Guest Post by Cole Harvey
On February 5, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev approved the text of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation (available in the original Russian here). The new doctrine had been the subject of some concern before its publication (including from yours truly), following an interview with the secretary of the Russian Security Council in which he suggested that the document would authorize the use of nuclear weapons in “local” conflicts. Thankfully the new military doctrine outlines a far more circumscribed role for nuclear weapons than the secretary had indicated…
The military doctrine states that Russia reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons:
…In response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat (Paragraph 22).
In limiting the use of nuclear weapons to respond to conventional attack only when the existence of the state is threatened, the 2010 doctrine is in fact more restrictive when it comes to nuclear weapons than its predecessor, which was released in 2000. The 2000 doctrine permitted a nuclear response to conventional attack “in situations critical to the security of the Russian Federation” (Paragraph 8, available in English and Russian). This change alone is a significant reduction on the role of Russian nuclear weapons.
The doctrine also declares that:
In the event of the outbreak of a military conflict involving the utilization of conventional means of attack (a large-scale war or regional war) and threatening the very existence of the state, the possession of nuclear weapons may lead to such a military conflict developing into a nuclear military conflict (Paragraph 16).
This clause restricts the use of nuclear weapons to large-scale and regional wars, terms which are explicitly defined in the doctrine.
A regional war is envisioned as a significant conflict, involving naval, air, and space assets and possibly coalitions of states. A large-scale conflict is described as “a war between coalitions of states or major world community states in which the sides would be pursuing radical military-political objectives.” Neither sort of conflict would correctly describe the August 2008 war with Georgia, which would best fit the doctrine’s definition of a local war: “a war between two or more states, with limited military and political goals, in which military operations are conducted within the borders of the warring states and affects primarily the interests of only those states” (Paragraph 6).
Though the doctrine limits the use of nuclear weapons to broader conflicts, it is clear that Russia considers them essential to its fundamental security. As Medvedev said at a March 5 meeting with officials from the Ministry of Defense:
First, today we have no need to further increase the capacity of our strategic deterrence. However, the possession of nuclear weapons is a prerequisite for maintaining Russia’s independent policy for the preservation of its sovereignty, a policy aimed at supporting peace and preventing any military conflict, as well as the resolution of post-conflict situations.
This attitude should be viewed in the context of Russia’s perception that its conventional forces are woefully outmatched by advanced U.S. weaponry. In the same address, Medvedev stated that “The main goal is the creation of a modern army and navy, equipped with the latest weapons.” Medvedev announced that the government would embark on a program to increase the proportion of modern armaments in the Russian military to seventy percent by the year 2020. Such a program might trouble some, but so long as Russia believes that its conventional forces are outmoded, it will continue to rely heavily on nuclear weapons to guarantee its security.
The doctrine also names the “comprehensive equipping (re-equipping) of the strategic nuclear forces with modern models of armaments, military and specialized equipment” (Paragraph 41) as the first task under ‘Equipping the Armed Forces.’ In this vein, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on March 1 seemed to call for a new strategic bomber, saying that Russia “…Must consider and begin to work on an advanced long-range aircraft, on our new strategic weapons-carrier” (Russian text here).
The new doctrine also includes a specification that was not present in the 2000 document, years before the tandem nature of Russia’s current executive branch emerged. If anyone was wondering whether Medvedev or Putin would call the nuclear shots (despite the Russian president’s constitutional description as commander-in-chief of the armed forces), the doctrine specifies that “The decision to utilize nuclear weapons is made by the president of the Russian Federation.”
Cole Harvey is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.