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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Russia Mulls Altered Nuclear Doctrine
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The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a paper Oct. 2 on modernizing its strategic forces that promises a rejuvenated land-based nuclear weapons arsenal for the next 30 years and warns that Russian military doctrine may need to be revised if U.S. policy continues supporting pre-emptive military action and moves further toward developing new, low-yield weapons.


The Defense Ministry disseminated the document ahead of an Oct. 2 meeting with Russian armed forces commanders. Although changes to military doctrine must be signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the modernization paper informally floated some Defense Ministry ideas, signaling that a shift in Russia’s formal doctrine may be forthcoming. Russia last amended its military doctrine in April 2000. (See ACT, May 2000.)

The paper reiterates the deterrent role of Russia’s nuclear weapons but warns of possible policy changes in light of U.S. strategic choices. At the conference, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the Kremlin had noted “attempts…to turn nuclear arms from a deterrence tool into theatre arms,” alluding to U.S. efforts to permit research into low-yield nuclear weapons, RIA Novosti reported Oct. 2. Ivanov was also quoted as calling the efforts “an extremely dangerous trend” and said that changes to Russia’s posture may be imminent if the United States lowers the threshold on the use of nuclear arms.

The Russian document responds to recent steps taken by the United States to increase the profile of its nuclear arsenal. President George W. Bush released a national strategy document in September 2002 that declared that the United States “will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise [its] right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” In November 2002, Congress approved a Bush administration initiative to study modifications to existing U.S. nuclear weapons to destroy underground bunkers. As part of the fiscal year 2004 budget request issued in February 2003, the Pentagon also asked Congress for permission to research low-yield nuclear weapons.

NATO’s nuclear role also received attention in the paper, which was released several days before an Oct. 8-9 meeting of NATO defense ministers. The Defense Ministry wrote, “If NATO is preserved as a military alliance with its existing offensive military doctrine, this will demand a radical reconstruction of Russian military planning and the principles of construction of the Russian armed forces, including changes in Russian nuclear strategy,” according to an Oct. 2 Associated Press report.

Russia has been wary of NATO’s expansion plans to include former Soviet bloc members, as well as NATO peacekeeping support in Afghanistan—all of which keep NATO’s military presence close to Russian borders. Russia has also expressed concern that NATO may station nuclear weapons in the Baltic states after they accede to the alliance—an accusation that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have denied. (See ACT, October 2002.) At the Oct. 2 conference, Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky emphasized Russia’s wariness of the “anti-Russian orientation” in NATO and possible alliance plans to “lower the threshold of using nuclear weapons.”

Ivanov also discussed the possibility of Russia taking preventative action, particularly in regional situations, at the meeting with Russian military commanders. He cited “instability in border areas” that may influence future military planning, saying, “We cannot absolutely rule out preventative use of force if Russia’s interests or its obligations as an ally require it,” according to an Oct. 2 ITAR-TASS article.

At the NATO defense ministers meeting, Ivanov clarified that “Russia still regards nuclear weapons as a means of political deterrent,” Reuters reported Oct. 9. His comment distinguished Russian policy from the U.S. stance outlined in the December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. The document stated that Washington could “respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options—to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies.” The classified version of the document reportedly states that “overwhelming force” could include nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

Putin told the meeting that a stockpile of SS-19 missiles, which until now have not been operational and have been stored in what Putin termed a “dry state,” will bolster Russia’s aging land-based arsenal, keeping the country’s deterrent viable until at least 2030. According to Putin, replacing older weapons with the SS-19s from the stockpile will give Russia “enough time in order to work to develop new [twenty-first-century] weapons.” Putin claimed that the changes to the Russian arsenal are in compliance with its obligations under the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, in which Putin and Bush each agreed to reduce nuclear warhead holdings to 1,700-2,200 by 2012. (See ACT, June 2002.)