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reflections

Oct 15, 2009 | 00:32 GMT

4 mins read

Russia's Message on Reshaping Its Nuclear Doctrine

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
RUSSIA IS EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF ITS NUCLEAR DOCTRINE to include pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, Russian Presidential Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview published Wednesday by Moscow daily Izvestia. The former director of the Federal Security Service (the successor agency to the KGB) emphasized that nuclear weapons might be used in a preventive manner to repel conventional aggression in regional and even local wars. He was talking about the pre-emptive use of tactical nuclear weapons — which is, incidentally, an option the United States retains. Russia considers its nuclear arsenal to be the pillar of its defensive military capabilities, and tactical nuclear weapons increasingly have taken a central role in its defensive scenarios since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that the Russians would employ nuclear weapons in any given scenario, but whatever they say publicly has next to no bearing on what they actually would do in an unknowable, future situation. The potentially frightful speed of a modern nuclear exchange means there is little time for deliberation: To whatever extent possible, national command authorities seek to explore, understand and balance ahead of time the complexities and options of any given scenario. These scenarios are among the most closely guarded state secrets in the world. When and how they are updated is not generally a matter for public consumption. And in any event, the fundamental reality remains: A nation's senior leadership retains exclusive control over the use of nuclear weapons. Such a decision would be taken in a time of crisis, under a specific set of ultimately unknowable circumstances. Paper scenarios might inform that decision, but at the end of the day, the leader is not bound by them any more than he is bound by his country’s public nuclear doctrine. Indeed, the manner in which a war is fought depends on any number of things — who struck first, who has the initiative, one’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the enemy’s, and so forth. But the first thing that goes out the window is the official, public statement about what that doctrine is or should be. It is still unlikely that the Russians would employ nuclear weapons in any given scenario, but whatever they say publicly has next to no bearing on what they actually would do in an unknowable, future situation. In other words, Patrushev’s interview was not an announcement to the Russian military that it is going to fight differently; such an announcement would come through different channels. Rather, Patrushev was telling the world that the Russian military is going to fight differently — whether that is the case or not. What is significant is not the public shift in nuclear doctrine, but the political decision to publicize it, and the timing of that decision. It was no accident that the interview was published while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Moscow. Patrushev was speaking to the West, and to the United States. He was attempting to shape Western thinking with three implicit points:
  • Russia is prepared to think in terms of the Cold War — with all the unpleasantness that could entail for the United States.
  • Russia has tactical nuclear weapons and a doctrine for using them — pre-emptively, if necessary.
  • Nuclear weapons are potentially on the table if fundamental Russian national interests are attacked, or even if Russia is threatened.

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