In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo somewhere in Russia.

In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo somewhere in Russia. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Russia Puts Defensive Face on Its Nuclear Doctrine Ahead of Arms-Control Negotiations

Moscow’s new strategic-arms decree appears to be an attempt to win advantage whether New START lives on or not.

Russia’s new strategic-arms decree adds a bit of ambiguity and defensive flavor, but its main task is positioning Moscow for a critical round of arms-control talks, experts said.

On its face, the document reiterates key points in Russia’s doctrine on the use of strategic nuclear weapons, as opposed to its smaller nukes. Strategic nukes, it says, may be maintained to ensure “sovereignty, territorial integrity, deter direct aggression against Russia or allies, and in the event of aggression preclude escalation,” according to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia. 

However, Kofman notes some ambiguity in the language, particularly around the idea of using nuclear weapons during a war to bring about a resolution. 

“Notably, the standard formulation of ‘cease hostilities on terms favorable to Russia’ (or Russian interests), was changed to ‘conditions acceptable’ to Russia & allies, which is a more fair reading of the escalation management strategy,” Kofman wrote Thursday on his blog.

“Paragraph 5 states that Russia sees nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of deterrence, that they are to be used in extreme circumstances and as a forced measure. I think that’s not a very honest portrayal of how nuclear weapons are viewed by the Russian military,” he wrote. “But the purpose of this document is to position Russian views as defensive only…and to counter the claims of those who say Russia has an escalate-to-de-escalate strategy.” 

A country with such a strategy would consider using nuclear weapons — likely tactical ones — at the beginning of a conflict, aiming to press its adversary into quick negotiations.

The document also adds drones to its list of threats, mirroring recent changes to Russian military doctrine generally, says Kofman

Some Russian officials have expressed concerns about high-altitude, long-endurance drones like the U.S. Global Hawk, which are not limited by WMD or deterrence agreements. Their inclusion in the new document here “points to Russia' recognition that it is vulnerable to such weapons, and to its desire to restrict its use,” said Sam Bendett, an adviser to the Russia Studies Program at CNA.

The document is significant mostly because of its timing. The United States has indicated indirectly that it will abandon the New START Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads and strategic launch platforms each country can deploy, and pursue instead a new agreement that covers new drones, missiles, and other submarines in development or production by Russia and China. The man that President Trump has selected to lead that negotiation is Marshall Billingslea, the current nominee to be undersecretary of state for arms control. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, has put the nomination on hold as he waits for an explanation from the White House for the firing of two inspectors general. That suggests that Billingslea, once confirmed, will have precious little time to negotiate an incredibly ambitious trilateral arms deal. 

Russia may be using the delay to its advantage. 

“This is a Russian effort to shape the conversation in a critical year for arms control, counter what they see as malicious narratives about their nuclear doctrine, and position the country in terms of declaratory policy in the event New START expires,” said Kofman.