The Kremlin is drafting a new military doctrine, due by year's end, that may authorize the armed forces to use nuclear weapons not only to counter a massive conventional attack but even to launch a preemptive strike against a small regional adversary – such as neighboring Georgia or Ukraine – that might be deemed a threat to Russia.
Or so declared the new doctrine's main author, Kremlin Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, in a newspaper interview that sent shock waves rolling around the world last month and generated a storm of controversy among military analysts.
Experts divide between those who see the new, forward-leaning nuclear doctrine as a sign that the Kremlin is becoming more menacing toward its post-Soviet neighborhood, and those who view it as an expression of extreme vulnerability at a moment when the Russian military is undergoing its most radical reorganization in almost a century.
What Mr. Patrushev said, speaking to Moscow's biggest daily newspaper, Izvestia, was that, in a big change over the previous doctrine adopted in 2000, "We have corrected the conditions for use of nuclear weapons to resist aggression with conventional forces not only in large-scale wars, but also in regional or even a local one."
A warning or expedient?
Even more explosive, Patrushev added that Russia might strike first against an enemy whom it suspected of harboring belligerent intentions. "In a situation critical for national security, we don't exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor," he said.
Some critics say it seems almost bizarre to lower the threshold for using atomic weaponry at a time when Moscow is trying to negotiate radical reductions in strategic warheads with the United States and President Dmitry Medvedev has signed on to the "Global Zero" campaign for a world free of nuclear arms.
These critics also warn that the new doctrine, which Mr. Medvedev is due to sign in December, could have a chilling effect on Russia's relations with other post-Soviet states if the final version includes those provocative points.
"It seems that even in the case of small conflicts, such as the war Russia had with Georgia last year, where there is a fear that the US or NATO might intervene," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, "we are now going to invoke nuclear deterrence. Nobody is really intending to use nuclear arms, but the point here is to warn other big powers to stay away in the event of conflicts in our own neighborhood," such as a hypothetical crisis with Ukraine over Crimea, or with Georgia over the breakaway state-lets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he says.
Other experts suggest the bombastic – and very public – nuclear talk might be a temporary expedient, to cover Russia's extreme weakness as it undergoes a quiet reorganization of its armed forces.
According to Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now serves as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military reform will abolish the old "mobilization" army that Russia has maintained for more than a century and replace it with a much smaller and streamlined force, but one whose brigades are fully staffed and combat ready.
"Naturally, the Army is weakened, temporarily weakened, by these very radical changes," says Mr. Shlykov. "It's natural that we would rely more on our nuclear deterrent during this transition, though it's debatable whether that should be done in the loud fashion that Patrushev did."
Scaling back Russian army
Under the military reform, the number of officers in the armed forces will be slashed from 355,000 to 150,000, while overall manpower will fall from around 1.2 million to 1 million. The most dramatic change will be the abolition of hundreds of "phantom" divisions, with officers but no troops, which were meant to be filled out in wartime through the mobilization of millions of reservists. Plans call for cutting the number of Russian Army units from the present 1,890 to just 172 by 2012.
"The day of no return for the military reorganization is coming up fast, Dec. 1," says Shlykov, a former deputy chair of Russia's State Defense Committee. "At that point, Russia will have a totally new army, at least on paper. Of course, it will take a few years to bring it up to speed. Until then, we have only our nuclear weapons to rely on."
Russia currently deploys about 2,780 strategic nuclear warheads – though negotiations for a new arms-reduction deal with the US could bring that down to around 1,500 – plus another 2,000 tactical weapons.
Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces will be only slightly affected by the ongoing reform, and remain in full operational shape during the current transition, experts say.
Russia began to shift to reliance on nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. As more and more Eastern European countries joined NATO over the past decade, and Russia's once-massive conventional forces dwindled and decayed, the Kremlin began to regard the nuclear option as the key guarantor of national security in a crisis.
'We envisage only small, regional wars'
Experts say the old Cold-War equation, in which numerically overwhelming Warsaw Pact legions prompted NATO to emphasize its tactical nuclear options, has been reversed since the USSR and its alliance disbanded.
"In earlier times, when we had conventional superiority," says Gen. Makhmud Gareyev, president of the official Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow, "we didn't need nuclear weapons so much. But their importance has been growing. We need to preserve the strategic parity that we had in the past."
But this moment of strategic vulnerability for Russia, though potentially dangerous, will probably only last a few years, says Shlykov.
"The reality is changing drastically, and Russia is no longer thinking in terms of large-scale conventional conflicts with NATO," Shlykov says. "In future, we envisage only small, regional wars. And soon we will have completely modern conventional armed forces to deal with them."