The New, 2010 Russian Military Doctrine: The Nuclear Angle

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Nikolai Sokov
February 5, 2010

On February 5, 2010, after multiple delays, Russia finally published its new Military Doctrine, which replaces an earlier document adopted in 2000. At the same time as he signed the Military Doctrine, President Dmitri Medvedev also signed “The Foundations of State Policy in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence until 2020,” which has not yet been made public.

Contrary to expectations, the new Military Doctrine appears to reduce, at least somewhat, the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s national security policy. Together with the START follow-on treaty that might be signed as soon as in March or April this year, this could strengthen Russia’s position at the forthcoming 2010 NPT Review Conference. One also wonders whether this shift in Russian attitude toward nuclear weapons will affect the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review in the United States.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

Nuclear policy was clearly one of the elements of the new Military Doctrine that generated considerable controversy within the Russian political and military establishment. Experts who tried to follow these closed-door debates were unpleasantly surprised by an October 2009 interview of Nikolai Patrushev, who serves as secretary of the Security Council, an interagency body, roughly similar to the National Security Council in the United States, which was charged with the drafting the new Doctrine. Patrushev indicated that the new Doctrine might assign nuclear weapons to “local conflicts,” which would have represented a massive expansion of the role of these weapons in Russian security policy.[1] That statement caused serious criticism inside Russia, including from the military, and many students of Russian nuclear policy waited with some concern to see the outcome of that debate. The end result was a pleasant surprise — instead of expanding the role of nuclear weapons, the new Military Doctrine, in fact, somewhat reduced it by setting stricter criteria for the use of such arms.

Like the previous Doctrine, the new document differentiates between four types of military conflicts:

  • armed conflict (basically, a small-scale clash between two states or within one state similar to the war in Chechnya);
  • local war (war with limited goals that affects only the interests of the immediate participants — a good example is the 2008 Russian-Georgian war);
  • regional war (war that involves significant forces, including naval and airspace, which affects a large region and perhaps even coalitions of states); and
  • large-scale war (war with radical, far-reaching goals that involves all or most great powers; fundamentally, a new world war).

The 2000 Military Doctrine assigned nuclear weapons to the third and the fourth types of conflicts, which represented a major expansion of the role of these weapons (the earlier, 1993 Doctrine only assigned them to global war). Obviously, Patrushev’s hint that nuclear weapons might have a role in local conflict was met with concern — one needs only to imagine nuclear threats issued by Moscow during conflicts similar to the 2008 war in the Caucasus.

The final version of the 2010 Military Doctrine kept the earlier language, however. Nuclear weapons are still assigned to regional and large-scale wars and are regarded as “an important factor in the prevention of nuclear conflicts and military conflicts that use conventional assets (large-scale and regional wars).” Like the earlier version, the new document clearly indicates that a conventional regional war could escalate to the nuclear level. In a slight change from 2000, this provision is formulated in broader terms — this is now not only seen as a means of deterring or dissuading states that might attack Russia with conventional armed forces, but also an expression of concern that similar escalation might take place elsewhere.

The most significant change in the language pertaining to nuclear policy is the new criterion for the employment of nuclear weapons. It has become tighter. Whereas the previous, 2000 Doctrine foresaw the resorting to nuclear weapons “in situations critical for [the] national security” of Russia, the 2010 version allows for their use in situations when “the very existence of [Russia] is under threat.”

Like the earlier document, the new Doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons not only in response to a nuclear attack or an attack with other WMD (a slight revision of the negative assurances that has become common among nuclear weapons states since 2000), but also in response to a conventional attack. In other words, it keeps the first-use plank.

The main mission assigned to nuclear weapons by the new Doctrine is the “prevention of nuclear military conflict or any other military conflict.” This mission assumes “the maintenance of strategic stability and the nuclear deterrence capability at the level of sufficiency.” In a different part of the document the notion of “sufficiency” is defined as ability to inflict “predetermined” (alternative translation, “tailored”) damage to an aggressor under any circumstances.

While these provisions are reasonably standard for any nuclear weapons state the Doctrine contains one new element: it assigns high-precision (apparently, conventional) weapons to the mission of strategic deterrence. This clearly indicates that Russia plans to follow the same trajectory as the United States and equip a growing share of its strategic delivery vehicles with conventional warheads.

An interesting feature of the 2010 Doctrine is the emphasis on strategic deterrence capability. The choice of terms seems to indicate that Russia does not assign a visible role to substrategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons.[2]

Overall, the 2010 Doctrine devotes less attention to the nuclear component of Armed Forces than the previous one. This is clear at the most superficial level: there are fewer paragraphs about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear posture In general, the doctrine places considerably more emphasis on conventional forces and in particular on high-precision assets, communications, command and control systems, and other elements in which Russia has been traditionally behind other major military powers. This shift of emphasis probably reflects the focus of the current political and military leadership on the undergoing military reform as well as the provision, contained in the 2000 National Security Concept, which regarded reliance on nuclear weapons as a “stop-gap” measure until thorough modernization of the Armed Forces is complete.

[1] “Menyaetsya Rossiya, Menyaetsya i ee Voennaya Doktrina” [As Russia Changes, its Military Doctrine Changes Too], Izvestiya, October 14, 2009.
[2] For a recent CNS study on substrategic nuclear weapons see Miles A. Pomper, William C. Potter, Nikolai N. Sokov, Reducing and Regulating Tactical (Nonstrategic) Nuclear Weapons in Europe, CNS Occasional Paper, December 2009.

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