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Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons

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In 2015 a prominent Russian specialist advised me to never underestimate Russia’s intentions regarding Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW).  Since 1991 Russian developments within TNW doctrine show a clear intent to maintain an active, and deployable, tactical nuclear arsenal unbound by Western morality.  In 2015 Russia had the capability and intent, but not the opportunity to use them. A lot has changed since that 2015 conversation, not least Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has seen debates about their use resurface.

This paper argues that Russian TNW are not a new threat nor one that will go away.  Russia views TNW as a battlefield capability which is a doctrinally available option in conventional warfare.  Russia’s intent is conceptually different to the West; they view TNW as a form of coercion and, crucially, as a form of de-escalation.  The West should be mindful that ‘cornering’ Russia may result in a nuclear show of force that stretches beyond  Western conventional warfare.  

Capability 

For most, 1991 signalled the end of the Cold War.  The Soviet Union collapsed and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) would reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons  that the United States and Russia could deploy.1  The strategic nuclear ‘triad’ of heavy bombers, ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had been curtailed.  The world busied itself with Operation Desert Storm, the transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty, the Euro single currency, and the 1990s.  Russia largely become an afterthought as the West focused on other things.

However, Russia was not as stagnant as it had the world believe.  Its military reforms (now well documented) modernised Russian defence and capitalised on the fact that TNW were not included in the arms reduction agreements.  This was in part driven by a Western belief that they had no real function2 either on the battlefield or as a deterrent.3  

In 1993 Russia began to show signs that, unlike the United States, the UK, and France, it had no intentions of decreasing its nuclear arsenal.  Russia abandoned Brezhnev’s  ‘no first use’ policy.4.  By 2008 Russian military reforms improved their nuclear arsenal and breached the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 19875 and withdrew from Russo-American discussions such as the Nuclear Security Summit.6  The Russian military began conducting training in nuclear exercises where the scenarios often simulated a threat from Eastern Europe.7 

9K720 Iskander missile. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin – http://www.vitalykuzmin.net/Military/ARMY-2016-Demonstration/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52213498

By 2009 Russia’s last nuclear inhibition was abandoned and Russia did not include the no first use clause in their military doctrine that prohibited the use of TNW against non-nuclear countries.8  This significant change in posture, along with the evolving capability and the emphasis in military doctrine, placed Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ in a compromising situation.9 

The capability of TNW do not pose an existential threat to nations and they were originally designed for local use and to compensate for shortfalls in conventional firepower.10.  During the post-Cold War era the US prioritised technological advances in the fields of precision-guided weapons and integrated command and control systems.  To offset the advantage in high-tech conventional weapons Russia  modernised its TNW arsenal.  It replaced the Scud missile system with the Iskander-M12  Today, it is estimated that Russia has 2,000 TNW in its arsenal with the majority aimed towards Eastern Europe.13  Conversely the United States is estimated to possess about 200 TNW in Europe spread across five different NATO nations.1415 

Intent

The purpose of TNW range from deterrent to intentional deployment.  It can be argued that the presence of TNW is a threat in itself.  Their strategic positioning allows for nuclear coercion extending Russia’s control across borders.  If Ukraine had not agreed to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and maintained the remnants of Soviet nuclear weapons, Russia’s 2022 invasion may have developed differently.  Instead Russia can use TNW to create asymmetric stand-off with conventionally superior NATO forces whilst delivering a means to pressurise non-nuclear post-Soviet states.16 

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg at a conference on 10 January 2022 regarding a potential Russian invasion

Russian mentality is different to that of the West.  Whilst nuclear weapons have not been used since World War Two that does not account for intent.  In 1991 Yeltsin entertained the idea of a preventive nuclear strike on Ukraine.  8 years later it was also considered in Chechnya.  Of the former it is crucial to note that it was dismissed because of the political turmoil of the time and not for moral reasons.17. 

Russian Law of Defence allows the use of Russian military forces outside of the Russian Federation for the following tasks: To counter an attack against the armed forces of the Russian Federation and to counter or prevent aggression against another government and to protect Russian citizens abroad.  This encompasses an extremely large, and global, demographic and Putin was quoted “When I speak of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens I am referring to those people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community, they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people”. 18  Russia is careful to include that such measures may be to counter as well as also to prevent aggression.  Incidents and pretexts are easily created or found.19  For Russia, the concept of deploying nuclear weapons is not limited to extreme situations or regional conflicts, they can be used in a local or small-scale war.  

There are numerous courses of action that could see Russia deploy TNW.  First is the 2000 doctrinal amendment which states that TNW can be used as a means of shocking adversaries into military ‘de-escalation’, should a crisis escalate and Russia loses situational control.  Second is a misunderstanding of the military situation due to poor analysis of intelligence or misinformation, as seen in 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.  Third is a breakdown in command and control. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, the use of TNW can be delegated down to local commanders or other nations, which does not allow for central control.20 The lack of training and experience, exacerbated by chaos of battle, increases the chance of unauthorized or accidental use.  The ‘escalate to de-escalate’ seems the most rational possibility, given how the invasion of Ukraine is playing out.

Opportunity 

The development of TNW capability and doctrinal intent suggests that the Russian psychology towards TNW differs from that of the West.  Russia views TNW as another weapon  to be deployed on the battlefield.  The evidence suggests that the morality of their use is considered second to pragmatism, if it is considered at all.  The expansion of NATO, in terms of geography, capability, and support to countries such as Ukraine, has aggravated Russia offering new opportunities.  To date, Russian doctrinal changes have coincided with its perception of increased threat and now there is a realistic possibility of their use.  We can see from the current invasion of Ukraine that the escalation process is already in motion.  Be it the long term deployment of American TNW in Europe or now arming Ukraine with lethal aid, the combination of these are likely to offer Russia an opportunity to use TNW.

‘Opportunity’ may also arise through the inaction of an adversary.  The West has previously stated a ‘red line’ when it comes to use of chemical weapons, but recent examples show that such statements often fall flat.  In 2013, then Vice President Biden exclaimed that Syria ‘must be held accountable’ for use of chemical weapons.  Within weeks the US ‘got cold feet about using force’, an act seen as having subsequently ‘emboldened’ President Bashar al-Assad.21  In March 2022, now President Biden repeated his claim that use of chemical weapons would come at a ‘severe price’, this time in relation to President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.22  It is likely that Putin will see this not as a threat but as permission.  The lack of detail as to how exactly the West would respond serves only to confirm that, like 2013, there is no planned response.  From a Russian perspective, the use of prohibited weapons of mass destruction (chemical, nuclear, or biological) are not red lines for Russia, but for the West.  Putin tends to be unambiguous in his use of language, making his intentions clear, as detailed in his essay of July 2021.23  Therefore the West needs a smarter response to meet the growing threat of weapons which break international law; timely and specific enough to deter the threat, realistic enough to be carried through, and measured enough so as to be immune to misinformation and propaganda.  If the West already has a response in mind then it needs to be communicated clearly and in a way that Putin understands.   

Conclusion

In 2015, I, and I suspect many Russia watchers, concluded that whilst the deployment of TNW remained a realistic possibility it was not believed to be a short-term threat.  Russia had not sought to use TNW  in Georgia, Crimea, or the first (2014) invasion of Ukraine.  In the long-term the prevalent concern was not TNW but the modernisation of the Russian military.  In 2015 it was considered weak, fragmented, and in the flux of reforms and was unlikely to become tactically superior for some time.  However a greater TNW capability, alongside a reformed conventional force, would pose a threat to the West. 

The right question to ask in 2015, given the development of Russian conventional, TNW, and enduring START capabilities, is how would NATO respond to the emergence of a credible Russian military machine backed up by revised doctrine and as psychologically committed to maintaining Russia’s influence on the global stage?  

It was exactly this question that flashed across my mind when, on 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.  It is both surprising and unsurprising to have witnessed the ongoing crisis. The former because the world believed Russian forces to be far superior to the capabilities they have since shown.  The latter because the difficulties they have encountered echo those of Georgia 2008.  Ironically, when assessing purely TNW, the lack of conventional capability (along with the expertise of the Ukrainian forces) may only serve to push the deployment of battlefield nuclear missiles higher up the agenda, as was mooted in March 2022.24  The deployment of TNW in order to make up shortfalls in  conventional capability may not be the military prowess that Russia seeks, but it does place the West between a rock and a hard place. 

Russia possesses the capability and doctrine, and intent to use TNW as a coercion or de-escalation tactic.  The opportunity will be measured against how Russia views the actions and inactions of their adversaries.  The West must maintain balance and ensure that the military situation is viewed with the mentality that Russian escalation and use of TNW is considered very differently to the West.  It is different because Russia has a perspective on the world where they are oppressed and subjugated, that control over the Near Abroad is crucial to their survival.  This perspective has been born out of history and magnified under the leadership of Putin who, when backed into a corner, will always opt to come out fighting.25  The Russians are a fiercely proud nation, and proud people do not like to be embarrassed. 

Cover photo: By Vitaly V. Kuzmin – http://www.vitalykuzmin.net/Military/ARMY-2016-Demonstration/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52213498

Tessa

Tessa has served in the military for 10 years with operational experience on Op HERRICK and SHADER. Her interest in Russia stems from the beginning of her career where she wrote the first edition of ‘How Russia Fights'; a handbook for British Army soldiers. Since then she has maintained a keen interest in Russian capabilities specific to Tactical Nuclear Weapons, and also the High North.

Footnotes

  1. United States Department of State Website, “New START”, United States Department of State, 16 July 2015
  2. Marcel H. Van Herpen. “Russia’s Embrace of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Its Negative Impact on U.S. Proposals for Nuclear Arms Reductions” Cicero Foundation 11/04, 2011
  3. These weapons were subject to the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), an informal policy at best and one that Russia does not deem legally binding.  Studies in European Security and Strategy, Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Euro-Atlantic Security: The Future of NATO (Routledge, 2013)
  4. Strategic Studies Institute. Russian Military Politics and Russia’s Defence Doctrine 2010. (Strategic Studies Institute, 2011)
  5. Karl-Heinz Kamp. “Nuclear Implications of the Russian Ukrainian Conflict”, NATO Defence College Research Paper, 2015
  6. Karl-Heinz Kamp. “Nuclear Implications of the Russian Ukrainian Conflict”, NATO Defence College Research Paper, 2015
  7. Russian troops within the Southern Military District are assessed to have been exercising in drills with the missile since 2015.
  8. signatories of the Non-proliferation Treaty Designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and technology and currently signed by 172 nations
  9. The Lithuanian Minister of Defence stated in 2011 that “Lithuania is concerned about the accumulation of tactical nuclear weapons at its frontiers, especially in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (…)”. Marcel H. Van Herpen. “Russia’s Embrace of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Its Negative Impact on U.S. Proposals for Nuclear Arms Reductions” Cicero Foundation 11/04, 2011
  10. ibid
  11. The missile delivery system is road-mobile, capable of being equipped with a nuclear warhead capability and has a delivery range of between 50 and 500 km. The launch carrier consists of two missiles, each independently targetable against fixed and moving targets, such as a tank column or convoy, within seconds. The optically guided warhead can also be controlled by a coded radio signal, which can be transmitted from an AWACS or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), providing a self-homing capability. The missile, after receiving an image of the target, locks on and travels towards it at supersonic speed. Unknown Author. “Why Is It Difficult to Defend against Ballistic Missiles” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 10 March 1999[/note] and the Kalibr missile (land and sea).11Gordon Corera, “Ukraine War: Could Russia Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons?” BBC, March 16, 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-60664169
  12. Unknown Author. “Why Is It Difficult to Defend against Ballistic Missiles” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 10 March 1999
  13. Arms Control Association website, “NATO Struggles to Define New Nuclear Doctrine”, dated Sep 10, accessed 12 Oct 15
  14. Unknown Author. “The Current Status” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, 11 February 2015
  15. Marcel H. Van Herpen. “Russia’s Embrace of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Its Negative Impact on U.S. Proposals for Nuclear Arms Reductions” Cicero Foundation 11/04, 2011
  16. Marcel H. Van Herpen. “Russia’s Embrace of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Its Negative Impact on U.S. Proposals for Nuclear Arms Reductions” Cicero Foundation 11/04, 2011
  17. The New York Times and Office of the President of Russia, “Putin Vows to ‘Actively Defend’ Russians Living Abroad”, The Atlantic Council, July 2, 2014, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/putin-vows-to-actively-defend-russians-living-abroad.
  18. Marcel H. Van Herpen. “Russia’s Embrace of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Its Negative Impact on U.S. Proposals for Nuclear Arms Reductions” Cicero Foundation 11/04, 2011
  19. Thompson, Loren. “Four Ways the Ukraine Cruise Could Escalate to the Use of Nuclear Weapons” Forbes Business, 24 April 2014
  20. James Politi, Henry Foy, John Paul Rathbone, “US and Allies Weigh ‘Red Lines’ in Putin’s Assault on Ukraine”, March 16, 2022 https://www.ft.com/content/b8f53766-aa15-4d31-922c-f72f8ea68854
  21. BBC, “Ukraine: NATO will respond if Russia Uses Chemical Weapons, warns Biden”, BBC, March 25, 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60870771
  22. Peter Dickinson, “Putin’s New Ukraine Essay Reveals Imperial Ambitions”, July 15, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/putins-new-ukraine-essay-reflects-imperial-ambitions/
  23. Gordon Corera, “Ukraine War: Could Russia Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons?” BBC, March 16, 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-60664169
  24. As a child Putin would kill rats by ‘bottling’ them. A particularly large rat, having been cornered, went on the attack because it had no other option. Putin claims that this was a pivotal point in his childhood and it became a philosophy he has always adopted.  Putin, V., Gevorkyan, N., Timakova, N., Kolesnikov, A. First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs Books 2000).

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