January 17, 1999
The Putin Doctrine: Nuclear Threats and Russia's Place in the World
Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, last week reversed his country's vow never to use nuclear weapons first. The
announcement sent shock waves around the world. And it should have. Russian nuclear warheads are not about to rain down
on the United States but Putin is doing more than rattling sabers. A new Russian national security doctrine has emerged
over the last few months and Putin's announcement is intended to round out that doctrine, affecting the war in Chechnya,
and re-ordering relations both with Russia's neighbors and the United States.
Until a few months ago, Russia had no clear-cut national security policy. Since the end of the Cold War, Russian
security doctrine had devolved into Russian economic policy. Russian economic policy consisted of intensifying relations
with the advanced industrial, capitalist world in order to create the financial structures and relationships needed to
jump-start the economy. Russian national security doctrine consisted primarily of doing nothing to disrupt those
economic relationships while, within the framework of the first imperative, maintaining the territorial and
institutional integrity of the Russian Federation.
Thus, the most important aspect of the new Russian national security doctrine is that it exists at all. Putin's
announcement on first strike has as its primary purpose the elevation of national security issues to the same level as
national economic issues. In other words, Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons represents the death of the preceding
national strategy, which relegated national security issues to a distant second place behind national economic concerns.
It was intended to stun a number of audiences into realizing that the post-Cold War world is gone.
The choice of the nuclear issue served a number of purposes and spoke to a number of audiences. The first audience was
the United States and its allies. As our readers know, it has been our view that the West's decision to bomb Iraq in
December of 1998 - followed by the war in Kosovo, both in direct opposition to Russian wishes - generated a revolution
in Russian policy. Those two actions convinced the Russians that the United States intended to reduce Russia to the
status of a tertiary power. Washington's systematic indifference to Russian wishes convinced the Russian national
security community that without leverage against the United States, Russia would have no traction whatsoever. Economic
relations with the West had effectively collapsed in the financial crisis of August 1998, so the Russians felt they had
little to lose.
Putin's announcement is perfectly designed to drive home the price and risks of U.S. economic and strategic policy. It
systematically accomplishes what Yeltsin tried spasmodically when he reminded Washington that Russia had nuclear weapons
and was prepared to use them. First, the Putin doctrine reminds the United States that Russia is the only nation in the
world with sufficient nuclear weapons of sufficient range to conduct an annihilating attack on the United States. To put
it bluntly, Russia could choose to kill a large percentage of the American public if it is prepared to endure the same.
Second, Moscow's new stance poses a practical problem for the United States, which must now at least consider Russian
responses. No matter how unlikely a Russian first strike is, there is a huge difference between a negligible threat and
a non-existent one, particularly at the orders of magnitude involved. During the Cold War, the threat of a Soviet
nuclear response was in the back of every policy maker's mind when dealing with issues from Nicaragua to Angola to
India. That threat disappeared with Glasnost. Putin intends to resurrect it.
Third, this is a meaningful threat because of the relative weakness of Russia's conventional forces. Consider Western
nuclear strategy, particularly during the Cold War. The United States and NATO never renounced a possible first strike;
indeed, it was explicitly understood that a massive Soviet attack on Western Europe would trigger the use of tactical
nuclear weapons and, if necessary, higher levels of nuclear response. Russia, on the other hand, had long called for a
no-first-strike commitment by the West and in fact adopted that stance in 1997. Russia, with a conventional weapons
advantage, was always more interested in exploiting that advantage and saw the use of nuclear weapons as undermining it.
Nuclear weapons were the critical equalizer to the superior numbers of Russian conventional forces.
But to create strategic parity beyond the battlefield, doctrine had to be married to unpredictability. It was never
clear to anyone that the United States would in fact launch a first strike against the Soviet Union upon the invasion of
Germany. No one knew what the U.S. president would order at the critical moment. That was precisely the advantage. The
very uncertainty of the American response limited the Soviets' room for maneuver and imposed severe limits on Moscow's
willingness to take risks. Putin is now trying to reverse the equation. Russia now has a substantial disadvantage in
conventional forces. By renouncing the no-first strike rule, Putin has placed Russia in the position of the United
States during the Cold War.
In turn, the threat will force the United States and Europe to reconsider the risk of adventures like Kosovo. Obviously,
the Russians are unlikely to use nuclear weapons. but the term "unlikely" does not mean impossible. It means low
probability, or possibility. The mere possibility that another Kosovo could trigger a nuclear response changes the
calculus of Western intervention. Since the direct benefit to the intervening powers is minimal, the corollary must be
equally low cost and low risk. Since no nation is entirely predictable, the risk of a nuclear response can easily shift
the decision from "go" to "no-go."
This is particularly true for European members of NATO and for Japan, whose proximity to Russia and appetite for
risk-taking is substantially less than that of the United States. At the very least, the mere threat of a nuclear
reaction makes it impossible to treat Russia with the contemptuous indifference shown during the Iraq and Kosovo
affairs. With this announcement, Putin has bought himself not only a seat at the table, but, in all likelihood, the
demand by U.S. allies that Russia buy into future military intervention.
There is a second audience: the other members of the former Soviet Union, many of whom are members of the Commonwealth
of Independent States (CIS), which, not coincidentally, is holding a summit one week from today. One of the outcomes of
the collapse of the Soviet Union was that, with intense U.S. urging, all nations other than Russia gave up their nuclear
weapons. Whatever the wisdom of that policy, the result was that Russia is the only former Soviet republic with nuclear
Russia has always been first among equals in the CIS, but Putin's announcement will immediately help Moscow re-order its
relationships closer to home. First, the war in Chechnya will be affected. With some reason, Russians are convinced that
outside forces - backed by the United States - are supplying Chechen rebels through neighboring Georgia. The situation
in Chechnya reminds many Russian military men of Afghanistan, where a great power created logistical support systems and
sanctuaries in a neighboring country, bleeding Moscow's forces. Putin is now reminding the United States that the
survival of the Russian Federation - intact - is a fundamental national interest. Therefore, any aid to the Chechens
threatens an interest so profound that the use of nuclear weapons might be rational. This must trigger a re-evaluation
of U.S. policy.
Second, the Georgians themselves, who have felt relatively secure as an American partner, are being reminded that forces
are at play beyond their control. If the Georgians' entire calculus has been that the war would be one of conventional
force on conventional force, the Georgians should guess again. The willingness of the Russians to use tactical nuclear
weapons to disrupt lines of supply into Chechnya cannot be discounted. By doing this, the Russians are transforming the
war, putting Georgia's security - instead of Russia's territorial integrity - in jeopardy.
Third, the Russians are delivering a message to the Chechens. The Chechens are seeing this conflict just as they did
during the 1994-1996 war. They are fighting on their terrain and are prepared to take serious losses for national
independence. Russian conventional forces cannot seal off the lines of supply from Georgia, nor can they occupy the
mountainous terrain south of Grozny. Indeed, given the costs of urban warfare, they cannot easily take Grozny itself.
Therefore, the theory goes, extended warfare favors the insurgent nationalist group. Time is on the side of the
Chechens. Putin just indicated, however, that he has the means to sharply increase Chechen casualties without increasing
Russian ones. That is a sobering thought, to say the least.
This is a matter of general concern for all the countries surrounding Russia. So long as the security equation is stated
in purely conventional terms, the West can help neighboring nations, from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia, pose a serious
problem to the Russians. Once nuclear weapons are introduced into the equation, a very different outcome occurs. First,
the conventional supplies provided become unimportant. Second, the risks involved in providing or accepting conventional
The final audience for this announcement is perhaps the most important: the Russian public. Putin has been enormously
popular for taking vigorous action to end his country's declining world status. The announcement intrinsically satisfies
Russians and helps boost Putin's popularity on the verge of his campaign for the presidency. As winter grips Chechnya
and large-scale military operations, particularly air operations, become more difficult, the emergence of the nuclear
threat suggests an end to the war even if conventional forces fail. . Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons is
therefore an attempt to re-order Russia's relationship with the United States, the rest of the West, the former
republics of the Soviet Union and ultimately, to reconcile Russia's own self-image. It is a clever move similar to the
U.S. strategy of using nuclear threats to limit the maneuvering room of other players. But it must be remembered that
the United States was primarily fighting for the global balance of power. The Russians today are fighting for the very
survival of their federation. That means that the threat to use nuclear weapons, an element of war games in the United
States, has some very serious possibilities when used by the Russians.
It is not inconceivable that the Russians, frustrated by their inability to seal their frontier with Georgia and by
Georgia's inability or unwillingness to work with them, would use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin remembers Afghanistan
well. He is not going to be drawn into another Afghanistan, nor is he going to withdraw from Chechnya. In the extreme
case, anything is possible. And that is precisely the ambiguous situation Putin wants to create. He wants Russia's
antagonists to peer into the abyss and see the worst. He is calculating, quite rightly we think, that this will
dramatically increase the caution and respect with which Russia is treated. That will yield an international payoff for
Russia - and a massive domestic payoff for Putin.
(c) 1999, Stratfor, Inc. http://www.stratfor.com/
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