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Russia’s nuclear doctrine moves the focus from non-Western threats

Iskander launcher on display during the Vostok-2018 exercise with Russian and Chinese troops.
An Iskander launcher on display during the Vostok-2018 exercise involving both Russian and Chinese troops.

In June 2020 Russia made its nuclear doctrine more transparent in terms of why, when and how it would use nuclear weapons. Without naming potential adversaries, Russia is now more explicit about the regional scenarios that could lead to nuclear warfare. It seems to have confirmed that its updated nuclear doctrine is less focused on East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, Russia continues to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons to end conventional military conflicts. This WritePeace blog explores what has changed in the new doctrine and what the changes signal.

A step forward in transparency

The new document is the Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence. It is a significant advance in doctrinal transparency since Russia—in line with its predecessor, the Soviet Union—has never published specific documents on nuclear deterrence. Russia formerly classified this type of document—and the previous version of the Basic Principles, issued in 2010, remains classified.  Instead, its nuclear posture was described in vague language in its Military Doctrine.

The new document is about the implementation of nuclear deterrence policy. It provides the grounds for action by governmental agencies ‘related to ensuring nuclear deterrence in accordance with their authority’. This includes the ways in which Russian officials should signal Russia’s nuclear intentions to relevant states and their allies.

Nuclear and missile threats from the east

Nuclear threats to Russia used to be described in a somewhat chaotic way. In addition to a dominating emphasis on threats from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russian officials intermittently dropped hints about the nuclear-armed states of Asia and the Middle East.

For instance, for many years top officials put the possession of medium-range missiles by China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel at the centre of their arguments in favour of revisiting the 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-range and Shorter-range Missiles (INF Treaty). This arms control agreement between the USA and the USSR and the latter’s successors came under fire from Sergey Ivanov, the president’s chief of staff, and Anatoly Antonov,  deputy defence minister, among others due to the perceived risks emanated from the missile arsenals of countries to the east and south of Russia. 

This was not an explicit confirmation of Russian threat perceptions about these countries. However, they could interpret it as signalling that Russia’s nuclear posture included such a threat assessment. Undoubtedly, these hints could cause confusion in these countries because many of them are Russia’s close partners and members of the same security framework, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

Allusions to the nuclear-armed states in Asia and the Middle East as a potential nuclear threat are now absent from the official narrative in Russia. The new Basic Principles is the first nuclear doctrinal document to publicly reflect this. Meanwhile, discussions in Russia’s unofficial expert community keep generating a variety of opinions concerning nuclear threats from Asia. These range from a well-balanced view on the latent nuclear deterrence between Russia and China to alarmist evaluations of the military and nuclear threats that China poses for Russia. This author’s interviews with Russian experts in recent months indicate that the alarmist view remains marginal in Russia.

Avoiding confusion and allaying suspicions

Russian military exercises involving nuclear delivery systems close to the borders with China and Central Asia have the potential to raise confusion about whether Russia considers China, India and Pakistan to be potential targets for nuclear strikes. For example, the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) and Tsentr-2019 (Centre-2019) exercises used the Iskander-M dual-capable launcher for ballistic and cruise missiles of short and, allegedly, medium ranges. This system, which could play a key role in regional conflicts, has replaced the Tochka (SS-21) short-range ballistic missiles in more than 12 missile brigades across Russia

To avoid unintentionally raising political tensions with Russia, these countries have not publicly articulated their concerns. Moreover, supposedly as a way of allaying any possible suspicion, Russia has started to invite China, India and Pakistan to send participants as well as observers to these drills. China’s participation in Vostok-2018 was the first by a state from outside the former USSR in this type of military exercise.  

What the updated doctrine signals

Publication of the Basic Principles was a further step to reassure Russia’s neighbours in Asia that it does not consider them as nuclear threats. The most positive aspect of this document was that Russia published it. Doing this showed that Russia was ready for greater transparency because it cared about how foreign audiences perceive its nuclear policy.

However, the impact of the Basic Principles as a tool for strengthening strategic stability relations with Russia’s neighbours in Asia is less clear. The publication of the Basic Principles triggered a discussion in Russia and beyond over its nuclear doctrine, and a dispute over the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons.

The most contentious part of the document is Article 4, which describes the role of nuclear deterrence in the case of military conflict. It states that, during hostilities, ‘this Policy provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies’. The main implication of this is that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the means of preventing or ending military hostiles against Russia and its allies. 

This might be a reference to the concept of ‘escalate to de-escalate’, meaning the use of a limited nuclear strike to make an adversary end a conventional attack. This concept—and whether Russia has operationalized it in military planning—is strongly debated in the West. Although the text of Article 4 does not unequivocally confirm or dismiss Russian adherence to this concept, it seems to describe non-nuclear scenarios in which Russia might rely on nuclear weapons to achieve its military goals.

Scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons

In debates among Russian experts, the scenarios of regional wars in which Russia might use nuclear weapons have usually been associated with hypothetical conflicts with China since such a conflict could remain regional. In contrast, it is believed in Russia that any armed conflict with the USA and NATO would quickly escalate to a global, fully fledged nuclear war.  President Putin confirmed such a prediction in 2018 when commenting on the low-yield nuclear option in the latest US Nuclear Posture Review: ‘Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.’ 

Under the new Basic Principles, the use of nuclear weapons in regional wars seems to be not only openly re-introduced in Russia’s military scenarios, but also limited by these scenarios. The document states that Russia implements nuclear deterrence only ‘with regard to individual states and military coalitions (blocs, alliances) that consider the Russian Federation as a potential adversary and that possess nuclear weapons and/or other types of weapons of mass destruction, or significant combat potential of general purpose forces’. In other words, to consider a nuclear scenario involving a particular state or coalition, Russia must perceive not only threatening capabilities but also signalled intentions. For instance, while China has sufficient nuclear and conventional capabilities to threaten Russia, Russian nuclear deterrence will not apply to China until it is officially perceived as an adversary. In contrast, Russia uses the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review—which identifies Russia as a nuclear threat—as a basis to continue deterring the USA with its nuclear arsenal.

In their interpretation of the Basic Principles, two senior officials of the Russian Ministry of Defence directly linked the threat assessment of the updated nuclear doctrine with the military dangers emanating from ‘the collective West’. 

The benefits of transparency

The publication of the Basic Principles is unlikely to end possible concerns in Asian countries, primarily China, regarding Russia’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. While the document clarifies some aspects of Russia’s nuclear policy, it maintains some ambiguity, for example, regarding the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack.

In the absence of symmetrical steps by other nuclear-armed states to reduce uncertainty over nuclear policies, it would be hard to expect Russia to take further unilateral action to make its nuclear policy even more transparent. The positive aspect of the new document is unlikely to have an immediate impact on strategic stability relations between Russia and other nuclear-armed states—this would require further transparency and confidence-building measures at the bilateral and multilateral levels. However, if the Basic Principles help Russia to avoid sending mixed signals to other countries regarding its nuclear plans and intentions, its publication will be worth it.

This is the second in a series of SIPRI WritePeace blogs that will explore nuclear narratives surrounding nuclear dynamics in South Asia.


Dr Petr Topychkanov is an Associate Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.