Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike “de-escalation”

Russian ICBM Nuclear Missile

(Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike “de-escalation” – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – Nikolai N. Sokov – March 13, 2014)

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features analysis of reported Russian policies envisioning “limited nuclear strikes” to deter or counteract conventional superiority by the West:

In 1999 … Moscow watched with great concern as NATO waged a high-precision military campaign in Yugoslavia. The conventional capabilities that the United States and its allies demonstrated seemed far beyond Russia’s own … because the issues underlying the Kosovo conflict seemed almost identical to those underlying the Chechen conflict, Moscow became deeply worried that the United States would interfere within its borders.

Russia coined the Orwellian concept that, in a conventional conflict, Russia could “de-escalate” by going nuclear, if it meant saving Russia from sure defeat in a conventional exchange:

By the next year, Russia had issued a new military doctrine whose main innovation was the concept of “de-escalation”—the idea that, if Russia were faced with a large-scale conventional attack that exceeded its capacity for defense, it might respond with a limited nuclear strike. To date, Russia has never publically invoked the possibility of de-escalation in relation to any specific conflict. But Russia’s policy probably limited the West’s options for responding to the 2008 war in Georgia. And it is probably in the back of Western leaders’ minds today, dictating restraint as they formulate their responses to events in Ukraine.

Russia actually went on to practice and prepare for nuclear scenarios as a part of  otherwise conventional military exercises, although Russia apparently did not including nuclear scenarios in more recent war games of that kind.

Yet of added concern has been a possible Russian willingness to consider using long-range nuclear strikes, rather than short-range weapons, in the context of an otherwise localized conflict.  However, Russia reportedly tweaked their doctrine to only apply it to cases where the existence of the Russian state was under threat, and limited to Russian action against other nuclear weapons states.

Nevertheless, as the West seeks to address the crisis in Ukraine and Russian aggression aimed at Crimea and perhaps other Ukrainian territory, concerns can rightly be raised about Russia apparently not considering limited nuclear strikes as unthinkable and taboo as one would hope.

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