalate“ strategy. Many contested the U.S. claim and pointed out that the Russian doctrine did not contain those terms or that strategy, and that its nuclear weapons would only be assigned to situations when the “very existence” of the country was at stake. This certainly does not conform to the image of a lowered threshold.

It is always difficult to determine exactly how high any state’s nuclear threshold is, at least when one relies solely on open sources. Nonetheless, it is clear that there has been fluctuation in the Russian threshold in the post-Cold War period. Public and expert opinions on the matter have had their own fluctuations and reveal quite different assumptions about the role of nuclear weapons and the scenarios under which they could be used. Adding to the lack of clarity indeed, Russia’s military doctrines in 2000, 2010, and 2014 first stated that it could launch a nuclear attack if a situation becomes “critical,” then it used the term “threatens,” and then it presented the toned-down idea of “non-nuclear deterrence.” Looking at the scope and details of the matter with some hindsight, Russia did temporarily raise its nuclear weapon profile over the course of the 2000s, but Moscow became more confident in its conventional forces post-2014 and the threshold debate simmered down in Russian officialdom, even if the analytical clatter persisted.

What Official Russian Statements Say (or Seem to Say)

Uncertainty about the height of the nuclear threshold began in 1993 with Russia’s first military doctrine. Earlier, Soviet policy on nuclear weapon use was quite clear, at least after 1982 when the Soviet Union made an unequivocal no-first-nuclear-use (NFU) pledge, which meant a very high nuclear threshold. It declared it would only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack, which under the conditions of the Cold War, meant, by default, World War III. Prior to 1982, Soviet doctrine allowed for nuclear use in response to a large-scale conventional attack, but according to a declassified Soviet document from 1964, such an attack could only take place in the context of world war, which by default involved nuclear weapons. Hence, the 1982 pledge amounted to a rather marginal change in the nuclear threshold.

Continue reading at PONARS Eurasia

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