Russia’s Low Threshold For Nuclear Weapons Use Detailed In New Report

Leaked documents indicate Russia’s threshold for employing tactical nuclear weapons is significantly lower than previously thought, according to a new report. The Russian Navy losing a fifth of its ballistic missile submarines or even three cruisers might be enough to trigger such a response. The documents also point to continued Russian planning around a potential conflict with China, despite the strengthening of relations between the two countries in recent decades.

The Financial Times newspaper in the United Kingdom published its report earlier today, which it said was based on information found in “29 secret Russian military files drawn up between 2008 and 2014, including scenarios for war-gaming and presentations for naval officers, which discuss operating principles for the use of nuclear weapons.” The outlet said it was shown the documents, which reportedly focus more specifically on tactical nuclear weapon employment, by unnamed “western sources.”

Russia’s Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile can carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead and is among the country’s available tactical nuclear weapons. Vitaly Kuzmin via Wikimedia

Concerns about the exact circumstances under which Russia’s government might launch a nuclear strike, especially one involving the use of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, are hardly new. Fears about the willingness of Russian authorities to pursue a so-called escalate-to-deescalate strategy, which would consist of launching a limited nuclear strike — even one resulting in very minimal damage — in an attempt to freeze a conflict and thus manipulate its outcome in Moscow’s favor, have only become more pronounced since the country’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The U.S. government has generally assessed that Russia has up to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in recent years. This is in addition to its strategic nuclear weapons, such as road-mobile and silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Its tactical nuclear stockpile is understood to include a variety of air, sea, and ground-launched weapons, including, but not limited to short-range ballistic missiles, air-dropped gravity bombs, torpedos, and artillery shells. The Russian military even reportedly has nuclear land mines.

A NATO infographic discussing Russian tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, including land mines, which the alliance assessed to be “deployed” (that is to say available for operational use) as of 2020. NATO

One of the leaked documents the Financial Times reviewed was a “training presentation for naval officers” that “outlines broader criteria for a potential nuclear strike, including an enemy landing on Russian territory, the defeat of units responsible for securing border areas, or an imminent enemy attack using conventional weapons,” according to the new report. “The slides summarise the threshold as a combination of factors where losses suffered by Russian forces ‘would irrevocably lead to their failure to stop major enemy aggression’, a ‘critical situation for the state security of Russia’.”

This is relatively in line with public statements from the Russian government in the past about what could trigger a nuclear strike. Writing on X, Pavel Podvig, an independent expert on Russian nuclear forces and doctrine, noted that “in 2008 the doctrine allowed to use nuclear weapons ‘in situations critical to the national security of Russia'” but “that was changed in 2010 to a ‘threat to the very existence of the state.'”

However, the Financial Times‘ piece says the leaked documents provide additional specific details that point to lower Russian thresholds for tactical nuclear weapon use than have been previously understood, at least publicly. They also reportedly speak directly to escalate-to-deescalate-type strategies.

“Other potential conditions include the destruction of 20 percent of Russia’s strategic ballistic missile submarines, 30 percent of its nuclear-powered attack submarines, three or more cruisers, three airfields, or a simultaneous hit on main and reserve coastal command centers,” according to the story. “Russia’s military is also expected to be able to use tactical nuclear weapons for a broad array of goals, including ‘containing states from using aggression […] or escalating military conflicts’, ‘stopping aggression’, preventing Russian forces from losing battles or territory, and making Russia’s navy ‘more effective’.”

The video below shows three of Russia’s ballistic missile submarines surfacing in the Arctic during an exercise in 2021.

The Financial Times says another one of the documents lays out a notional scenario involving authorization to use tactical nuclear weapons in response to an attack from China. “The order has been given by the commander-in-chief . . . to use nuclear weapons . . . in the event the enemy deploys second-echelon units and the South [said to be a stand-in for China] threatens to attack further in the direction of the main strike,” the document said, per the report.

Russia and China have a complicated history amid often competing interests in Asia and beyond. This includes a shooting war between what was then the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China over a border dispute in 1969. Military and other ties between the two countries have steadily strengthened since the end of the Cold War and Beijing has become an especially critical international partner for Moscow in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly before the invasion in 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that his nation’s partnership with Russia had “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Altogether, the Financial Times‘ new report shows that “Russian doctrine for the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons by the Russian Navy includes a much lower threshold for nuclear use than previously thought, and far lower than the Kremlin has claimed in the years since the end of the Cold War,” William Alberque, the director of Strategy, Technology, and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank wrote on X.

From the reported details in the leaked documents, “Russia’s naval nuclear doctrine is consistent with its very real shortcomings and precarious position compared to the US Navy, therefore integrating nuclear planning at lower levels, giving commanders wide targeting flexibility after initial nuclear use,” Alberque added.

Other experts have said leaked documents that the Financial Times was able to review appear to be significant, but have cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from what has been reported so far.

The Financial Times unfortunately does not make the documents available, so it’s hard to understand who produced it and what authority they had,” Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) think tank, told The War Zone. “It’s difficult to ascertain how operational those nuclear thresholds are, whether they are actually embedded into Russian nuclear strategy, or whether they reflect the views and work of the military officers.”

“It is also difficult to figure out if the mentioning of for example sinking three cruisers as a threshold for triggering nuclear use is [a] separate scenario or part of a broader scenario. I can’t imagine [that] all it takes for Russia to use nuclear weapons is that someone sinks three cruisers,” Kristensen added, noting that Ukraine sunk Russia’s Slava class cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea in 2022.

A picture of the Russian Navy’s Slava class cruiser Moskva severely damaged in the Black Sea after a Ukrainian anti-ship missile strike in 2022. The ship subsequently sank. via X

Kristensen further highlighted that the scenarios outlined in the Financial Times piece, even those with the potential for an escalate-to-deescalate strategy, all involve a response to attacks on Russia itself. Discussions about escalate-to-deescalate in the past have typically revolved around Russia’s use of such a strategy to prevent the irrevocable failure of intervention outside of the country’s borders, such as its ongoing war in Ukraine or a theoretical land-grab in the Baltics.

“Some of it may be new to the public debate but the intelligence community has obviously known about this for years,” he added. “The conditions for Russian nuclear use have been described for years.”

Kristensen specifically pointed to a 2020 study on this topic from the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a U.S. government-funded nonprofit research and analysis organization. The study concluded, in part, that “questions persist about Russia’s deterrence concepts, a potentially changed nuclear threshold, or plans to employ nuclear weapons in conflict” but that “recent Western discourse about Russian thought on escalation management has come to be defined by simplistic and erroneous terms, such as ‘escalate to de-escalate.’ In reality, Russian military thought on escalation management is far more complex.”

Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher on weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, made similar comments on X.

“We have a ‘training presentation’ for naval officers… But who gave the presentation? With what purpose? To which audience? We don’t know,” Baklitskiy wrote. “The article says nothing about the pre-delegation of use, so this could bу just, ‘Here are some signs to watch for, if they happen – an order can come from Moscow for a nuclear use’ or even ‘Here is how we think a nuclear war might start.'”

The Russian government has, unsurprisingly, cast aspersions on the Financial Times story and the authenticity of the documents it cites, but without providing any real details to challenge the reporting. Russia’s President Putin has publicly threatened or appeared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons over Western support for Ukraine on multiple occasions since February 2022. More recently Putin and other Russian government officials have seemed to have backed away from such rhetoric, letting others in the country rattle the nuclear saber instead.

The Russian government also deployed nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus last year, some of which Belarusian authorities now say they are capable of employing themselves.

“The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation between China and Russia has legally established the concept of eternal friendship and non-enmity between the two countries,” a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry also told the Financial Times. “The ‘threat theory’ has no market in China and Russia.”

This news also comes at a time of heightened concerns about Russian nuclear policies in general. Earlier this month, it emerged that the U.S. government has intelligence about Russia’s development of a new space-based anti-satellite weapon. This system reportedly has a nuclear aspect and could involve the deployment of nuclear weapons in orbit. American authorities do not assess that Russia has deployed any such a system, but have described this development as a serious national security threat. You can read more about what such a system might entrail and the serious implications it could pose in The War Zone‘s past reporting.

Satellites in space

All told, while questions certainly remain, the Financial Times report still offers an interesting new window into Russia’s nuclear doctrine, and its plans and thresholds for the employment of tactical nuclear weapons specifically.

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