Article: Russia’s Nuclear Policy: Worrying for the Wrong Reasons

Bruno Tertrais, Survival-Global Politics and Strategy, April-May 2018

The Russian nuclear problem is real and serious – but it is political more than it is military.

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.

Examples of this narrative abound in recent official and non-official statements and writings. In 2015, two senior US Department of Defense (DoD) officials testified to Congress that ‘Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy – a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use’.[1] In 2016, Admiral Cecil Haney, then commander of US Strategic Command, said that Russia was ‘declaring and recklessly demonstrating its willingness to escalate to deescalate if required’.[2] That same year, a NATO secretary-general report claimed that Russian large-scale ‘exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO Allies (e.g., ZAPAD)’.[3] A US expert declares that ‘in the event of a major war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [Russian] plans call for “de-escalatory” nuclear strikes. That is, Vladimir Putin would order limited nuclear attacks early, so as to frighten the US into ending the conflict on terms favourable to Moscow.’[4] A towering figure of the US strategic community asserts that: ‘The Russian military has devised a doctrine which envisions using a small number of very low-yield nuclear weapons to attack NATO forces defending Alliance territory’.5 A European analyst writes that during recent exercises, ‘Russia rehearsed the use of limited low-yield nuclear strikes to intimidate the West into accepting Russian territorial gains’.6 Breathless reporting in Western media often includes the same claims.



[1] ‘Statement of Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Before the House Committee on Armed Services’, 25 June 2015, p. 4,

[2] Admiral Cecil D. Haney, remarks to the Project on Nuclear Issues Capstone Conference, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, 13 April 2016,

[3] Jens Stoltenberg, ‘Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015’, NATO, 28 January 2016, p. 19,

[4] Matthew Kroenig, ‘The Case for Tactical US Nukes’, Wall Street Journal, 24 January 2018,


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