Putin elaborates on a positive step in Russian nuclear doctrine

For those who pay attention to the complexities and absurdities of “strategic weapons” theory and nuclear doctrine, in October 2018 Russian president Vladimir Putin made some noteworthy declarations about Russia’s policy for the use of nuclear weapons. If one can accept the reality that nuclear weapons are not going to be abolished in the short term, one can focus on the policies that could prevent the worst from happening. Experts and activists in this field put pressure on the nuclear powers to do such things as:

1. take their missiles off high alert status (ready to launch at any time on short notice)
2. restrict the authority of one or a few individuals to initiate a nuclear war (obviously related to item 1 above because high alert status requires a decision to launch within minutes)
3. refuse to launch on warning; that is, confirm nuclear detonations before retaliating rather than launching at the first sign of incoming missiles, which may or may not be missiles armed with nuclear warheads
4. declare that nuclear weapons are for deterrent purposes only, that they will be used only in response to a confirmed nuclear attack

At his annual appearance at the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin made some statements about Russian nuclear doctrine that should be recognized as a positive step in making he world safer, but he will probably get little credit for this in the Western media and official responses. As he does every year, he spoke at length on many issues, and his comments on nuclear doctrine were the following:

Our concept is a response to a pre-emptive strike. I don’t need to tell those who know. I’ll repeat for those who don’t. This means that we are ready to use nuclear weapons, and we will do so only once we make sure that someone who is a potential aggressor has launched a strike on Russia, on our territory. There is no secret. We have a system we are constantly improving. It needs to be constantly improved. It is a MAW system, which is a missile approach warning system. It works globally and first detects launches of strategic missiles from the oceans or any territory, and second, determines the flight trajectory, and third, determines where the nuclear warheads are to fall. When we make sure, which takes a few seconds, that Russia’s territory is the target, only after that do we respond with a second strike. It’s a retaliation. The missiles fly towards our territory, and our missiles will fly to the aggressor’s. Of course, it means global catastrophe. But I repeat that we cannot be those who initiate this catastrophe because we do not support the concept of a preventive strike. Yes, it is like we are waiting for someone to use nuclear weapons against us and doing nothing. Yes, we are. But the aggressor must know that retaliation is inevitable and they will be destroyed. And we will be the victims of aggression and rise to heaven as martyrs, and they will just drop dead because they won’t even have time to repent.

This statement does not address items 1-3 in the list above, but it does address item 4 quite significantly. Putin could not do much about items 1 and 2 without negotiating a simultaneous change in policy with other nuclear powers. Deterrence would be lost if only one nation took its missiles off high alert status. As for item 3, there have been near misses in the past with mistaken perceptions of incoming missiles, and Putin did not explain how Russian experts could determine “within seconds,” before any nuclear explosions had been confirmed, that the country was definitely under attack, but we hope the technology has improved since mistakes were made in earlier versions of early warning systems. His statement about item 4 is significant because it is something he can say without losing much of the deterrence value of Russia’s nuclear weapons. It is also important because it makes for an invidious comparison with other nuclear powers who insist on maintaining their ambiguity about the circumstances in which they would use nuclear weapons. China has affirmed a no-first-use policy, but the other nuclear powers say nothing about it or make vague statements about nuclear weapons being used if “the further existence of the state is in question,” or some such phrases that imply they would be used during any dire threat to sovereignty, not necessarily involving a nuclear attack. Thus credit should be given to Putin for making this promise to the world. It is of course a promise that could be broken in the future by a different leader and a change in government policy, but it is at least a step away from the brink that opens up the possibility of further dialog with powerful nations and their leaders, people Putin still patiently calls “partners” while they call Russia an adversary or hostile nation.

We should also note that by declaring this no-first-use policy Putin has made the world safer but put his own country at higher risk of conventional attack. He has signaled that any non-nuclear aggression against Russian territory or its forces abroad will not be met with nuclear retaliation, and this may embolden “partners” to test the limits of what Russia will tolerate.

Another noteworthy element of the statement was its indications of Putin’s religious beliefs. He is often characterized in the West as a holdover from the atheistic evil empire, a former KGB man who regrets the fall of the Soviet Union. However, here Americans can see him talking like one of their own Christian politicians. His religious belief seems sincere, but if it were not, his words would be a clever strategy for speaking to Americans in familiar terms. If they don’t want to think about nuclear weapons rationally, as a secular issue, they can worry about having time to repent and get into heaven.

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