Bruno Tertrais questions whether Russia is preparing to use theatre nuclear weapons and highlights the wider significance of its military exercises.

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 – another source known not for disparaging Russian military threats – refers to it as only an ‘electronic’ [sic] launch, i.e., a simulation). Nuclear exercises may thus be connected with, although separated from, recent Zapads. (Autumn is generally the ‘season’ of Russian strategic nuclear forces readiness exercises.)

As an in-depth Swedish analysis of Russian exercises from 2011–14 put it, ‘nuclear forces often, but not always, trained in connection with annual strategic exercise or major surprise inspections’. If so, this suggests the obvious: Russia would see any conflict with the West as a potentially nuclear one, and Moscow would embark in nuclear signalling during the conflict.

In fact, when Russia uses dual-capable bombers such as the Tupolev-22M, observers often choose to see a nuclear strike even though nothing indicates that this is the case. They are subject to confirmation bias. A long-distance strike against Sweden was simulated by such bombers in late March 2013. Its claim to fame stems from the fact that this was – bizarrely – mentioned as a ‘nuclear’ strike in a NATO Secretary General public report. But there is no evidence that this was the case. Sloppy drafting happens even in respectable organisations. Likewise, the dual-capable Iskander-M missile (whose nuclear ability has never been publicly acknowledged by Moscow) is often used in exercises – but short-range, conventional ballistic missiles have been a fixture of Russian theatre operations from Afghanistan to Georgia.

Keep it simple

For observers who genuinely think that Russia has a low nuclear threshold and regularly practices theatre nuclear strikes, analysing its exercises can trigger cognitive dissonance: they can only reconcile the facts with their beliefs by choosing to see a nuclear strike, even though nothing indicates that this is the case.

This author remembers that in 2015, during a discussion with Western experts, an analyst confessed that having studied Russian large-scale exercises, he ‘could not understand’ why there seemed to be less and less emphasis on the nuclear dimension. Having unconsciously discarded the hypothesis that Russia was increasingly comfortable with its classical forces, he had forgotten the cardinal rule of research sometimes known as Ockham’s Razor: the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

To be sure, Moscow is deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the exercises of dual-capable forces it conducts: it does not say whether they are nuclear or conventional. It is probably a political strategy: Russia has seen that it makes us uncomfortable, and that it potentially complicates our thinking, our calculus and our planning. So Russia plays with it. As Olga Oliker, a prominent analyst of Russia, puts it about nuclear arming the Iskander-M, ‘the Russians have realized that the prospect makes the United States and its NATO allies nervous’.

To reiterate the point, it would not make sense for Russia to hide a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons or a low nuclear threshold – because it knows that this is what scares us. Alternative explanations are unsatisfying: it is very dubious, for instance, that the absence of a nuclear element in recent exercises reflects ‘concern over the unfavourable publicity’ that it would bring Moscow. (A possible explanation would be fear of pre-emption: but nothing indicates that this is the case.)

Worrying for the right reasons

As Oliker puts it, ‘the evidence that Russia’s nuclear strategy is one of “de-escalation”, or that it has lowered its threshold for nuclear use, is far from convincing’. To be clear, this has no direct implications for the Atlantic Alliance’s nuclear posture: irrespective of what Russia’s nuclear policy is, NATO needs to have a credible deterrent. But the Russian nuclear threat narrative needs to be deconstructed. There are enough reasons to worry about Russia’s behaviour – from its reckless military provocations to its violations of arms control and disarmament treaties – to worry about its nuclear weapons for the wrong reasons.

Kristen Ven Bruusgaard, another accomplished European analyst of Russian military affairs, has it right: ‘The fixation with the alleged “lowered nuclear threshold” is a symptom of a larger challenge the West has not had to face for some time: a nuclear-armed adversary with mature capabilities and concepts designed to take advantage of Western weaknesses’.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts

  • Politics and Strategy
    23 May 2018

    Pompeo’s 12 angry demands won’t restrain Iran

    The Iran strategy outlined in Mike Pompeo’s speech is not viable, writes Mark Fitzpatrick.

  • Politics and Strategy
    16 May 2018

    On-again, off-again Korean summit

    The planned involvement of B-52 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters in US-South Korea military exercises may explain Pyongyang's sudden anger.

  • Politics and Strategy
    01 May 2018

    Iran nuclear deal on the ropes

    Anticipating Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, Mark Fitzpatrick and Dana Allin look at why the Europeans should strive with all their power to preserve the accord.

  • Politics and Strategy
    27 April 2018

    On the mountaintop with North Korea

    The effusive goals set by the historic North–South Korea summit on 27 April set the stage for the forthcoming US–North Korea summit. Pyongyang’s historic refusal of tight verification measures is but one reason to doubt its fidelity to denuclearisation. Yet...

  • Politics and Strategy
    19 April 2018

    Macron, l’américain?

    While French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump may be worlds apart, Fabrice Pothier examines the issues on which they share common ground.

armed conflict database

Armed Conflict Database

A regularly updated IISS online resource providing detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.