Russia has revised its rules for resorting to nuclear weapons in the event of war as part of its military doctrines and rules of engagement, widening the scope of its available strategies as it struggles to get the United States to return to international agreements and treaties limiting the development, deployment and use of nuclear weapons.
The document, recently approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin, outlines four scenarios in which Moscow would order the use of nuclear weapons. Two of the scenarios are new and involve potential instances of nuclear first-use, something Russia had previously categorically rejected.
The established protocols permit use when an enemy uses nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction on Russia or its allies, and in situations when conventional weapons “threaten the very existence of the country.”
The two new provisions include cases in which the government receives “reliable information” that a ballistic missile attack is imminent or if enemies damage the nation’s critical and military facilities to the degree that the ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons is disrupted.
The document states that containing and deterring aggressions against Russia is “among the highest national priorities.” Ultimately, Moscow’s nuclear weapons policy is described as being “defensive in nature” and designed to safeguard the country’s sovereignty against potential adversaries.
The United States has remained ambiguous about the tenets of its own thresholds for using nuclear weapons. The latest Nuclear Posture Review, published in 2018, stated the country considers using nuclear weapons “only in extreme cases when it is forced to defend the U.S. or its allies or partners.” Unlike Russia, however, for many years the US has refused to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, and has even threatened to use them against countries which do not have nuclear weapons and have no way of striking US territory. How many times have we heard warmongering US politicians bleating ferociously, “All options are on the table!!!”
However, a hastily retracted document disclosed last year by the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated a more potentially broader application for such weapons of mass destruction. “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” one passage said. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”
The White House recently announced its decision to exit the Open Skies Treaty that allows for the mutual passage of spy planes over U.S. and Russian territory, and in August last year also exited the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banning land-launched missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,420 miles, and has since tested such weapons.
President Donald Trump also appears set to allow a historic treaty limiting and allowing information-sharing mechanisms of the U.S. and Russia’s arsenals expire. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) limits Russian and U.S. deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers to 700 each. Deployed warheads on either side may not exceed 1,550 and deployed and non-deployed launchers were capped at 800.
The deal, signed in 2010 as the successor to the original START, expires next February and Washington has so far rebuffed Moscow’s call to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the latest and last remaining non-proliferation agreement between two nations once locked in a nuclear-fueled arms race. The pact mandates the U.S. and Russia maintain limits, mutual verification and inspection regimes and, perhaps most importantly, channels of communication regarding their nuclear stockpiles and its expiration could lead the pair to once again enter into a dangerous cycle of amassing new, more powerful weapons of war.
The first START was signed in 1991 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. It was later followed by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2003 and New START in 2011. All these agreements are designed to restrict the number of warheads and launchers both Washington and Moscow can possess.
As of their last exchange last September, the U.S. possesses 668 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers and Russia has 513 such deployed platforms out of a limit of 700.
The introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) means that each nuclear-capable missile may carry a number of warheads. As a result, New START also restricts the number of deployed warheads to 1,550, with the U.S. currently deploying 1,376 and Russia deploying 1,426. Finally, the U.S. meets the cap of deployed and non-deployed launchers of ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers exactly at 800, while Russia maintains 757.
Instead, the White House has sought a new agreement involving new, more advanced weapons platforms including highly-maneuverable, hypersonic missiles, as well as other countries, in particular China, which has declined to subject its much smaller arsenal to such restrictions.
The State Department reiterated this offer for a trilateral arms arrangement on the 50th anniversary of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected it. Beijing, which has significantly less nuclear warheads than Moscow and Washington, seeks multilateral cooperation, but not limitation.
“China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia. This position is very clear,” Zhao said Friday. “The pressing issue on nuclear disarmament at the moment is for the United States to respond to Russia’s call to extend the New START Treaty, and further downsize its huge nuclear arsenal. This will create conditions for other nuclear weapon states to join multilateral disarmament talks.”
Russia has also criticized the Trump administration’s pursuit and deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads, arguing it may raise the prospects of a nuclear conflict. At the same time, however, the United States estimates its top foe has up to 2,000 such warheads.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Friday criticized the efforts to revamp the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal. Among the weapons being developed and deployed is the W76-2, a nuclear warhead with lower yields that could make them a more readily-available option in the event of a conflict.
“We note that Washington is not just modernizing its nuclear forces, but is striving to give them new capabilities, which significantly expands the likelihood of their use…
Of particular concern in this regard are U.S. actions to increase the range of low-power assets in its nuclear arsenal, including the development and deployment of such munitions for strategic carriers. This clearly leads to lowering the ‘threshold’ for the use of nuclear weapons.”
The U.S. and Russia have long accused one another of developing tactical nuclear devices, perhaps less destructive than their larger counterparts but still extremely more powerful than even the most earth-shattering conventional munitions. The US’ accusations in this respect have been used to justify the acknowledged development and deployment of such weapon systems, rather than seeking to negotiate a verification regime to investigate their respective allegations and concerns.
Maria Zakharova told reporters in this respect:
“One gets the impression that in Washington they have decided to purposefully consider nuclear conflict as a viable political option and create the corresponding potential for this.”
Instead of blaming Russia and China for the US’ unilateral treaty violations: “A much more effective way to ensure national security is to continue the policy of arms control and establish peaceful interaction with other states, to which we again call on the United States.”
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