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Russia Eyeing New Itchy-Trigger Nuclear Doctrine

Putin getting comfortable with nuclear threats against the West.

President Vladimir Putin has announced he’s considering changing the Kremlin’s doctrine on nuclear weapons use, specifically lowering the threshold for employing tactical nuclear missiles or bombs. Should the Kremlin believe the sovereignty of Russia is in jeopardy, it could mean a quicker trigger for a tactical nuclear laydown.

Russia Makes Threats Nuclear Policy

The White House is taking Putin’s threats seriously and including China in its strategic nuclear thinking. As Liberty Nation News reported recently, the United States may take the lid off its treaty-constrained nuclear warhead number of 1,550. China, with its rapidly growing nuclear inventory, and North Korea, with its warheads in the hands of an unpredictable leader, have changed the global nuclear deterrence calculus. During the Cold War, the math was simple, but its consequences were hugely disproportional and catastrophic. The West had nuclear weapons capable of destroying an enemy hundreds of times over; the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had nuclear weapons capable of destroying the West hundreds of times over.

However, that was then, and this is now. The nuclear-armed countries have become many. As Victor Davis Hanson observed regarding the war between Ukraine and Russia in his new book The End of Everything,

“In the summer 2022 Vladimir Putin constantly suggested that the aggressor Russia reserved the right to use nuclear weapons if threatened with destruction. As Russia initially became stalemated in the months following [the Ukraine] invasion, a few prominent Russians openly envisioned thermonuclear war to preclude defeat abroad rather than at home.”

In the past, discussions on nuclear disarmament were between the Americans and the Soviets. The atomic weapon landscape is decidedly different today. However, Cold War notions tend to cloud policy-makers’ decisions regarding how to ensure a nuclear weapons attack never happens. The idea behind Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which underpinned the two superpowers’ doctrines, was preventing the first use of nuclear weapons by either country.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Putin signed in June 2020 the Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Nuclear Deterrence, which described two conditions under which Russia could use nuclear weapons. The first was in response to a nuclear attack or use of other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies. Second, the statement opens a much broader and subjective set of conditions, allowing for use of nuclear weapons when conventional weapons threaten the existence of the Russian Federation. Recently, we learned that changing its atomic doctrine is not a new idea.

In a breaking story, the Financial Times revealed seeing classified documents explaining the Kremlin had considered revising its nuclear doctrine nearly ten years ago. “Criteria for a potential nuclear response range from an enemy incursion on Russian territory to more specific triggers, such as the destruction of 20 percent of Russia’s strategic ballistic missiles,” the FT reported. Curiously enough, Moscow’s nuclear response plans were defensive and focused on China, about which Putin was suspicious at the time. Today, the Red Dragon is Putin’s new best friend.

US-China Talks on Nuclear Issues Encouraging

For the first time in five years, the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have participated in quasi-official talks on nuclear issues in the Indo-Pacific. These so-called Track Two discussions involve former government officials and academics who engage their counterparts as subject matter experts but have no binding authority. That is the preserve of Track One talks between official government emissaries.

Recognizing the threats made by Putin recently to use tactical nuclear weapons combined with a modified atomic doctrine has made US efforts to engage China in nuclear disarmament talks more important. The March discussions included “Beijing’s representatives telling US counterparts that they would not resort to atomic threats over Taiwan, according to two American delegates who attended,” Reuters reported.

Some see the views of the PRC delegates as a counterpoint to Russia’s persistent nuclear threats. With Putin repudiating and pulling out of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or New START) before there is one, the time may be right for a nuclear disarmament discussion with China and Russia. Unfortunately, the Russian war on Ukraine is currently an insurmountable speedbump in getting such talks underway. With the PRC’s participation in low-level talks, China may be willing to broaden nuclear weapons reduction talks without Russia. Historically, Beijing has strongly resisted being included in the New START discussions.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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