Michael KreponWeapons of Last Resort

Quotes of the week:

“You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there.”  — George Shultz

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.” — Secretary of Defense James Mattis

“Fundamentally, it is unlikely that there is such a thing as a limited nuclear war, and preparing for one is folly.”  — William Perry


The Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi has become a venue for important pronouncements on Russian national security policy. The conference on October 18th was no exception. There, Russian President for-who-knows-how-long Vladimir Putin announced that, “Only when we become convinced that there is an incoming attack on the territory of Russia, and that happens within seconds, only after that we would launch a retaliatory strike.”

To be sure, nuance can be lost when it comes to question and answer sessions on declaratory policy. And Putin’s public statements are often and justifiably met with skepticism. Let us also grant that we who seek to diminish the role that nuclear weapons play in international affairs believe what we want to believe. On the other hand, it’s also true that skeptics of efforts to diminish nuclear dangers by means of diplomacy also believe what they want to believe.

So what are innocent bystanders to do? For a start, listen carefully to what national leaders who are well grounded on strategic matters have to say when it comes to nuclear deterrence. Where top-down decision making is emphatically the rule, what the person on top says matters. And Putin seems to be saying that the narrative now popular among those in the United States who advance the case for new low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons is even weaker than before.

Sure, this may all be a clever plot to undermine funding for new U.S. nuclear options — options that deserve to be axed on their own demerits, regardless of what Putin says. But what if Putin is actually calling attention to something important? What if U.S. advocates of new, low-yield options are mischaracterizing Russian nuclear employment strategy?

The public version of Russia’s nuclear doctrine was last issued in December, 2014. This document says the following:

“The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack on Russia and/or its allies involving the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the existence of the state itself is threatened. Decisions regarding the use of nuclear weapons are made by the President of the Russian Federation.”

Now here’s an unofficial translation of what Putin had to say at Sochi:

“Only when we know for certain – and this takes a few seconds to understand – that Russia is being attacked we will deliver a counter strike. This would be a reciprocal counter strike. Why do I say ‘counter’? Because we will counter missiles flying towards us by sending a missile in the direction of an aggressor. Of course, this amounts to a global catastrophe but I would like to repeat that we cannot be the initiators of such a catastrophe because we have no provision for a pre-emptive strike. Yes, it looks like we are sitting on our hands and waiting until someone uses nuclear weapons against us. Well, yes, this is what it is. But then any aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and they will be annihilated.”

States that do not match up well with the conventional forces of an adversary or states that have obligations of extended deterrence are not likely to embrace No First Use. Putin appears, however, to be moving away from conventional triggers to nuclear first use toward the neighborhood of the “sole purpose” criterion — i.e., that nuclear weapons are to be employed only as a last resort in response to the use of nuclear weapons. Caveats are needed here, and the essay by Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen is as good a place as any to start.

Putin’s latest public formulation is very much like that adopted at the end of the Obama administration. Here’s what Vice President Joe Biden had to say on this subject speaking at the Carnegie Endowment on January 11, 2017:

“In our 2010 Nuclear Posture Review—we made a commitment to create the conditions by which the sole purpose of nuclear weapons would be to deter others from launching a nuclear attack. Accordingly, over the course of our Administration, we have steadily reduced the primacy nuclear weapons have held in our national security policies since World War II—while improving our ability to deter and defeat any adversaries—and reassure our Allies—without reliance on nuclear weapons.

“Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary.  Or make sense.

“President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means… The President and I strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Putin’s remarks at Valdai suggest a narrowing view of the utility of nuclear weapons. Or he may have been disingenuous or using shorthand. Let’s try to find out, or at least gain greater clarity. Putin’s remarks can be the springboard for engaging in a serious discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. and Russian national security policies in upcoming strategic dialogues. His remarks are at odds with notions of escalation across the nuclear threshold in order to de-escalate a conflict, a concept that U.S. deterrence “strengtheners” have seized upon to promote new low-yield warhead options as a counter. I’ve previously noted in this space that the basis for a presumed Russian “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear posture seems shaky: There has been little to suggest that Russian views about nuclear warfare — like those in Soviet times — emulate U.S. deterrence strategists who think in terms of neatly compartmentalized rungs on the ladder of escalation and the possibility of joint choreography to control escalation.

The Trump administration has yet to make a definitive statement in terms of the “sole purpose” of crossing the nuclear threshold. Given Donald Trump’s propensity to shoot from the lip, it might be best if he didn’t expound on nuclear doctrine. Perhaps it would be best that, while U.S. and Russian experts explore matters of nuclear doctrine, he and Putin simply reaffirm the formulation that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed upon — that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. After Trump’s campaign-stop announcement of intent to “terminate” the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a joint statement with Putin that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought would be helpful. The reaffirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev mantra is unlikely to reduce the current slide toward increased nuclear dangers, but its a start.