#act power thursdays: The razor-sharp logic behind Russia’s nuclear theatrics


Topol-M (SS 27) ICBM
TEL with presumably Yars
transport-launch container during the first rehearsal for
the Victory Day Parade at the training ground in Alabino, 2012
(Vitaly V Kuzmin).

In this week dedicated to nuclear weapons, #act power thursdays continues to probe
Russia’s military doctrine as a case study for ably forging and
wielding power instruments. Last week, we had an initial look at what
could be called the Gerasimov
, effectively blurring the lines between war and peace, between
tactics and strategy, and between offense and defense, with an
emphasis on speed of operations and the linking of a wide array of
theaters in which hostilities could take place.

This week’s post on Russian military thinking ponders the
question what role nuclear weapons play in Russia’s strategic
posture aimed at breaking out of the security architecture
that surrounds it, trying to break it in the process.

As per current official doctrine and pronouncements, the nuclear
element in Russian military strategy is significant. On the one hand,
it is seen as a guarantee for regime survival, if need be, by
striking first. On the other hand, current Russian nuclear theatrics
– increasingly threatening sounding statements, snap or other
nuclear exercises, announcements of new weapon programs, violations
of arms control agreements…) ably serve the purpose of
destabilising its main military adversary, NATO.


A timeline of Russian military exercises with nuclear elements,
from 1999 to February 2015, courtesy of the National
Institute for Public Policy

As I have stated in yesterdays #learn
power wednesdays’
post, thinking about nuclear weapons seems to
be in dangerous short supply these days. Europeans especially have
long been side-lining the question. But is their stance, deterrence
with the help of a limited number of nuclear weapons to defend “vital
interests”, still suitable in our current strategic context? It now
appears it isn’t, as Russia’s words and deeds are putting the
nuclear question front and centre within NATO – much to everyone’s
dismay, it seems.

Just to lighten up the atmosphere, let’s watch the clip below
from “Yes, Prime Minister”, The
Grand Design

The whole thing sounds eerily familiar, no? Good to know that
salami tactics existed even 20 years ago.

Here is what Jonathan Solomon, author for Survival writes
on Russia’s behavior and NATO’s response:

Even after the events of the past two years, not to
mention Russia’s 2007 ‘suspension’ of fulfilling its
responsibilities under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty
regime, 2008 invasion of Georgia, 2009
and 2013
simulated nuclear attacks against NATO and EU countries, and
post-2013 pairings of increasingly belligerent rhetoric with multiple
opaque ‘snap’ mobilisations of forces along Europe’s periphery,
a divide persisted in the Alliance. Some countries were eager to
avoid provoking Moscow or to maintain lucrative relations with
Russian businesses; others took this Russian behaviour to signify a
new and perilously deep hostility towards the West. The meticulous
diplomacy of those who assembled the Alliance’s new consensus
should be applauded.

So in translation, Russia managed to split the Alliance in its
response to Russia’s provocations, and reflections as to how to
deter Russia from potentially attacking neighbouring NATO members –
i.e., finding the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and
missile defence capabilities – has only just begun in earnest. Here
is what NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg had to say to Russia
at this year’s Security Conference in Munich. He explicitly
mentioned nuclear weapons, as well as highlighting the alliance’s

At our summit in Warsaw in July, I expect NATO Heads of
State to decide to further strengthen the Alliance’s defence and

Our deterrence also has a nuclear component.

Russia’s rhetoric, posture and exercises of its nuclear
forces are aimed at intimidating its neighbours. Undermining trust
and stability in Europe.

For NATO, the circumstances in which any use of nuclear
weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. But no
one should think that nuclear weapons can be used as part of a
conventional conflict. It would change the nature of any conflict

NATO has continued to reduce the number of our nuclear
weapons. We keep them safe, secure and effective. For deterrence and
to preserve the peace. Not for coercion or intimidation.

In response to Russia’s actions, we are significantly
strengthening our defence and deterrence. Some are concerned that we
are sleepwalking towards escalation with Russia. I understand those
concerns, but I do not share them.  

We strive for a more constructive and cooperative
relationship with Russia.  

We see defence and dialogue as complementary.  

Will a joint, credible stance emerge fast enough?

For the moment, the razor-sharp logic behind Russian nuclear
theatrics is paying off. But it is a risky gamble. In a climate of heightening tensions and increasingly blurred doctrinal lines, there is a real possibility for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. One cannot always
count on a
Vasili Arhkipov
or a Stanislav
not to pull the trigger.

Johanna M

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