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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin’s Remarks on Use of Nuclear Weapons Are Confusing, But Unlikely to Constitute a Shift in Nuclear Posture

November 28, 2018
Simon Saradzhyan

This post was originally published on the author's blog on Oct. 19. A lightly edited version is reproduced here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eschatological talk of nuclear Armageddon at this year’s Valdai forum has stirred up heated debates on how well his description of Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons matches the country’s official military doctrine. One commentator concluded that “Putin clearly doesn’t put much stock even in rules that he wrote himself,” while another accused him of lying that the Russian military doctrine does not provide for the possibility of a first nuclear strike. However, a close look at Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks and Russia’s 2014 military doctrine reveals that, while Putin deviated from the language in the doctrine, he did not lie on the first use issue. Nor did he seem to be hinting at a shift in Russia’s nuclear posture. More likely, he was signaling to Washington that the existing nuclear arms control treaties need to remain in place for the sake of ensuring strategic stability in the U.S.-Russian nuclear dyad and avoiding an accidental war between the two countries.

First, about the supposed lie: In her Oct. 19 take on Putin’s Oct. 18 remarks, New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen claimed that the Russian leader supposedly insisted at the Valdai forum that Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not reserve the right of first strike for Russia. “Putin indicated that he was explaining the Russian military doctrine, which, he said, doesn’t reserve the right of first strike for Russia,” Gessen wrote in the New Yorker. “The Russian military doctrine provides for the possibility of a first nuclear strike, and Putin was lying,” she wrote.

In reality, while Putin insisted that Russia' nuclear strategy does not allow preventive strikes, he never said the Russian military doctrine rules out first use of nuclear weapons. Rather, the Russian leader described the following scenario as the only one under which Russia would use nuclear weapons: “We will employ nuclear weapons only when we have ascertained that someone, a potential aggressor, is conducting a strike against Russia, our territory,” Putin said.  The scenario does not explicitly contradict the Russian military doctrine’s language on use of nuclear weapons, which is as follows: “The Russian Federation shall reserve 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 the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” In theory, a strike on Russia’s territory, which Putin has described, can be conventional and still put Russia’s existence in jeopardy, therefore meeting one of the two sets of conditions that the 2014 document deems to be sufficient for Russia’s first use of nuclear weapons. It is true that Putin did not mention in his remarks the other set of conditions for the use of nuclear weapons—that of nuclear weapons being used against Russia’s allies—however, while such an omission could be confusing, it does not qualify as a lie.

While omitting some of the doctrine’s language on use of nuclear weapons, Putin also chose to insert some propositions about such use that the 2014 document does not contain. This could also create confusion regarding Russia’s official, public nuclear posture. While insisting that Russia’s concept of using nukes does not provide for a “превентивный удар” (preventive strike), Putin also stated at the Valdai forum that, if attacked, Russia would carry out a “ответно-встречный ударwhich the Kremlin translated into English as “reciprocal counter strike,” but which I would rather translate as “counter-strike on warning.” Per Putin’s description, it is the kind of strike that he, as the commander-in-chief, would order after ascertaining that an adversary’s warheads are already on their way and that their trajectories end in Russia. He would issue this order without waiting for the warheads to actually reach their targets. While referring to the use of nuclear weapons in response to aggression, the 2014 doctrine doesn’t specify what forms that response could take. However, the fact that the doctrine does not contain specific language on counter-strike on warning per se has not stopped Putin and his commanders from contemplating under what circumstances Russia would conduct such a strike. Putin himself has referred to the counter-strike on warning concept at least once before. He said in an interview for the Russian-language documentary The World Order 2018, which aired in March 2018, that Russia’s plans for using nuclear weapons call for a “ответно-встречный удар,” (counter-strike on warning), offering a similar explanation of the conditions under which such a strike would be carried out. (That statement went, by the way, largely unnoticed in Western press, in my view, but Putin’s interviewer at the recent session of the Valdai Forum, Fyodor Lukyanov, brought it up.)

In some earlier instances, Putin has also actually distinguished between “ответный удар” (counter-strike, a strike in response to) and “ответно-встречный удар” (counter-strike on warning). Putin did so in his Oct. 22, 2015 remarks at the Valdai Forum saying, “If one country believes that it has created a ‘missile umbrella’ over itself and can protect itself from a counter-strike or a counter-strike on warning, well, then its hands are untied in the use of any types of weapons.” This statement indicates that he sees a certain difference between the two kinds of strikes.

Additionally, the concept of counter-strike on warning has been clearly present in actual military planning both in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. For instance, the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN), Sergei Karakaev, has referred to a counter-strike on warning as something his forces’ mobile ICBMs would be involved in in case of war. In his 2011 interview, Karakaev offered a description of such a strike similar to the description given by Putin, saying Russia would launch its nuclear weapons after detecting a “mass launch” of adversarial nuclear weapons, but before the warheads land in Russia. He also explained that in contrast, “ответный удар” would commence only after the warheads land in Russia. Some of Russia’s former top nuclear commanders, such as former chief of staff of the RVSN Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, have also made it clear that post-Soviet Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have continued to plan for carrying out counter-strike on warning. The fact that both the Russian leader and his strategists have in the past referred to counter-strike on warning as part and parcel of Russia’s military planning indicates, therefore, that Putin’s Oct. 18 statement does not constitute a departure from Russia’s actual nuclear posture.

Why would, however, the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces personally assert twice this year that Russia’s concept of the use of nuclear weapons provides for a “counter-strike on warning?” I think this rhetoric is all part of the Kremlin’s strategic signaling to the U.S. as the INF Treaty is dying and New START is set to expire. Highlighting the fact that Russia’s nuclear posture is based on the concept of “ответно-встречный удар,” which carries a greater risk than “ответный удар,” underscores that a mistake or accident, such as glitches in the early warning systems or an accidental or unauthorized launch, can trigger a massive nuclear response. By highlighting this, Putin is signaling that it is best to preserve the existing nuclear arms control agreements that reduce such risks. They do so by ensuring a certain degree of transparency and predictability in the two sides’ nuclear postures and deployments, as well as increasing warning and decision-time.

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo courtesy of the Kremlin.