Would Russia Really Use Nuclear Weapons against Neighbors?

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, November 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Would Russia Really Use Nuclear Weapons against Neighbors?


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


The Kremlin is drafting a new military doctrine, due by year's end, that may authorize the armed forces to use nuclear weapons not only to counter a massive conventional attack but even to launch a preemptive strike against a small regional adversary - such as neighboring Georgia or Ukraine - that might be deemed a threat to Russia.

Or so declared the new doctrine's main author, Kremlin Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, in a newspaper interview that sent shock waves rolling around the world last month and generated a storm of controversy among military analysts.

Experts divide between those who see the new, forward-leaning nuclear doctrine as a sign that the Kremlin is becoming more menacing toward its post-Soviet neighborhood, and those who view it as an expression of extreme vulnerability at a moment when the Russian military is undergoing its most radical reorganization in almost a century.

What Mr. Patrushev said, speaking to Moscow's biggest daily newspaper, Izvestia, was that, in a big change over the previous doctrine adopted in 2000, "We have corrected the conditions for use of nuclear weapons to resist aggression with conventional forces not only in large-scale wars, but also in regional or even a local one."

A warning or expedient?

Even more explosive, Patrushev added that Russia might strike first against an enemy whom it suspected of harboring belligerent intentions. "In a situation critical for national security, we don't exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor," he said.

Some critics say it seems almost bizarre to lower the threshold for using atomic weaponry at a time when Moscow is trying to negotiate radical reductions in strategic warheads with the United States and President Dmitry Medvedev has signed on to the "Global Zero" campaign for a world free of nuclear arms.

These critics also warn that the new doctrine, which Mr. Medvedev is due to sign in December, could have a chilling effect on Russia's relations with other post-Soviet states if the final version includes those provocative points.

"It seems that even in the case of small conflicts, such as the war Russia had with Georgia last year, where there is a fear that the US or NATO might intervene," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, "we are now going to invoke nuclear deterrence. Nobody is really intending to use nuclear arms, but the point here is to warn other big powers to stay away in the event of conflicts in our own neighborhood," such as a hypothetical crisis with Ukraine over Crimea, or with Georgia over the breakaway state-lets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he says.

Other experts suggest the bombastic - and very public - nuclear talk might be a temporary expedient, to cover Russia's extreme weakness as it undergoes a quiet reorganization of its armed forces.

According to Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now serves as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military reform will abolish the old "mobilization" army that Russia has maintained for more than a century and replace it with a much smaller and streamlined force, but one whose brigades are fully staffed and combat ready. …

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