By Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique
The dominant narrative about Russia’s nuclear weapons in Western strategic literature since the beginning of the century has been something like this: Russia’s doctrine of ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ and its large-scale military exercises show that Moscow is getting ready to use low-yield, theatre nuclear weapons to stop NATO from defeating Russia’s forces, or to coerce the Atlantic Alliance and end a conflict on terms favourable to Russia.
All the elements of this narrative, however, rely on weak evidence – and there is strong evidence to counter most of them. This applies to the role of nuclear weapons in Russian military exercises. [Editor’s note: in a longer commentary in the April–May issue of Survival, the author will also examine Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal and its nuclear doctrine.]
Looking for evidence
Exercises are important in understanding Russian nuclear posture, because, as the saying goes, Moscow trains as it fights and fights as it trains. So what do large-scale ones such as Zapad (Western front) and Vostok (Eastern front) tell us?
What they tell us is that the last time a Zapad included nuclear use was almost 20 years ago, in 1999 – Russia was explicit about it – and that no known large-scale theatre military exercise has included nuclear-weapons use for at least a decade. This is unsurprising: Russia now ‘wins’ – or at least ‘resists’ – without nuclear weapons.
It is often claimed that Zapad 2009 included a nuclear strike against Europe: but this claim comes from a single source, a report by the Polish magazine Wprost. A cable reporting on a NATO debriefing of the exercise shows how the frequent confusion between ‘nuclear’ and ‘nuclear-capable’ permits speculation to be reported as fact. The US ambassador to NATO described it as follows: ‘The exercise included … missile launches, some of which may have simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons’. However, as quoted by a respectable expert, this became: ‘A Wikileaks document suggests that recent military exercises in the Baltic region and the Russian Far East involved simulated nuclear launches’.
Regarding Zapad 2013, an in-depth analysis of the exercise co-published by the Jamestown Foundation – hardly known as a hotbed of Russia appeasers – concludes that ‘the limited use of nuclear weapons was not simulated during Zapad 2013’. Same for Zapad 2017: a conservative US expert of Russian military issues writes in a long analysis that, ‘Unlike the earlier Zapad exercises, there was no indication that Russia was in a desperate situation when they initiated simulated nuclear strikes. Indeed, they had won’.
There is a nuclear dimension overshadowing large-scale exercises such as Zapads. In 2017, for instance, RS-24 ICBM tests bracketed or bookended the exercise: one took place on 12 September (silo-based), two days before the exercise; another one happened on 20 September (mobile), its last day, although there was no indication that it was part of Zapad. Also, a Northern Fleet submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch took place during the defensive phase of Zapad 2017 (although an official Ukrainian statement...