Published:

Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight.

There’s been a regular stream of statements from Vladimir Putin and others warning of Russian nuclear weapon use. These are chilling threats, but behind the bellicose language, what is the likelihood of their use, and what does Russian doctrine – and Putin – say?

Russian military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons either in response to their use by others or when the existence of the Russian Federation is threatened. Therefore, by our version of reality, there is no excuse for their use.

In addition, the 2020 State Principles in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence outlined four circumstances for nuclear use: an imminent attack on Russia (so pre-empting a pre-emptive strike); actual use against Russia; inhibiting Russia’s control of its nukes; and threat to the existence of Russia from their conventional or nuclear weapons.

However, if Putin feels that his ‘concept’ of greater Russia, which includes Ukraine and Belarus, is under threat, that could make him more desperate and angry – and the threats could become louder. Putin wants the destruction of an independent Ukraine to be his legacy. To get what he wants, he may push the world to the brink of war.

Outside doctrine, there has been a fetishising of ideas linking Orthodoxy, nuclear weapons, and Russian statehood in a narrative amongst ideologues that sees Russia’s nuclear arsenal and Russian Orthodoxy as the “sword and shield” – the so-called ‘Atomic Orthodoxy’ – against the chaos/the Antichrist, which the same ideologues suggest is the US and NATO. The sword and the shield are also the symbols of Putin’s old KGB and now the FSB.

But does Putin see tactical nuclear weapons, or chemical weapons, as usable?

It’s true that the Soviets (and Russians) have been more ambivalent about them than Western states. Can nukes be ‘de-escalatory’ – i.e. the scenario whereby they are used after a period of conventional conflict to halt the conflict? Whilst there’s allegedly been conversation in discrete Russian military publication over the years, there’s nothing in doctrine to support this.

But whilst Putin accepts the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – the use of nukes gets everyone killed – experts who had studied his words suggest he has not ruled out limited, pre-emptive strikes.

Russia is clearly happy to use nuclear weapons as a threat, such as in 2016 against Denmark for joining the US missile defence programme. Putin also reminded Western states of Russia’s nuclear arsenal during the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war. Such threats, as ugly and depressing as they are, send a message not to interfere in Russia’s military operations. They also suggest a fear that Russian conventional forces would quickly be overwhelmed in any fight with NATO.

A greater danger may be Russian chemical weapons use. These weapons were used by Syria, Russia’s ally, in that brutal civil war to clear Aleppo. Whilst chemical use would probably be successful from a military point of view – civilians would flee in panic – it would come at a remarkable price for Russia’s reputation. It would, however, signal a willingness for Russia to do anything to win this war.

More broadly, doctrine (military, national security, foreign policy, and information security) all show that Russian security leadership see the threat to them/their state as psychological as well as physical. Such is the language around this that, at its worst, the tiny Russian security elite are getting themselves into a state of near hysteria about the existence of a rival value system Western democracy, and its attempted adoption by Kiev.

As an example of the irrational language Andrei Ilnitsky, senior Russian defence advisor, declared last year that the historic and current policy of the West is to “exterminate Russia as a species.” The war against his country was “mentalyni voina”, a ‘war of consciousness’ aimed at the Russian mind so that Russians would stop being Russians.

The threat against Russia, in whatever guise, is being presented as mortal. We know this assessment to be, frankly, ridiculous but, the problem is that the language and tone gets worse.

But what constitutes a real, physical threat in the Kremlin’s eyes? Military doctrine cites two levels of danger, ‘military risk’ and ‘military threat’. A ‘military risk’ is defined as something that could, with other factors, lead to military threat. A ‘military threat’ is something that could directly lead to war.

Threats include a worsening of international relations and the creation of illegal armed formations in either Russia or its allies. This could include, at a stretch, threats to the ‘separatist’ republics (puppet creations entirely controlled by Moscow) or possibly the ‘real’ Ukraine opposed to the ‘Nazi’ puppet government of Volodymyr Zelensky (a Russian-speaking Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust).

In the latest National Security Doctrine, updated last summer, the sense of physical and psychological threat has, if anything, increased. Specifically, it warns of the risk of escalation of local conflicts into regional wars with the participation of nuclear powers. Other factors too “contribute to the strengthening of military dangers and military threats to the Russian Federation.”

If the wording is being used in its doctrinal sense, this is the first time in doctrine that ‘military threat’ – the highest danger – has been cited in relation to NATO.

We need to stress that most Russians, who get most of their information from the broadcast media under de-facto control and de-facto FSB secret police censorship since the early 2000s, see an entirely different view of the world to us. They have also been prepared with the idea of conflict with the West for at least a decade.

Finally, the state of Putin’s mind: his physical detachment – hence the vast tables – and his isolation may be sending a signal. Some of those close to him, like his fellow ex-KGB, Nikolai Patrushev, share his world view. Putin sees himself, and Russia, as a victim of the West, which he despises. He has talked about the glory of dying for one’s country, and there is some evidence that, when asked, he talked about the importance of nuclear weapons and Orthodoxy as the physical and spiritual defenders of the Motherland (at a Q&A with journalists in Sarov in 2007).

However, he has also been highly controlled, cautious and with a track record of long and protected periods of thought. These are followed by actions that combine surprise with swift action and effectiveness, especially when combined in the “integrated” strategy outlined in Russian doctrine and developed in the first decade of the 2000s. This integration sees military tools and non-military tools combined into a unified whole with unity of purpose.

What is so surprising now is that, compared to the relatively successful proxy/hybrid wars in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in 2014, the invasion of Ukraine feels so Soviet – sloppy and badly organised. This failure maybe panicking him, hence the threats.