Russian military doctrine on nuclear weapons includes two concepts that the West is not adequately considering. The doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” by threatening to employ nuclear weapons when initiating a conventional conflict also includes their tactical employment in the development of it. The doctrine of an initial nuclear strike in the face of what Putin considers an “existential risk” is not limited to the risk of an enemy nuclear attack, but to any event that Moscow deems to jeopardize its system of government or its territorial control over strategic areas.
That is why Putin, when launching the invasion, threatened the West with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if it intervened in support of Kyiv. On February 27, he put his nuclear forces on high alert, deployed submarines with ballistic missiles and land-based mobile missile launchers, and on May 4, the Russian Defense Ministry announced electronic launches in Kaliningrad of a nuclear-capable mobile ballistic system.
Let us remember that there is no more opposition or independent media in Russia. With that in mind, let’s not forget that on April 28, Aleksey Zhuravlyov, chairman of a party of Putin’s coalition, called on a Russian TV station to broadcast a bomb simulation against Britain with the largest Russian nuclear missile.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a television journalist considered Putin’s own unofficial “spokesman”, threatened the British Prime Minister on May 1 that Russia could attack Britain with a Poseidon submarine drone carrying a 100-megaton nuclear warhead. The explosion, Kiselyov threatened, would create a gigantic tsunami that would sweep Britain, transforming what remains into a radioactive wasteland.
The Kremlin’s nuclear threats seek to “coerce the enemy to retreat and not fight” and despite the sanctions and weapons sent to Ukraine, the back-and-forth in sanctions on Moscow and shipments of fighter jets to Kyiv indicated to Moscow that its threats worked. The Kremlin’s problem is that its military failed to achieve a quick and decisive victory in Ukraine. The ambitious military reform initiated in 2009 by Minister Serdyukov, following the disasters of the two Chechen wars and the war in Georgia, got bogged down in corruption. Military shortcomings were once again on display in Ukraine.
The First Chechen War was fought from 1994 to 1996 under Yeltsin’s presidency. The Russians tried to quickly occupy the main cities and collapse the Chechen Islamists but met with fierce resistance and after heavy losses, they withdrew. The Second Chechen War was fought between 1999 and 2009. Under Putin, Moscow resorted to massive artillery bombardment and eventually imposed a satellite government. Putin also invaded Georgia in 2008 and the Russian military suffered another logistical chaos that exponentially raised the material and human cost of wresting South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. But the Kremlin assumed that the Obama administration had given it the “green light” to intervene in former USSR areas of influence.
Following those disasters, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov launched an ambitious military reform that reduced the new ground force to 89 autonomous action brigades allegedly ready to deploy within an hour. The associated modernization program would have cost around $600 billion. The modernization failed and the shortcomings of the new army were exposed in Syria and Ukraine.
So far, the combination of inefficiency and brutality of the Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria campaigns is being repeated in the second phase of the invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin is seeking a “victory” at any cost to break the deadlock and Russian forces are suffering significant attrition of troops, equipment and even fallen senior officers. But Moscow will escalate the war through numerical superiority, ethnic cleansing strategies and brutal terror tactics to achieve anything Putin can claim as a victory. In that gamble, an escalation to the use of nuclear weaponry cannot be ruled out, because for the prevailing Kremlin ideology a complete defeat in Ukraine would imply a real “existential risk.”