Russia recently published a new document, titled “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence.” Its release marks the first time that Russia’s official policy on deterrence has been made publicly available. As others have observed, this document is an example of declaratory policy aimed primarily at a foreign audience — and should be read with this orientation in mind. Still, it contains information that helps readers better understand how Russia thinks about nuclear weapons, and this certainly makes it worth a close examination.
Some of the more useful insights this document offers pertain to Russia’s threat assessments and what it sees as likely pathways to nuclear use. A number of these threats line up with American declaratory policy as reflected in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. These overlaps are noteworthy, since the U.S. and Russia have traditionally been able to work together to mitigate mutual threats even when their bilateral relationship is in crisis. As such, they can point toward ways to get arms control back on track at a time when it is in deep trouble.
One such area of overlap appears in section 19C, which covers the conditions that could allow for nuclear use. This list includes an “attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions."
The similarities between this language and that which appears in the 2018 NPR are considerable. That document identifies “attacks on U.S., allied, or partner civilian populations and infrastructure and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities” as a significant non-nuclear strategic attacks that could warrant the use of nuclear weapons.
These parallels suggest that an agreement prohibiting attacks on nuclear command, control and communications systems could be of interest to both Washington and Moscow. A treaty along these lines would help to shore up crisis stability while rebuilding trust and confidence between the U.S. and Russia. It could also become a multilateral approach involving the five nuclear weapon states, which have been meeting regularly to discuss risk reduction and other topics. This would represent one of the few concrete outcomes of these discussions, which have been met with cautious enthusiasm but have so far failed to bear much fruit.
Another example of mutual U.S.-Russia threats appears in section 12E of the Russian document. Here, the “uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, their delivery means, technology and equipment for their manufacture” are described as risks that nuclear deterrence is meant to neutralize. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons seems to remain a focus of U.S. nuclear policy, too, and the 2018 NPR commits to strengthening institutions that support “verifiable, durable progress on non-proliferation.” This ongoing shared interest is an argument for renewed U.S.-Russian cooperation in this area, especially as it relates to strengthening the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
There is a long history of engagement between the two largest nuclear weapon states on nonproliferation, even at times of major discord in their relationship. Successful outcomes of this cooperation include the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty itself, which the United States and the Soviet Union concluded 50 years ago to stop additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Despite decades of joint work toward this shared goal, the rift between Washington and Moscow has now brought most bilateral efforts in this area to a halt. As some in Iran, Turkey and Germany contemplate the pursuit of nuclear weapons, it’s time for the U.S. and Russia to shore up the credibility of the regime they built.
Other sections of Russia’s document offer additional glimpses into Moscow’s perceived threats, although not all find ready analogs in U.S. declaratory policy. Many relate instead to the possibility that an adversary will carry out a conventional attack on Russia. Sections 12 and 14, for instance, reference the risks posed by adversary deployments of medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, non-nuclear high-precision and hypersonic weapons, strike unmanned aerial vehicles, and directed-energy weapons. They also mention the deployment of missile defense systems in space; military buildups by would-be adversaries of general-purpose force groupings that possess nuclear weapons delivery means in territories neighboring Russia; and the placement of nuclear weapons on the territories of non-nuclear weapons states, among others.
There is little here that would surprise most Russia-watchers, but if the U.S. is serious about pursuing “next generation” arms control, it is useful to have a list of potential topics for discussion that go beyond ballistic missile defense. This list might also prove helpful in negotiating asymmetric treaties or in identifying confidence-building measures that cross domains.
Overall, this short document does provide greater clarity with respect to Russia’s deterrence strategy, but it is ambiguous on many points as well. Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s program director for Europe and Central Asia, noted, for instance, it does not settle the debate over whether Russia has an “escalate-to-deescalate” policy, and it is (unsurprisingly) vague about the precise circumstances under which Russia would consider using nuclear weapons.
Still, despite leaving some questions unanswered, the document offers a valuable window into Russia’s strengths and vulnerabilities as they appear from Moscow. While likely not the intended signal this document was meant to send, it nevertheless points to possible opportunities for engagement when other good alternatives are hard to see.
Sarah Bidgood is the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.