Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats to use his nuclear arsenal if the West comes to Ukraine’s aid in the current fighting highlight a new military doctrine called “escalate to deescalate,” which calls on the military to resort to nuclear weapons more rapidly in conflicts.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the doctrine opens a pathway for using “low-yield” nuclear strikes in conflicts when a nation’s conventional forces are stymied, as appears to be taking place for Russia just over one week into its military operation in Ukraine.
Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said he is concerned about the Russian nuclear escalate-to-deescalate policy.
“Actually, it may be thought of more as ‘escalate to win,’” Adm. Richard said during a Senate hearing in April.
The doctrine, combined with Russia’s large arsenal of nonstrategic warheads, prompted the Trump administration to convert some U.S. missiles into low-yield nuclear strike weapons, including the W76-2 warhead deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2020.
The Biden administration is conducting a nuclear posture review, and anti-nuclear advocates are said to be arguing in favor of giving up the smaller nuclear arms. Still, analysts say, Mr. Putin’s threats announced Sunday could alter the debate as the U.S. and NATO allies rush to supply Kyiv.
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Russia has stockpiled an estimated 2,000 or more tactical nuclear weapons that are not covered by arms treaties. By contrast, the United States has several hundred low-yield arms.
Russia’s tactical nuclear warheads can be fired from short-range Iskander ballistic missiles and from the SSC-8, a ground-launched cruise missile built and deployed in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that led President Trump to scuttle the pact.
The road-mobile SSC-8 has a range of more than 1,500 miles and can strike targets throughout Europe from bases in Russia. The Iskander, also road-mobile with a range of 310 miles, has been deployed in Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland.
It is not clear how Russia would conduct tactical nuclear strikes. Tactical nuclear attacks most likely would involve strikes on targets in regions of Ukraine that are most resistant to the Russian military advance.
Any nuclear strike on a NATO country would trigger massive commensurate retaliatory nuclear attacks on Russia and a major nuclear conflagration, but Ukraine is not a member of the alliance and Mr. Biden has repeatedly said U.S. and NATO troops won’t join the fight.
The Russian leader made the saber-rattling nuclear threat during a speech announcing military operations against Ukraine last week. Any nation interfering with or threatening Russia and its people during the fighting will face a response with “consequences you have never seen,” he said.
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“We are ready for any turn of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard,” Mr. Putin said Feb. 24 in remarks widely interpreted as a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation.
Three days later, Mr. Putin publicly ordered Russian nuclear forces on a higher “special” state of alert. The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that nuclear missile forces and fleets in the north and Pacific had been placed on enhanced combat readiness, Interfax reported. Russian nuclear missile submarines also conducted exercises in the Barents Sea, and mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles conducted maneuvers in Siberia, The Associated Press reported.
A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday that intelligence agencies were closely monitoring Moscow’s nuclear forces for signs of increased alert but added, “We’ve seen nothing at this time that would give us any less comfort or confidence in our own strategic deterrence posture.”
The White House and NATO officials have said they are not raising their nuclear alert status in response to Mr. Putin’s order, a sign that they think Mr. Putin may not be committed to acting on his words.
Rhetoric or real?
Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said Mr. Putin’s threat appears mainly rhetorical.
“At this stage, it doesn’t seem to be more than words,” he said. “As far as I’ve heard, U.S. hasn’t seen any significant changes on the ground.”
Other analysts disagree.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policy official, said nuclear attacks in Ukraine are unlikely because Russia has overwhelming conventional military power. The Ukrainian military and reserve, militia and paramilitary forces “do not present lucrative nuclear targets as massed forces military formations,” he said.
However, nuclear attacks on Europe and ultimately the United States are risks if the conflict spins out of control and Russia finds itself in direct battle with NATO forces.
Russia announced the nuclear escalation policy in 2003 and demonstrated the use of tactical nuclear arms in exercises last month. In the exercises, the Russian military practiced using several advanced nonstrategic nuclear missile systems, including two types of hypersonic weapons that conducted practice strikes on Europe, Mr. Schneider said.
Unlike overall strategic doctrine, Russia’s plans for limited nuclear strikes are contained in secret policy documents, but U.S. military commanders have openly discussed the dangerous implications of the shift for years.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in 2017 that Russia is not only “the only country that I know of that has this concept of ‘escalate to terminate’ or ‘escalate to deescalate,’ but they do have that built into their operational concept.”
“We’ve seen them exercise that idea, and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea,” Gen. Stewart said.
Mr. Schneider said Mr. Putin issued a decree to the Russian navy to embrace “escalate to deescalate” in naval warfare.
“While I doubt Putin will employ nuclear weapons this time, the Biden administration’s weak response to Russian aggression is increasing the chance it will happen,” Mr. Schneider said.
With the United States and other Western nuclear powers refraining from raising their alert levels in response to his threats, Mr. Putin could calculate that he is operating from a position of strength, increasing the likelihood that the crisis will escalate and allow him to make greater demands for Western concessions, Mr. Schneider said.
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who served in the Trump White House, said Mr. Putin’s threat and raising of the nuclear forces alert status made “very clear that [the nuclear option] is on the table.”
“The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?” Ms. Hill told Politico. “So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.”
A report by the National Institute for Public Policy said the escalation policy reflects Mr. Putin’s view that nuclear arms are essential to restoring Russian power after the breakup of the Soviet Union. To that end, Moscow has built several types of new strategic weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile, hypersonic strike vehicles and an underwater drone with a massive nuclear warhead.
“Should deterrence fail, Russia envisions the potential first use of nuclear weapons to demonstrate resolve and escalate a conflict much higher than an adversary would be willing to accept, thereby terminating the conflict,” the report said.
In 2016, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, then NATO commander, told Congress: “Russian doctrine states that tactical nuclear weapons may be used in a conventional response scenario. This is alarming, and it underscores why our country’s nuclear forces and NATO’s continue to be a vital component of our deterrence.”
Three years later, the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Russian nonstrategic warhead stockpile bolstered Moscow’s mistaken belief in the use of limited nuclear strikes. The strikes would “provide Russia a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict,” Gen. Scaparrotti said.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for bolstering U.S. nuclear forces with low-yield weapons as a means of closing what the military calls a gap on the escalation “ladder” of conflict. Low-yield arms are aimed at reinforcing deterrence against Russia’s tactical nuclear doctrine, Gen. Scaparrotti said.
Adm. Richard, the Strategic Command leader, said Russia’s pursuit of nonstrategic nuclear missiles and warheads is evidence that Moscow plans to use these weapons in a conflict it is losing.
The deployment of the low-yield U.S. missile “successfully improved deterrence against that very strategy,” he said.
Under the Biden administration, the discussion of the escalate-to-deescalate debate has been muted.
Arms control advocates within the administration have argued that Russia’s destabilizing escalation policy is not part of its formal military doctrine.
Russia issued a vague nuclear deterrence statement in 2020 saying nuclear arms have two roles: to prevent the escalation of hostilities and to allow for the termination of the conflict on conditions acceptable to Russia and its allies.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the statement does not fully clarify whether escalate-to-deescalate is official doctrine. As for specific conditions on the use of nuclear weapons, the Russian statement includes language that says nuclear arms could be used against conventional forces if the existence of the state is in danger, Mr. Trenin said.
In April, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of the European Command, repeated Gen. Scaparrotti’s concern that Russia’s use of nonstrategic weapons in a crisis remains a concern.
Gen. Wolters made no mention of the new doctrine and instead referred to Mr. Biden’s June agreement with Mr. Putin to hold strategic stability talks where U.S. concerns could be raised. The talks were to set the stage for renewed arms control negotiations but ended up as a forum for Russian complaints about NATO. The U.S. administration called off the talks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, Foreign Policy reported.
In the weeks before the Ukraine invasion, the Biden administration sought to head off Moscow by offering to negotiate limits on missile deployments and other measures. The proposal for arms talks was outlined in a leaked NATO document revealing that the United States refrained from deploying nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe under the NATO-Russia Founding Act but could deploy them there in response to military aggression.
“Further Russian increases to force posture or further aggression against Ukraine will force the United States and our allies to strengthen our defensive posture,” said the document, dated Dec. 17 and first published in Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
U.S. intelligence officials revealed Russia’s construction of large numbers of underground nuclear command bunkers starting in 2016, suggesting a strategy of trying to survive a nuclear exchange. Dozens of bunkers detected in Moscow and across the country appeared similar to command and control complexes built during the Cold War under the Soviet Union.
Moscow also built an underground subway in the late 1990s from the residence of then-President Boris Yeltsin outside Moscow to a leadership command center.