On June 2, the Kremlin published an unprecedented six-page document entitled Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence. Although this statement of Russia’s official position on nuclear deterrence policy does not overturn current military doctrine, it is notable for identifying the range of threats that Russia seeks to deter with its nuclear forces, clarifying Russia’s approach to nuclear deterrence, and articulating the conditions under which Moscow might escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Given Russia’s nuclear stockpile of approximately 4,310 warheads and the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West, such issues are vital to global peace and security.
The set of public statements, or declaratory policy, on nuclear deterrence matters — especially for American analysts — because it gives insight into how the role of Russian nuclear weapons has evolved over time in response to technological innovation, international challenges to the security of Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, and internal debates in Moscow over the details of military policy and how best to ensure a credible nuclear deterrent posture. Despite sharing some similarities with the deterrence policies of the United States — such as maintaining a nuclear triad to address threats to the survivability of land-based forces and considering limited nuclear options to deter further escalation or de-escalate a conflict — important elements of Russia’s approach to nuclear deterrence are unique.
Analysts should read Principles of State Policy extremely carefully and with a Russian lens. Importantly, Russia experts should appreciate that Moscow is animated by a persistent fear that Washington seeks to neutralize Russia’s strategic deterrent. As a result, the military is fixated on preemption to prevent a disabling first strike, even as the political leadership has traditionally resisted pre-delegating nuclear authority. The document also shows that Russian nuclear doctrine has focused more on ensuring deterrence and less on nuclear coercion for aggressive aims.