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  • Elizabeth Czech

Nuclear Weapons in a Non-Nuclear Conflict: Russia’s Basic Principles on Nuclear Deterrence

On June 2, 2020, the Russian Federation released a copy of its basic principles on nuclear deterrence. Up until now, Russia has never made access to its nuclear policies public. Therefore, access to this document could be considered historic. The document explains Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy, as opposed to a No First Use policy. No First Use is a pledge or policy by a nuclear power to never use nuclear weapons except in the case of a confirmed nuclear attack against itself or its allies. Only two countries, China and India, have adopted No First Use policies.

Unlike No First Use, the objective of nuclear deterrence is to discourage adversaries from attacking with nuclear weapons because of the promise of retaliation and mutually assured destruction. Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy goes beyond discouraging adversaries from using nuclear weapons. The policy details four scenarios in which Russia reserves the right to utilize its nuclear weapon.

The first two justifications Russia gives for using nuclear weapons in its nuclear policy sound similar to the policies of No First Use. Russia reserves the right to use its nuclear weapons upon confirmation of a ballistic missile attack against Russia and/or its allies. Russia also maintains that use of a nuclear weapon by an adversary against Russia and/or its allies justifies a nuclear response. The third rationale is where Russia’s policy begins to deviate from No First Use. Russia maintains that a non-nuclear attack against governmental or military sites that compromises their ability to utilize their nuclear weapons justifies a nuclear response.

The final scenario Russia’s nuclear policy lays out to justify using a nuclear weapon is the most concerning. Russia claims that use of conventional weapons can justify a nuclear attack by Russia when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” According to the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific, the term “conventional weapons” includes a range of equipment, such as “armored combat vehicles, combat helicopters, combat aircraft, warships, small arms and light weapons, landmines.” Not only does Russia justify using nuclear weapons in non-nuclear conflict, nowhere in Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy do they mention the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. Given that the policy justifies Russia using nuclear weapons against an adversary using conventional weapons, it can be assumed that Russia would be willing to use a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear weapon state.

Russia is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, an international treaty which seeks to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, promote cooperation for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and came into effect on March 5, 1970. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states that nuclear-weapon states are not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states except in response to a nuclear weapon attack or a conventional attack in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. There has yet to be an instance of Russia attacking with nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack. However, the fact that Russia’s nuclear policy does not mention its obligation under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to not attack non-nuclear weapon states is disconcerting.

While Russia’s updated nuclear policy was only released in June 2020, the policy is not the first time Russia has stated its willingness to use nuclear weapons in non-nuclear conflicts. In December 2009, Lieutenant General Andrey Shvaychenko, who was commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Troops at the time, stated that a single or multiple preemptive nuclear strikes against an aggressor in a conventional war ensures “that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia.” This strategy of using the threat of or actual use of nuclear weapons in conventional conflict is known as “escalate to de-escalate.”

In order to maintain this policy of “escalate to de-escalate,” Russia has been aggressively modernizing its nuclear weapons. According to Amy M. Wolf, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy, “Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces, replacing Soviet-era systems with new missiles, submarines and aircraft while developing new types of delivery systems.” As a response, nuclear weapon modernization has become one of the US Department of Defenses’ top priorities.

Russia’s willingness to use modernized nuclear technology in conventional and unconventional situations underscores the importance of the US and their allies to remain vigilant in preparing for potential conflict with Russia. The world must be prepared for Russia to potentially make the first nuclear strike in a conflict and be ready to respond accordingly.

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