23.09.22 Analytics

Inside the Inferiority Complex

How Vladimir Putin falsified the Russian nuclear doctrine

Vladimir Putin recently threatened to use nuclear weapons once again, echoing the warnings from his first national address when he announced his decision to invade Ukraine. The rhetoric on display refers to the Russian nuclear doctrine, but also fundamentally distorts it. According to experts, despite being based on a strategy of escalation, the doctrine is defensive and compensatory in nature. Putin's verbal interventions, however, attempt to turn it into an instrument of aggression. The US’s reaction to Putin’s "nuclear blackmail" has so far been more annoyed than worried.

Following Putin's latest national address, in which he announced a partial mobilisation in the country, a wave of anxiety washed over the population. There were several issues people were anxious about. Firstly, the mobilisation itself, since its parameters and mechanisms remained unclear. Secondly, the prospect of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons, which could subsequently lead to an "uncontrollable escalation" (as experts call it), or, to put it more bluntly — a nuclear war. This is exactly what Putin was hinting at as he concluded his speech: "When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It's not a bluff."

Ever since the first weeks of the war, when Russia suffered its first significant defeat and failed to quickly take Kyiv, the topic of nuclear escalation has been hotly debated in Western media and among experts. In Russia, on the other hand, both the contents and scope of similar discussions have been vague.

The notion of "escalation to de-escalate" lies at the core of the issue in question. This concept implies the preemptive use of tactical nuclear weapons as a warning and deterrent measure, as a way to force the enemy to negotiate peace on terms acceptable to Russia. Such a concept, as it is often understood, implies a significant "lowering of the nuclear threshold", since in the classical defensive doctrine, nuclear weapons are used only in response to the use of nuclear weapons or an attack on infrastructure that could deprive the country of the possibility of a nuclear retaliatory strike.

The "escalation for de-escalation" doctrine was never an "offensive", experts note. It was born in response to the "inferiority complex" that plagued the Russian military machine of the early 2000s. After the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the Russian military realized its potential powerlessness in the face of remote precision strikes from NATO or the United States, which could potentially destroy Russian infrastructure. They also realised that the Russian armed forces would be unable to conduct a conventional war successfully.

In response, the doctrine of "escalation for de-escalation" was born —  a temporary measure, suggesting that if an "ordinary", conventional war against Russia leads to an existential threat (that is, threatens its existence), in order to intimidate and warn the enemy, and then force a peace deal on acceptable terms, nuclear weapons can be used to a limited extent. This is how the doctrine was described by the authors of a large-scale study conducted by the US Center for Naval Research (CNA). Having analysed a representative batch of more than 700 Russian-language articles from authoritative military publications over the past three decades, they reconstructed the foundations and logic of the Russian military doctrine (the main conclusions of the study were recently published by the War on the Rocks platform).

"Russia does have a strategy for escalation management, seeking to dissuade, intimidate, or achieve de-escalation at key transition points and early phases of conflict, from peacetime through large-scale and nuclear war," the authors write. The key difference between this strategy and Soviet-era doctrines is that the Russian military does not believe that the limited use of nuclear weapons necessarily leads to an uncontrolled escalation. Instead, they believe that the controlled use of conventional and nuclear weapons is not only possible, but can play a key role in strategic deterrence.

Thus, the authors of the report emphasise, the concept of strategic deterrence is defensive, not offensive. Nuclear weapons remain an important wartime deterrent to compensate for Russia’s shortcomings during a conflict, when the US and NATO may have the upper hand both in the sky and in their precision strike capabilities. This is not a form of military confidence, but rather an attempt by the military establishment to find an answer to its own vulnerability, they summarise.

The conclusions of the study sound encouraging: "There is strong doubt in Russian military circles that political leadership will authorise early, preemptive use of nuclear weapons. In general, despite some marginal voices who consistently call for early nuclear use, the consensus is that attempts to coerce with nuclear weapons early on will not be credible. This is precisely why the Russian military invested in complementary means of nonnuclear deterrence. However, Russia’s strategy of deterrence by fear-inducement when under military threat makes heavy use of nuclear signalling, which serves to create the impression that the country is far looser with its thinking on nuclear use than is actually the case."

It must be stressed, however, that the centre’s main study was completed during the concentration of Russian troops on the borders with Ukraine in 2021. This was not only prior to the beginning of the war, but also prior to the Kremlin's latest cycle of escalation and threats against Ukraine and NATO. 

It should also be noted that some radical changes happened in winter. In his speeches, Vladimir Putin began to endow the concept of "existential threat" with a new interpretation, Polina Sinovets, director of the Odesa Center for the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, notes in another review. In his previous address, while justifying his decision to invade Ukraine, Putin said: "Further expansion of the infrastructure of NATO and the military development of the territories of Ukraine are unacceptable for us ... for our country, it is a matter of life and death and our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty." This means that Ukraine and NATO’s military cooperation was declared an existential threat, a threat to the existence of the state, and used by Putin as a legitimate reason for the invasion. However, interpreting key concepts in such a way severely distorts the doctrine of strategic deterrence. The expert poses the rhetorical question: Has the Russian nuclear doctrine been transformed into a doctrine of "offensive deterrence" as a principle of state policy? 

To add to all of this, the Kremlin has recently been trying to push even further in its latest round of escalation. By announcing fictitious referendums in the occupied Ukrainian territories, Putin has demonstrated his intention to declare these regions an undisputed part of Russia. This means they will now potentially fall under the concept of "protection of territorial integrity". Such rhetoric, however, turns the doctrine of strategic deterrence on its head, disavowing its very foundations and turning it into a doctrine of expansionist aggression carried out under the umbrella of nuclear blackmail. Even if Putin's words are a rhetorical attack (a "bluff"), they nonetheless undermine the "strategic deterrence" doctrine and its balancing potential, forcing the US and NATO to look for a response to its possible reinterpretation by the Russian side.

Some experts and military representatives also raise questions regarding the doctrine of "escalation management", or the idea that after the use of nuclear weapons, the conflict can be stopped from developing further, calling it a dangerous illusion. Unlike March 2022, Western media and experts seem more irritated than fearful of Putin's new round of nuclear threats. Experts, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, are becoming more vocal about the possibility of a U.S. military response if Moscow does choose to use nuclear weapons. What form this may take will be determined after it becomes clear exactly what Russia’s nuclear provocation entails. This radicalization is quite consistent with public opinion trends, which show that the vast majority of Americans support Ukraine’s effort to return the occupied territories and do not support the idea of ​​a deal with Putin for peace. At the same time, the Kremlin's repeated military failures make Putin's periodic threats less credible in the eyes of experts.