Posturing before the deal: Russia and nuclear weapons

The Davy Crockett Nuclear Munition, from Wikipedia

Amid the chaos in the news was an announcement that President Putin signed an updated nuclear deterrent policy for Russia, which expanded the use of nuclear weapons as a response against conventional attacks on Russia’s critical government and military infrastructure.

I haven’t found a translated copy yet (the original Russian is linked in this article), but if you were to ask me if this is a surpriseā€¦its not. We need to view this through Russia’s eyes and see what nuclear weapons mean to them, why they would change policy now, and what is their desired end state.

First, when we talk nuclear weapons, realize that Russia has always had a pretty wide range of weapons. When we hear nuclear, we think giant missiles with multiple warheads, and for the current U.S. stockpile, that’s pretty true. But we forget that the U.S. had an interest in tactical nuclear weapons, right down to the man portable “Davy Crockett,” a man-portable nuclear bazooka that you can still see on display in the Army Ordnance Museum. Russia has never lost its taste for tactical nuclear weapons, even going so far as to look at suitcase (really, backpack sized, ~70 pound) warheads that could be smuggled and detonated inside the U.S. Russia’s Navy has always viewed nuclear weapons as a viable option in naval warfare against U.S. Carrier Strike Groups.

A Special Atomic Demolition Munition with a W54 warhead…essentially, a backpack nuke.
Image from Wikipedia

For Russia, using tactical nuclear weapons doesn’t mean we will go to full-on nuclear conflict. It’s not in Russia’s best interest to have a full nuclear exchange with the U.S. or NATO. Think about it. Russia loses in a full exchange: they have less people, less ability to rebuild, and will likely lose all military forces (and thus ability to defend) in any full exchange. Russia doesn’t want to own the whole world, but to simply dominate the parts that were the former USSR.

Because the U.S. views nuclear exchange as an “all or nothing” game, Russia uses this to its advantage. It’s always viewed theater war as a limited exchange that could allow tactical nuclear weapons to be used without escalation, so long as they achieved a specific objective. In this sense, Russia is OK with an “escalate to deescalate” policy with nuclear weapons.

So given that, why the policy change now? It’s part technology, part negotiation. On the technology side, conventional weapons are becoming incredibly accurate and more lethal. Russia fears a decapitating strike by the U.S. using advanced weapons like the Tomahawk cruise missile. Russia has watched the U.S. strike country after country with these weapons to great effect. Nuclear policy, specifically Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), was written before conventional weapons were this accurate. Does MAD work when I can hit decision makers in under an hour (like the program Prompt Global Strike was pursuing)? Doubtful. The technology has simply changed too much.

It’s also a negotiating move. Withdrawing from the INF treaty means the last nuclear treaty is the START treaty, set to expire in February 2021. Russia can’t afford an arms race with the U.S. The Russian economy is tanking due to COVID-19 and sanctions. If European nations stay in NATO and allied with the U.S., this situation is unlikely to change. Plus, Russia is shrinking as its population gets older and more sick due to the poor healthcare in the country. If START doesn’t get re-upped, Russia is in trouble, as it can’t compete with U.S. and European manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

So, as Russians are fond of doing, its striking hard. It’s trying to get people scared that it might pull a “Crazy Ivan.” That’s a possibility, but an unlikely one. Its big hope is for the U.S. to blink and negotiate on their terms. Given the current administration, that’s unlikely too. In fact, the DoD is practicing against just such a thing, much to Russia’s ire.

In the next six months, expect the Russian’s to run drills and emphasize their use of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia could even find a way to test a nuclear weapon underground as part of these drills. RT and Sputnik news will play this up, bringing in images of the Cold War, with kids under their desks and mushroom clouds in the background. We’ll probably “find” a nuclear-like device in the U.S., or uncover a plot to transport one. All this is to get the U.S. to give them the nuclear deal that they want.

All this will be done with the hope of persuading the American people and sitting President to negotiate. Whether it works will depend on how willing we are to look past the fluff.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.