And Russia’s War on Ukraine
By Dr. Pavel K. Baev, nonresident senior fellow, the Brookings Institution, and research professor, Peace Research Institute Oslo
Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are a major enigma in the constantly evolving war in Ukraine. At the very start of the ill-planned invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the West with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history” if they tried to stand in Russia’s way. He has resorted to similar threats several times during the course of the war, each time producing a spike in speculations by agitated commentators about the possibility of a nuclear strike and raising concerns among policymakers. In February 2023, a year after invading Ukraine, Putin suspended Moscow’s participation in New START, the last remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control treaty. Moscow’s real readiness to cross the nuclear threshold remains, nevertheless, much lower than this irresponsible discourse asserts, and no material preparations for a first strike have been detected. However, the nuclear dimension of this complex and far-from-deadlocked war still requires sustained analytical attention.
Issues with the strategic triad
The official Russian nuclear discourse, framed by several doctrinal documents and elaborated in many statements and presidential remarks, focuses primarily on the strategic offensive capabilities presented as the ultimate guarantee of Russia’s sovereignty. In a guideline-setting presentation at the Defense Ministry Board on December 21, 2022, Putin again emphasized the commitment to “improving the combat readiness of the nuclear triad,” which the Kremlin said would guarantee “strategic parity and general balance of forces in the world.” Modernization of the land-, sea- and air-based strategic weapons systems is indeed the priority in the current State Armament Program (GPV-2027, approved in 2018), as it was in the previous one (GPV-2020, approved in 2011). Putin brags about superior strategic arms so often that analogov nyet (meaning, “they have nothing comparable”) has become a meme in Russian urban folklore. He found it opportune to point out in the previously mentioned speech the forthcoming combat deployment of the Sarmat (RS-28 or SS-X-30) heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, one of the “wonder weapons” he proudly presented during his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly.
These massive investments pay scant, if any, dividends in the real war as the Borei-class submarines (the most expensive project in the GPV-2027) or the promised Sarmat (tested only once) are unsuitable for delivering a limited strike on Ukraine, and every launch is monitored by the United States’ early warning system. Such a strike doesn’t fit into the set of propositions that shape the strategy of escalation management, vague as it is, according to the Center for Naval Analysis, a nonprofit research group. The Russian high command may assume that these capabilities deter NATO from direct interference in the Ukraine war, but such deterrence could have been achieved with a smaller and much less expensive strategic arsenal within the concept of “reasonable sufficiency.”
One component of the strategic triad is nevertheless widely and routinely used in the war: long-range aviation. This is, in fact, Russia’s least-modernized strategic capability. The development of the new-generation PAK-DA bomber by the Tupolev design bureau (funded since 2008) is indefinitely delayed, defense technology analyst Alex Hollings reported in 2021. The Tu-95MS and the Tu-160 strategic bombers, and the Tu-22M3 long-range bombers (technically not counted as a strategic platform), have been delivering missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure without entering its airspace. The International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) reports that the precision and effectiveness of the long-range Kh-101 and Kh-22/32 cruise missiles are highly uncertain; many strikes are launched from above the Caspian Sea, which can conceal any misfiring missiles. On several occasions, Kh-55 cruise missiles, designed for carrying nuclear warheads, were used as dummies without explosive payload in order to saturate Ukrainian air defenses.
These persistent attacks make the launch bases legitimate targets for Ukrainian counterstrikes, and on December 5, 2022, the Engels air base (where the regiments of Tu-95MS and Tu-160 are based) and the Dyagilevo air base (where the regiment of Tu-22M3 was based) were hit by Ukrainian drones. Russian “patriotic” commentators were outraged by these first direct Ukrainian strikes on assets of the strategic forces and demanded severe retribution. The Russian high command preferred, however, to conclude that the Ukrainian attacks didn’t constitute a violation of any red line. On December 26, the Engels base was hit again.
In general, the unprecedented high-intensity use of long-distance aviation in the war has resulted in a significantly degraded air component of the strategic triad because the arsenal of cruise missiles is increasingly exhausted and technical resources for the bombers are greatly depleted.
Nonstrategic nuclear non-options
Moscow remains keen to emphasize the might of its strategic forces, which performed two exercises in 2022 — in February, on the eve of the invasion, and in October — but the sharpest debates among experts and the deepest concerns among policymakers are centered on their nonstrategic capabilities, which are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the official Russian discourse. The rather unusual doctrinal document “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” approved in June 2020, contains no definition of nonstrategic/tactical weapons. Hard data on the number and types of nuclear warheads is not available from open sources, so the figure of 1,500-2,000 munitions — accepted by most observers as a reasonable assessment — remains essentially speculative, according to the Royal United Services Institute think tank. Better data is available on possible delivery systems, but it is generally assumed that many tactical aircraft, naval weapons systems (including the Kalibr cruise missiles) and land-based Iskander missiles are dual-use systems that can be used for nonstrategic strikes.
The only established fact is that all nonstrategic nuclear munitions have been stored in 12 centralized storages supervised by the 12th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry since 1991, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush approved the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI). According to these unilateral and reciprocal commitments, not one nuclear warhead has been attached to a nonstrategic delivery system for more than 30 years, but no verification mechanism has been agreed upon. Evidence on the status of Russian warheads is anecdotal at best. Experts such as Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, tend to believe that if all maintenance protocols are followed, they are ready for combat use should such an order be issued. It is, however, entirely possible that Russia’s storage facilities for nuclear warheads are in the same disrepair as those used for its conventional arsenals, and it is certain that not a single officer in Russia’s air force or navy has first-hand experience in handling nuclear munitions.
It stands to reason (to the degree reason is applicable to decisions about nuclear weapons use) that preparations for the combat use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons would begin with a test, which would not signify a step over the nuclear threshold but would provide for necessary training — and constitute a strong signal in itself. Russia’s Novaya Zemlya test site has seen many extraordinary experiments — from the above-surface detonation of the so-called Tsar-Bomba munition estimated at 50 megatons in 1961 to the failed test of the Burevestnik nuclear-propelled cruise missile in 2018 — but currently there are no signs of preparations for new nuclear tests. Neither are there any detectable signs of preparations for unsealing one or more of the centralized storage facilities holding nonstrategic munitions (of particular concern is the Belgorod-22 site, just 30 kilometers from the border with Ukraine), or the training of personnel for operating dual-use weapons systems with nuclear warheads, writes defense expert Uri Friedman in The Atlantic magazine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka has, on several occasions, expressed readiness to host and train his forces for the use of nuclear weapons, but no physical movements of warheads has been reported.
Experience accumulated in the course of multiple Russian missile attacks provides some data for working assumptions on the means of delivering a nuclear strike on Ukraine, particularly in the hypothetical case of a political decision relating to nuclear escalation. An attack from the sea by Kalibr cruise missiles is quite improbable because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet does not have the storage capability for nuclear warheads, and transporting them into Crimea would involve an extremely complicated logistical operation. The easiest technical solution is to attach a nuclear warhead to the Kh-102 cruise missile at the Engels air base and launch it from the Tu-95MS bomber; however, Ukrainian air defenses have reportedly intercepted more than two-thirds of such missiles in the recurrent attacks, so the probability of a successful strike is low. Russian officials claim that the new hypersonic missile Kh-47M2 Kinzhal was used three times with complete success (the MiG-31K tactical aircraft is the usual platform), and the proven impossibility of an intercept makes it a perfect delivery system for a nuclear strike, writes Hollings, the defense technology analyst. The track record of operation is, however, still rather short, and there were reports of at least one misfire that fell onto Russian territory. Additionally, the performance of Russian aerospace forces is deteriorating rather than improving during this protracted war, and the risk of a human error or a technical accident during the complex operation necessary to make a single nuclear strike has to be factored as very (but perhaps not prohibitively) high in any practical strategic planning by the high command in Moscow.
The crucial question in such planning regards the impact of a single nonstrategic nuclear strike, and it is remarkable that Russian scientists have argued that there could be no sound rationale for crossing the nuclear threshold. These opinions may matter little in military calculations that are focused on the scale of physical damage to enemy forces. Under this rationale, a concentrated grouping of Ukrainian troops preparing for a major offensive could constitute a useful target. In previous successful offensive operations, however, the Ukrainian forces have been quite fluid and dispersed over a large area, and the Russian command typically hasn’t had reliable and timely intelligence about their enemy’s preparations. A demonstrative strike on an empty space — for instance, in the middle of the Black Sea — might produce plenty of environmental damage and result in international repercussions as well, while a nuclear strike on an urban center may generate a sequence of painfully punishing Western responses, meaning there is no option for Moscow that has a useful cost-benefit balance.
Shifting parameters of mutual deterrence
In a kinetic war involving a nuclear and a nonnuclear state, the model of deterrence is generally not applicable. But the Ukraine war is far more complex than this elementary scheme, and both Russia and the U.S.-led Western coalition apply methods and means of deterrence, albeit toward different aims and in dissimilar modes. For the West, the pivotal goal is to deter a nuclear escalation of the war. For Russia, the two interconnected goals are to limit the material scope of Western support for Ukraine and to foster disagreements in the Western coalition. Ukraine is certainly not a passive object in this asymmetric mutual deterrence, and it is not only putting pressure on the West for more support, but also deliberately crossing presumed Russian red lines in order to undercut its deterrence posture. In the most general terms, it is possible to establish that as of the start of 2023, the West’s deterrence policy has been far more successful than Russia’s.
This is not to say that Russian deterrence of Western support for Ukraine has yielded no fruit. From the very beginning of the war, the risk of nuclear escalation and the assessments of Putin’s inclinations to take this risk have shaped considerations — in key European capitals as well as in Washington — that informed decision-making on the specific content of military aid to Ukraine. For that matter, with all the transformative change of Germany’s policy toward Russia, captured by the Zeitenwende notion (the foreign policy shift announced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February 2022), its government hesitated until the last possible moment to approve the delivery of Leopard-2 main battle tanks. What is of crucial importance, however, is the clear trend in providing the Ukrainian army more efficient and longer-range weapons systems, which Western leaders no longer deem “provocative.” The strongest manifestation of this trend was the U.S. decision to supply four batteries of the M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), and U.S. President Joe Biden’s commitment to deliver the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which was swiftly approved by the U.S. Congress.
The diminishing effectiveness of Russian deterrence policy can be attributed to two undermining elements, the first of which is the deliberate and determined Ukrainian rejection of attempts to constrain its military options. The missile strike on the Saki air base in Crimea in early August 2022 was followed by the penetrating drone attack (aerial and maritime) on the Sevastopol naval base in late October and by the previously mentioned strikes on strategic air bases in early December, creating a pattern of legitimate targeting of Russian military assets far from the immediate combat area. The explosion on the Kerch bridge on October 8, 2022, and a more recent strike on August 12, 2023, stand out in this pattern as acts of sabotage, rather than military strikes, but they can be put in the same category with the explosion on the Veretye air base in the Pskov region of Russia, which destroyed two Ka-52 helicopters. Ukrainian forces — defying U.S. warnings — made a high-precision strike on the Russian command center near Izium in eastern Ukraine where Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, was holding a conference in early May 2022, and followed up with a strike that wounded Dmitry Rogozin, former deputy prime minister of Russia, in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in December 2022.
The second deterrence-undermining element is Russia’s reluctance, or perhaps inability, to support aggressive rhetoric with action involving nuclear munitions. No unusual activity around the nuclear storage sites (including Belgorod-22) has been detected, and no special training of personnel has been reported, while the ground troops are entirely unprepared for fighting on a nuclear battlefield, according to an October 2022 report by the IISS. No military exercises involving a simulated nuclear detonation have been staged, and the Vostok-2022 exercise was reduced in scale (compared with the Vostok-2018 and the Zapad-2021 exercises) and entirely conventional. Moscow could have announced cancellation of the PNI from 1991, restricting the deployment of nonstrategic nuclear warheads, or withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which has never entered into force because the U.S. and China didn’t ratify it, but neither démarche has occurred. The annexation of four Ukrainian regions announced by Putin in September 2022 and accomplished in great haste was supposed to alter the context of the “special operation” so that every Ukrainian advance could be qualified as a breach of Russia’s territorial integrity, but the retreat from Kherson signified the essential irrelevance of that supposed redrawing of borders. Instead of extending nuclear deterrence, Putin has effectively annulled the commitment of protecting Russia’s sovereignty by nuclear means.
Implications and prospects
The nuclear dimension of the Ukraine war demands sustained attention, and the fact that Putin’s nuclear bluff was called repeatedly during its first year doesn’t diminish this imperative. The decision to launch the invasion was ill-considered and the invasion itself poorly prepared and amounted to a strategic blunder of such astounding proportions that a mind-boggling decision on crossing the nuclear threshold cannot be ruled out as a mistake too far. Some reassurance can be found in the notable reduction of nuclear rhetoric in Moscow by the end of 2022 and into the beginning of 2023. Western practitioners of deterrence can perhaps attribute this sobering to their firm stance and confidential messaging of the inevitable consequences for Russia of a nuclear escalation. The exact content of the signals delivered — for instance, by U.S. CIA Director Bill Burns to Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s SVR spy agency — remains secret, but the outburst of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against the alleged U.S. threats of a “decapitation strike” directed personally at Putin may provide some insight into this diplomatic dissuasion. Putin’s bitter invectives against the West in his 2023 New Year’s address may implicitly confirm that the direct U.S. warnings have registered.
China has made one important contribution to the combination of deterrence and dissuasion designed to prevent nuclear escalation, and Western politicians, including Biden, have put much effort into encouraging this contribution. China’s ambivalent stance on Putin’s decision to start the war in Ukraine and on bringing it to an end generates much anxiety in Moscow, and the opinion unambiguously expressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding the unacceptability of nuclear threats certainly carries much weight. Chinese experts and commentators have avoided elaborations on this opinion of Xi’s and have prefered to express confidence that this stance would not damage the friendship between the two leaders. What is essential, nevertheless, is that the understanding between China and the U.S.-led Western coalition on the need to impress upon Putin the unacceptability of nuclear blackmail can be cultivated and strengthened, even if the economic disconnect progresses and tensions in the Indo-Pacific region rise.
Overall, the experience of managing the confrontation with Russia, in the course of the evolving war in Ukraine, informs Western policy planners that a carefully constructed and constantly updated combination of material means and political communications can effectively deter Russian leadership from resorting to nuclear weapons. Each of Putin’s supposed red lines, drawn to constrain Western support for Ukraine, has proved to be false, so this metaphor can be discarded as a misleading analytical construct. Every new Ukrainian success on the road to victory, to which the Western coalition remains committed, will trigger a new surge of desire in the Kremlin to change the unfavorable course of the war by applying nuclear instruments. But a measured and determined Western response, preferably backed by corresponding signaling from Beijing, can prevent this urge from materializing in a nuclear attack. Internalizing the defeat is certain to be a painful process for Russia, but deterrence remains the only reliable strategy for checking crises that could culminate in nuclear disaster.