CNS Reports

Russian Ministry of Defense's New Policy Paper: The Nuclear Angle

Nikolai Sokov

At an October 2, 2004 meeting at the Ministry of Defense (MOD) in the presence of President Vladimir Putin, the top military leaders, legislators, and a plethora of other dignitaries, Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov unveiled a report "Immediate Tasks of Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,"[1] which some news services have dubbed the "White Paper." The report formally represents only the views of the MOD, but its implications are broader: in effect it develops and details the 2000 Military Doctrine.[2] Where nuclear weapons are concerned, the report provides important insights into nuclear posture planning in the aftermath of the summer-fall 2000 debate on the future of Russia's strategic forces.[3]

The report did not contain many novel ideas. Probably the only serious innovation was the proposition that the MOD "can no longer completely rule out preventive use of force if demanded by the interests of Russia or its alliance commitments."[4] This statement did not specifically refer to nuclear weapons, but given their overall role in Russia's defense policy, it might imply a threat with nuclear weapons.

Deterrence and De-escalation

Like the 2000 Military Doctrine, the "White Paper" postulates two missions for nuclear weapons: deterrence of an attack against Russia and de-escalation of a conflict in case deterrence fails. In contrast to the earlier document, the new guidance elaborates on these missions in considerable detail.

During the Cold War, the notion of deterrence mostly applied to a large-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union - a war that could not be won and would have meant the end of the world. Now global war is considered a low probability, almost a theoretical event. The Russian military is much more preoccupied with preventing the threat that force could be used against Russia for political purposes ("silovoe davlenie" - compellence by force) and with deterrence of limited attacks. Both are explicitly associated with the threat that Russia might use nuclear weapons. The document states, specifically:

The main goal of the Russian Federation's policy in the area of strategic deterrence is to rule out any type of force pressure and aggression against Russia or its allies and, in the case aggression takes place, guaranteed defense of sovereignty, territorial integrity and other vital national interests of Russia or its allies.[5]

Following the earlier guidelines, the new document distinguishes between four types of hostilities: armed conflict (an ethnically or religiously motivated conflict primarily inside Russia, possibly with involvement of outside states), limited war, regional war, and large-scale (global) war. Nuclear weapons are associated with the latter two types, but the threat of using them is supposed to prevent escalation from one type of hostility to another. In late 1999, Boris Yeltsin explicitly referred to nuclear weapons during an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit to prevent external involvement in the second war in Chechnya.

De-escalation and, implicitly, deterrence of limited conflicts is based on the notion that Russia should be able to inflict just the right amount of damage to the attacker to make sure that aggression is not worthwhile. The central tenet of this policy is the notion of "pre-determined damage," which was first introduced in the 2000 National Security Concept and Military Doctrine. It replaced the more traditional notion of "unacceptable damage" and at that time was about the only indication that Russia was considering limited use of nuclear weapons. In the White Paper, references to limited use are explicit and detailed. Predetermined damage is defined as "damage, subjectively unacceptable to the enemy, which exceeds the benefits the aggressor expects to gain as a result of the use of military force."[6]

At the same time, the document emphasizes that in the context of limited conflicts nuclear deterrence requires modern and capable conventional forces; "only in this case will the threat of nuclear use in response to an attack be credible."[7] (This postulate brings to mind one of the seminal documents in U.S. nuclear policy from the 1950s, NSC-68.)

Guidance for Limited Use of Nuclear Weapons

Although the main threats to Russia listed in the report are international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, military planning is geared toward the capability to fight any potential enemy, and this means the ability to defend against an attack by economically, technologically, and militarily advanced states (including, by default, the United States as the most powerful state in the world). Given the weakness of Russia's conventional forces today, the MOD document implicitly suggests that Russia cannot face a militarily advanced state or a coalition of states without engaging its nuclear capability. It also appears that the document assumes that an army that can fight the United States and NATO can fight any other enemy. The wisdom of this assumption seems dubious, however.

The White Paper's guidance on strategies for fighting regional and local wars suggests ways in which nuclear weapons might be utilized for the purposes of de-escalation. The section on the "nature of contemporary wars and armed conflicts" emphasizes that at the early stage of wars in the 1990s, the central role belonged to long-range strike weapons, including airborne delivery systems. It also notes that domination at the early stage of conflict ensured victory.[8] This means that, according to the Russian military's analysis, U.S. victories in a string of conflicts in the 1990s were ensured primarily by delivery vehicles operating outside the immediate theater of war.

Accordingly, the new document postulates "the utmost necessity of having the capability to strike military assets of the enemy (long-range high-precision weapons, long-range Air Force) outside the immediate area of conflict. To achieve this, [we] need both our own long-range high-precision strike capability and other assets that enable [us] to transfer hostilities directly to enemy territory."[9]

These guidelines fit well with a pattern of a series of military exercises starting with the "Zapad-99" maneuvers in the early summer of 1999, when a simulated Kosovo-style and -size attack of NATO at Kaliningrad oblast was repelled only after a limited (four warheads in total) strike against targets in European NATO and U.S. territory. A more recent example is the exercise conducted this year in the Indian Ocean in the wake of the war in Iraq that involved the use of long-range air-launched cruise missiles against naval and land targets in the Indian Ocean. It is a fair guess that the Russian Air Force simulated strikes against U.S. naval vessels carrying sea-launched cruise missiles and the U.S. base at Diego Garcia. These assets were used during the war in Iraq and might be used in a hypothetical U.S. military action against Russia or its neighbors.

Response to the Evolution of U.S. Nuclear Policy

The MOD report, along with some earlier official statements indicates how Russia might react to the anticipated changes in U.S. policy toward nuclear weapons. The U.S. policy shift began with the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review and became more visible recently with discussions about the development of a new, low-yield nuclear weapon.

The MOD document notes efforts by unnamed parties "to restore nuclear weapons as an acceptable military instrument by using 'breakthrough' scientific and technical developments, which are supposed to turn nuclear weapons into a relatively 'clean' weapon from the point of view of the consequences of its use." After that, the document somewhat cryptically declares that "the lowering of the nuclear threshold will demand that Russia revise the system of command and control of troops and its approaches to deterrence of threats of various levels."[10]

The oral statement of Sergei Ivanov offered additional details. He said that developments in U.S. nuclear policy were "undermining global and regional stability" and that he had directed his subordinates to closely monitor these trends. "Even miniscule" lowering of the nuclear threshold, he stated, might trigger a revision of the existing guidance on the employment of nuclear weapons.[11]

This statement closely correlates with an earlier remark of President Putin: speaking at Sarov, one of Russia's two nuclear laboratories, on July 31, 2003, he emphasized that Russia would continue to refrain from nuclear testing "under certain obligatory conditions, one of the most important of which is a similar attitude on the part of other nuclear states toward obligations they had undertaken."[12] In effect, this amounted to a direct response to widespread rumors that the United States might resume nuclear testing and represented a partial change in the standard Russian position. Previously, Russian officials usually emphasized that Russia had signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and hoped that the treaty would enter into force soon. Now the emphasis has shifted to conditions under which Russia might withdraw from the moratorium. Putin's statement was unclear regarding other possible conditions for termination of the moratorium.

The Future of the Nuclear Triad

The new document contains an overview of plans with regard to Russia's strategic nuclear posture. Information is scanty, but nevertheless the document offers useful insights into what has been a volatile issue since 2000. In summer and fall 2000, a series of meetings of Russia's Security Council revised earlier decisions with regard to the nuclear triad, providing for a radical reduction of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the land-based leg of the triad and shifting priority to the naval leg. Apparently, these decisions were partially revised in early 2002 following the U.S. notification of its intent to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (the withdrawal became final in June 2002). Reportedly, the main change was the decision to keep old types of land-based missiles, inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), to the very end of their service lives, including all possible extensions (in 2000 the General Staff wanted to reduce them at a much faster pace).

The document reveals that by 2007-2008, Strategic Rocket Forces will consist of 10 missile divisions (reduced from the current 19) in line with the decision of the Security Council on August 11, 2000.[13] These divisions will consist primarily of old types of ICBMs, whose service lives will be extended; gradually these ICBMs will be replaced with "prospective missile complexes."

As an illustration, President Putin, in his closing statement at the conference, mentioned UR-100NUTTKh ICBMs (known in the United States as SS-19's). He said that dozens of those have been kept in so-called "dry storage" (i.e., missiles were not filled with fuel) and could be put into silos for combat duty.[14] Subsequently, Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluevski added that these missiles could last as long as until 2030,[15] indirectly indicating that the projected pace of deployment of modern ICBMs will be rather slow. Sergei Ivanov explained a few days later that at the moment Russia did not have plans to transfer SS-19s from dry storage to combat duty and that Putin's statement was only intended to make Russia's ability to do so known "both to domestic and international audiences."[16]

Some commentators hastened to declare that Putin's words at the October 2 MOD meeting explained his reference in the State of the Nation address to the Federal Assembly last spring to some unnamed "new strategic weapon,"[17] but such speculations do not make sense - SS-19s are old, late 1970s-early 1980s weapons. Other commentators also called these missiles "heavy," which is incorrect since only SS-18's (the R-36 family of ICBMs, including R-36UTTKh and R-26M2 currently deployed) are officially classified as heavy ICBMs.

The air-based component of the strategic forces will emphasize modernization of the Tu-160 heavy bomber, which should be able to carry high-precision cruise missiles with both nuclear and conventional warheads, as well as gravity bombs (including a Russian analogue to American Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and support a variety of other missions. This is little news: for years now the Russian Air Force has concentrated its efforts on developing new weapons for the existing fleet of long-range aircraft as well as on modernizing these aircraft by adding new avionics, communications equipment, targeting capabilities, etc. The Air Force approach seems the most cost-effective and the most stable compared to the unending rivalries and often waste in other two legs of the triad.

The discussion of the naval leg of the strategic triad simply mentioned what is well known already: Russia plans to complete development of a new sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and of a new submarine to carry this new missile. Clearly, the new SLBM mentioned in the document is Bulava, a new missile reportedly capable of carrying up to 10 warheads. The Bulava should also be deployable on land. The new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine is the Borey class. The first submarine in that class, Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched in mid-1990s, but was then put on hold to wait for a new missile.

The MOD document and in particular Putin in his closing remarks confirm that Russia intends to utilize the flexibility accorded to it by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty of 2002 (also known as the Moscow Treaty) in drafting its plans for the future composition and size of the nuclear triad.


In the end, the new document published by the Ministry of Defense demonstrates that Russia's nuclear policy has stabilized after the somewhat tumultuous first two years of Putin's presidency. Missions assigned to nuclear weapons have been confirmed and detailed; the future shape of the nuclear posture does not seem to hold any surprises. One remaining element of uncertainty is related to future U.S. policy on nuclear weapons: if the United States proceeds with the development of a new, more "usable" nuclear weapon and especially if it resumes nuclear testing as many expect, then Russian nuclear policy might begin to change and Russia will strive to acquire similar capabilities. Official U.S. position remains, however, that there has been no decision to resume testing.

Although the new document lists proliferation of WMD and international terrorism as the gravest threats to Russia's security, the military still regards U.S. military capability and the ability to repel a hypothetical attack by the United States as benchmarks for planning. On the one hand, this orientation reflects a simple (maybe even simplistic) premise: an army that can fight the United States can fight any other state or coalition of states. At a different level, however, it betrays deeply seated concerns about the future of Russia's relations with the United States and the feeling of vulnerability vis-à-vis the most powerful state in the world. In the end, the Ministry of Defense seems to believe that nothing but military power can guarantee Russia's security and interests, especially given the suspected propensity of the United States for unilateral, often not fully logical military escapades. Partnership is one thing, guaranteed security is another. Nothing can reliably contain political and military pressure, much less the use of force, except nuclear weapons.

[1] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," available at
[2] For the analysis of nuclear policy-related elements of the 2000 National Security Concept and Military Doctrine see Nikolai Sokov, "Russia's New National Security Concept: The Nuclear Angle" (January 2000) and "An Assessment Of The Draft Russian Military Doctrine" (October 1999).
[3] For analysis of this debate see Nikolai Sokov, "Denuclearization" of Russia's Defense Policy? (CNS Report, July 17, 2000) and The Fate of Russian Nuclear Weapons: An Anticlimax on August 11 (CNS Report, August 14, 2000)
[4] Statement by Sergei Ivanov, available at
[5] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 42.
[6] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 43.
[7] Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 30.
[8] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 25.
[9] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 32.
[10] "Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF," p. 24.
[11] "Vystuplenie Sergeya Ivanova na Soveshchanii v Ministerstve Oborony RF," October 2, 2004, available at
[12] Sergei Ivanov, "Zakluychitelnoe Slovo na Vstreche s Uchenymi Rossiiskogo Federalnogo Yadernogo Tsentra," July 31, 2003 (available at
[13] Nikolai Sokov, "A New Old Direction in Russia's Nuclear Policy," Disarmament Diplomacy, September 2000 (available at
[14] Vladimir Putin, "Zakluychitelnoe Slovo na Soveshchanii s Rukovodyashchim Sostavom Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossii," October 2, 2003 (available at
[15] Mikhail Vorobyov, "Raket u Nas Na Vsekh Khvatit," Vremya Novostei, October 3, 2003 (available at
[16] "Sergei Ivanov: Slova Presidenta o Raketakh SS-19 'Stiletto' Kasauytsya Vsekh," Lenta.Ru, October 6, 2003 (available at
[17] Nikita Petrov, "Fundament Bexzopasnosti," Strana.Ru, October 3, 2003 (available at


Author(s): Nikolai Sokov
Related Resources: Nuclear, NIS
Date Created: October 10, 2003
Date Updated: -NA-
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