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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Russian Nuclear Threshold Not Lowered
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Volha Charnysh

Contradicting earlier statements by a Russian official, Moscow’s new military doctrine, approved by President Dmitry Medvedev Feb. 5, does not elevate the role of nuclear weapons in the country’s national security policy. According to the document, nuclear weapons are reserved for “preventing the occurrence of nuclear wars and military conflicts with the use of conventional weapons (large-scale war, regional war).”

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev told Izvestia in an October 2009 interview that the new doctrine would significantly lower Russia’s nuclear threshold by assigning nuclear weapons to “local conflicts” and providing for pre-emptive nuclear strikes. (See ACT, December 2009.)

The new doctrine, which is to guide Russian policy through 2020, assigns nuclear weapons to large-scale and regional wars. That was also true of its 2000 predecessor, but in sharp contrast with the 1993 doctrine, which assigned nuclear weapons exclusively to global war. The 2010 document states that, “[i]n the case of a military conflict with the use of conventional weapons (large-scale war, regional war) that threatens the very existence of the state, the possession of nuclear weapons could lead to the escalation of such military conflict into nuclear war.”

According to Article 22 of the new doctrine, “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in response to aggression against the Russian Federation that utilizes conventional weapons that threatens the very existence of the state.”

The wording of this provision is very close to that in the 2000 doctrine. However, where the 2000 version allows the use of nuclear weapons “in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation,” the 2010 version says they can be used in response to an attack that “threatens the very existence of the state.”

The new language slightly tightens the criterion for the use of nuclear weapons, according to Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet and Russian foreign ministry official who is now a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

In a Feb. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Sokov said that “[t]he 2000 doctrine foresaw use of nuclear weapons in situations that were serious, but not necessarily life-or-death.” Threats to territorial integrity, for example, or “a large-scale air campaign à la Kosovo” could still trigger a nuclear response from Moscow, he said.

In 1999, in the midst of the Kosovo conflict, NATO conducted a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia without a mandate from the United Nations. Ten years later, the Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.

The 2010 doctrine “reserves nuclear weapons for situations that are more serious” than a hypothetical situation in which NATO conducts an operation in Chechnya similar to the Kosovo war and defeats Russia, Sokov said. In such a situation, Russia might be “humiliated, defeated, weakened”, but its “existence as a state is not at stake,” he said.

The new doctrine has fewer paragraphs on the use of nuclear weapons. Within the framework of strategic deterrence, it provides for the use of high-precision conventional weapons. The document states that the decision to use nuclear weapons is reserved for the Russian president, a provision that was not in its predecessor.

The additional emphasis on conventional weapons in the new doctrine was “an admission that nuclear weapons are not very usable” and that “deterrence based on usable weapons is much more efficient,” Sokov said. He said the document “makes it even more clear that tactical nuclear weapons simply do not have a role.”

Pavel Podvig of StanfordUniversity’s Center for International Security and Cooperation said in a Feb. 15 interview that the doctrine might have turned out more “reasonable” than expected because of the backlash generated by Patrushev’s comments last year. Patrushev’s interview “showed the importance of openness in deliberations of this kind,” he said.

Dmitry P. Gorenburg, senior analyst with the CNA Corporation and an associate of HarvardUniversity’s DavisCenter for Russian and Eurasian Studies, suggested two other possible reasons for the absence of the provisions Patrushev mentioned. Patrushev could have represented only one of many viewpoints in the Kremlin’s internal deliberations, or Russia could have wanted to “maintain more cordial relations” with the United States as the negotiations on a strategic arms treaty draw to a close, he said.

NATO Seen as Main Threat

The first external threat to Russia listed in the new doctrine is “the goal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to arrogate to itself the assumption of global functions in violation of international law, and to expand the military infrastructure of NATO nations to Russia’s borders including through expansion of the bloc,” according to the 2010 doctrine. However, Article 19 of the document mentions Russia’s readiness to cooperate with NATO and the European Union. Reacting to the reference to NATO as a threat, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters Feb. 6 that the doctrine did not reflect the real world and that “NATO is not an enemy of Russia.”

Although the 2000 doctrine never mentioned NATO explicitly, it similarly named “the expansion of military blocs and alliances to the detriment of the Russian Federation’s military security” as one of the main external threats to Russia. However, in the list of threats, that one came after such threats as

territorial claims against the Russian Federation; interference in the Russian Federation’s internal affairs; attempts to ignore (infringe) the Russian Federation’s interests in resolving international security problems, and to oppose its strengthening as one influential center in a multipolar world; the existence of seats of armed conflict, primarily close to the Russian Federation’s state border and the borders of its allies; the creation (buildup) of groups of troops (forces) leading to the violation of the existing balance of forces, close to the Russian Federation’s state border and the borders of its allies or on the seas adjoining their territories.

Other important threats to Russia, according to the 2010 doctrine, are

[t]he establishment and deployment of strategic missile defense systems that undermine global stability and violate the balance of forces in the nuclear field, as well as the militarization of outer space and the deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems precision weapons,…attempts to destabilize the situation in individual states and regions and undermine strategic stability,…[and] the deployment (expansion) of military contingents of foreign states (and groups of states) on territories neighboring Russia and its allies, as well as in adjacent waters.

Toward the end of the list, Russia also mentions threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles, and missile technology; the violation of international agreements; and international terrorism.

The doctrine is hardly “the Bible of [Russia’s] military and political leadership,” Podvig said. Unlike Washington, Moscow has never had “a tradition to use doctrine as a real guidance.” Decisions are made “in the heat of the moment,” he said.

This page was corrected on March 11, 2010. Because of an editing error, this article misstated the previous employment of Nikolai Sokov of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Sokov served in the Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union and Russia but not as foreign minister.

Excerpts From Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine

Article 8. Main external military threats:

(a) the goal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to arrogate to itself the assumption of global functions in violation of international law, and to expand the military infrastructure of NATO nations to Russia’s borders including through expansion of the bloc;

(b) attempts to destabilize the situation in individual states and regions and undermine strategic stability;

(c) the deployment (expansion) of military contingents of foreign states (and groups of states) on territories neighboring Russia and its allies, as well as in adjacent waters;

(d) the establishment and deployment of strategic missile defense systems that undermine global stability and violate the balance of forces in the nuclear field, as well as the militarization of outer space and the deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems precision weapons;

(e) territorial claims against the Russian Federation and its allies, and interference in their internal affairs;

(f) the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles, and missile technology, [and] the growth of the number of states in possession of nuclear weapons;

(g) the violation by a state of international agreements, as well as the failure to ratify and implement previously signed international treaties on arms limitation and reduction;

(h) the use of military force on the territories of states bordering the Russian Federation in violation of the UN Charter and other norms of international law;

(i) the presence (appearance) and escalation of armed conflicts on the territories of states bordering the Russian Federation and its allies;

(j) the spread of international terrorism;

(k) the appearance of seats of international (interconfessional) tensions, activity of international armed radical groups in the regions, adjacent to the state borders of the Russian Federation and the borders of its allies, as well as the presence of territorial disputes, growth of separatism and forced (religious) extremism in separate parts of the world.

Article 16. Nuclear weapons will remain an important factor in preventing the occurrence of nuclear wars and military conflicts with the use of conventional weapons (large-scale war, regional war).

In the case of a military conflict with the use of conventional weapons (large-scale war, regional war) that threatens the very existence of the state, the possession of nuclear weapons could lead to the escalation of such military conflict into nuclear war.

Article 22. The Russian Federation can use precision weapons within the framework of strategic deterrence.

The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in response to aggression against the Russian Federation that utilizes conventional weapons that threatens the very existence of the state.

The decision to use nuclear weapons is to be taken by the President of the Russian Federation.

Translation by Volha Charnysh