On February 2, 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released the Trump administration’s version of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the policy document that describes the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy [U.S. Department of Defense, 2018]. The new NPR that provides for the development and deployment of sophisticated nuclear capabilities is perceived by many observers as significantly lowering a threshold for the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. In his turn, on March 1, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered an annual address to the Federal Assembly, the large part of which was devoted to the latest innovations of the Russian military-industrial complex rather than to economic and social parameters of his program for the next presidential term [President of Russia, 2018]. Presenting the newly created types of strategic weapons that he equated to real technological breakthroughs, Putin asserted that Russia was capable of withstanding military threats from any potential military adversary, which was interpreted as Moscow’s response to the updated U.S. nuclear doctrine. These recent developments leave the global community to wonder whether the saber rattling by Washington and Moscow is an attempt to use nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in global politics or a prelude to a new Cold War-style arms race between them.
For U.S. defense analysts, the current international security situation is the most complicated since the end of the Cold War, and, in their view, a pragmatic assessment of the threats faced by the United States demands urgent modernization of the U.S. nuclear forces to ensure a credible and effective nuclear deterrent. In their view, the world has witnessed the return of great power competition, with both Russia and China seeking to revise the existing international order and developing military capabilities to counter the United States. According to the NPR, Russia has demonstrated its readiness to use force in violation of the international law, as proved by its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and continues to improve its strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces. China, too, expands its already significant nuclear arsenal, as well as conventional capabilities, and challenges international norms by intensifying its claims on the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. The document also mentions a threat posed by North Korea that pursues nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in direct violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a number of UN Security Council resolutions. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program remains a cause of serious concern for the United States, despite constraints imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as Tehran, from Washington’s perspective, retains the technological capacity to rapidly develop nuclear weapons. Thus, as the NPR contends, these threats, in combination with other major risks, including from non-state actors, create a deteriorating and uncertain security environment.
Russia has its own set of long-voiced arguments supporting its increased reliance on nuclear weapons, and President Putin has repeated the most essential of them in his address. First of all, in Putin’s words, Russia had to upgrade its offensive weapon systems in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and its plans for the deployment of a global anti-ballistic missile system. The ABM Treaty signed by Washington and Moscow in 1972 had been regarded as a cornerstone of strategic stability as it had forbidden the two superpowers from constructing strategic defenses against long-range ballistic missiles, thus making both vulnerable to mutually assured destruction and opening up the possibility for subsequent bilateral nuclear arms control agreements [Boese, 2002]. The United States rejected Russia’s suggestions to work together in the area of missile defenses insisting that its global system was not directed against Russia and moved ahead with deploying its elements in Alaska, California, Romania, and Poland, with plans to expand it to Japan and South Korea. In Putin’s view, the U.S. unwillingness to listen to Moscow’s protests and appeals and stop its unilateral pursuit of missile defenses stemmed from its neglectful attitude towards Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, to maintain the credibility of its nuclear potential, Russia had no choice but to work intensively on developing advanced models of strategic weapons that make ballistic missile defenses irrelevant, as reported by Putin.
The United States, however, claims that it is Russia that is in violation of its international legal and political commitments, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, and the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, as well as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum [U.S. Department of Defense, 2018]. Assuming that Russia possesses a significant advantage in tactical nuclear weapons over the United States and its allies, Washington accuses Moscow in building new non-strategic dual-capable systems that may be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons and in rejecting proposals to launch negotiations on such systems. The United States also believes that, in addition to using nuclear weapons as deterrence, the Russian military strategy relies on the threat of limited nuclear escalation to coerce adversaries or de-escalate potential conflicts on terms favorable to Russia as its military doctrine allows for the first use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the doctrine states that the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons not only in response to an attack with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, but also in the case of an aggression using conventional weapons against Russia that “threaten the very existence of the state” [President of Russia, 2014]. President Putin confirmed this provision in his address, declaring that Russia’s “retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences” [President of Russia, 2018]. Nevertheless, as some experts argue, the Russian military doctrine does not lower the nuclear use threshold as most scenarios involving possible nuclear escalation do not qualify as existential threats for Russia [Oliker and Baklitskiy, 2018].
In fact, Washington itself has never adopted a “no first use” policy, and the Trump administration continues to hold that such a policy is not justified under the contemporary security environment. Nevertheless, the NPR states that the enhanced U.S. nuclear forces, backed with low-yield options, would help deter aggression and preserve peace, thus raising the nuclear threshold by convincing adversaries that even a limited use of nuclear weapons by the United States will be very costly to them. However, despite statements to the contrary, it can be argued that the new U.S. nuclear doctrine lowers the threshold for nuclear use as it broadens the definition of “extreme circumstances” that open the possibility for employing nuclear weapons. Such circumstances now also include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks on civilian populations, infrastructure, and nuclear forces of the United States and its allies, including attacks on the command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities, effectively meaning conventional arms attacks and cyber attacks. The NPR confirmed that the modernization and replacement programs initiated during the Obama administration targeting the U.S. nuclear triad – land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers carrying nuclear gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) – will be completed. In addition, as a response to the Russian modernization efforts, the Trump administration plans to reintroduce low-yield nuclear weapons to the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal, including SLBMs and sea-launched cruise missiles with low-yield nuclear warheads [U.S. Department of Defense, 2018].
At the same time, the range of new weapon systems presumably developed by Russia, as presented by President Putin, is much wider and more impressive. In the first place, it includes a new heavy (200 tons) intercontinental ballistic missile called Sarmat with multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads that can attack targets both via the North and South poles and an air-launched cruise missile powered by a small nuclear propulsion unit, with Putin claiming that both systems are invincible against all existing and prospective missile and air defense systems. Others weapons mentioned by Putin included a dual-capable unmanned, nuclear-powered submersible vehicle that can operate at extreme ocean depths and has an intercontinental range, a high-precision, hypersonic air-launched missile system called Kinzhal (Dagger), a strategic missile system with a gliding wing unit called Avangard (Avant-garde), as well as laser weapon systems. It is understandable that Putin was not addressing the United States and its Western allies only, but also the domestic audience, in an effort to ignite national pride by the display of military power as part of his election campaign. Nevertheless, in a message clearly directed at “arrogant” West, Putin asserted that “everything I have said today is not a bluff ‒ and it is not a bluff, believe me” [President of Russia, 2018]. At the same time, while the United States is confident that Russia is upgrading its traditional nuclear forces and developing new weapons and delivery systems, certain experts called into question the reality of some technological achievements announced by President Putin, particularly a nuclear-powered cruise missile [Luzin, 2018].
In any case, nuclear weapons remain the major instrument of international power, and the U.S. new nuclear doctrine and Putin’s bellicose rhetoric pose a risk of a dangerous escalation of bilateral tensions that will threaten the global security architecture. The U.S. and Russian policies and statements weaken the nuclear nonproliferation regime and reduce to zero the prospects for the renewal of the existing nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements. Both the United States and Russia continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals, advocate the applicability of low-yield nuclear weapons and admit the possibility of a nuclear strike in response to a conventional threat. These developments blur the line between nuclear and conventional forces sending a signal that the use of nuclear weapons in military conflicts is acceptable. More importantly, there is a serious risk that Washington and Moscow may embark on a destabilizing nuclear arms race, which would increase the risk of miscalculation and the potential for military confrontation. The implementation of nuclear modernization plans would come at a significant cost to both countries, especially to Russia as its economy is hit by Western sanctions and current defense spending is almost 10 times less than that of the United States. There is still a possibility to avoid opening Pandora’s box full of catastrophic consequences since both the NPR and Putin’s address contain conciliatory overtures, but for this the two sides should refrain from nuclear threats, adopt positive diplomatic approaches and engage in a mutual strategic dialogue on a transparent and constructive platform.
U.S. Department of Defense. (2018). Nuclear Posture Review. Retrieved from https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF. Accessed on 15.03.2018.
President of Russia. (2018). Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957. Accessed on 15.03.2018.
Boese, Wade. (2002). U.S. Withdraws From ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_07-08/abmjul_aug02. Accessed on 16.03.2018.
President of Russia. (2014). Voyennaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii (The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation). Retrieved from http://static.kremlin.ru/media/events/files/41d527556bec8deb3530.pdf. Accessed on 16.03.2018.
Oliker, Olga and Baklitskiy, Andrey. (2018). The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian ‘De-Escalation:’ A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem. Retrieved from https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/nuclear-posture-review-russian-de-escalation-dangerous-solution-nonexistent-problem/. Accessed on 17.03.2018.
Luzin, Pavel. (2018). Putin’s Science Fiction. Retrieved from http://intersectionproject.eu/article/security/putins-science-fiction. Accessed on 17.03.2018.
*Published in the April 2018 No. 28 issue of the “Asya Avrupa: Haber-Yorum” journal.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. Dauren previously worked as a senior project manager and researcher at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education. In 2011-2014, he worked as a senior research fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In 2008-20