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Russia’s New Rhetorical Deterrence

Marek Menkiszak
Commentary, 10 June 2020
NATO, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a new nuclear deterrent policy which allows him to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the country's critical state and military infrastructure. But the document is more about effect than substance.

Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree releasing what appeared to be a fairly significant document. Entitled ‘Fundamentals of the State Policy in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence’, it immediately elicited significant hype, mostly among security pundits. And for good reasons, since the current document replaces the previous policy signed by Dmitry Medvedev back in February 2010, and seems to make some pretty sweeping statements about Russia’s future nuclear intentions.

In reading the latest document, security analysts focus, for obvious reasons, on the most important part: the declared principles of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia. On the one hand, observers can note with relief that, in general, nothing has changed. The document’s text confirms, develops and refines the provisions of the military doctrine contained in previous Russian declarations. Russian nuclear weapons are also to be maintained at a minimally sufficient level, although what this means remains, of course, in the eye of the force-builder.

Yet at the same time, the document also states that Russia intends to use its nuclear arms in response to nuclear and conventional attacks if these threaten the existence of the state. The document explains further that such instances also apply to potential enemy attacks on critical military and state infrastructure which could neutralise its ability to counterattack, and to aggression – with use of weapons of mass destruction – against Russia's allies (usually interpreted as members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization).

The Politics

The political goal of publishing such a document is often overlooked. Like any Russian doctrine, the document serves more as a policy tool than as a policy basis. The purpose is to send a message, mainly to potential adversary states, to trigger a debate and, occasionally, to provoke public concern. In this context, any change of wording or use of harsh terms serves the purpose of deterrence in itself. That was the case with the consecutive versions of Russia’s Military Doctrine and National Security Strategy, as well as the Foreign Policy Concept papers issued by Moscow over the years.

Some of these objectives are achieved with the use of vague, intentionally ambiguous language. The new nuclear deterrence policy document is no exception in that respect. It contains a chapter entitled ‘The Essence of Nuclear Deterrence’, which provides – among others – a list of so-called ‘main military dangers’, which may evolve into ‘military threats’ or ‘threats of aggression’. One can shrug these off as largely standard, as they mostly repeat what we already know from the list contained in Russia’s Military Doctrine document.

The trick is that the document states that ‘nuclear deterrence is carried on in order to neutralise’ such threats. So, nobody can accuse Russia of directly threatening a nuclear attack on frivolous grounds, for the declared conditions for the potential use of nuclear weapons are more or less clear and defensive in character. But at the same time, there is a clear hint that certain policies and moves undertaken by a ‘potential adversary’ (generally undefined but in one point – and rather amusingly – described as ‘states which consider the Russian Federation as [a] potential adversary’) may attract the use of Russia’s nuclear deterrence.

The Objective

In this context, the list of moves which could fall under the Russian definition of ‘threatening’ is impressive, and contains both offensive and defensive actions by a potential adversary. Deployment of missile defence systems, ballistic missiles and even combat drones are among such critical threatening moves, along with the deployment of land and naval forces in areas adjacent to the territories of Russia and its allies, especially if these are equipped with potential means of delivering nuclear weapons. The same applies to the potential deployment of such weapons or means within nuclear-free states.

It is plainly obvious from this list that many potential actions could be met with the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, if the country regards them as a potential military threat. These include: potential future deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe; the activation of the Aegis Ashore missile defence facilities in Poland; a possible expansion of NATO’s nuclear sharing; the continuation of US or NATO exercises or patrols in the Baltic or Black Seas; the continuation of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence posture or the US’s European Deterrence Initiative in NATO’s eastern flank; and any upgrade of military potential within the Alliance.

The new document hints at even more direct threats. It states that the president of Russia may inform the leadership of any other state or organisation of Moscow’s readiness to use nuclear weapons. Consequently, one can imagine President Putin announcing that some decisions or actions by the US or other NATO member states may potentially lead to a Russian nuclear response.

The creation of such an association between US or NATO military activity and the possibility of a Russian nuclear response is, in fact, a form of psychological warfare. It is designed to raise concern among political elites and the broader public within NATO members and partner states that any move by the Alliance, however defensive, could unleash a Cuba-like confrontation, leading to a potential nuclear exchange.

It is also hardly a coincidence that the publication comes during a period of increasingly heated debates over several important European and global security issues, such as the future fate of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the future of nuclear sharing in NATO or, indeed, NATO's response to the violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty by Russia and its termination by the US. And, since Moscow does not hide its ambition to see Europe become more ‘independent’ from the US in political and military terms, Russia may well hope that raising the apparent risk of a nuclear exchange may resonate in some European capitals, and may appeal to some European politicians who are already criticising the allegedly high costs of following ‘irresponsible’ (in Moscow’s eyes) US policies of military escalation.

The publication of the new Russian document may be seen, therefore, as Russia’s attempt to influence those debates – a peculiar form of ‘negotiation enforcement’.

This Russian strategy is not exactly new: Moscow’s reactions to NATO enlargement are testimony to that. The occasional outbursts of threats – often vaguely worded – were common, as well as Russia’s firing of ballistic missiles or the conduct of massive snap exercises. Putin’s revelation that he was ready to heighten the level of alert of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces during the country’s 2014 aggression against Ukraine is just another example of the use of such blood-curling messaging in order to achieve immediate strategic advantage.

For that reason, one should treat the new nuclear policy document as another form of Russia’s rhetorical deterrence. And we should keep calm and carry on with what we believe is right for security in Europe. For the Russians are not mad; they know their weaknesses and always calculate the potential benefits and costs of their actions. And they are not eager to start World War III.

Marek Menkiszak is Head of the Russian Department at Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: A RT-2PM2 Topol-M TEL. Courtesy of Vitaly V. Kuzmin.

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