Russia could decide to use nuclear weapons if the existence of the regime is threatened - SAB

  • 2023-04-26
  • LETA/TBT Staff

RIGA, April 26 (LETA) - The scenarios in which Russia could decide on the decision to use nuclear weapons are if the existence of Vladimir Putin's regime is threatened or if essential Russian "red lines" are violated, for example, Ukraine launches a counter-attack to liberate Crimea, the Constitutional Protection Bureau (SAB) noted in its latest informative and analytical reported.

Since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, much public attention has been paid to Russia's nuclear policy.

The SAB's observations show that Russia periodically intensifies its nuclear rhetoric during periods of escalating military tensions in Ukraine or in response to unfavorable events or decisions that affect Russia's interests. Shortly after the start of the invasion in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced the introduction of a “special regime of combat duty” in Russia's nuclear forces.

While this message created widespread resonance in the international community, no actions indicated an increased readiness of Russia to use its nuclear weapons. Russia’s armed forces involved in the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons did not carry out activities outside their usual standard procedures or routines. For the most part, the identified actions involved additional staffing in the units of the armed forces involved in combat duty.

Consequently, as in other similar cases, the main purpose of this declaration was to intimidate the Western states and demonstrate Russia’s strength, especially as Russia’s military was failing to achieve success on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Similarly, the recent announcement by Russia on the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus should be looked at as primarily a political signal. Russia has already deployed weapons systems in Kaliningrad Oblast, such as the Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems, warplanes, and hypersonic ballistic missiles Kinzhal, that have tactical capabilities for carrying out a nuclear attack.

Therefore, this decision is primarily motivated by political rather than tactical military considerations, as a response to the Western countries' policy towards Russia, including Sweden's and Finland's decision to join the NATO alliance, the SAB explains.

Russian officials have been indicating their readiness to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus since 2022, if Sweden and Finland were to go through with this decision. Meanwhile, the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus would serve as another step towards further integrating Belarus into Russia's sphere of influence.

A no less important objective for Russia's active use of nuclear threats is to force Ukraine to make concessions to its demands and to deter retaliation against Russia’s annexed territories. However, Russia may be aware that it is not an effective strategy, as demonstrated by Ukraine's liberation of Kherson during its counterattack in the summer of 2022, the SAB points out.

In the foreseeable future, Russia is likely to maintain its use of nuclear blackmail rhetoric, which SAB views as a desperate measure it resorts to during moments of failure. If Ukraine effectively executes its planned counter-offensive, it is expected that Russia will further reinforce its nuclear rhetoric.

The SAB points out that despite Russia's statements, the probability that Russia would resort to the use of nuclear weapons remains low. Such a decision carries an immense risk for Russia and would completely isolate it from its allies such as China and India. Currently, SAB has not observed any indicators that would suggest Russia's readiness to take such an extreme step in its invasion of Ukraine, and it is considered a highly unlikely scenario in the near future.

Russia is likely aware that the use of nuclear weapons would be the final option available to it, after which there would be no turning back in Ukraine. Although the ongoing hostilities are not proceeding as planned, Russia still has other tools at its disposal to pursue its objectives in Ukraine.

However, under certain circumstances, Russia could decide in favor of the use of nuclear weapons. The military doctrine of the Russian Federation (last edition approved in 2021) and the 2020 presidential order titled “Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence” provide the framework for the use of nuclear weapons in various scenarios by Russia, the SAB emphasizes.

These documents outline Russia's nuclear military doctrine and the criteria that must be met for Russia to decide on the use of its nuclear weapons.

First, a nuclear response would follow in a situation where an adversary uses nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies.

Second, the nuclear strike may be used as a response to a missile attack targeting the Russian Federation, including a conventional strike that could prevent Russia from using its nuclear weapons arsenal and pose an existential threat to Russia.

Third, Russian nuclear weapons can be used as a response to a conventional attack or war that could threaten the very existence of the state.

The SAB explains that these criteria for the use of nuclear weapons are often referred to by Russian officials in their public messaging. However, it should be noted that Russia's publicly available documents outlining its nuclear strategy and behavior are intentionally vague, allowing for broad interpretations.

This ambiguity is designed to create uncertainty around the specific scenarios and circumstances that could trigger Russia's use of nuclear weapons, sowing doubt in the thinking of potential adversaries. In Russia's view, the primary function of nuclear weapons is their psychological impact.

By raising the stakes and demonstrating its willingness to use nuclear weapons, Russia seeks to influence a potential adversary's behavior and achieve its objectives without the need to resort to the use of military force.

In the SAB's assessment, Russia could potentially decide on the use of nuclear weapons in a scenario where the Putin regime is threatened or major Russia’s “red lines” are crossed, such as Ukraine launching a counterattack to reclaim Crimea.

Russia views conventional and nuclear weapons as complementary components of its deterrence strategy. Strategic deterrence, in Russia's perspective, is a comprehensive concept that incorporates non-military and military measures to influence the decision-making of adversaries.

Therefore, in Russia's military doctrine, the use of tactical nuclear weapons is not only considered a last resort but can also be utilized to achieve certain strategic and operational goals, the SAB admits.

Regarding the use of nuclear weapons, the management of Russian escalation can be divided into three phases: demonstration of force, adequate use of force and full-scale use of force.

The phase of force demonstration includes measures for escalation management, to be implemented in both peacetime and as military threat levels increase. The aim of this phase is to showcase Russia's capabilities and readiness to exercise military force, both through demonstrative military activities and other measures in the informative, political or economic dimensions.

It may include measures such as increasing the combat readiness of nuclear forces, visible movement of forces, implementing snap military exercises, transporting nuclear weapons (warheads) to potential launch areas, weapons testing and demonstrative use of nuclear weapons.

The final step of this phase involves a demonstration of nuclear capability. This entails use of nuclear weapons in conditions that do not cause harm, such as detonation at sea or in a widely uninhabited area, to signal Russia’s intent to use nuclear weapons against the adversary's targets. This action aims to pressure the adversary to take appropriate de-escalating measures to avoid further conflict, the SAB explains.

Next is the adequate use of force phase, which entails the potential actions in the situation of manageable military threat. At this stage, Russia recognizes that a nuclear attack may be carried out against specific targets to achieve the opponent's concessions and prevent further escalation of the situation.

In Russia's strategic thinking, potential targets for such an attack can include both military and critical civilian infrastructure objects, such as power stations, important transport infrastructure, industrial facilities important to the military industry, communication infrastructure, and the like.

According to Russian doctrine, the last phase is the full-scale use of force. In this phase, strategic nuclear weapons would be employed on a large scale to inflict unbearable damage on an adversary. This phase is considered the last resort to be used when a solution by any other means can no longer be achieved and when the very existence of the Russian state is threatened.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that these escalation steps serve only as guidelines for decision-makers in the Russia’s political and military elite. Although specific criteria are employed to determine the level of escalation required, it is possible that, in certain cases, Russian decision-makers may opt for alternative solutions.

The use of nuclear weapons involves implementation of specific procedures that require multiple levels of decision-making. While the Russian President has the ultimate authority to make the decision on the use of nuclear weapons, it must also be confirmed by the Russian Defense Minister and the Chief of the General Staff of Russia.

After a nuclear attack is ordered, it goes through several levels of decision-making where the order's mission is specified and verified.

Additionally, it is important to note that human factors may play a role in this process, as the use of nuclear weapons involves numerous manual activities. From a practical perspective, transportation of nuclear warheads from warehouses to the potential launch sites would take a certain amount of time, that could prove to be enough for other countries to respond and take preemptive measures, the SAB concludes.

The SAB points out that it cannot be entirely ruled out that Russia may consider the use of nuclear weapons in certain scenarios to intimidate Western nations, force Ukraine into negotiations or weaken Ukraine's resolve to resist. 

However, currently SAB has not detected any indicators suggesting Russia’s readiness to take such a step amid its invasion of Ukraine. It is unlikely that Russia will resort to such drastic measures in the near future.