The Pentagon published its Nuclear Posture Review for 2018 (NPR) earlier in February. It dramatically changes some assumptions about nuclear weapons that were laid out in the previous NPR from 2010.
The new NPR concludes that there has been a deterioration in international relations with a return to great power competition and a more complex threat environment. This causes the Pentagon to advise an ambitious plan to enhance the nuclear capabilities of the United States.
Of special interest is the American focus on Russia’s so-called escalate-to-deescalate strategy. The idea is that Russia would escalate a conflict to intimidate the West into accepting peace on Russia’s terms. According to the NPR this has lowered the nuclear threshold because Russia will use non-strategic nuclear weapons to achieve this goal. The West does not have the same arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons as Russia, and according to the NPR this may lead Russia to believe that they could get away with a small scale nuclear attack. Therefore the NPR suggests an increased focus on establishing an American arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons.
Russia’s focus is on conventional weapons
But some suggest that the Pentagon has got the Russian nuclear strategy all wrong. As this article in Defense News points out, Russian analysts are mostly confused by the idea that Russia should have an escalate-to-deescalate approach to nuclear weapons.
Recent Russian defense development programs have been shaped by the takeaways from the Kosovo war in 1999 and the Georgia war in 2008. From Kosovo the conclusion was that the Russian military was too dependent on nuclear weapons, which gave little flexibility to operate in the conventional field. Therefore, Russia found itself powerless when NATO initiated military operations against Serbia. The war in Georgia demonstrated a lot of shortcomings in the abilities of the Russian forces. Both of these experiences underscored the need for Russia to focus on a modernization of its conventional forces, and that is largely what has been carried out.
The Russian military doctrine openly states only two scenarios where nuclear weapons may be used, namely (1) in response to a nuclear attack or (2) in response to a conventional attack when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy. This is a decidedly defensive posture which sets a higher bar for the use of nuclear weapons than that of the United States. The American doctrine – according to the NPR – is to preserve the right to “first use” of nuclear weapons in order to protect not only itself but also allies and partners, and “[it] remains the policy of the United States to retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a U.S. nuclear response.” So on the face of it, the American nuclear strategy is the aggressive one.
The nuclear threshold is higher – not lower
The premise of the NPR must therefore be that the official Russian nuclear doctrine is lying – that Russia does in fact intend to use nuclear weapons as an offensive weapon. The problem is that empirical analysis of Russia’s defense acquisition program can support notions of both a higher and a lower nuclear threshold. Russia largely uses missiles with interchangeable warheads, so the same missile can count both as a nuclear missile and as a conventional one. Therefore the NPR can show some alarming figures that indicate that Russia has renewed its non-strategic nuclear capabilities drastically in recent years. In other words, the Pentagon has opted for the dramatic interpretation.
A more levelheaded conclusion is that Russia’s increased conventional capabilities have raised the nuclear threshold. As I pointed out in my article about how a war between Russia and the West would play out, Russia does indeed have an escalate-to-deescalate military mindset. This is necessary because an asymmetrical use of weapons is Russia’s only chance of winning a war with NATO. But the increased conventional capabilities give Russia flexibility to achieve this goal without using nuclear weapons.
With little attention to nuance, the NPR notes that “Moscow apparently believes that the United States is unwilling to respond to Russian employment of tactical nuclear weapons with strategic nuclear weapons.” The answer is reasoned to be that more American non-strategic nuclear weapons would deter Russia from utilizing its own non-strategic nuclear weapons.
Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank in Virginia, notes in the above mentioned Defense News article that this idea is flawed. “They want to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons to end a conflict preemptively; this seems to be an answer to an imagined problem that doesn’t exist.”
NPR encourages Russia to maintain strategy
Officially, Russia’s nuclear doctrine is public and defensive in posture. This can be interpreted in several ways, but generally there is reason to believe that Russia has expanded its toolbox with alternatives to nuclear weapons.
However, despite ostensibly clear guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons and an enhanced focus on non-nuclear capabilities, Russia also has a strategic interest in maintaining a degree of ambiguity about when they might use nuclear weapons – just like the United States does. For this end the missile design with interchangeable warheads is very useful. It forces the United States to consider many more missiles as potential nuclear assets. Some bravado by Kremlin officials has also contributed to the ambiguity.
The NPR makes it clear that the United States is very worried about Russia’s nuclear weapons. This is an unfortunate message to send at this point. Russian analysts may be perplexed that the United States is so concerned about nuclear weapons at a time when Russia’s focus is on conventional deterrence. But the Russian military establishment will certainly be satisfied that their deterrence strategy seems to be working so well.
The exaggerated American focus on nuclear weapons increases the risk that an armed confrontation may occur in the first place. It encourages Russia to believe that achieving a fait accompli would be fairly easy, because apparently NATO is very afraid of the Russian missiles. A much more reasonable signal to send would be that the West does not believe that Russia is suicidal, and that the focus is on conventional capabilities.