US policy doc hints at 'limited' nuclear arms use, alarming Russians

Russians read a new Pentagon policy document as allowing the use of nuclear weapons outside the bounds of 'mutually assured destruction' – a change to decades of nuclear arms philosophy that makes US-Russia relations more uncertain.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
A congressional aide stands beside a chart positioning the advancement of nuclear weapons programs in other countries compared with that of the US as Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 6.

The new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released by the Pentagon last week has not generated much notice in the United States, perhaps because another kind of memo has been dominating the news.

But in Moscow, it has been received with shock, and even a touch of fear, because for the first time in almost three decades it appears to talk about the possibility of “limited” nuclear war with Russia.

“This new tone in the NPR is a very serious thing, and it's hard to understand why they are talking about this using Russia’s name,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert who is usually critical of the Kremlin. “It's especially hard to hear after eight years of President Obama, who took a close interest in these issues and whose goal was a non-nuclear world.”

The apparent shift in thinking in the US is bringing an old debate back to the forefront in Russia: whether a nuclear arsenal is best as a tool that is never used, or if nations – like the US under Trump – might employ it in some circumstances. And with US-Russia arms-control treaties falling into disrepair, Russians are trying to determine what America’s nuclear intentions actually are.

“It looks like Donald Trump simply handed this over to his generals to do, just telling them ‘I want the biggest and the best,’ with no sense of political priorities or direction. This is the wish list of generals, and it’s dangerous,” says Mr. Golts.

Changing the nuclear conversation

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been two schools of thought about what to do with these massively destructive weapons.

The dominant view, in both the US and Russia, has been that they are too potentially world-ending to ever be used, and therefore the only sensible purpose for deploying them is for deterrence: in other words, to prevent war.

That thinking led the two superpowers – even amid a deep and acrimonious cold war – to create a system of arms-control treaties that sought to limit the numbers and types of nuclear weapons, while maintaining a framework of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), meaning that both sides had equal ability to destroy the other. The most recent such deal was New START, signed by Mr. Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just eight years ago, which sharply reduced the numbers of strategic warheads and launchers on both sides.

But there has always been an alternative viewpoint, which argued that nuclear weapons might be used to fight and win wars. Russian experts say they have little knowledge of such arguments that may have taken place within the Soviet security establishment, due to its ironclad secrecy, but at least one has erupted into the public sphere in Russia in recent years. As for the US, there is a long history of strategic thinkers debating this issue, though advocates of deterrence and arms control have always won the day.

But the new NPR appears to change the conversation – blaming alleged Russian threats – by arguing that the US needs to develop fresh tactics and a new mix of nuclear weapons, including “low yield” warheads suitable for taking out battlefield targets rather than city-busting.

“To correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage and credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks ... the President must have a range of limited and graduated options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields,” it says.

Experts point out that this appears explicitly in the NPR section devoted to Russia, though it would more logically seem to apply to a discussion of options for dealing with Iran or North Korea.

“I am afraid this is based on a completely wrong view of Russian strategic doctrine,” says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center, Russia’s leading think tank on nuclear security issues. “It really seems to us that the US is addressing a problem that doesn't exist.”

'Limited' nuclear use

Mr. Baklitsky explains that Russia’s strategic doctrine, approved by Vladimir Putin in 2016, lays out only two circumstances in which Russia would use nuclear weapons: if it were attacked with nuclear weapons, or if it faced a conventional attack that threatened the survival of the Russian state.

The idea of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield was a current one during the cold war, when huge Warsaw Pact armies faced NATO forces along a conflict line running through the center of Europe. Both sides maintained – and presumably still have – nuclear-armed short-range missiles, gravity bombs, and even artillery shells designed to take out columns of tanks, bunkers, and concentrations of troops. Critics of tactical nuclear war said that use of such weapons could easily escalate to full-scale nuclear war. There is no transparency about this subject in Russia today, experts complain.

“We know what is happening with strategic arms here because there is a treaty and an exchange of information,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, an arms-control expert with the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “But we are completely unaware of what is going on in the area of tactical weapons.”

But Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have frequently discussed Russia's nuclear arsenal as something to be taken into account in the active conduct of foreign policy. Western analysts are in disagreement over what this means, with some suggesting Russia is signaling that it might countenance the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, and others arguing that it is mere political posturing to remind the West that Russia still matters.

But Russia did toy with first use of nuclear weapons, especially following the Soviet collapse and the disintegration of its conventional military forces. When NATO subdued Serbia following a long conventional bombing campaign in 1999, the theme of Russia’s regular military exercises that year, Zapad 99, involved using a nuclear strike to forestall a similar move against Russia, says Golts.

“It was obvious to Russian military authorities that we couldn’t match Western capabilities, so the answer was to use nuclear weapons to stop the escalation,” he says.

Another debate took place about 10 years ago, as Russia’s Putin-era national security doctrine was being formulated. Then, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Kremlin’s powerful Security Council, gave an interview to the pro-government newspaper Izvestia, in which he suggested Russia might employ nuclear weapons in a “regional conflict” near its borders. That set off a firestorm of speculation in the West.

“That caused huge shocks in our own strategic circles,” says Golts. “We don’t know how the debates went, but we do know that this idea does not appear in our country’s latest strategic doctrines.”

Misunderstandings are multiplying

The reappearance of the specter of “limited” nuclear war, just as Russia has completed a cycle of strategic nuclear modernization and the US is embarking on its own massive upgrade, has created a new level of dangerous uncertainty in a relationship that is already under great strain. The framework of arms-control treaties, built up over several decades, is unraveling and threatening to take the world back to the hair-raising 1960s.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that ended the cold war and abolished a whole class of nuclear weapons has been the subject of mutual recriminations for years, and now appears on the verge of complete failure. The US withdrew unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, triggering Russian fears that technological advances might one day wipe out their nuclear deterrent. And the New Start treaty, while still in force and apparently working, expires in just three years.

“If the situation were normal, the two sides should already be holding discussions about prolonging it,” says Golts. “That isn’t happening. On the contrary, Putin is blaming the US for violating it. All aspects of arms control, as we knew it, are in crisis.”

Misunderstandings are multiplying, and in this context the old idea of “limited” nuclear war takes on an ominous new look, says Baklitsky.

“The notion behind arms control is that you know what your counterpart is doing. You have mechanisms for verifying it,” he says. “What we see today is that Russia and the US are talking past each other. No one is discussing how to sit down with a practical view to solving problems, understanding each others' concerns, reaching compromise. Instead we have two completely different, mutually exclusive narratives trying to shout each other down.”

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