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The great debate over Russian nuclear doctrine

The great debate over Russian nuclear doctrine
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The great debate among U.S. analysts over Russian nuclear doctrine, and how worrisome its threat may be, finally has been resolved — and the hawks win.

During the Cold War decades and afterwards, military “hawks” and “doves” argued over Russian thinking and planning for nuclear war. 

The doves — usually liberals, anti-nuclear academics or State Department bureaucrats — argued  that Russia views nuclear weapons just as we do. Doves said both Moscow and Washington understand nuclear weapons are instruments of last resort, so destructive as to be practically unusable and only for deterrence, not warfighting. Therefore, according to doves, the U.S. should not worry so much about Russian nuclear threats and refrain from building up nuclear weapons and strategic defenses, because this provokes costly, unnecessary, potentially dangerous arms-racing.

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Hawks — usually conservatives, think tank academics or Defense Department bureaucrats — argued that Russia views nuclear weapons differently from us. Hawks said Russia sees nuclear weapons as just another instrument of warfare, does not have an uncrossable “bright line” between conventional and nuclear conflict, and might well launch a nuclear surprise attack. Therefore, according to hawks, the U.S. should engage in arms-racing to prevent Moscow from gaining any real or perceived numerical or technological advantage in nuclear weapons that could tempt Russian aggression.

Now the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is supposed to be nonpartisan but has been on the dovish side of the debate, appears to have begrudgingly surrendered (without admitting it) to the hawks. The surrender is reflected in two new CRS reports by Andrew Bowen (“Russian Armed Forces: Military Doctrine and Strategy”) and Amy Woolf (“Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization”). 

Bowen sets up a hawk straw man so he can pretend to knock it down later, stating that “many analysts assert that Russia maintains an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, where Russia might threaten the use of nuclear weapons early in a crisis if it risked losing a conflict.” In fact, Russian nuclear doctrine provides for not merely threatening but actually using nuclear weapons early in a crisis or conflict — not just to avoid losing but to win from the outset through “shock and awe.” 

Bowen then offers a “rebuttal” to the above, but it doesn’t sound very dovish: “Other analysts contend, however, that this explicit policy [‘escalate to de-escalate’] does not exist. They note that Russian military doctrine focuses on escalation management rather than thresholds for nuclear use and escalation control. Additionally, Russian doctrine gives policymakers flexibility in identifying the type and nature of its responses and does not exclude possible use of NSNW [non-strategic nuclear weapons]. However, damage would be applied progressively and in doses to demonstrate the potential for further punishment and provide incentives for settlement.”

Yet, Bowen’s description of Russian nuclear doctrine is perfectly consistent with the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy as one of Russia’s many possible nuclear warfighting options. His bottom-line: “Accordingly, Russian military doctrine appears to utilize escalation management to control the growth of conflicts, deter outside actors, and support resolutions that are acceptable to Russia.”

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In other words, translating from dovish to more hawkish lingo: Russian military doctrine seeks escalation dominance and use of nuclear weapons in any way necessary to achieve victory. 

Of the original dovish view of Russian nuclear doctrine — that, even for Moscow, nuclear war is “unthinkable” — hardly a feather remains. 

With the June publication of Russia’s “On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence,” and Moscow’s threat that it would view “the launch of any ballistic missile toward Russia as nuclear,” the doves’ goose is cooked.  

Bowen is right that “Russia’s newly published nuclear doctrine notwithstanding, some ambiguous language and the secretive nature of the topic means that analysts continue to debate the true nature of strategic deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in Russian military doctrine.” However, the great debate over Russian nuclear doctrine now appears to be more quibbling over semantics and nuances than real disagreement over substance. Hawks and doves will continue arguing vehemently, despite really agreeing on essentials, because our strategic culture, like everything else, is so polarized.  

For the unadulterated view of Russian nuclear doctrine, read the Russians themselves and Dr. Mark Schneider’s “Russian Nuclear ‘De-Escalation’ of Future War” in the journal Comparative Strategy (March 25, 2019); “Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine” by Glen E. Howard and Matthew Czekaj (Jamestown Foundation, 2019); and Dr. Stephen Blank's 2019 publication, "The Russian Military in Contemporary Perspective."

For doves, the great debate never really was over Russian nuclear doctrine but about stopping U.S. nuclear-weapon modernization, deeply reducing nuclear arsenals and “banning the bomb.”  Doves continue to see nuclear weapons — not Russia — as the real threat.

Doves may now agree that Russian nuclear doctrine is alarming — but do not expect to see a new consensus on modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Some doves already insist that the increasing nuclear threat from Russia, China and North Korea means it is more urgent than ever for the United States to lead toward “a world without nuclear weapons” by setting a good example.

Not too long ago, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on abolishing U.S. nuclear bombers and ICBMs, and reducing ballistic missile submarines from 14 to 6.

Doves may yet get their way, after the 2020 elections.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission and served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA. He is the author of several books on weapons and warfare.