MOSCOW —When it comes to Russia, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) pulls no punches. Moscow’s military, specifically its modernized nuclear forces, are featured significantly throughout the report. the attention paid to other potential nuclear adversaries, like China, does not come close to that paid to Russia.
The core of NPR’s proposed footing vis-a-vis Russia rests on an understanding of Russian nuclear doctrine as offensive, rather defensive. Noted is Russia’s monumental advantage in terms of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which the report’s authors believe Moscow would use to escalate a conflict so as to intimidate the U.S. into backing down.
This assessment has been understandably controversial in Moscow, where officials have for years promised the nation’s sweeping nuclear modernization program was entirely defensive in nature. Indeed, former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, reiterated that several times at the recent Munich Security Conference.
“We’ve been trying to listen to the explanations given for that, but to be honest we have not gotten a clear picture,” Kislyak said. “On top of that we get the sense that our American colleagues are looking at [low-yield] nuclear weapons more as a war fighting weapon than classical deterrence. It certainly creates additional questions.”
Kislyak’s remarks were little more than a softer version of a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Feb. 3, when NPR was first released, which called the report “anti-Russian” and denied any strategy to lower the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons and aggressive strategies. Russia has been actively asserting that Russia’s nuclear doctrine “clearly limits” the use of nuclear weapons to two hypothetical defense scenarios: in response to an attack on Russia or its allies using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in response to the threat of a conventional attack that could jeopardize existence of the state.
The statement continued to rail against the United States for hypocrisy, intent to develop non-strategic nuclear weapons for warfighting, rather than deterrence, and for mischaracterizing Russian doctrine. It concluded with a vague promise “to take into account the new U.S. plans and to take measures to enhance our security.”
This is probably just a rhetorical jab, common in most Russian statements.
“I don’t expect any radical changes in Russia,” says Pavel Podvig, author of the Russian Forces blog on nuclear issues. “It is certain that Russia will use this opportunity to justify its new programs, but it really doesn’t need the new NPR to do that. And it already has everything it needs.”
Indeed, while Russia has been investing heavily in nuclear modernization, these efforts have mostly been aimed at retaining existing capabilities or updating them to match modern needs. Much of Russia’s rearmament efforts have been focused rather on expanding conventional capabilities, such as the Kalibr cruise missile.
By and large, Russian analysts are confused by NPR’s assertion that Russia has adopted a so-called “escalate-to-de escalate” approach to nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think we have lowered our nuclear threshold,” says Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “In fact, we are moving in the opposite direction, investing in long-range non-nuclear deterrence capabilities to give us more options before nuking you. Even then, I doubt Russia sees limited nuclear use in Europe as a viable option.”
The only thing about the NPR that truly bothers Moscow, Frolov says, is the lowering of the U.S. threshold for use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, such as a cyber attack, “which is absurd.” Low-yield warheads on existing launch systems also bothers Moscow, because they wouldn’t know what kind of yield was thrown at them.
While these aspects of NPR might bother Moscow, the document’s understanding of Russia may be flawed. According to Podvig, “NPR got the basic Russian strategy wrong.” Rather than early use or escalate to de-escalate, Russia seeks to project uncertainty about its readiness and capabilities as a deterrent.
“From this point of view, there is not much in NPR that would affect that. Or, indeed, from any point of view,” Podvig said. “Whatever ideas Russia may have about nuclear use, I don’t see how a low-yield Trident warhead would change that.”
There is also an underlying assumption in NPR that Russia’s nuclear doctrine is offensive, that it would somehow be used in conjunction with a conventional attack to intimidate the U.S. and its allies into not responding to Russian aggression against another state. This may not be the case, as Russian doctrine explicitly envisions playing the role of defender.
“Some policymakers believe Russia has an offensive nuclear strategy, but there is little to support this since asymmetric escalation when you’re winning conventionally is hardly credible,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank in Virginia. “Rather, Russia has adopted NATO’s former strategy of flexible response, which includes deliberate escalation if losing a conventional conflict.”
What this means is that Russia, if attacked, would use nuclear weapons defensively, just as any peer nuclear-armed state would. The idea that a nation could wage a conventional-only war against another nuclear power is, Kofman argues, a strange fantasy that few subscribed to during the Cold War . Russia will use nukes if losing a defensive war to the U.S. It is that simple.
“They want to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons to end a conflict preemptively; this seems to be an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Kofman says. “They are worried Moscow has contrived some easy-out strategy, with one or a handful of nuclear weapons.While on the contrary there is every indication that Russia has the arsenal for a large-scale, deliberate employment if pressed.”
In seeking to match Russia’s vastly larger capabilities in the realm of non-strategic nuclear weapons, NPR also appears to make a big trade: conflict between nuclear powers is deterred by the risk of uncontrolled nuclear escalation. If you invest in strategies for various tiers of limited nuclear escalation, you actually make conventional conflict more likely.
But, ultimately, this is not the biggest problem presented by NPR’s approach to Russia, Kofman argues. Rather, it is that NPR is a “case study” in how to not signal to adversaries. In Moscow, the document can be seen as evidence that Russia’s investment in non-strategic nuclear weapons has produced the desired result: policymakers and military officials in the West are deeply concerned about the impact such weapons could have.
“It is hard to read the NPR and not feel that the United States is desperately afraid of nuclear weapons. Why we would wish to communicate this so loudly is a mystery,” Kofman says. “It suggests their use by Russia would strategically alter the nature of any conflict for Washington, and given that in almost all the cases, stakes for D.C. are likely to be much lower than for Moscow, reinforcing the efficacy of such capabilities will only encourage further Russian investment in dual-capable means of delivery and non-strategic nuclear weapons.”
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.