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Konstantin Bogdanov

Ph.D. in Technical Science, Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS, RIAC Expert

Pyotr Topychkanov

Ph.D. in History, Senior Researcher at SIPRI, RIAC Expert

Alexander Yermakov

Military analyst, RAC Expert

Dmitry Stefanovich

Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, co-founder of the Vatfor project, RIAC Expert

Andrey Baklitskiy

Consultant of the PIR Center, Research Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, RIAC Expert

Natalia Romashkina

Ph.D. in Political Science, Head of the Informational Security Problems Department of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Military Science of the Russian Federation

Vitaly Kabernik

Senior Expert, Center for Military and Political Studies, MGIMO MFA, RIAC Expert

Alexey Stepanov

Research Fellow, Center for Military and Political Research, RAS Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, RIAC Expert

June 2020 will go down in the history of Russia’s approaches to nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons in general. This is largely connected with the unprecedented release of the document Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, approved by Executive Order of the President of the Russian Federation of June 2, 2020 No.355 (hereinafter—"Basic Principles"). RIAC, together with Vatfor project, sought the views of domestic experts on this document.

June 2020 will go down in the history of Russia’s approaches to nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons in general. This is largely connected with the unprecedented release of the document Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, approved by Executive Order of the President of the Russian Federation of June 2, 2020 No.355 (hereinafter—"Basic Principles"). RIAC, together with Vatfor project, sought the views of domestic experts on this document.

Andrey Baklitskiy, Consultant of the PIR Center, Research Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, RIAC Expert.

The Basic Principles have become the most detailed document consolidating Russia’s views on nuclear deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in ensuring national security. This is a welcome development. Moreover, Russia finally presented a coherent and plausible strategy for the use of nuclear weapons, announcing that any aggression against nuclear forces with the use of conventional weapons could be met with nuclear response. It would be curious to see the reaction of Chinese colleagues who are faced with distrust in their principle of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons, including for this reason.

At the same time, the Basic Principles leave some "uncertainty" at the tactical level, in particular with regard to the de-escalating role of nuclear deterrence in cases where the threshold for nuclear use outlined in the document has not been reached. The use of broad and imprecise wording in nuclear doctrines is a common practice. Countries are forced to balance their unwillingness to “authorize” adversary’s actions below the threshold of nuclear use and the fear that the other side will not believe in the deterrence “coverage” if it is too broad. However, there is a concern, that in the case of Basic Principles this "uncertainty" will not significantly help deterrence but will certainly be used to represent Russian aggressiveness in the nuclear sphere.

Similar wording has already been found in another strategic planning document prepared by a military branch, the Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Operations of 2017. Nonetheless, such wording is missing in what is considered to be the core document—the Military Doctrine, the text of which, as can be assumed, went through a comprehensive and robust interagency review.

The release of the Basic Principles might also imply that, despite numerous rumors, the new version of the Russian Military Doctrine (the existing one dates to 2014) is not going to appear anytime soon. If so, then the reason for publishing the previously classified Basic Principles becomes clearer: the could have been a need to clarify some provisions in the field of nuclear deterrence but no other suitable document was in the works.

Konstantin Bogdanov, Ph.D. in Technical Science, Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS, RIAC Expert.

The Basic Principles are important, first of all, because they create a clearly defined narrative officially signed by the Russian state. Much of the quite plausible and meaningful discussion about Russia’s nuclear posture has previously been conducted on the basis of indirect “signals” and some outdated semi-official publications (except for the brief provisions on nuclear policy in the Military Doctrine).

Secondly, Russia slightly “dispelled the mist” over such a controversial issue as the first use of nuclear weapons in response to aggressive actions without the use of weapons of mass destruction. We are primarily talking about attacks on the critical infrastructure of nuclear forces (not officially specified as strategic or tactical). It is also pointed out that the launch of ballistic missiles aimed at the Russian territory can lead to a launch-on-warning retaliatory strike regardless of the “filling” of these missiles and their formal range (the latter is a tribute to the INF Treaty).

The document does not close the issue of the “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy, widely discussed in the West, which in this interpretation would rather be named “escalate-to-win." This is despite the fact that it does not confirm the latter in any way (and that’s why everyone will find confirmation of their own views in the Basic Principles). Moreover, the document does not indicate the scale of the response, which suggests that Russia is ready to use limited scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons in the name of escalation control. There is nothing terribly uncivilized in this, because, and this is the last thing that draws attention to the document stylistics, the Basic Principles are, to some extent, a conceptual response to the current American Nuclear Posture Review 2018. In the Review, such scenarios are stated openly, and indeed, such forms of combat use have existed for more than a decade in the U.S. nuclear strategy. Another question is that this “mirroring” in itself lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and can trigger a large-scale escalation in a crisis situation.

Alexander Yermakov, RIAC Expert.

The very fact of publishing the Basic Principles is of great importance. Not the preparation of the new version itself (the previous version was approved in 2010, and an updated version was expected right in 2020), but the public release. Such documents are rare in the public domain, and it was obvious that this would attract a lot of attention in certain circles.

The first goal was probably to emphasize once again Russia’s interest in this area in the context of an "unhealthy" situation in the field of strategic stability, as well as with the extension of the START.

One of the positive aspects of the document itself is a clear classification of both military risks and threats to be neutralized by the implementation of nuclear deterrence: deployment by states "which consider the Russian Federation as a potential adversary" of missile defense systems and means, deployment of nuclear weapons, build-up of the general purpose forces groupings in the territories contiguous with the Russian Federation. Someone might accuse Russia of another threat to the unfortunate neighboring states, but it looks more like an appeal for some countries to think about the following questions: what weapons of their big brother are deployed on their territory for protection, and what weapons by no means increase security, medium-range missiles being clearly the latter?

Personally, I support Paragraph 15, Clause G, since it aligns with the principle some Western powers adhere to, “if the adversaries know where the red line is, they can avoid triggering it." Paragraph 19 is also a key one, as it states:

  1. the possibility to transition from the retaliatory strike to counterstrike;
  2. an indication of a nuclear response to a conventional attack by, what is commonly called in the West, NC3 (Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications). In light of the development of hypersonic non-nuclear weapons, these points needed to be voiced.

Another positive aspect is that international arms control treaties are given high priority, which is repeatedly underscored in the document.

Some negative points include, first of all, the final sentence of Paragraph 4. My colleagues will likely explain that it didn’t imply what one could think at first glance. But it works as in design: if you need to explain, then the design is unsuccessful. Especially in such publications, written for audiences that might be highly critical. And these audiences will be happy to read a public statement from the Russians on having an "escalate-to-deescalate" strategy. It’s a shame to provide food for thought to the ideologists of NPR-2018.

Vitaly Kabernik, Senior Expert, Center for Military and Political Studies, MGIMO MFA, RIAC Expert.

Let me start by highlighting the conceptual novation: Paragraph 9 of the Basic Principles does not appeal to deterrence as such, but to the inevitability of retaliation. Thus, the conceptual area of deterrence now includes not only the familiar launch-on-warning systems, but also systems of deferred retaliation, such as cruise missiles of intercontinental range, underwater vehicles, etc. This leads to the conclusion that there is a certain decrease in confidence in the level of sustainability of the fixed assets of strategic nuclear forces. This entails the need to introduce the concept of retaliation that will be implemented even in case of losing part of the core retaliation capability.

Such an approach also legitimizes the design and development of various kinds of “Dead Hand” systems and other versions of “doomsday weapons." This unusual understanding of the concept of deterrence (although systems that automate a retaliatory strike are deployed) in regulatory documents has not been previously reflected so explicitly.

Paragraph 11 introduces wartime nuclear deterrence. This may reflect a vision of potential future conflicts that have gone beyond the previously imperative spiral of escalation: a form of limited armed conflict is implicitly introduced, the intensity of which is limited through the risk of nuclear escalation.

The language about risks and threats was added with the deployment of missile defense systems, which, in essence, are still defensive. At the same time, the dual-use potential is not clearly worded. This, perhaps, reinforces the already mentioned statement that the sustainability and efficiency of classic delivery means are no longer considered guaranteed.

Paragraph 14 at its core defines possible targets of the strike, among which are the infrastructure of the missile warning and missile defense systems. This is a declarative part with a rather diplomatic implication: a statement about the inadmissibility of deploying such infrastructure and legitimization of possibilities to destroy such targets by all means, including on the territory of non-nuclear states. This is no longer a deterrence task, but an element of promoting non-proliferation policy (of the means in the entire spectrum, and not just nuclear weapons).

Everyone, of course, immediately wants to read Part III. However, it is not going to meet their expectations. The launch on warning option and the response to a blow against the allies are worded, although their list is not defined. This provision resonates with the statement on the unpredictability of strategic response, a more diplomatic wording that denotes the inadmissibility of the use of nuclear weapons in small conflicts or, for example, against China.

And finally, the concept of “actions” against critical infrastructure seems new, but, in essence, it only legitimizes the response to possible sabotage operations, including operations in cyberspace. Again, it raises concerns about a decrease in the combat stability of the strategic nuclear forces in the future.

In general, an implicit awareness of the risks that reduce the combat stability of the strategic nuclear forces can be tracked in several provisions. I personally noticed it more than anything else. Some other theses stem from this awareness, including uncertainty, the extension of the conditions of use, the concept of retaliation, the inclusion of missile warning and missile defense systems in the list of threats. This is understandable, as the context of deterrence is changing, new systems are being developed, new threats to strategic nuclear forces are emerging, and the forms of possible armed conflicts are changing.

Natalia Romashkina, Head of the Informational Security Problems Department of the Center for International Security at IMEMO RAS, Professor, RIAC Expert.

Firstly, a document entitled “Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence” has never been public before. For many decades, such documents have been shrouded in secrecy. This seems appropriate now since it is an open declaration of actions in response to the potential aggression of a potential adversary that fully meets the theory of deterrence when it comes to preventing any action through the threat of using nuclear weapons. In addition, it is important that this information be available to the general public in the face of tough information confrontation and outreach activities from the same potential adversaries. The fact that such documents are open in the United States, Great Britain and France, the official nuclear powers, is a significant aspect.

Secondly, Part I “General Provisions” contains useful definitions, in particular, the concepts of “Basic Principles," “State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” and its functions. However, there is no clear definition of the concept of “nuclear deterrence," which would be advisable before explaining what it is aimed at, how it is provided, and when and how nuclear deterrence, presented in Part II “Essence of Nuclear Deterrence," is being implemented.

Thirdly, Part II of the “Basic Principles” contains an important and totally relevant list of specific actions of a potential adversary, “the main military risks," in response to which nuclear deterrence is carried out.

Fourthly, some specific provisions of Part III, “Conditions for the Transition of the Russian Federation to the Use of Nuclear Weapons,” that have not been previously publicly voiced, are also consistent with the deterrence theory:

  • "arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies";
  • "use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies";
  • "attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions";
  • "aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy."

Despite the fact that the second and fourth paragraphs are worded in other Russian doctrinal documents, there was some confusion in their interpretations in public both in Russia and abroad. The unclassified text of the document, therefore, gives concrete and unambiguous answers to both hawks and pacifists. The first paragraph declaring the possibility of using nuclear weapons on the arrival of "reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles" should be pointed out. Given the term “reliable data," it might be a retaliatory strike upon data obtained from the missile warning system.

Thus, the first and third conditions on the actions against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, the failure of which will lead to the disruption of the response of nuclear forces, raises an extremely urgent problem of ensuring global information security. Such wording addresses the possibility of a cyber attack on critical infrastructure, including nuclear military and support facilities. Currently, the strategic planning documents of the Russian Federation do not contain information on specific conditions and actions in response to such attacks. At the same time, the national strategic documents of the USA, Great Britain, and France clearly state the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to malicious actions in the information space performed by other countries. Moreover, several years ago, NATO made cyber defense a core part of collective defense, declaring that a serious cyberattack could trigger Article 5 of the founding treaty, and designated cyberspace a domain in which NATO will operate and defend itself. Stating concrete actions in a similar situation on the part of Russia could lay the foundation for the concept of deterrence protecting from the use of information and cyber weapons. In this context, there is an increasing need to develop an Information Security Strategy for Russia, to have the legal basis for the development of the information sphere, ensuring organizational, legislative, and economic conditions and guarantees for a safe evolutionary process. It is certainly advisable to align the text of the Strategy with the language of the “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence."

Alexey Stepanov, Research Fellow, Center for Military and Political Research, RAS Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies.

The new Russian document appears, first of all, to be an answer to possible questions from the world community and an attempt to debunk some of the myths.

The first thing, and markedly visible, is that the authors of the document repeatedly emphasize its defensive nature. Russia will use nuclear weapons only when its territory is being attacked. Paragraph 5 emphasized that nuclear weapons are considered “exclusively as a means of deterrence, their use being an extreme and compelled measure."

Despite this, Paragraph 4 of the document, in particular the “prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies," has already caused fierce expert debate about whether or not it confirms the existence of an “escalation for de-escalation” strategy, and also whether this paragraph contradicts with Paragraph 17, which reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of non-nuclear weapons, only when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy. A possible explanation, according to which under acceptable conditions, only conflicts threatening the existence of the state will terminate with the help of nuclear weapons, seems to reflect the idea of the authors of the doctrine fully.

Paragraph 12 lists a wide range of military threats, both non-nuclear offensive and partly defensive means (in the case of missile defense systems), that are to be neutralized by the implementation of nuclear deterrence, as well as deployment of missile defense assets and strike systems in outer space and deployment of nuclear weapons in the territories of non-nuclear weapon states. This is a very important clarification in the light of the aggravation of the situation in the field of arms control and possible negotiations on this topic.

However, there are provisions that, in my opinion, do not completely address the objectives of the document or are not generally constructive.

First, the document does not state what role Russia assigns to its tactical nuclear weapons in nuclear deterrence.

In addition, the presence of what is called in the West strategic unpredictability is explicitly stated in Paragraph 15, Clause D: one of the principles of nuclear deterrence is “unpredictability for a potential adversary in terms of scale, time and place for possible employment of forces and means of nuclear deterrence." It seems that this Clause contributes to the escalation of tension around Russia’s nuclear doctrine, and together with Paragraph 15, Clause C, “adaptability of nuclear deterrence to military threats” can fuel the debate over non-existent strategies for the use of nuclear weapons.

Paragraph 19, Clause C, that states one of the conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use as the “attack by an adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions," on the one hand, is an important addition, and on the other, is worded as vaguely as possible. It is not clear what kind of attack is meant and how its attribution will be carried out. It is also unclear whether only strategic or all nuclear forces are implied.

In conclusion, I would like to note that due to the largely vague wording, the document is unlikely to change the way the Russian nuclear posture is viewed by various state and non-state actors. In addition, in the face of a real military danger that allows serious discussion of the possibility of using nuclear weapons, the decision will be made based on the data available to the military and political leadership, and not on the provisions of doctrinal documents.

Dmitry Stefanovich, Research Fellow, Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS, RIAC Expert.

Firstly, it must be emphasized that the Basic Principles themselves are a standard strategic planning document in accordance with Paragraph 3, Clause C of Article 11 of the Federal Law On Strategic Planning in the Russian Federation as of June 28, 2014, No. 172-FZ (Paragraph 1), and therefore create the foundation for the activities of all agencies and organizations (primarily, the ones listed in Part IV) in the field of nuclear deterrence.

Obviously, this document also has a “signal” function, especially important in the context of the bacchanalia of insane assessments of Russia's approaches in this area, reflected, among other things, in official documents and public statements in the U.S. Now, there is at least an open source of information which you can (and should) refer to in a discussion on "nuclear" topics.

In regards to the content of the document, of course, most attention is drawn to Paragraph 12 listing military risks that might evolve into military threats to be neutralized by the implementation of nuclear deterrence, as well as Part III listing the conditions for the transition of the Russian Federation to the use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, Paragraph 11 plays an extremely important role, directly outlining the framework for the "functioning" of nuclear deterrence: "up until the actual use of nuclear weapons." This should be remembered when analyzing the document: certain risks and threats are deterred by the fact of the presence of nuclear weapons, but not by their use.

Arms control and non-proliferation treaties (Paragraphs 6, 12 (Clause E), 12 (Clause F), 15 (Clause A)) appearing in the document should not be taken for granted. Russia takes this seriously, and this very fact clearly illustrates the understanding of the interconnections of these areas with nuclear deterrence.

It should also be noted that the Basic Principles do not categorize nuclear weapons into tactical and strategic, which to some extent, may serve as a sign of official support for the thesis that "any nuclear weapon is strategic."

In conclusion, I would like to ask a rhetorical question: is it time to think about writing and publishing the Basic Principles of State Policy on Non-Nuclear Deterrence? This wording has already occupied an important place, be it in documents or the speeches of officials, while it doesn’t seem that there is some kind of common understanding of what it is all about.

Petr Topychkanov, Ph.D. in History, Senior Researcher at SIPRI, RIAC Expert.

The most positive aspect of the Basic Principles is the fact of their publication. By this fact, the Russian authorities showed that they are not indifferent to how domestic and foreign audiences perceive the country’s nuclear policy. The release of the Basic Principles can be considered either as a step towards greater transparency of Russia’s nuclear posture or as a willingness to take this step (it depends on how to interpret the document).

If to look at the Basic Principles as a tool for strengthening the strategic stability relations with the United States, its allies and other nuclear-armed states, then the meaning of the document is not so clear.

The publication of the Basic Principles triggered a discussion over Russian nuclear doctrine, and a dispute over the conditions for the nuclear weapons use with the participation of such officials as Marshall Billingsley, the U.S. Presidential Special Representative for Arms Control.

A real-life exchange of views between the representatives of Russia and the United States on nuclear postures could take place at the U.S.-Russian meeting in Vienna on the New START extension. Also it worth mentioning other plausible formats for such a discussion, for example, the meetings of the chiefs of staff of Russia and the U.S. and NATO-Russia Council.

The publication of the document and the ensuing disputes are a strong argument in favour of separating the problems associated with nuclear doctrines as an exclusive track of the U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue.

Also, the recent developments concerning the Basic Principles support the need for further deepening the doctrinal discussions at the P5 summits.

Under certain conditions, the Basic Principles could give a new impetus to the dialogue on nuclear doctrines in various bilateral and multilateral formats.

First, when publishing this document, Moscow should have loudly invited the U.S., NATO and other nuclear-armed states to deepen the doctrinal dialogue. Instead, there was no such signal, as no outreach was explaining the meaning and the role of the Basic Principles.

Second, the United States and other nuclear powers should have shown interest in a detailed discussion of the Basic Principles, Russia’s and their nuclear doctrines. There were no visible signs of such interest. The judgement mentioned above by Ambassador Billingsley indicated that he could probably make his conclusions regarding the newly published document.

Third, Russia, the United States, NATO, and the nuclear-armed states should have regularly held bilateral and multilateral meetings, the agenda of which could include a discussion of the Basic Principles. Although there are meetings often held with the participation of Russia to discuss nuclear issues in various formats, a detailed dialogue on nuclear doctrines with an analysis of each other’s documents is hardly foreseen for political reasons.

The publication of the Basic Principles is unlikely to have a visible effect on strengthening strategic stability between Russia, the United States, their allies and other nuclear-armed states without Russia’s proper outreach and the readiness of the nuclear weapons possessors for substantive and open discussions about doctrines. Clarifying some aspects of Russia’s nuclear policy, the document keeps ambiguity of the nuclear posture, for example, regarding the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack.

In the absence of symmetrical steps to reduce the uncertainty of nuclear policies with the United States, its allies and other nuclear-armed states, it is hard to expect Russia’s unilateral actions in this direction. It explains the ambiguity of the Basic Principles language.

The positive aspect of the new document, namely the fact of its publication, is unlikely to have an immediate impact on strategic stability relations between Russia and other nuclear-armed states. But if this fact helps to engage these countries and their allies in doctrinal dialogues with Russia, this would strengthen strategic stability and reduce nuclear risks.


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