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Aleksey Arbatov

Head of the Center for International Security of IMEMO, RAS Full Member, RIAC member

The international community that brings together civilized politicians and strategic experts generally accepts the sacramental maxim that “nuclear war cannot be wan and it should never be fought” and that “nuclear weapons—as long as they exist—should serve to deter aggression and prevent war”. However, these well-intentioned principles are easier to proclaim than translate into practical policy. While the development of all nuclear weapons in all countries is justified by the imperative of deterrence, all of these weapons are, in fact, designed for the actual conduct of nuclear war, thus serving as a material basis of the doctrines of nuclear deterrence. Depending on the scenarios of using nuclear weapons, under the influence of technological development and amid intense international conflicts, these deterrence doctrines undergo frightening transformations (metamorphoses), turning into their opposite, i.e. plans and practical options of unleashing a nuclear war. Recently, this has been manifested in the Russian strategic discourse on ways to quickly and successfully complete the military special operation in Ukraine. Such initiatives are prone with the danger of Russian national suicide. There is no acceptable alternative to a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict, and disagreements on its terms are not worth the risk of a nuclear apocalypse. It is only through nuclear arms reduction and limitation treaties that nuclear deterrence and nuclear warfare can truly be separated. Nuclear forces and weapon systems covered by such agreements primarily serve the purpose of deterrence, while those remaining outside arms control predominantly embody means and plans of nuclear warfighting.

Shortly before the dramatic events unfolded in Ukraine, the Big Five nuclear-weapon states issued a joint statement, reiterating the sacramental maxim first put forward 37 years ago by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, as presidents of the two nuclear superpowers, at the Reykjavik summit: “We declare that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” On their own behalf, the representatives of the five leading powers added: “As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” [1]

These provisions, in slightly different versions, are endlessly repeated in official documents of the UN, the OSCE and NATO, Russia, the United States, China, the UK and France, as well as other nuclear-weapon states, [2] not to mention the libraries of scientific and political literature on the subject.

Nevertheless, these mottoes are by no means as unambiguous as they seem. On the contrary, they are literally woven of contradictions, while the notion of nuclear deterrence—depending on its interpretation by politicians, military, and civilian experts, not to mention the media—undergoes transformations that would have driven crazy the great Publius Ovid, an ancient Roman poet with his immortal Metamorphoses, which have fascinated Europeans for two millennia.

The threat of nuclear war

Contrary to the common perception that nuclear weapons should exclusively “serve to deter aggression and prevent war,” nuclear war is more likely to happen today than ever before, nearly eight decades after the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The only exception during this period were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, though this particular point is a matter doubt. After all, the Cuban crisis is an episode of the past, and the two parties managed to resolve it without nuclear war. Whether the world will be lucky enough to avoid a catastrophe once again, during the current conflict in and around Ukraine, is still a matter of an uncertain future.

Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept of 2023 says that “the use of military force in violation of international law, the development of outer space and information space as new theaters of military operations, blurring the line between military and non-military means of interstate confrontation, the aggravation of long-standing armed conflicts in some parts of the world - pose a dire threat to universal security, increasing the risks of clashes between major states, including nuclear powers, and raising the likelihood of escalation of such conflicts to local, regional or global wars.” [3]

Many world leaders have expressed serious concerns over this issue. In particular, this is what Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked: “Regarding the threat of nuclear war.... such a threat is growing, let’s be clear here...”. [4] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoes this statement: “The risks are very significant now... The danger is serious and real. It cannot be underestimated.” [5]

The official declaration of the G7 Hiroshima summit in May 2023 lays a major emphasis upon this threat (understandably, with reference to Russia’s actions): “We reiterate our position that threats of nuclear weapon use, emanating from Russia, let alone any actual use of nuclear weapons by Russia... are inadmissible.” [6] Pope Francis of Rome said on this occasion: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home.” [7] Similar excerpts could be cited endlessly, but the acute concern of the world public and its political elites over this issue is evident.

The tragic background for this general anxiety is certainly the armed conflict in Ukraine, wherein NATO is waging indirect war with Russia through large-scale supplies of arms and military equipment to Kiev, as well as unprecedented economic and political sanctions designed to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia, as has repeatedly been stated by Moscow. [8] Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that nuclear deterrence has always been viewed not as a “cherry on the cake” of international harmony and prosperity but as a kind of “safety belt” against a fall into the abyss of World War III as a result of international conflicts.

The reasoning of the Russian President just four years ago is quite revealing in this context: “The entire history of mankind is associated with military conflicts, but after the emergence of nuclear weapons, the risk of global conflicts has been reduced, precisely because of the possible globally tragic consequences for all mankind in the event of such a conflict between nuclear powers. I hope that it will never get to this point.” [9] Shortly before that, he had explicitly pointed to the positive role of such weapons: “Nuclear weapons are a deterrent and a factor in ensuring world peace and security” but they cannot “be seen as a factor in any potential aggression.” [10]

What has happened now? Why are nuclear weapons losing their historical utility and, instead of being a deterrent, encourage the leaders of nuclear powers lower the threshold for a leap into a global cataclysm, which nuclear deterrence was supposed to prevent?

It is a well-known fact that the nuclear superpowers repeatedly indirectly fought each other in the past by providing their allies and satellites with weapons and military specialists to fight the other superpower (Korean War of 1950-1953, Vietnam War in 1964–1973, Afghan War of 1979–1989). Yet, never before (probably, with the exception of the Korean War) have the warfighting been fought so long with such intensity and territorial coverage, with the use of large armies and modern weapons, causing great human casualties and extensive destruction. And most importantly, just a few years ago, such an event was unthinkable in the densely populated center of Europe, as was the comprehensive military, political and economic confrontation of the world’s leading states and alliances, caused by this crisis. Finally, never before have the political stakes in a conflict been so high for the opposing sides.

The rift is aggravated by the fact that the current crisis, comparable to the worst times of the Cold War, broke out after three decades of unprecedented détente, economic and political integration, security cooperation and disarmament between Russia and the West, when it seemed that the threat of nuclear war had vanished for good. Therefore, the current confrontation is colored by an acute sense of mutual grievances and frustrated hopes.

President Putin has repeatedly and quite emotionally spoken up on that matter: “We have been open, sincerely ready for a constructive dialogue with the West; we have insisted that both Europe and the whole world need an indivisible, equal security system for all states... But in response we have repeatedly faced dubious or hypocritical reactions. That’s what can be said about rhetoric. But there were also concrete actions: the expansion of NATO to our borders, the establishment of new deployment areas for missile defense in Europe and Asia—they decided to shield themselves from us with an ‘umbrella’—the deployment of military contingents everywhere, including in the near proximity of Russia’s borders.” [11] The collective West is now emitting as much negative emotion and radical rant against Russia.

As for the comeback of the specter of nuclear apocalypse, today’s heated political atmosphere explains a lot, but not everything. Nuclear weapons and the philosophy of mutual deterrence have always been a very specific field, distinguished by huge technical inertia and complexity as well as doctrinal sophistication. Therefore, this area of relations among states has, in a sense, with few exceptions stood apart from the current political disturbances. The fact that the nuclear issue was so quickly drawn into political confrontation cannot only be explained by the severity of the Ukrainian crisis. The reasons for the metamorphoses of nuclear deterrence should also be sought in the doctrinal and technical specifics of this phenomenon.

Doctrinal paradoxes

Despite the multiple reductions in global nuclear arsenals over the past three decades, [12] complete nuclear disarmament remains beyond the horizon of contemporary world politics. Hence, the fundamental ideology: as long as some states have significant global destruction capabilities, nuclear weapons should solely serve as deterrence rather than a means of waging war with a view to victory, especially since victory is universally recognized as unattainable in a nuclear conflict.

Yet it is easier said than done. The line between a nuclear deterrence and a nuclear warfighting is very arbitrary and quite blurred. Deterrence doctrines are based on quite palpable arsenals of nuclear arms that are constantly upgraded with more advanced weapon systems. That modernization has occurred over the past three decades, even in the midst of radical quantitative reductions in the nuclear forces by the leading powers. [13] The development of any nuclear weapon is always justified by the objectives of deterrence, though no particular weapon system, nor the level and composition of nuclear forces, can be guided by the concept of deterrence due to its abstract nature and uncertainty.

To translate the task of nuclear deterrence into quantitative and qualitative characteristics of nuclear and other weaponry, the amorphous idea of deterrence is broken down into its constituent elements. A specific adversary state (or states) must be identified, its available and projected nuclear and other armaments must be assessed, and scenarios of probable conflicts involving nuclear weapons must be elaborated. Next, it is necessary to set operational goals for nuclear forces to inflict a certain level of “unacceptable damage” on the enemy and translate this level into lists of targets to be attacked and physical characteristics of the objects to be hit. Then, it is necessary to formulate the operational principles of using nuclear forces (massive or limited strike; first or retaliatory strike etc.), calculate the probable losses of own forces from the first strike of the opponent and from its missile and air defenses [Chernyshev 2021: 196-198].

In other words, the function of nuclear deterrence relies on planning for the actual conduct of nuclear war and on nothing else. Only on the basis of such planning is it possible to establish the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of one’s nuclear forces, their build-up or reduction (unilateral or under treaties with other states). This is the basis for the fundamental task of nuclear deterrence, which is outlined in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation as the first condition for the use of nuclear weapons: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies.” [14]

The official policy document “On the Fundamentals of the National Nuclear Weapons Policy of the Russian Federation” (2020) specifies this provision in two ways. One of them is: “receipt of reliable information about the launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.” [15] This refers to the concept of a so-called launch-on-warning strike (discussed below). Another case: “...actual use by the enemy of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against the territories of the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.” [16] Obviously, this provision deals with a nuclear aggression using heavy bombers, cruise missiles or tactical nuclear weapons that are not detected by ballistic missile early warning systems.

All of the above are platitudes for military professionals and designers of nuclear weapon systems. However, they almost never reveal the complex architecture of the nuclear planning to educate government leaders, policymakers, civilian experts, and the public, under the guise of state secrecy and an appeal to the supreme notion of national defense. Nevertheless, when these “nuclear modalities” catch the eyes of independent experts, it appears that many of these might be called into question, which implies the need to revise the strategic concepts and military programs promoted by the military departments and their industrial contractors. However because these circles have great political weight inside their own countries, this rarely happens.

It should also be noted that the logical sequence of decision-making in nuclear deterrence outlined above is an ideal scheme that is too far from reality, because in real life it is impossible to divorce the strategic policy from technical and budgetary capabilities, and it is under constant lobbying from departmental and corporate interests. Often, it is not military objectives that dictate the development of certain weapons, but the opposite is actually the case: the objectives are adjusted to the development and deployment of weapons that are produced to integrate technological advances, to raise the national prestige, or to catch up with and overtake a potential adversary.

Nevertheless, when analyzing nuclear deterrence, it is necessary to keep in mind that in reality it is not at all opposed to the conduct of nuclear war, precisely because it relies on the means and plans of nuclear warfare. The best evidence is the above-mentioned Russian policy document that states: “Nuclear deterrence is ensured by the presence in the Russian Armed Forces of combat-ready units and means capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on a potential adversary in any situation through the use of nuclear weapons, as well as by the readiness and determination of the Russian Federation to use such weapons.” [17]

However, the paradoxical nature of nuclear deterrence does not end at that. The conventional understanding of nuclear deterrence implies a retaliatory nuclear strike as a response to a nuclear attack by the enemy. Both assumptions are wrong. First, even the line between a first strike and a retaliatory strike is blurred and will be dissipating more and more as time goes by. Second, modern doctrines of nuclear deterrence envision the use of nuclear weapons not only in response to nuclear aggression.

The dichotomy of the instant retaliation

During President Putin’s conversation with soldiers’ mothers in December 2022, one of them said: “It seems to me that a true gesture of goodwill would be your personal statement, Vladimir Vladimirovich, that under no circumstances will Russia be the first to use nuclear weapons.” The Supreme Commander-in-Chief responded: “Regarding the fact that Russia will under no circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons. If we are not the first to use them under any circumstances, then we won’t be the second to use them either, because the possibilities of their use in case of a nuclear strike on our territory are very limited.” [18]

In other words, the military goal of striking the enemy with the maximum destructive effect has a priority over the goal of preventing a nuclear war, which by definition would start with the first nuclear strike. In this case, the dichotomy of deterrence based on the potential for waging a nuclear war that, in turn, could lead to the outbreak of such a war – is most stark.

That said, the Russian President formulated a middle ground between the concepts of the first and second (retaliatory) strike in the form of a so-called counter-retaliatory strike, which he has repeatedly described in recent years: “We have come up with a counter-retaliatory strike in our Strategy, there are no secrets here. What is a counter-retaliatory strike? This means retaliation. When our Ballistic Missile Early Warning (BMEW) system detects missile launches in the direction of the Russian territory, we’ll then respond in kind.” [19]

The counter-retaliatory strike, which is known as launch-on-warning (LOW) in the West, is a variation of retaliatory strike with the only difference that the decision to launch missiles is made very quickly, within a few minutes, while the aggressor’s nuclear warheads are in flight but have not yet reached their targets. Accordingly, a LOW strike can involve more missiles than in a “deep” retaliatory strike, since most of them they will not be hit by the aggressor at their launch sites, and their command-control systems will still be intact and work as planned. Therefore, theoretically, in line with the given argument it would have been possible to reassure the soldiers’ mothers and agree to assume the commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, [20] with the stipulation that Russia relies on a LOW strike. However, the mothers’ proposal was rejected, and apparently not by accident. The probable motives for the rejection shed additional light on the metamorphoses of nuclear deterrence—from a barrier into a bridge to nuclear war.

The monstrous destructive power, high cost and technical complexity of existing nuclear weapons, especially the Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF), have in fact made the most important political decision, which is the authorization to use nuclear weapons, a “hostage” to strategic concepts and operational plans developed in military agencies long before an armed conflict. These plans are dictated by the technical characteristics of weapons and their early waning and command-control systems. Applied to our time, the classic proposition of Clausewitz — “War is the continuation of politics by other, violent means” [Clausewitz 1934: 28] — should be reformulated. Today, a major (i.e., nuclear) war is a continuation of doctrines and technical characteristics of weapon systems that determine the plans and methods of their use.

Thus, the LOW concept is mainly conditioned on the vulnerability of some part of strategic forces to a massive nuclear missile strike by a probable enemy. True, this is related only to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in hardened silo launchers, underground command centers, and missile submarines in bases as well as bombers on airfields. Ground-mobile missiles on deployment routes, submarines at sea, and aircraft at alternate airfields and in the air are capable of surviving the first strike and retaliating with some delay. But this capability is apparently considered insufficiently powerful, and so President Putin, as noted above, has rejected the proposal to rely solely on the concept of a retaliatory (second) strike.

Therefore, as the Commander-in-Chief points out, Russia’s basic concept for the use of strategic forces envisions a retaliatory strike using missiles, especially the most powerful silo-based ICBMs (like the current Voyevoda and future Sarmat heavy ICBMs, the silo-based Topol-M and Yars, and Avangard missiles with a hypersonic glide vehicles). According to the crudest calculations and for illustrative purposes, it can be assumed that such a strike would leverage 40% more nuclear warheads than a “deep” retaliatory strike with surviving means only. [21]

Yet, 60% is quite significant - it amounts to about 700–800 warheads remaining for a purely retaliatory (delayed or “deep”) strike. Meanwhile, the U.S. has only 10 million-plus cities and 270 cities with a population totaling more than 100,000 people. Administrative centers are considered to be main targets of a retaliatory strike, while the first strike is mostly aimed at strategic forces, command and control centers and other military facilities of the enemy in order to minimize the consequences of its retaliatory strike. It is not without reason that Russia spends huge resources on the expensive systems designed to survive the first nuclear attack and deliver a devastating response: nuclear missile submarines, land-mobile intercontinental missiles, highly survivable command centers, reliable BMEW and space reconnaissance systems, automated advanced combat command-control systems, and suchlike.

On the other hand, the LOW strike carries a significant risk of inadvertently triggering a nuclear war due to a technical failure of the ballistic missile early warning satellites and ground-based radars, unauthorized launch of missiles by the opponent, misinterpretation of the other side’s actions or intentions, and uncontrolled escalation of a local armed conflict.

In the near future, this risk may significantly increase with the development of military technology and changes in the strategic balance. The creation of aerodynamic (as opposed to current ballistic) hypersonic missiles flying on relatively low and unpredictable trajectories will deprive ground-based radars of the capability to timely determine the trajectory of enemy missiles and their warheads’ impact area. Thus, a LOW strike would have to be launched only at the signal of BMEW satellites, which periodically produce false alarms. Meanwhile, space weapons and cyber warfare may gain the ability to block or distort information from BMEW satellites.

In other words, the concept of LOW strike is an example of how the military component of nuclear deterrence—by virtue of its own technical, operational, and strategic logic—can cause a catastrophic breakdown of nuclear deterrence. After all, it is the technical characteristics of weapons (the inability to make heavy liquid fuelled ICBMs mobile, the insufficient hardening of their silo launchers and, at the same time, the number, accuracy, warheads’ yield and short flight-time of the enemy’s missiles) that dictate the decision of the national leadership to make fast decision on the end of the world. President Putin once commented on this outcome rather emphatically: “This is surely a worldwide catastrophe... The aggressor must still know that retribution is inevitable, that they will be destroyed. And we are the victims of aggression, and so we’ll go to paradise as martyrs, while they will just die, because they will not even have time to repent.” [22]

Even this is not all. At the missile forces’ exercises (especially where the top leaders are present), a LOW strike is drilled in comfortable operational conditions: when nuclear aggression is simulated with a massive launch of hostile ballistic missiles, the BMEW and combat command-control systems work without fail, high officials are safe in impregnable command centers, enjoying reliable communications with each other and field commanders, and having several minutes to make the only correct decision.

However, experience shows that the reality can be quite different. In fact, the national leadership may be acting under tremendous psychological stress and with a minute-by-minute threat of death from a nuclear attack, the incoming information will be contradictory and inaccurate. All the more so, since the parties are likely to approach the exchange of strategic nuclear strikes as a result of crisis escalation, in the course of a large-scale conventional war, when command-control systems, the BMEW system and even bases of strategic forces (e.g., bomber airfields, light shelters for ground-based missiles, submarines within and exiting bases) will be under fire from high-precision non-nuclear systems and cyber warfare. And, possibly, under the attack by tactical nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles with minimal warning time. Due to its geographic location, Russia would perceive all these as strategic strikes. In this case, the doctrinal documents cite another reason for the use of nuclear weapons: “The enemy’s impact upon critical national or military facilities of the Russian Federation, disabling of which might disrupt the retaliatory actions of (our) nuclear forces.” [23]

Under these scenarios, a LOW strike may “smoothly” transition to a first Russian strike at the level of strategic forces. This is probably the second reason for President Putin’s negative response to the proposal made at the meeting with soldiers’ mothers.

Labyrinths of escalation

However, there might be even a third motive for the President’s refusal. It fact nuclear deterrence is aimed at preventing a number of other threats, besides nuclear aggression, and this implies a first use of Russian nuclear weapons rather than a retaliatory one. In particular, the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation provides for the use of nuclear weapons “ the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” [24] Meanwhile, the concept of “threat” and the essence of “the very existence of state” have never been clarified.

The same or even greater ambiguity is characteristic of the doctrines of other nuclear-weapon states. For example, the latest U.S. nuclear posture states: “The United States affirms that its nuclear forces deter all types of strategic attack... Allies must be confident that the United States is willing and able to deter the full range of strategic threats they can face. We will maintain ... an effective nuclear deterrent and flexible capabilities to achieve our objectives if the President decides that the use of nuclear weapons is necessary.” [25]

Similar French [26], British, and Chinese documents also allow for the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack using both nuclear and conventional forces. This is true about countries such as Pakistan, the DPRK, and, most certainly, Israel. Only China and India formally adhere to the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, although they are rather vague in their doctrinal statements [China’s National Defense... 2019: 8]. Thus, a certain ambiguity is quite typical of the military doctrines of nuclear powers, which believe that it enhances the deterrence effect and leaves them with a wide margin of freedom to make decisions in times of crisis. This is also reflected in Russia’s doctrinal document, according to which one of the principles of nuclear deterrence is “uncertainty for a potential adversary of the scale, time, and place of possible use of nuclear deterrence forces and its means.” [27]

One way or another, the possibility to use nuclear weapons “when the very existence of the state is at stake” implies the first use of these weapons, or, in strategic terminology, in a preventive manner to preclude Russia’s defeat in a conventional war. Since this provision with a similar wording was included in the 1993 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, such a war has been imagined not only as the Wehrmacht invasion of June 22, 1941, but also as operations like the 1999 NATO aggression against Yugoslavia or the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq, but surely at a much larger scale. This danger has been defined in the Russian Military Doctrine and professional literature as the “threat of aerospace attack.” [28]

This type of nuclear weapons use in conventional warfare further dilutes the doctrine of nuclear deterrence as a means of preventing nuclear war. In case of conventional armed forces, defense allows for pre-emptive military action. Citing everyday logic, President Putin once remarked: “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one maxim: if a fight is inevitable, you must strike first.” [29]

A classic example is June 1967 six-day war in the Middle East, where Israel won by launching a preemptive strike against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, which were clearly getting ready to attack. In February 2023, this approach was formulated by President Putin to justify the special military operation in Ukraine: “The incoming information left no doubt that everything was ready by February 2022 for another bloody punitive action in Donbass, against which, I remind you, the Kiev regime had thrown artillery, tanks, and planes back in 2014... I want to repeat it: it was they who unleashed the war, and we used force and will consistently use it to stop this outrage.” [30]

Nuclear deterrence is melting at both ends

The technical reason for the transformation of deterrence is the technological progress, which makes it possible to endow conventional weapons with tasks previously assigned only to nuclear weapons. [31] This is sustained by the growing accuracy and range of conventional weapons with reliance on advanced information and command-control means (including space-based ones). [32] High-precision long-range conventional systems have gained the ability to destroy unhardened enemy targets associated with nuclear forces (radars, communication and command points, light shelters of mobile ground-based ICBMs, bomber airfields, submarine bases, most facilities and delivery vehicles tactical nuclear weapons, etc.).

While the transit from conventional to nuclear warfare was traditionally seen as a crucial step across the “nuclear threshold,” this threshold is presently not just lowering, but also virtually dissolving. The latest edition of the U.S. nuclear posture explicitly seeks to efficiently integrate conventional and nuclear operations. [33] In a leaked passage of a classified document of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff it was stated: “Integrating the use of nuclear weapons with the conduct of conventional or special operations is critical to the success of any missions or operations.” [34]

Furthermore, many current and future systems of this kind are dual-purpose delivering nuclear and conventional munitions, and their employment would be indistinguishable from a nuclear strike until detonated. This is true of heavy and medium bombers, tactical strike aircraft with missiles and bombs, surface ships and attack submarines with dual-purpose missile systems.

Bur the strategy of nuclear deterrence is eroding not only on the side of conventional warfare capabilities but also on the nuclear side.

One school of experts argues that after deep cuts in nuclear weapons since the early 1990s, “both nuclear war per se and victory therein become possible.” [35] In contrast to this logic, the projected human losses of the major powers are virtually independent from the number of nuclear warheads used against them, unless this number falls below a couple hundred (while at present it exceeds 2000). The predominant part of the Soviet/Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals is traditionally aimed at strategic as well as other military and infrastructural sites of the enemy, and it is this target list that is shrinking with the reduction of nuclear arms, narrowing the scope of planned nuclear war operations. Meanwhile, as little as about 10% of the nuclear arsenals still possessed by the superpowers, if delivered to their targets, would be sufficient to destroy all major cities where most of the population resides.

A larger strategic school is promoting the concepts and instruments of limited (“selective”) nuclear warfare. Therefore, the narrative of limited nuclear warfare and related weapon systems, especially tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), has not died and has repeatedly come to the forefront of politics and strategy since the late 1950s. The United States has been incorporating the concepts of limited nuclear warfare into its strategy for decades. They now have about 230 tactical gravity bombs (deliverable by tactical strike aircraft), of which about a hundred are at six air bases in five NATO countries in Europe. [36] The Trump administration ordered to equip some of the Trident 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with low yield warheads and has decided to revive the previously withdrawn medium-range nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) for arming ships and attack submarines. This program was canceled by the Joe Biden administration, but the issue was “hung up” in Congress with the support of some military commanders. The appropriations already authorized are preserved in the budget although not yet spent.

Russian tactical nuclear capabilities are officially kept secret as, incidentally, are those of the U.S. Therefore, in both cases, non-governmental experts have to rely on independent expertise. It attributes more than 1,900 TNWs to Russia [SIPRI Yearbook 2022: 355-368]. However, until recently, tactical nuclear weapons did not feature in Russia’s official documents and declarations.

There is another paradox of nuclear deterrence associated with the phenomenon of limited nuclear war. The enhancement of strategic stability [37] through the START treaties and some weapons programs of Russia and the United States since the early 1990s has made a first nuclear strike at the strategic level impossible, as both sides have lost the ability to launch a disarming attack and avoid unacceptable damage from retaliation. In addition, at the time of unprecedented détente and cooperation among leading nations, nuclear war seemed unthinkable and faded into the background of global public and political attention.

However, as international controversies have been growing since the late-2000s, the concepts and means of limited nuclear war have come to the forefront of the strategic thinking of the two superpowers. The proponents of limited nuclear warfare assume by default that, under sustained strategic stability, the limited use of nuclear weapons would not necessarily escalate to the exchange of massive strategic nuclear strikes exactly due to the assured prospect of retaliation and general annihilation. Therefore, allegedly a limited use of nuclear weapons can be an effective way to achieve victory in a war, or at least to ensure its “cessation on acceptable terms” [38] without bringing it to a global Armageddon.

An existential threat

The decision to deploy Russian TNWs in Belarus, made on March 25, 2023, was a dramatic turn in Russia’s military policy and in the course of the Ukrainian crisis. [39] This initiative is significant not only because the Russian Federation took such a step for the first time after the collapse of the USSR and thus borrowed NATO’s practice, which it had always condemned and declared a violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. [40] What’s much more important is that it significantly enlarges the scope of using the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

This was a logical continuation of the process that began back on February 24, 2022, along with the start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. In an address delivered on that day, President Putin said: “Now a few important, very important words for those who might be tempted to interfere in the current events. Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats to our country and our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced before in your history... I hope I will be heard.” [41] It is clear that President meant nuclear weapons, although they were not explicitly mentioned; the official statement about the strategic forces switching to a “special alert mode” [42] dispelled any doubts to this effect. The way that issue was put went beyond the doctrinal provision, which had existed since 1993, on Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons “ the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is at stake.” [43]

In essence, this meant that Russia could use such weapons in the event of NATO opposition to Russian military action in another country, although it was not explained what kind of intervention would entail such a harsh response. But regarding the alliance’s expansion, the president said: “For our country, this is ultimately a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. And this is not an exaggeration; it is true. This is a real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty. This is the very red line, which has been repeatedly spoken about. They have crossed it.” [44]

Thus, the threat to the existence of the state (existential threat) began to be interpreted not only as a direct military aggression, but also as undesirable changes in important aspects of international environment. Meanwhile, NATO leaders never doubted that Moscow would use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or large conventional aggression. However, the wider and vaguer the deterrence horizon is postulated, the more likely it is that the adversary might cross this line, and then nuclear weapons will have to be actually used to sustain credibility of one’s strategic posture.

Previous functions of nuclear deterrence were provided by Russia’s strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities on its territory. However, the new task has probably required the deployment of nuclear weapons abroad, specifically in the territory of its main ally, Belarus, which is on the “front line” of confrontation with NATO.

The physical presence of nuclear weapons abroad is considered a more convincing argument than any doctrinal provisions, as evidenced by NATO’s practice over the past seven decades. And converting certain carriers to the use of nuclear weapons as well as the training of allied forces in their use allows the sharing of political responsibility and provides operational flexibility in their use. This move is clearly intended to increase the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence against growing arms supplies to Ukraine, its ground offensive operations, and strikes on the Russian territory.

At the same time, the proximity of TNW storage facilities and delivery vehicles’ bases to external borders as well as their vulnerability to strikes by precision-guided conventional weapons with the shortest flight and warning times [45] make these facilities tempting targets for preemptive attack. This creates a real danger of immediate nuclear escalation in any armed clash on the front lines. Here, one of the basic paradoxes of nuclear deterrence is clearly manifested: it is the more convincing the more likely it is that nuclear weapons will actually be used, but it simultaneously creates an incentive for a preemptive attack of the opponent thus increasing the risk of nuclear escalation.

So far, the extension of nuclear deterrence to the Ukrainian conflict has worked to a certain extent. NATO has not entered the conflict directly with its armed forces (much less with nuclear weapons), although it is supplying Ukraine with the growing amounts of arms, ammunition and military equipment, training Ukrainian military personnel, sending military advisers to Ukraine, and assisting it with combat command-control, communications, intelligence, and targeting for strike systems—not to mention unprecedented economic and political sanctions against Russia. The latter, for its part, does not strike neighboring NATO countries and communications through which military supplies flow and up to now has not used nuclear weapons in this conflict.

However, in a dynamically changing environment, this mutual self-restraint is becoming increasingly fragile. At the cutting edge of nuclear deterrence, that is in the Ukrainian conflict, it is extremely problematic to draw a distinct line between deterrence and warfare, to guarantee that “nuclear weapons ... would serve defensive purposes, deterring aggression and preventing war.” [46] Not to mention the danger of incidents at sea and in the air between Russia and NATO, the expansion of missile and drone strikes deep into the territories of Ukraine and Russia is the most direct path to a nuclear escalation. Another crossing of the fatal “threshold” could be triggered by the counteroffensive of Ukrainian forces, especially the invasion of Crimea, and the destruction of hydro and nuclear facilities of both states.

Some Russian political analysts close to the public authorities speak directly about this danger. For example, Professor Sergey Karaganov writes: “If the conflict in Ukraine drags on, there will be an increasing likelihood of ... taking it to a higher and more terrible level of armaments.” [47] The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it always ends halfway through. After all, the conflict escalation “to a more terrible” (presumably nuclear) level will not stop at this point.

The first use of nuclear weapons in 78 years, the consequences of which will be broadcast life around the world by television and the Internet, will cause an unprecedented moral and political shock on all continents. Tactical nuclear weapons are not some “sterile instrument.” The bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki would now be classifies tactical grade. Further escalation through the stages of air-space strikes and nuclear attacks would quickly bring the conflict to an exchange of massive strikes with all the monstrous consequences.

Just from the immediate effects of nuclear explosions, casualties are estimated in open sources for the NATO nations and Russia at 90 million people [48]: from blinding and sizzling thermal radiation, shock waves, penetrating radiation, and fire tornadoes. And many more victims are expected in the following months to result from ubiquitous radioactive fallout, “nuclear winter” due to smoke in the atmosphere from extensive fires, from hunger and cold in the wake of total destruction of modern socio-economic and public infrastructures. And also, from what was not previously taken into consideration, but is brought out by the experience of 2020-2021 – “the nuclear pandemic”. These are the infectious diseases caused by decomposition of millions of unburied bodies, the spread of countless carriers of medieval and newer diseases amid the complete destruction of all healthcare systems.

Indeed this would mark the nadir of the nuclear deterrence philosophy, i.e. relying on nuclear weapons as a guarantee of world peace and security.

Nuclear deterrence and disarmament

After the happy resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, government leaders of leading countries and the world public came to realize that nuclear weapons are not just a more powerful means of war and foreign policy but a qualitatively new phenomenon. Due to their monstrous destructive power and technical peculiarities, they are capable—even beyond the will of politicians or as a result of their mutual mistakes—of plunging mankind into apocalypse.

After the experience gained during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the topic of nuclear disarmament moved from propaganda battles in the UN to the practical policy as a special area of interaction between states to prevent nuclear war through specific step-by-step measures aimed at limiting and reducing nuclear weapons. [49] The first successful realization of this idea occurred less than a year later, in 1963, with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. This process was then instrumental in building a multilateral system for the limitation and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as conventional forces and weapon systems. The central pillar of this architecture since 1969 has been the USSR/Russia-U.S. dialogue on strategic arms, which was crowned with the conclusion of a dozen major treaties and agreements on their limitation and reduction in order to strengthen the stability of strategic relations between the two powers and to ensure their transparency and predictability. [50]

However, times changed, new government leaders and their freelance advisors came to power, the world order was being restructured, and military-technological development continued apace. The attitude to the arms control assets that had earlier been accumulated became skeptical and dismissive. The horrors of Hiroshima were forgotten, nuclear war turned into an abstraction, and a world without nuclear threats became commonplace. Some leaders of nuclear nations started portraying nuclear weapons as an effective instrument of politics and defense. In place of arms control negotiations, this revisionist school put forward allegedly innovative models: “It is time to move away from the meaningless principle of numerical parity in both calculations and negotiations, if the latter are ever held. Instead, it is worth starting a dialogue between all nuclear powers... to strengthen international strategic stability.... Thus, the purpose of the dialogue is not actually to reduce arsenals, but to prevent war through information exchange, clarification of positions, including the reasons for the deployment of certain systems, doctrinal guidelines, building confidence measures or at least reducing suspicions” [Karaganov 2017].

Well, under the influence of the arms race and the growth of political contradictions that resulted in the protracted armed conflict in Ukraine, this program has by now been almost fully implemented. Back in 2002, the U.S. denounced the ABM Treaty on the pretext of growing missile threat from “rogue states”. In 2019, it withdrew from the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missile Treaty (INF Treaty), accusing Russia of violating it and planning to deploy its own missiles of this class to counterbalance China’s similar systems in Asia. In 2020, the Open Skies Treaty suffered the same fate. In 2023, Russia suspended the New START, due to the U.S. policy of inflicting “strategic defeat” on Russia in the Ukrainian conflict and for other reasons, including the lack of restrictions on the nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France. [51] Following this unraveling, Russia denounced the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which it had suspended since 2015. [52]

But somehow a multilateral dialogue of all nuclear powers on “the strengthening of international strategic stability” and preventing war through “information exchange and confidence building measures” is still dead in the water. On the contrary, tensions are rising, trust is at zero, dialogue has been totally frozen, and nuclear war has turned from an abstraction into a near and plausible reality.

Adherents of the revisionist school [Karaganov, Suslov 2019a, 2019b] have always failed to realize that the negotiations on arms limitation and reduction, with stringent verification measures, were not about parity, which was only a form, but not the essence of the agreements. The practical arms control process served as a reliable channel for the powers to cooperate in preventing nuclear war, strengthening strategic stability and predictability, exchanging information, explaining the reasons for the deployment of certain weapon systems, building confidence and reducing suspicion. Only in parallel informal expert discussions and social movements have played a useful supplementary role.

Without a reliable foundation in the form of arms control treaties, it would be impossible in future to discuss the limitation of conventional long-range high-precision weapons, as well as to revive limitations on missile defense systems of the two superpowers. Still less realistic would be to expect a meaningful dialogue on the non-deployment of weapons in space as well as the limitations of cyber weapons and the latest disruptive technologies. Most likely, the next victim of the destruction paradigm will be the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Russian side has already warned about this possibility at the top level. [53] Then, the treaties prohibiting the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and on the bottom of oceans and seabed will also collapse. [54] The question of involving third nuclear powers—Great Britain, France (as demanded by Russia) and China (which the United States wants to engage) will then no longer be valid. Still less possible would be to involve other nuclear-weapon states in the negotiations.

The resumption of full-scale nuclear testing will deal the final blow to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the existing nuclear-weapon-free zones will crumble in a few years. As a result, there will be 15–20 nuclear-weapon states instead of the current nine during the following decades. Finally nuclear weapons will inevitably fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, and the 2001 tragedy of the New York Twin Towers will seem a pale prelude to the upcoming catastrophes. Thus, the philosophy and practice of nuclear deterrence will conclude the full circle: from the original means of warfare to an instrument of war prevention and back to an instrument of actual warfighting.

As if to confirm this conclusion, Russian public discourse has recently been promoting, with a renewed vigor, the idea of using nuclear weapons to complete the military operation in Ukraine quickly and successfully. [55] In particular, it is proposed to intimidate the West with a nuclear threat and, if it does not retreat, to launch a nuclear strike “against a group of targets in a number of countries” that help Ukraine. In this way, “strategic retreat and surrender” should be imposed on the West and its centuries-long neo-colonial world domination will allegedly come to an end.

These provisions are excitedly arrogant in political terms and highly questionable from professional perspective. Take the absurd proposal to warn “our compatriots and all people of good will” abroad to leave the zones of planned Russian nuclear strikes! That is, there should be a way to search for compatriots and identify “people of good will” there in advance, get in touch with them, and thus warn the opponent of the time and place of nuclear attack, inviting a preemptive strike. Another example is the philosophical sentiment that nuclear weapons were given to us by the Almighty to keep mankind from war. The question to the author should be: why did he give it to the Americans four years earlier than to the Russians and let the United States maintain a decisive nuclear superiority over the USSR for almost a quarter of a century? However, the most amusing is the dream that “through all the thorns and traumas” (allegedly of nuclear warfare) it would be possible to arrive at a “bright future” (allegedly in the midst of the radioactive ruins).

One could simply laugh at these and other goofs, but there is cause for alarm, as this topic has become a targeted campaign by some well positioned professionals in the Russian media. The reason for concern should be if a certain group of the Russian elite shares this line of thinking and is ready to play a Russian roulette with a nuclear bullet.

On the dialectics of nuclear deterrence

Of the great men of the past, not only the famous fiction author Ovid but also the unassailable logician Hegel would have been baffled by the metamorphoses of the theory and practice of nuclear deterrence.

Decades of evolution in the nuclear weaponry and the process of their legal and contractual restriction have demonstrated the struggle of opposites, but molded a sort of unity at the same time, in the form of a cumulative balance of power that underpins mutual nuclear deterrence. In this balance, the same weapons are designed to serve as the means of nuclear deterrence and simultaneously as the means of waging an actual war if deterrence fails out of malice, strategic miscalculation, or for “technical reasons.”

The question posed at the beginning of this article was how to ensure that nuclear weapons, as long as they exist, serve to deter aggression and prevent war rather than wage it?

The Concept of Strategic Stability, agreed upon by the USSR and the United States in 1990, suggests that removing incentives for a first nuclear strike requires balancing the limitation of offensive and defensive strategic weapons, reducing the concentration of warheads on strategic carriers, and favoring highly survivable strategic weapons. [56] It could be supposed that the weapons that fit such characteristics serve to deter nuclear war. However, the concept and means of the counter-retaliatory strike (LOW), [57] limited nuclear warfare, the interweaving of conventional and nuclear arms, along with other technological innovations, have blurred these criteria, although they have served well over the past thirty years.

It seems that, as a more comprehensive criterion, albeit harboring a certain degree of conventionality, it can be postulated that forces and weapon systems staying outside of arms control limitations are primarily aimed at waging war and fulfill military tasks, which always pursue victory in war or at least its “termination on acceptable terms”. [58] In contrast to that, the arms embraced by the treaties serve primarily the policy of war prevention and deterrence.

This complex dialectic was explained quite eloquently, although with professional diplomatic vagueness, by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov: “Properly drafted treaties that have proven their effectiveness are one of the most reliable, best, proven means of ensuring national security. They increase predictability (we know what we should spend money on and what is not worth being invested in), ensure the verification of the other side’s actions, and are a way of looking from the inside into the dark corners of the military kitchen of our opponents. This doesn’t mean that everything is out in the open, but it’s an essential way of feeling that you know what’s going on around you.” [59]

In other words, arms reduction and limitation measures are an effective way to prevent aggression, and that is exactly the basic function of nuclear deterrence. Not by scholastic disputes over doctrines and information exchanges, but by verifiable agreements on specific weapon systems, deployment regimes, and development programs, is it possible to mutually affect plans for their military use. The goal of such influence is to eliminate first-strike opportunities and incentives and to enhance stability in its clear strategic sense (as opposed to idealistic “peace for the world” interpretation).

In the “golden age” of arms control—from the mid-1980s to the late 2000s—nuclear deterrence reigned supreme in international security, the threat of nuclear war, at least between the great powers, approached zero, and nuclear weapons virtually vanished from the focus of global political and public attention. It even came down to a loss of any public interest in limiting nuclear weapons, like one does may not care about health when having no medical problems. It turned out later that the ubiquitous complacency was premature....

It is no accident that in the current climate of international confrontation, when threats of using nuclear weapons have once again become foreign policy instruments, arms control treaties are falling apart like a house of cards. For the treaties prevent returning nuclear weapons to their initial function as instruments of war and credible military threats. It is no coincidence that those now calling for the use of nuclear weapons [60] have been fighting for many years to dismantle the arms control edifice built over decades [Karaganov 2017].

Such reasoning may seem like scholastic constructs, like the laws of Hegelian dialectics or Ovidian metamorphoses. But unlike the latter, these logical concepts have iron-clad material basis. This is embodied by the mammoth nuclear arsenals capable of killing a hundred million people in a few hours of nuclear exchange and destroying everything built by man over the last thousand years in the Northern Hemisphere, turning the rest of humanity into a Neanderthal state. The prevention of such an ignominious “end of history” depends on the correct understanding and application of the above-mentioned strategic categories.

For this purpose, it is necessary, before it is too late, to reverse the current trends in international security. First and foremost, there should be a ceasefire and the beginning of negotiations on a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict, as well as a shift away from a comprehensive confrontation between Russia and NATO in Europe, in parallel to the easing of tensions between China and the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific.

On this basis, the obstacles to the restoration of the New START should be removed and the negotiations on the next agreements for the period after 2026 should be launched. Restoring the arms control foundation will make it possible to expand the dialogue to other types of weapons and military technologies, gradually involve third nuclear powers in the process, and strengthen nonproliferation regimes for weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of the changing world order, this is the only way to prevent the impending collapse of international security.

The article is published as part of the Post-Crisis World Order: Challenges and Technologies, Competition and Cooperation project under a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation to conduct major research projects in priority areas of scientific and technological development (Agreement No. 075-15-2020-783).

Arbatov A.G. 2023. Nuclear Metamorphoses. Polis. Political Studies. No. 5, p. xx-xx.


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2. Four such states actually exist: India, Pakistan, the DPRK and Israel, though the latter, following the principle of “neither denying nor confirming” its possession of nuclear weapons, does not publicize its nuclear doctrine.

3. Executive Order on Approval of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. President of Russia, 31.03.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

4. A Meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. President of Russia, 07.12.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

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6. G7 Leaders’ Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament. The White House, 19.06.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

7. Courtney Mares. Pope Francis on G7 Summit: Nuclear deterrence offers ‘only an illusion of peace’ Catholic News Agency. Rome Newsroom, 21.05.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

8. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia, 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

9. An interview for The Financial Times. President of Russia, 27.06.2019. (accessed 01.07.2023).

10. Valdai International Discussion Club meeting. President of Russia, 27.10.2016. (accessed 01.07.2023).

11. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia, 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

12. Globally, the number of nuclear warheads has decreased almost by an order of magnitude, and by seven times in the strategic forces of the USSR/Russia and the U.S. [SIPRI Yearbook 2022: 341-343].

13. Nuclear forces were mainly reduced in Russia and the U.S., to a lesser extent in the UK and France, increased in Israel, China, India, Pakistan and the DPRK, and were completely eliminated in South Africa.

14. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation. President of Russia, (accessed 01.02.2018).

15. On the Fundamentals of the National Nuclear Policy of the Russian Federation. Decree of the Russian President. Moscow, Kremlin. No. 355. Official publication of legal enactments, 02.06.2020. (accessed 01.07.2023).

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. A Meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. President of Russia, 07.12.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

19. Press conference on the results of the visit to Kyrgyzstan. President of Russia, 09.12.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

20. It should be reminded that the Soviet Union assumed a similar commitment in 1982, but the Russian Federation rescinded it in 1993.

21. This calculation is based on the assumption that, all other things being equal (i.e., with all SNFs switched to the highest level of alert), 90% of silo-based ICBMs that would be hit by the aggressor’s disarming (counterforce) first strike do not take part in a “deep” retaliatory strike [SIPRI Yearbook 2022: 355-367].

22. ‘We’ll go to paradise as martyrs, while they will just die.’ What Putin said at ‘Valdai’. RIA Novosti, 18.10.2018. (accessed 01.07.2023).

23. On the Fundamentals of the National Nuclear Policy of the Russian Federation. Decree of the Russian President. Moscow, Kremlin. No. 355. Official publication of legal enactments, 02.06.2020. (accessed 01.07.2023).

24. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation. (accessed 01.02.2018). On Fundamentals of Nuclear Deterrence National Policy of the Russian Federation. Russian Federation Presidential Decree. Moscow, Kremlin, June 2, 2020 No. 355. 02.06.2020. (accessed 01.07.2023).

25. 2022 National Defense Strategy; 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense. 2022. p. 7-

26. Speech of the President of the Republic on the Defense and Deterrence Strategy. Ėlysėe. (accessed 01.07.2023); National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. (accessed 01.07.2023).

27. On Fundamentals of Nuclear Deterrence National Policy of the Russian Federation. Russian Federation Presidential Decree. Moscow, Kremlin, June 2, 2020 No. 355. 02.06.2020. (accessed 01.07.20

28. Borzov А. Aerospace Defense: Time to Stop Terminological Discussions. Military Space Defense. 2010. No. 4 (53). p. 16. (accessed 02.07.2023). Vladykin O. Breaches in Space Defense. Independent Military Review. 21−27.05.2010. No. 18. p. 3.

29. Putin on the Lessons of the Leningrad Street. RBC, 22.10.2015. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation as of Feb. 5, 2010 (accessed 01.07.2023).

30. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia, 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

31. This relates to various new types of ballistic and aerodynamic (i.e., cruise) missiles of medium and intercontinental range, based on land, in the air or at sea with adjustable trajectory that use space and other navigation systems as well as homing devices at the terminal part of their trajectories. The latest aerodynamic systems have hypersonic speed (i.e. 5 times above the speed of sound – more than 1,650 m/sec.). In parallel, the improvement of unmanned air vehicles, naval and land drones is currently underway and they are extensively used in armed conflicts.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia, 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

32.: Overview of the Current Condition and Prospective Development of US Nuclear Forces. Foreign Military Review. 2002. No. 4. p. 2−20.

33. 2022 National Defense Strategy; 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2022, р. 9-10.

34. Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 11 June 2019, pp. III-3, V-3. (accessed 01.07.2023).

35. See Timokhin A. Boil the ocean with Poseidon? No, that’s fantasy, Military Review 27.05.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023); Alekseev V. The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence, RIAC 18.04.2019. (accessed 01.07.2023); [Sivkov 2019: 4].

36. Two bases in Italy and one in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey each [SIPRI Yearbook 2022: 343-359].

37. Strategic stability is interpreted as a state of strategic relations between the parties in which incentives for a first nuclear strike are eliminated (see Joint Statement regarding Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Weapons and Further Strengthening of Strategic Stability. 1990.) The official visit of the USSR President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to the United States of America, May 30 – June 4, 1990. Documents and materials. M.: Politizdat, p. 197-199

38. On Fundamentals of Nuclear Deterrence National Policy of the Russian Federation. Russian Federation Presidential Decree. Moscow, Kremlin, June 2, 2020 No. 355. 02.06.2020. (accessed 01.07.20

39. Construction of a nuclear weapons storage facility in Belarus is to be completed by July 1. Russian Gazette 25.03.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

On the Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence. (accessed 01.07.2023).

40. Russian Foreign Ministry: NATO nuclear missions are not compatible with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. TASS 08.10.2014. (accessed 01.07.2023).42

41. Text of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address. 24.02.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

42. Putin ordered to put Russian army deterrence forces into a special duty mode. TASS 27.02.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023)

43. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Kremlin. News (accessed 01.02.2018).

Putin ordered to put Russian army deterrence forces into a special duty mode. TASS 27.02.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023)

44. Text of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address. 24.02.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

45. Short approach (flight) time apply to high-speed ballistic and hypersonic aerodynamic carriers, whereas short warning times also apply to stealth and low-altitude systems with a changing trajectory.

46. Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Preventing an Arms Race. President of Russia. 03.01.2022. (accessed 01.07.2023).

47. S.A. Karaganov. We are confronted by the Big West which will start crumbling sooner or later. Russian Gazette, 12.04.2022.

48. New Study on US-Russian Nuclear War. ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). 18.09.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

49. These include the phased limitation (1963, 1974 and 1976) and then the prohibition of nuclear tests (1996); the ban on the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space (1967) and on the seabed (1971); the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968); and the inauguration of seven nuclear-weapon-free zones in the Antarctic, Latin America, Africa, South Pacific, South-East Asia, Central Asia and Mongolia (1959-2006). In addition, conventions on the prohibition of bacteriological (1972) and chemical weapons (1993), a treaty on the limitation of conventional armed forces in Europe (1990 and 1999), and a number of treaties on inhumane conventional weapons were finalized.

50. These are the ABM Treaty and the SALT-1 Interim Agreement (1972), the SALT-2 Treaty (1979), the INF Treaty (1987), START-1 (1991), START-2 (1993), the START-3 Framework Agreement (1997), the Agreement on the Delineation of Strategic ABM and Theater ABM (1997), the Moscow SORT Treaty (2002), and the New START (2010).

51. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

52. Statement by the Head of the Russian Delegation during the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control, A. Yu. Mazur at the plenary session of the Joint Consultative Group on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Vienna, March 10, 2015. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. (accessed 01.07.2023).

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. President of Russia 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

53. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, President of Russia, 21.02.2023. (accessed 01.07.2023).

54. The new Russian heavy ICBM RS-28 Sarmat, according to its general designer V. Degtyar, “is capable of flying around the globe,” which means putting nuclear weapons in space in full orbit (see Litovkin D. The Last Equalizer. Independent Military Review, No. 21, 10-16.06.2022. p. 1-2). The Poseidon super torpedo nuclear system is designed, among other things, to lie on the ocean bottom for a long time to rise on command and attack coastal targets (see Poroskov N. Russia to Be Protected by Poseidon. Independent Military Review, 21-27.04.2023. No. 14. p. 1-4).

55. S. Karaganov. Use of Nuclear Weapons Can Safeguard Mankind against Global Disaster. Profile, 13.06.2023.

56. See Joint Statement Relative to Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Armaments and Further Strengthening of Strategic Stability. 1990. Official visit of the USSR President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to the United States, May 30 – June 4, 1990. Documents & Materials. M.: Politizdat, p. 197-199

57. For example, the Soviet RS-20 Voyevoda heavy ICBM and its Russian successor, the RS-28 Sarmat, contradict these criteria, but they carry up to 30% of the warheads of the Strategic Nuclear Forces and serve the concept of counter-retaliatory (LOW) strike in the mode of deterrence of the opponents’ disarming (counterforce) attack.

See Joint Statement Relative to Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Armaments and Further Strengthening of Strategic Stability. 1990. Official visit of the USSR President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to the United States, May 30 – June 4, 1990. Documents & Materials. M.: Politizdat, p. 197-199

58. On Foundations of National Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence. Presidential Decree, Russian Federation, Moscow, Kremlin. No. 355. Official publication of enactments (accessed 01.07.2023).

59. Exclusive interview of Sergey Ryabkov. International Life 24.08.2018. (accessed 14.06.2023).

60. S. Karaganov. Use of Nuclear Weapons Can Safeguard Mankind against Global Disaster. Profile 13.06.2023.

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