Militarizing the Confrontation: Risks of the New US Nuclear Posture Review
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Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Valdai Discussion Club

During the last four years, Russian-American confrontation has been mostly confined to the political, information and economic (sanctions) areas and has been minimal in terms of the military. The military establishments in Russia and America and their proponents among the Russian and US political elite regarded each other as potential adversaries even before the current confrontation. Moscow’s 2010 military doctrine (incidentally, approved at the peak of the Russian-US “reset”) described globalization and NATO expansion as the main military threat. NATO’s official pivot in 2014 to the open military and political containment of Russia was until recently of a predominantly declarative and political nature. In the military respect, it was rather modest since the real scale of NATO’s infrastructural expansion in the Baltic and Black Sea areas was not great. In the Middle East, too, the US refrained from creating military obstacles to the Russian operation in Syria, which would have risked a direct clash between the two powers.

However, the situation may change radically quite soon. On February 2, 2018, Washington presented its new nuclear doctrine (Nuclear Posture Review), which outlined a qualitative change in US nuclear policy. Given the extremely unhealthy nature of the current Russia-US confrontation and primarily the Trump administration’s inability to maintain a normal dialogue with Moscow, let alone come to terms on such crucial international security issues as cybercrime and nuclear arms control, inability deriving from the domestic political situation in the United States, America’s new course could lead both to a new nuclear arms race (and demise of what remains of the former arms control system) and a dramatic military crisis fraught with a direct military clash between the US and Russia or even a nuclear escalation similar to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis or the 1983 missile crisis. Today, however, the general strategic situation is much more complex and multifaceted than during the Cold War. Accordingly, the destabilizing potential of such crises is much higher.

The main change in the US nuclear doctrine is that the Trump administration, based on the qualitatively new realities of the great-power confrontation with Russia and China as compared with the period after the Cold War, has decided on a higher role for nuclear weapons and emphasizes them in its defense strategy, whereas the Obama and Bush administrations on the contrary sought to downplay it. Accordingly, nuclear reductions are being put off “until better days,” with America setting course for qualitative modernization and upgrading its nuclear arsenal, including development of new munitions and resuscitation of previously scrapped types of nuclear charges and delivery vehicles, as well as for greater budgetary spending on nuclear arms.        

On the one hand, the US refusal to press for further nuclear arms reductions and persist with general talk on the need for moving towards a “nuclear-free world,” which was most characteristic of the Obama administration, consolidates strategic stability and removes one of the main irritants in relations with Russia. The latter has declared time and again since 2010 that it will not accept new reductions in nuclear arms, including non-strategic types, in a changing strategic environment and that the New START Treaty is more likely to be the last bilateral Russia-US “grand treaty” on the limitation and reduction of the nuclear arsenals. In fact, given nuclear proliferation and actual nuclear multipolarity, improvements in antimissile defense systems, new strategic functions of conventional weapons (the ability to deliver a disarming strike at Russia or the US), the dynamic upgrading of nuclear weapons, and the conversion of cyber technologies to weapons of mass destruction, any further cuts in Russian and US nuclear arsenals alone would have a highly destabilizing effect.

Besides, the comeback of a global great-power rivalry and the revival of the US-Russia and US-China confrontation, which has been correctly reflected in the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the new US nuclear doctrine, call for an invigoration of containment in relations between the great powers, particularly the nuclear powers. And it is nuclear weapons that will remain the main means of containment. Thus, this only increases the importance of nuclear weapons as a means whereby to maintain containment and strengthen strategic stability (which today is multilateral rather than bilateral as was the case during the Cold War). The United States’ recognition of this fact at the doctrinaire level can only be welcomed.

But strong feelings of concern over four circumstances that in their totality could make the US pivot toward the nuclear arms area a factor that weakens rather than strengthens strategic stability and may lead the United States and Russia to a dramatic military crisis, if not conflict. Two of these are directly related to the new US nuclear strategy and the other two to specifics of America’s relations with Russia and the rest of the world.

The first and most dangerous circumstance is a course toward the development and deployment (primarily in Europe and Asia) of new types of nonstrategic (tactical) “low-yield” nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles, primarily a nuclear-tipped ship-based (submarine-based) cruise missile, which has been declared a priority of the Trump administration’s nuclear strategy. This course is openly aimed at opposing Russia and China and more precisely at rendering meaningless their (Moscow’s in particular) alleged nuclear escalation doctrines designed for a hypothetical nonnuclear conflict with the West, in which they hope to achieve a military victory).

According to the new US nuclear doctrine, the propensity on the part of the opponents of America to resort to the nuclear escalation of an originally nonnuclear conflict is a determining feature of the new strategic environment, which compels the US to take resolute steps. The case in point is a doctrine of “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” that is being ascribed to Russia and has remained, over the last few years, one of the main Russia-US related concerns in the military sphere. In keeping with this doctrine, Moscow is supposedly ready to use “low-yield” nuclear weapons (primarily nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons) or to threaten to use them in a nonnuclear military conflict in Europe (with NATO countries). To believe the US military and analysts, this will not only drastically tip the balance in its favor on the battlefront but will also demonstrate Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in general and thereby discourage the US from moving to help its allies. This is likely to cut short a further escalation of the crisis fraught with global strategic nuclear exchanges (that is, mutual destruction of the United States and Russia) and will enable Moscow to wind up the military conflict on its terms. America’s guarantees to its allies will be smashed, along with the global system of US alliances.

Even though there is nothing of the kind in Russia’s official military doctrine (it only points to the Russian Federation’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in a nonnuclear conflict if there is a threat to its very existence), US strategists back their claims that Moscow does have this doctrine by referring to statements that Russian military experts have made over the years, to the Zapad military exercises that have included nuclear employment drills, and to Russia’s unwillingness to cut, let alone destroy, its arsenal of nonstrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons (TNW) that exceeds the relevant US potential arsenal by about 900%, according to expert assessments. Persuading Russia to reduce its TNW arsenal was among the Obama administration’s main priorities after the ratification of the New START Treaty in 2011.

US strategists believe that the plan to revive US TNW potential, including to develop “low-yield” munitions and install them on submarine-based cruise missiles, and deploy them close to Russian borders in the European TO will rob the “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” doctrine ascribed to the Russian Federation of any meaning. The Americans think that in this case Moscow will know that the United States will not capitulate in response to its “de-escalating” nuclear attack in Europe but will deliver a similar “low-yield” strike at its forces, a strike which would strip Russia of its edge on the front and demonstrate the United States’ resolve to defend its allies, including with the use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it would not be a global strategic nuclear attack on Russia and, theoretically, should not entail Russia’s reciprocal strategic nuclear attack on the United States, to wit, their mutual destruction. But in reality, the development and deployment of this US potential in the vicinity of Russia’s borders would produce the opposite effect, provoking a nuclear arms race and a dramatic military (possibly nuclear) crisis.

In itself, the tendency to ascribe to Russia the “de-escalating nuclear strike” doctrine, as the main reason the US intends to develop and install on cruise missiles close to Russian Federation low-yield warheads, is profoundly erroneous.  It reflects the prevailing – and radically wrong – idea of the motive forces and imperatives of Russian post-2014 foreign policy, specifically the conviction that Moscow intends or at least would like to attack the Baltic states and Poland and that it would have certainly done so (either through direct military invasion or “hybrid-wise”) had it not been “stopped” by the West – via sanctions, strong pressure and early military containment – in 2014. The US regards Russia’s policies in Crimea and Donbass as part of its alleged “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” strategy, a model for identical steps with regard to the Baltic countries and Poland. The de-escalating strike doctrine is ascribed to Russia in the belief that it counts on Washington not having the nerve to start a global nuclear conflict with Moscow, a failure that will lead to the collapse of NATO and the system of US alliances as such.

In reality, Russia has no intention of invading either the Baltic states, or Poland, since this step would be an all-out disaster, both politically and economically. This would put an end to its attempts to normalize relations with the European countries, reinforce the crumbling united anti-Russian US-EU front, and lead to the curtailment of Russia-EU economic relations, including in the gas sphere, and, accordingly, to a precipitous economic collapse in Russia, dramatic alienation from Russia of its partners in the non-Western world, and generally to its total isolation. Russia is pursuing an opposite strategy that erodes the West’s anti-Russian unity, intensifies dialogue with both individual European countries and non-Western players the world over, and positions Russia as a responsible great power. From this point of view, Russian TNW employment is only likely if it becomes a target for a large-scale non-nuclear attack itself and is losing this conventional war. Properly speaking, this is what is written in its military doctrine.

If the United States understands this but still proceeds from the false “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” doctrine, it may be motivated by the following: first, it is intentionally turning up the heat of military confrontation, possibly in the hope that Russia will blink and make concessions, or will even capitulate and fall to pieces, as was the case twenty-five years ago. Second, it is drawing Russia into a full-scale arms race based on the same strategy. Third, it is counting on Moscow cowering and agreeing to cut or even scrap its TNW arsenal in exchange for the elimination of US “low-yield” warheads on submarine-based cruise missiles. The US military establishment and political elite, particularly the Republicans, are fussing over the idea that it was the escalation in the Cold War and arms race in the early Reagan period, including the deployment of nuclear-tipped Pershing-2 and Tomahawks intermediate range missiles in Europe, that led to the US “victory” in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It looks like they are increasingly keen on a replay.

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Infographics. Nuclear Weapons: Development and Accumulation

But it should be remembered that intervening between the deployment of Pershings and Tomahawks and the signing of the INF treaty in 1987 was the 1983 missile crisis, during which the world was within a step of nuclear Armageddon. The Soviet leaders seriously believed that NATO’s Able Archer exercises were preparations for a real nuclear attack on the USSR. And they had every reason to think so because any tactical nuclear weapons, even super low-yield, deployed near Russian borders and capable of being used against Russia’s territory and facilities, are automatically regarded by Russia as strategic weapons whose employment will require an attack on the continental United States and a full-scale global nuclear war.

It was for this reason that, for example, the 1961 deployment of US nuclear missiles in Turkey, missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to Moscow within 10 minutes, inevitably prompted the Soviet leaders to deploy Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles on Cuba the next year, the Cuban missile crisis, the most dangerous episode in the entire history of the Cold War. In the same way, the likely deployment of US missiles with “low-yield” warheads near Russia would inevitably lead, first, to the strengthening of the Russian strategic nuclear forces and, second, to putting Russian nuclear missile submarines on permanent alert off the US coast. In a worst-case scenario, Moscow would have no choice but to destroy US TNW near its borders with a preemptive strike. In any event, the strategic stability and security of the United States itself would not be strengthened. At the least, a new spiral of a nuclear arms race would ensue. At the most, Russia and the United States will clash in a direct military conflict. A nuclear conflict!

Another worrisome circumstance related to the new US nuclear doctrine is the considerable erosion of nuclear employment terms, at least by comparison with the 2010 doctrine. The current document says that the United States allows the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack not only against the US itself and its allies but also against its “partners,” a category that can include just about anyone apart from those the US openly calls its adversaries (today these are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea) or unfriendly countries (Syria, Venezuela, etc.). Officially, the United States’ “strategic partners” are Ukraine and Georgia, to name just these two. Does this mean that Washington will seriously contemplate using nuclear weapons if their security is under threat? The US message is clear: America is out to put up an additional obstacle to Russian and Chinese influence and policies in Europe, Asia and the post-Soviet space; to create the impression that the United States will defend from their pressure not only its treaty allies but also partners whose number it is seeking to expand against the background of strategic rivalry with Moscow and Beijing. But this erosion is highly dangerous in application to the nuclear sphere. The question that has to be answered is if the US puts its allies and partners on the same level, is it going to defend its allies in earnest?

Yet another concern is that the change in the US nuclear weapons policy is occurring in the context of its general course for restoring US military superiority over its main rivals and adversaries, primarily Russia and China. All the strategic documents, statements and steps over the past year are evidence that neither the Trump administration, nor its opponents intend to coexist in peace with Russia and China that are unwilling to accept US leadership. They want to surpass them as a first step to defeating them, including – most of all – militarily. Military superiority is the main leitmotif of the US Defense Strategy published in January and the chief reason why the US is beefing up its military budget. In the context of US military superiority over Russia and China, the qualitative modernization of its nuclear arsenal and, to top it off, development of low-yield nuclear weapons are having a destabilizing effect. After all, there was a general military balance between the USSR and the US in the most stable period of the Cold War, while its most tense periods were those marked by imbalances (1940s-1950s) or by US attempts to pull ahead (the early 1980s). Today strategic stability includes all areas, through which the parties can cause irreparable damage to each other or deliver a disarming strike, and a priori it cannot be ensured in a situation where the US has an overall military superiority over all others. Both Russia and China will have to offset the US edge asymmetrically. In Russia’s case, this will be a buildup and improvement of its nuclear arsenal.

Finally, the fourth problem is likely to be the main one. Many of the above problems could be solved or neutralized if Moscow and Washington were able to have a normal, even if unfriendly, dialogue like the one they maintained between the 1960s and 1980s. An ideological antagonism and the total Cold War confrontation did not prevent the US and the USSR from developing a strategic dialogue that prevented the Cold War from becoming an actual war. Today, there is no dialogue and the likelihood that it will be resumed anytime soon is small. An indicative passage from the US nuclear doctrine says that a return to a dialogue of this kind will be possible only after a qualitative change in Russian policy (not only in the nuclear sphere, but in general) that would be approved by Washington.

The reason lies in the anti-Russia paranoia raging among the traditionalist US establishment and elites and attempts to restore control over the political processes and quell the “anti-establishment revolt” through the instrumentality of the Russian factor. Since the gap between the elite and the disaffected US public is here to stay, the anti-Russia hysteria in the establishment will not disappear overnight. There is no fear of the reality of a global nuclear war either, fear characteristic of the former Cold War, which could make the US elite come to its senses and maintain a strategic dialogue with Moscow no matter what. The result is a higher, not lower, danger of a military crisis between the US and Russia than in the Cold War period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s. The task facing the expert communities of Russia and the United States, including the Valdai Club, in the coming years is to bring this idea across to each other and to their national elites.

Valdai Discussion Club