Sound Nuclear Policy Must Understand and Address Russian Nuclear Strategy

In his essay, Eric Gomez outlines three main reasons for why U.S. nuclear policy and modernization are at an inflection point: changing U.S. threat perceptions, the erosion of arms control, and the rise of non-nuclear strategic technologies. Some of these shifts are hardly new; for example, the strategic significance of conventional capabilities emerged out of the precision revolution of the 1980s, but these challenges may be nonetheless novel to the current generation of nuclear policy officials that must grapple with them. Gomez’s call to ask first-order questions is important. That is not something that gets done very often in Washington, D.C. Despite the attention that China presently garners in the defense community, at the end of the day U.S. nuclear strategy and policy must first consider Russia’s nuclear force posture, capabilities, and evolving thinking on nuclear employment.

Moscow holds by far the largest, most diverse, and sophisticated set of nuclear capabilities, strategic and non-strategic, representing a sizable share of nuclear warheads in existence outside of the United States and the arsenals of its allies. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has already undergone substantial reinvestment, with new platforms, means of delivery, and warheads deployed across the force. Novel nuclear weapons have also been deployed, or are far along in development, such as the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle Avangard, or the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo. There is much to take note of in Russia’s modernized nuclear arsenal, including lower yield warheads better suited to executing contemporary strategies for escalation management, or advanced work on hypersonic weapons which are likely to have conventional and nuclear payloads.

Yet the fundamental problem facing U.S. nuclear strategy today is not a capability gap, but a cognitive gap. Strategy should be about choices. The rote instinct to pursue a more flexible nuclear force as a hedge against adversary capabilities can inevitably be used to justify the procurement of any system. It is facile to argue that any capability is necessary in America’s nuclear quiver to “hedge against an uncertain future.” In thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in contemporary conflict scenarios, their relationship to conventional means, and their purpose in deterring adversaries, the United States is currently playing catch-up. While planners will inevitably reach for tried and tested solutions: the procurement of things to solve strategic challenges, it’s unclear if the United States has a working theory of victory in how these capabilities will manage escalation dynamics and shape adversary decisionmaking, a problem Brad Roberts and others have cogently identified. Ideally, nuclear modernization should offer answers to deterrence of conflict with likely adversaries, intra-war deterrence if war occurs, and some thesis on war termination beyond hoping to get lucky.

To this end, the United States should avoid chasing Russian nuclear capability or modernization, and work from reasonable sufficiency, buying what it needs based on deterrence strategies it wants to pursue. America’s principal advantage over Russia will continue to be in conventional capability, not nuclear weapons. Nuclear investments must be in the furtherance of answers to thorny questions in strategy, with some coherent thesis, rather than a costly scramble for options and flexibility. Buying stuff, to have more stuff, to have more flexibility, does not a strategy make.

Furthermore, the defense enterprise writ large must recognize that it is just not serious about Russia, as successive Secretaries of Defense have continued to espouse the fantasy that Russia is an ephemeral challenge, not long for this world, and due to become a lesser threat because the United States wishes it to be so. Nowhere is that less true than in the realm of nuclear capabilities and nuclear strategy, a fact that is generally appreciated. However, senior political and military leaders continue to cling to the view that the Russian threat will decline, even as they make an exception for nuclear considerations, chiefly because they do not wish to plan for a future where they have to deal with two significant and sustained challengers. That intellectual backdrop bodes ill for the cohesion of any U.S. effort to deal with an adversarial great power that happens to be America’s only true nuclear peer.

The Evolution of Russian Nuclear Strategy

Russia’s current nuclear strategy is intended to answer the challenge posed by the precision revolution, grappling with the threat of massed aerospace attack using long range precision guided weapons, electronic warfare, stealth, and similar technologies. These make real the proposition that the United States could inflict strategic levels of damage against Russian critical infrastructure, or the Russian military, without having to resort to nuclear use. The key tenets of Russian thinking sort ways and means based on the type of conflict considered, developing a chain of interlinked actions that offer options to the political leadership during a threatened period of war, the opening phases of a conflict, and nuclear warfighting options should escalation management fail. The Russian objective has been to find answers to contemporary challenges in modern warfare that do not have simple warfighting solutions, develop a theory for escalation management, and address the escalation dilemmas implicit in dealing with an adversary that has superiority in strategic conventional capabilities.

Thus, beyond a survivable strategic nuclear deterrent, the Russian military continues to see nuclear weapons as an asymmetric instrument in deterring a regional or large-scale war, and complementary to growing strategic conventional capabilities. Although the Russian armed forces have undergone extensive transformation and modernization since 2008, it is an earnestly held belief in the Russian General Staff that only strategic deterrence forces, integrating select conventional, non-strategic nuclear, and strategic nuclear capabilities, can deter the United States. Their concepts rest largely on the premise of raising costs above anticipated gains. They assume that denying the United States a quick or easy victory in any conflict is possible, but that sustaining defense in a conventional-only war is ultimately cost prohibitive.

The growth of Russia’s long-range conventional arsenal, including emerging technologies such as hypersonic weapons, will not substitute for the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Russian thinking. It has reduced dependence on the nuclear toolkit, shifting the need or consideration of nuclear employment away from the initial period of war, but the Russian military expects a great-power war to eventually involve nuclear weapons and is comfortable with this reality, unlike the U.S. strategy community, which generally seeks nuclear weapons in the hope of deterring adversary nuclear use. Nuclear weapons continue to stand out in Russian strategy because of their psychological impact, and ruble-to-deterrence cost ratio, which cannot be supplanted by conventional means. This helps explain the concurrent growth of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal alongside its conventional precision guided weapons.

The main departure from late-Soviet thinking on this subject is that while the Russian military leadership may believe that a nuclear war cannot be won, it does not believe that limited nuclear use will necessarily result in uncontrolled escalation. Russian thinking in this area is based on deterrence by intimidation, or fear inducement, and deterrence through limited use of force. In practical terms these include signaling readiness to strike critical economic and military targets, the use of conventional weapons in single and grouped strikes against them, nuclear demonstrations, and the follow-on use of nuclear weapons in limited employment roles. A modernized nuclear arsenal, with lower yields and precise means of delivery, is better able realize such missions, whether it is select use for the purpose of escalation management or nuclear warfighting in geography proximate to Russia’s own borders.

Gaps in the U.S. Understanding of Russian Nuclear Strategy

In general, Russian strategy reflects a balanced recognition that nuclear weapons are not credible in deterring or coercing in limited conflict scenarios, crises, or the early phases of a war. Conventional capabilities have overtaken some of these deterrence or escalation management tasks in lesser conflicts and early phases of larger wars. Here the views espoused in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review on Russian nuclear strategy are not only dated, but also incorrect. There is an erroneous perception that Washington and Moscow shared a common view of the nuclear threshold, and that Russia dramatically departed from this understanding leading to a much-lowered nuclear threshold. Broadly speaking, this is a misperception. This consensus probably never existed, and the Russian nuclear threshold has not been shifting dramatically about. What has changed is the timing of when Moscow may feel the need to use nuclear weapons in war, depending on how quickly or slowly their criteria for nuclear employment is reached. Ultimately, de-escalation in Russian strategy means escalation management, not preemptive war termination. This vision is not borne of unrealistic confidence, nor is there a prevailing belief in Moscow that it is possible to start and quickly end a conflict on Russian terms thanks to nuclear coercion.

That said, the United States must invariably hedge against the prospect that in a conflict, whatever its causes, Moscow decides to employ nuclear weapons, either in an attempt to manage escalation via calibrated coercion, or for limited warfighting once the conflict escalates or becomes militarily untenable. This brings out the second glaring misperception: the yield gap. Russian nuclear strategy is not based on the assumption that the United States faces an escalation dilemma due to an asymmetry of yields. This perception is borne chiefly of U.S. planners fearing that our own political leadership will be self-deterred. Hence a flexible arsenal with lower yields may be prudent, but it is best not to fall victim to the belief that it will either deter limited Russian nuclear use or answer the proverbial mail when it comes to Russian nuclear strategy. On the contrary, planning to respond in kind reduces the risk of uncontrolled nuclear escalation for Russian strategy and sets the United States up for a schizophrenic nuclear posture whereby our body language says that we plan to engage in limited nuclear counter-escalation all the while professing that such strategies are reckless and that controlled nuclear escalation is not possible. This may be a better problem to have than self-deterrence, or inflexibility, but it is an incoherence that should be recognized because it impinges on coercive credibility.

The third misperception stems from Russian investments in novel nuclear systems and means of delivery, such as Avangard, Poseidon, or Burevestnik. While these have generated much media publicity, they change preciously little in the strategic nuclear balance, or the ability of Russian nuclear forces to inflict unacceptable damage upon the United States. Although testing and development for some of these systems began well before the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, much of the impetus behind them has been the Russian fear of a competition in missile defense. These programs are effectively a hedge against a U.S. breakthrough in missile defense technology. They can be accounted for under existing arms control agreements, or incorporated into new ones, but these weapon systems do not pose destabilizing challenges or add to the coercive potential of Russia’s already sizable, and diverse, nuclear arsenal. Russian investment in these programs should not used as an alibi to abandon arms control, nor as vehicle to sell our own nuclear modernization, which has preciously little to do with these developments.

Towards Judicious Modernization

U.S. nuclear modernization will not result in a new arms race with Russia; the arms race, if it exists, is in strategic conventional capabilities. However, it is important to extend the New START Treaty and continue to pursue arms control. These agreements have generally been favorable to the United States, improving stability, reducing costs, and affording the pursuit of qualitative versus quantitative superiority. Arms control continues to be more prudent for U.S. strategy than the fantasy of unbridled nuclear superiority, much of which is irrelevant anyway when it comes to the political calculus behind nuclear use of force. While it makes no sense to stay in agreements which are simply not being implemented by the other side, as was the case with the INF Treaty, arms control should be one of the pillars of U.S. strategy in dealing with Russia’s nuclear forces. In practice, and considering realistic resource constraints, the United States will not attain any meaningful superiority relative to Russia were strategic arms control abandoned.

Nonetheless, existing arms control agreements do not offer answers to two critical concerns on both sides. For the United States, it is Russia’s growing non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and for Moscow, the long-standing U.S. superiority in long-range conventional weapons. It’s unclear if this gap can be bridged, because even in an alternate universe where threat perceptions are markedly different, both countries would eschew constraints on such capabilities because they need them for deterring China. Yet here too it merits asking some first-order questions. For example, if Russia cut its non-strategic nuclear arsenal in half from 2,000 to 1,000, what difference would it make for U.S. operational plans or extended deterrence commitments?

The United States needs to modernize judiciously. Just because Russia’s nuclear arsenal is a zoo, it does not mean we need the same diversity to address the present-day challenges of nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence. There must be a logic to U.S. nuclear weapons procurement and it should not be premised on the logical fallacy that because they have a thing, we need a thing like that to deter it—or face a dreadful gap in capability and fear being coerced on an imaginary escalation ladder. Deterrence doesn’t really work that way. This type of logic is a path to ruin. If Russia needs its non-strategic nuclear weapons for escalation management, and as an offset to our conventional superiority, or that of other powers, do we need a similar arsenal? How much is enough, and to what end? These questions should illuminate discussions on whether we need both the Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSO), and the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, along with the low-yield submarine launched ballistic missile (W76-2), etc. These should be choices, not a nuclear buffet.

This raises the question: do we have a theory of escalation management or war termination? The problem is not with Russian thinking on these questions, it is with a lack of our intellectual investment on the subject. U.S. thinking on great power war has at least three significant assumptions on escalation management and war termination which are not fleshed out or sufficiently debated: first, that a high-end fight with Russia can be geographically confined to fit our scenarios, second that the United States can achieve military objectives while deterring nuclear use, and third, that the war can be ended when the United States feels it has accomplished its goals. There is a thesis that new U.S. nuclear weapons will play a role in enabling these, or perhaps should, but that role is not always clear or explicitly stated in our assumptions. Thinking on intra-war deterrence and war termination should influence debates on nuclear modernization.

As a corollary, telling the Russians that their strategy will not work is not only unhelpful, but it is an encouragement for them to buy more non-strategic nuclear weapons because it betrays our fear and concern. Similarly, trying to scare them with China’s growing nuclear arsenal is, again, a suggestion for Moscow to further invest in theater nuclear warfighting as a cost-effective deterrent against Beijing.


In thinking about nuclear modernization, it is important to recognize that nuclear weapons by themselves are only one part of an equation that makes for credible deterrence. Questions of resolve cannot be easily solved with flexibility in yields or new means of delivery. These investments are ways by which planners might seek to offer options to decisionmakers, but political leaders do not think the way planners or wargamers do. Nuclear use is ultimately a political decision. This is something that many wargames and simulations tend to get wrong. Planners and strategists informing this process have to keep in mind the political calculus of adversaries, and most importantly, that political leaders tend not to think the way they do. In many cases the requirements for deterrence, that is what is reasonably sufficient to enable the sort of outcomes we might seek, need not entail costly or arduous solutions that take away from areas where the United States could meaningfully seek advantages or pursue competitive strategies.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Eric Gomez argues that U.S. nuclear strategy is due for a reconsideration. As the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons undergoes modernization—a process that will take more than a decade—the time is right for rethinking what we should be doing with them. Gomez argues against relying too heavily on nuclear deterrence, which increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used and makes them more attractive to countries that lack them.

Response Essays

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that the United States government must achieve two significant goals in its nuclear weapons policy: First, it must prevent strategic competition with China from devolving into a nuclear arms race; and second, it must pave the way for nuclear arms control, ideally in conjunction with a reluctant Russia.

  • Beatrice Fihn calls attention to another aspect of current nuclear weapons policy debate—the growing movement to prohibit nuclear weapons entirely. Some 45 countries have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, just five short of the number required for ratification, and those party to the treaty will exert increasing pressure on the rest of the world to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.

  • Michael Kofman argues for the continuing importance of Russia to U.S. nuclear strategy. Rather than a return to the Cold War, or a buy-all-you-can spending spree, Kofman argues for paying close attention to Russia’s own strategic planning, which requires much more attention than Russia’s headline-grabbing new weapons systems.