Vladimir Putin spent a surprising amount of time in his March 1st speech talking about nuclear weapons. Pavel K. Baev has some interesting considerations in Brookings about the possible motivations for this:
Russia’s economic weakness is so profound that Russia cannot possibly engage in anything resembling a real arms race with the United States and NATO. Putin’s enthusiastic rollout of Russia’s missile program scored many good points domestically but produced a mixed impression among his key international audiences. It doesn’t take a shrewd strategic mind to conclude that Russia can only proceed with these entirely unnecessary weapon programs at the expense of addressing its more pressing economic needs and acute security challenges, including Syria. Putin’s posturing cannot meet many strict reality checks, but it is nevertheless, dangerous because it damages the norm of owning nuclear weapons responsibly.
In essence, Baev focuses on Putin’s need to legitimize the new 2027 state armament program, a desire to divert attention from recent poor performance in Syria, and a general inclination to ‘restoring greatness’.
I will add that Russia is truly concerned about the development of a ballistic missile defense in the West. It is debatable whether this concern is rational, but that has little to do with the affective reactions to it in Russia. The weapons that Putin announced are mostly intended to maintain a strategic nuclear deterrent in an age of missile defense: A missile with unlimited range to circumvent missile defense stations, supersonic missiles that are impossible to intercept, and a nuclear bomb installed in a torpedo.
So even though Putin talked a lot about nuclear weapons in his speech, there is nothing new when it comes to the Russian doctrine for actually using nuclear weapons. The idea from the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review that Russia develops non-strategic nuclear weapons for an escalate-to-deescalate strategy is still a fantasy. Russia’s nuclear development program is focused on strategic missiles, and in the non-strategic realm the goal is to develop more powerful conventional alternatives so they don’t have to use nuclear weapons.