In 1982 the USSR was in its fourth decade of regional conventional domain superiority and riding high on petro-dollars when it formally promulgated a policy of no first-use of nuclear weapons
. Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation has coped with the loss of regional conventional deterrence, prestige, and regional stability. The continued politico-economic shocks, including the 1998 financial crisis, led to a significant shift in Russia’s reliance on nuclear-based regional and global deterrence doctrine. Renewed stability and economic growth are leading to a more nuanced whole-of-government approach to deterrence – typified by an all-domain approach to deterrence since the mid-2000s. This post will describe Russia’s protean nuclear strategy, as guided by relative strength of the economy, the Russian armed forces, and its leaders’ ambitions.
The collapse of the Warsaw Pact significantly reduced Moscow’s ability to project conventional military power, requiring a greater reliance on nuclear weapons for defense and deterrence. At the same time, NATO concepts and investments (production of advanced military R&D, material, and the AirLand Battle strategy) designed to counter the conventionally superior Warsaw Pact, were beginning to bear fruit. Nuclear weapons were viewed as Russia’s only means to offset this sophisticated capability, which Russians believed could be used to dominate the battlespace, negate Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, and ultimately subjugate the Russian regime.
Exemplifying the nadir of Russian power, in 1993 the Russian Federation rescinded its pledge against the first-use of nuclear weapons and replaced it with the first official strategic nuclear plan. During the late-1990s, the Russian chessboard of strategic thought consisted of two levels: non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) and strategic nuclear weapons (SNW). The Russians reportedly believed NSNWs were useful in preserving regional stability, while SNWs ensured overall global strategic stability. Due to its limited resources, NSNWs allowed the Russian Federation to offset its relative deficiency in precision strike weapons vis-à-vis NATO and, to a lesser degree, China. Should Russia face a conventionally superior adversary in a regional conflict, limited nuclear employment could compel an opponent to terminate a conflict on terms favorable to Russian (described by some as “escalate to deescalate”). The 1998 financial crisis continued to signal the weakness of the state and prolonged the overreliance on NSNWs for regional deterrence. Poverty plagued the Russian state and led to its overreliance on NSNWs – demonstrated when Russian leadership effectively reacted with NSNWs simulations following the Kosovo War. The simulated nuclear strike on Western Europe and North America, and Poland in the Zapad 99 exercise further evidenced their reliance on this class of weaponry.
With the late-1990s economic reforms and President Putin’s rise to power, Russia was able to reconsider and recapitalize its military and nuclear doctrine. Despite its victory in the August 2008 war with Georgia, Russian forces encountered more resistance than expected—signaling Russia’s conventional weakness. The war marked a turning point in funding where the recapitalization and restructuring of the military led to an increased emphasis on conventional precision strike and ever-present information warfare (maskirovka), in addition to its nuclear posture. Russia’s 2010 National Defense Doctrine highlighted the combination of nuclear and high-end conventional forces. In 2014, the Russian Federation modified its National Defense Document by reclassifying its conventional precision strike as a strategic capacity, while continuing to rely on NSNWs as a mode of ensuring regional strategic stability. This reclassification signaled the strengthening of the state through a “whole-of-government” approach to deterrence conceptualizing an all-domain approach to deter Western domain-specific dominance.
Outside of economic strength, intentional ambiguity also drives Russian regional nuclear thought, namely through the development of dual-use weaponry. The 9K720 Iskander SRBM (SS-26 Stone) and the sea-launched 3M-14 Kalibr, allow the Russian Federation to cloud their rival’s strategic calculus. Building on the Russian Federation’s involvement in frozen conflicts since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation has developed hybrid and information warfare. Hybrid warfare tactics contribute to Russia’s strategic ambiguity in low-intensity conflicts, such as President Putin’s occupation of Crimea and disruption of Ukrainian government control in Donetsk and Lugansk. The tacit sponsorship of “little green men” by a nuclear-armed Russia in Crimea increases the risk for any state resisting incursions by unconventional forces.
The Russian Federation continues to modernize its strategic nuclear capacity through the deployment of new and upgraded weapons platforms. The Bulava-class SLBMs are placed on the new and extremely quiet Borey SSBNs. The weapons in development include the ground-based Sarmat Heavy ICBM and the RS-26 Rubezh ICBM. The currently un-deployed rail mobile ICBM Barguzin and the road-mobile RS-24 Yars TEL speaks to the size and strategic advantages of the Russian Federation as it makes targeting much more difficult for even the most sophisticated attacking forces. Finally, the installation of new avionics in the TU-95 Bear, TU-160 Blackjack, and the TU-22M3 Backfire, coupled with the addition of a long-ranged air-launched cruise missile (Nuclear Kh-102/Conventional Kh-101), demonstrate the results of the recapitalization of Russia’s aging fleet.
The Russian Federation’s future nuclear posture is dependent on its relative economic strength, the development of strategy by its leaders, and the use of unconventional forces to achieve the state’s priorities. Paths of increased development of high-tech conventional precision strike, information warfare, hybrid, and “whole-of-state” offensive activities are predicated on continued economic growth. If the Russian economy weakened, it would likely revert to its reliance on nuclear weapon as a core strength. For the moment, the Russian Federation will continue an integrated all-domain approach to deter Western domain-specific dominance.
Joshua Noonan recently completed his Presidential Management Fellowship, having worked at the departments of Defense, State, and Housing and Urban Development. He is an alumnus of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where he studied International Economic and Russian and Eurasian Studies. He holds a BA in International Studies with a focus on East Asia and Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps as a Community Economic Development Adviser in Azerbaijan and taught at the National Physics and Mathematics Boarding School in Almaty Kazakhstan. He received a Fulbright fellowship to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Joshua was recruited for the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Prior to graduate studies, Joshua worked at the Karabakh Foundation, hosting a cultural radio program. Joshua enjoys eating Korean food, reading future war fiction, and speaking Japanese, Azerbaijani, and Russian in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaNoonan.