Speaking at the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the pronouncement that in the event of nuclear war, Russians are “going to heaven as martyrs”, while the aggressor would simply “drop dead.”
“Only when we know for certain – and this takes a few seconds to understand – that Russia is being attacked we will deliver a counter strike. This would be a reciprocal counter strike. Why do I say ‘counter’? Because we will counter missiles flying towards us by sending a missile in the direction of an aggressor. Of course, this amounts to a global catastrophe but I would like to repeat that we cannot be the initiators of such a catastrophe because we have no provision for a pre-emptive strike. Yes, it looks like we are sitting on our hands and waiting until someone uses nuclear weapons against us. Well, yes, this is what it is. But then any aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and they will be annihilated. And we as the victims of an aggression, we as martyrs would go to paradise while they will simply perish because they won’t even have time to repent their sins,” Putin said.
On Monday, Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov tried to polish the rough edges on that statement, saying Putin was not literally speaking of the afterlife, adding that “as far as Russia’s doctrine is concerned, Russia reserves no right to preemptive strike.”
"It means we will never be the first to attack anyone. This is what the president said. But if we come under attack, then everyone will go where he or she should – either to heaven or to hell, or elsewhere. This is what he meant, the rest was allegory," he said.
But Peskov then appeared to contradict himself, saying it was not just in the case of a nuclear attack, but an attack that “jeopardizes the mere existence of the state”, that could precipitate a nuclear strike.
Alicia Dressman, a nuclear policy specialist and consultant, told Polygraph.info that “Russia's force structure is optimized for a first strike policy, and its strategic doctrine indicates that Russia would do whatever necessary to preserve territorial integrity and security. Which is essentially a first strike doctrine.”
Within the nuclear policy community, Dressman said the real question is whether Putin’s remarks represent a Launch Under Warning (LUA) or Launch Under Attack policy.
“Since he's talking about martyrs of a strike, I'm thinking he's describing LUA, which would suggest an NFU (no first use) policy,” Dressman said.
In any case, writing for the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said that Russia strengthened the language of its military doctrine in December 2014, providing for “the possibility of a first nuclear strike.”
As stated in the declassified portion of that document:
“The Russian Federation maintains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when a threat to the very existence of the state itself is being posed.”
Both Peskov and Russia’s military doctrine specifically refer to the “threat to the existence of the state” rather than the country itself. This language has led former Secretary of Defense William Perry, like Dressman, to conclude that “Putin might consider using nuclear weapons if the survival of his regime is at stake,” according to War on the Rocks.
Perry specifically feared that a tactical blunder on Putin’s part would lead him into a conventional war that he was bound to lose, leading to a “surreally” titled “de-escalatory strike”.
This is in reference to Russia’s so-called "escalate to de-escalate" doctrine, whereby smaller-yield nuclear weapons could be used against the US and its NATO allies to compensate for its conventional force deficit.
That doctrine has been viewed as an impetus for the United States’ February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review— the Pentagon’s primary statement of nuclear policy.
As claimed in the Nuclear Posture Review:
“Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict.”
“Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons.”
In response, the United States said it would “enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options,” including “low-yield options.”
Russian media has seized on this to claim the US is “ready to use nukes in case of a conventional attack,” and Moscow announced it was on the cusp of developing an “invincible” nuclear-powered cruise missile.
The status of that missile remains unclear.
But while alarmists on the Russian side have called the new US NPR “sheer lunacy”, Dressman said nothing in the policy would “seriously stimulate Putin.”
“Russia doesn't care if our SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles) are low or high yield, they're going to assume each incoming missile is MIRVed (Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle-ed) and high yield. I don't see that inducing particular anxiety. They snored when we cancelled TLAM-Ns (Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles) in the Obama administration and now we've got new SLCMs (submarine-launched cruise missiles). I haven't noticed more than a nod from Russian media. Probably because they want that capability for themselves. I would say that New START extension has been an issue of contention between US and Russia, but that's for his diplomats to fuss about.”
Russia’s desire for expanded capabilities has, in turn, led to its own round of accusations and recriminations.
Dressman said the US has been managing an evolving file of evidence on INF violations for the last ten years, “since around the first bilateral meetings on the New START treaty”.
In 2014, CNN reported that the US had accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), citing cruise missile tests that date to 2008.
That system, the SSC-8 or Novator 9M729, became the center of a firestorm when US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, allegedly threatened to “take out” the missiles, which the Russian media reported with such headlines as “The U.S. threaten to destroy Russian cruise missiles.”
She would later deny allegations she was talking about a preemptive strike, claiming she did not say or mean it.
“I meant that we are in compliance with the INF Treaty; Russia is not,” Hutchinson told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month.
On Saturday, October 20 U.S. President Donald Trump announced his desire to withdraw from the INF unless Russia and China comply. [China is not a party to the INF Treaty]
Dressman said that Trump seems to be acting in concert with US National Security Adviser John Bolton on INF withdrawal, “but without consultation or approval of his Cabinet, Congress, or the Pentagon.”
“You only need executive-level approval for withdrawal, but it's still important to coordinate policies, especially with your own party. Given my reading of Senate hearings and DoD (Department of Defense) officials this year, they wanted to apply maximum pressure within the framework of the treaty. Everyone's on the same page as far as the [INF violations] not necessarily how and when to strike with that knowledge.”
On Tuesday, Bolton told CNN that the Russians “understand our reasons quite clearly [for withdrawing from the INF], some of which I think they might fully appreciate from their own strategic perspective."
When asked about next steps following the treaty withdraw, including the placement of missiles in Europe, Bolton was noncommittal.
“Well I think we’re a long way from any decisions on those kinds of questions. I think it was important for from our perspective as President Trump said on Saturday and said again yesterday to deal with the question of Russian violations of the INF Treaty is a position Russia doesn’t agree with but we truly feel very strongly about and was a major factor in our decision to withdraw," Bolton said. "I might say for the context involved here. This is not a subject that arose yesterday. This question of Russian violations is long and deep and something that both Trump and the Obama Administration are very concerned about.”
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the U.S. leaving the treaty would leave Russia no choice but “to take retaliatory measures, including military-technical measures.”
Konstatin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, said in the event of a US withdrawal, "mankind would be facing full chaos in the nuclear weapons sphere."
During his meeting with John Bolton in the Kremlin today, Vladimir Putin expressed a desire for a “direct dialog” with the US President Donald Trump to discuss issues of mutual importance.
Ultimately, the evolving drama between Russia and the United States in regards to nuclear arms control is as complicated as it is contentious. However, one thing is clear: Russia’s military doctrine plainly provides for the possibility of Moscow launching a first strike.
Thus, Peskov’s claim, like Putin’s before it, is false.