IN A SWEEPING 21-page document that addresses a range of internal problems and highlights perceived international threats, Russia appeared to lower its threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The new national security concept, which Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin signed January 10, is intended to "more distinctly outline the definition of a multipolar world and the way Russia will work on safeguarding national interests," according to Sergei Ivanov, secretary of Russia's Security Council. (See excerpts of the concept.)
The document, which replaces the security concept adopted in December 1997, will be complemented by a soon-to-be-finalized military doctrine currently circulating within the Russian government. The new military doctrine will supercede the present one, which was adopted in 1993, and will reportedly elaborate on and clarify Russian defense guidelines, including those concerning the use of nuclear weapons.
Updated Nuclear Posture
While the 1997 national security concept allowed the first use of nuclear arms only "in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation," the new concept states that nuclear weapons may be used to "repulse armed aggression, if all other means of resolving the crisis have been exhausted." This more relaxed condition for the use of nuclear weapons appears to be a response to the decline of Russian conventional forces, which has accelerated in recent years because of Russia's economic troubles.
NATO's effective use of high-precision weapons in Yugoslavia last spring and Russia's recent difficulties in Chechnya have emphasized the weakness of Russia's conventional forces. "Russia, for objective reasons, is forced to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons, extend the nuclear deterrent to smaller-scale conflicts and openly warn potential opponents about this," Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, head of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, stated recently in an interview with the Russian newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.
Last summer, in what appears to have been a dress rehearsal for the new nuclear posture, Russia announced that it had conducted strategic "war games" that simulated a conventional NATO attack on an isolated part of Russian territory. In the exercise, termed "Zapad-99," Russian conventional troops were unable to repel the NATO attack, prompting Russia to use several nuclear weapons.
Russia's threatened use of nuclear weapons to deter conventional attacks is reminiscent of NATO's use of nuclear threats during the Cold War to deter superior Russian conventional forces from invading Western Europe. NATO's most recent strategic concept, approved last April at its 50th anniversary summit in Washington, acknowledged the alliance's vastly improved conventional position and stated that "the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated...are therefore extremely remote." At the same time, the alliance explicitly rejected a call for a no-first-use policy and placed no specific limits on the use of nuclear weapons.
In 1982, Leonid Brezhnev, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, established a nuclear no-first-use policy, but Russia abandoned the posture in 1993. China has a long-standing commitment to not using nuclear weapons first; the United States, Britain and France have all consistently resisted adopting a no-first-use policy.
Russia's Relationship With the West
The new concept is striking in its repeated admission of national weakness and focuses primarily on internal issues-the economy, terrorism, separatist movements and environmental degradation-as the primary dangers to Russian society. It also identifies the United States and its allies as serious threats to Russian security. The document criticizes "attempts to create an international relations structure based on domination by developed Western countries in the international community, under U.S. leadership and designed for unilateral solutions...in circumvention of the fundamental rules of international law."
Such attitudes are symptomatic of a gradual reassessment of Russia's relationship with the West that has been spurred by a series of threatening events in the last few years, beginning with NATO expansion and followed by the U.S.-led airstrikes against Yugoslavia and recent Western criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. "Whereas in the past in the Russian security concept...it was stated that Russia has no opponents or enemies in the world, now it is clearly stated that one of the primary possible threats to Russian security and foreign policy interests is the policy of the United States," Alexei Arbatov, a member of the Russian Duma, said in a February 2 telephone briefing from Moscow.
Some analysts have attributed the new concept's confrontational posture to Putin's more hard-line stance towards the West. But the concept's early drafts were crafted and approved by the Russian Security Council under President Yeltsin (albeit in collaboration with then-Prime Minister Putin), and published in draft form last November. After review by the Russian legislature and bureaucracy, the concept was signed by Putin, reportedly with only a few minor changes. Thus, while the concept's release just prior to a presidential election is probably not coincidental, its timing is largely a function of bureaucratic process.
Russia's increased criticism of the West has not gone unnoticed in the United States, but the Clinton administration is downplaying the importance of the new national security concept. "We...do not believe that it represents a significant major departure from Russia's concept issued in 1997 or that it makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in a January 19 briefing.