Russia’s evolving nuclear strategy and what it means for Europe

Russia and NATO have radically different approaches to nuclear deterrence, but what can the West do to persuade Russia to stop its nuclear sabre-rattling?

Moscow places a high premium on its nuclear capabilities, and has done for some time. For more than a decade, Russia has been suspected of lowering its nuclear threshold and developing new low-yield nuclear warheads1. It pledged to limit nuclear capacity under the 1991/1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, but Russia likely never completed its commitments. It has also resisted efforts aimed at reducing concerns related to its disproportionally large and diverse arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), including NATO appeals to engage in talks on reciprocal transparency measures. Even more worrisome is the fact that Russia has regularly issued nuclear threats related to missile defence in Europe, carrying out exercises on battlefield use of nuclear warheads and simulating nuclear strikes against NATO and European Union member states, including Sweden in 2013. Still, the distressing effects of the evolution of Russia’s nuclear strategy were only fully revealed in the Ukraine crisis. Without the nuclear posturing that accompanied Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine, the Kremlin’s re-emphasis on nuclear power would have continued to go largely ignored. At best, it would have been rationalised as a legitimate attempt to counter NATO’s overall superiority in conventional capabilities or as part of a desire to preserve Russia’s waning superpower status. The Ukraine crisis is a wake-up call, and one that indicates that NATO can no longer be complacent about the direction of Russia’s nuclear strategy.

The nuclear wake-up call

The Ukraine crisis was accompanied by an unprecedented number of nuclear signals from the Kremlin. First, during the crisis, Russian politicians including President Vladimir Putin repeatedly issued implicit and explicit nuclear threats directed at NATO. For example, in August 2014, Putin warned NATO not to “mess with nuclear-armed Russia”, and in October 2014, he praised Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear brinkmanship, which in his view convinced the United States and NATO that “Nikita is best left alone”. In March 2015, the Russian president publicly admitted that he was ready to signal that his country was prepared to put its nuclear weapons on alert during the annexation of Crimea. Secondly, Moscow stepped up nuclear bomber diplomacy, carrying out offensive patrols near the airspace of NATO allies and partners. Russia ensured that the nuclear-capable bomber overflights were not overlooked by increasing their number, scale, and range, and by conducting more provocative mock nuclear attacks, including against the US in September 2014. Thirdly, Russia conducted a series of military exercises, including massive surprise drills, which among others tested the delivery systems of strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons. For example, in March 2014, Russia conducted a massive strategic nuclear exercise; in May 2014, Putin chaired a major command post exercise; and in February 2015, the president presided over a nuclear snap exercise. These exercises reveal that Russia is increasingly ready to conduct different kinds of nuclear operation and that its nuclear and conventional capabilities are closely intertwined.2

Russia’s nuclear weapons-related activities often leave room for plausible deniability, but the abundance of evidence shows that nuclear signals were used to support the “little green men” and other actions on the ground in Ukraine. First and foremost, context matters. Russia’s nuclear-related activities (including the March 2014 strategic nuclear exercise) have taken place against the backdrop of its aggression towards Ukraine. During a crisis, even routine military behaviour translates into a signal. And Russia’s nuclear-related activities went beyond routine activities: they were exceptional in number, frequency, scale, and complexity, and in their provocative nature. Their specific timing has also been important: they have often coincided with critical periods of the crisis and with Western deliberations about how to respond. In this context, it is noteworthy that, while Russian nuclear messages have continued, their pace has slowed since the Minsk II agreement.3

The nuclear sabre-rattling that has accompanied Russia’s actions in Ukraine prompts several disturbing conclusions. It indicates that Russia’s nuclear arsenal has become an integral element in its approach to political messaging and conflict, an approach that skilfully merges non-military and military, conventional and asymmetrical instruments. The Ukraine crisis demonstrated that nuclear weapons cannot simply be isolated from other tools, and that the Kremlin is willing to use them as a tool of psychological influence in the early stages of any confrontation4. Equally concerning is another element exposed by the crisis: the expanded function of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The arsenal is not just for traditional nuclear deterrence, which is aimed at preserving the status quo; it is also to be used as a tool of intimidation and coercion, supporting territorial change. At the same time, Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship has created the perception that a nuclear attack in Europe is again a thinkable eventuality. And it has raised anxieties about Russia’s alleged “escalate to terminate” strategy – a strategy that envisions coercive threats, including actual limited nuclear use, to terminate conventional war on Russia’s terms5.

In a scenario that would resonate in the West, Russia might decide to carve out territory from one of the Baltic states through a hybrid conflict, beginning with a swift conventional move to create a fait accompli before Allies could react with conventional forces. Then, it would threaten a limited nuclear strike to prevent NATO members from invoking Article 5 and coming to the aid of the stricken country. If NATO members proved ready to act rapidly to counter such a move, and especially if the conflict went badly enough that Russia risked conventional defeat, Russia might resort to a larger nuclear strike.6

Genuine threat or bluff?

It is reasonable to ask whether Russia has actually lowered its nuclear threshold significantly, or whether nuclear threats are only intended to serve internal or external political purposes. Putin is the only person who knows the answer to this question – but even he may not know whether he would authorise a de-escalatory use of nuclear weapons. Still, the risk of Russian first-use should not be dismissed. Over the past two years, Russia has gone to great lengths to create the impression that its president would authorise a nuclear attack if he thought it advantageous and that he has a wide range of different options from which to choose. This impression only adds to Western concerns that Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine, which asserts Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons only when the very existence of the state is under threat, is misleading. The risks of nuclear employment during a crisis would be especially high if Russia believed it could depict its nuclear use as a result of miscalculation or as an unauthorised decision provoked by reckless actions on the part of NATO.

It is important in itself that Russia is attempting to create the perception that its leaders are ready to use nuclear weapons. Such an image strengthens Moscow’s ability to play on nuclear fears to achieve its political objectives not only during crisis and war, but also during periods when the lines between peace and crisis are blurred. In fact, there is a wide range of scenarios short of direct military confrontation with the West in which Russia might try to exploit its nuclear flexing.

Thus, nuclear messaging could play an instrumental role in Russia’s attempts to dismantle the remnants of the post-Cold War European order and create a new “non-bloc” security architecture. In the coming years, Moscow might seek to convince the West that the only way of avoiding a nuclear arms race, a nuclear standoff, or even a nuclear war is to agree on new rules that satisfy Russian demands. Furthermore, a nuclear backstop to prevent Western military intervention could be crucial in keeping Ukraine destabilised and in expanding Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia could assume that its nuclear arsenal gives it freedom to manoeuvre in its “near abroad”. Russia could also use nuclear threats to drive a wedge between NATO or EU members. It might conclude that nuclear threats could create divisions among Allies or member states on issues such as the scope of conventional military presence in Central and Eastern Europe, the need for further build-up of NATO missile defence after the nuclear deal with Iran, or the continuation of EU sanctions on Russia. Finally, Russia could try to use its expanded nuclear capabilities to deepen fears over the credibility of the US’s extended deterrence commitment to Europe, thereby splitting NATO.

It is likely that Russia will further expand its capacity to conduct nuclear operations and to use nuclear weapons as a tool of psychological influence. Moscow has been engaged in an ambitious modernisation of its nuclear forces and in the development of new nuclear capabilities. As part of its nuclear messaging, in December 2015, Putin personally emphasised that air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, which were showcased in Syria, can deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads7. Nuclear strike options against Europe will broaden further when Russia completes its deployments of Iskanders to Kaliningrad (expected later this year) and Crimea (which Russia has asserted it has the right to do). It will be especially serious if Russia decides to begin serial production of its new ground-launched cruise missiles, which violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. These missiles would be capable of reaching all Allied capitals and would be difficult to track, to detect the launch of, and to distinguish from conventional armaments.

The need for NATO, but also for an EU response

There is still a chance to convince Russia’s political and military leadership that its attempts to earn political and military dividends from a more belligerent and aggressive nuclear posture are counterproductive, and that Russia should change course on nuclear weapons. However, this will only be possible if the disturbing evolution of Russia’s approach to nuclear weapons is met with a strong and cohesive response.

The primary responsibility lies with the NATO Allies. NATO is the only international actor that can demonstrate to Russia the futility of its over-reliance on nuclear weapons. To achieve this goal, NATO’s nuclear policy needs to be updated. For two decades now, NATO has declared that it has no adversary and thus that its nuclear weapons are not meant to deter Russia. This policy has left Allies unprepared to understand and respond to nuclear threats from Russia. In fact, the Ukraine crisis has exposed several challenges to the effectiveness of NATO’s nuclear deterrence. For instance, the crisis worsened recurring doubts about the ability and resolve of NATO’s political leadership to counter nuclear threats. Even high-ranking NATO civilian and military leaders have expressed concerns that Russia might have false assumptions about the consequences and risks associated with a “de-escalatory” nuclear strike against the Alliance8. As well as these doubts on decision-making, there have also been public doubts about the viability of NATO’s current nuclear posture, including its sustainability. Calls have been made for current US nuclear weapons storage sites to be moved from their current locations, and others have called for US nuclear weapons to be based in Poland, or for B-61 gravity bombs delivered by dual-capable aircraft (DCA) to be replaced with new nuclear air-launched cruise missiles and other nuclear capabilities9.

NATO has already begun the process of adjusting to new nuclear realities, and the issue will be on the agenda at the summit in Warsaw in July 2016. At the summit, NATO political leaders should agree to sharpen NATO’s nuclear narrative, which was included in the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review. NATO allies should firmly state that they will not be intimidated by nuclear threats and, following the speech of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Munich in February 2016, they should make it clear that even a limited nuclear attack against a NATO member would fundamentally change the nature of any conflict, and that the associated risks would outweigh any potential gains10. NATO should also agree to make the necessary upgrades in its military exercises and to ensure that it has the requisite analytical and intelligence skills for reading and crafting appropriate responses to Russia’s nuclear signals.

In contrast to its nuclear software, NATO does not have to make radical changes in its nuclear hardware. Current strategic and non-strategic nuclear capabilities provide the Alliance with a wide range of responses that could be used in different contingencies. B-61 gravity bombs delivered by DCA could be used to demonstrate collective resolve during a conflict and in some scenarios could provide an effective nuclear strike option. US strategic forces remain the supreme guarantee of the Allies’ security. The United Kingdom’s sea-based Trident missiles also provide a survivable second strike option, and France’s nuclear weapons contribute, even if in an unpredictable way, to the overall nuclear deterrence capacity of the Alliance. What NATO needs to do in the short term is to ensure that it has a sufficient number of DCA with an appropriate level of readiness and with potent non-nuclear support that could enable the suppression of a potential aggressor’s air defences. The life extension programme of B-61s, currently under way in the US, the investments of European allies in replacements for the current DCA fleet, the Trident replacement programme, now under debate in the UK, and the modernisation of the US strategic Triad would all help to preserve the credibility of NATO’s nuclear strike options in the future.

While making all of these adjustments, the Allies should make it clear that NATO’s and Russia’s approaches to nuclear weapons are radically different and that NATO’s actions – while not mirroring Russia’s posture or plans – are measured reactions to Russia’s irresponsible steps. In the Warsaw Summit Declaration, NATO Allies should explain and provide a common assessment of Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling. They should also reaffirm their readiness to decrease nuclear risks in Europe through reciprocal steps aimed at reducing the number and roles of nuclear weapons in NATO and Russia. Russia is the major obstacle to further steps towards reducing the role of nuclear weapons in Europe, and NATO should leave no doubt about this fact.

The role of the EU in countering Russia’s disquieting re-emphasis on nuclear strength should not be overlooked. The EU, as the normative foreign policy player heavily engaged in non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, should use different international fora to call upon Russia to act as a responsible nuclear weapons state. Russia’s actions over the past years do not fit with the profile of a country that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that aspires to become one of the centres of a multipolar world. Only by putting more international pressure on Russia can the EU provide a clear signal that nuclear posturing and nuclear threats against EU members such as Sweden or Poland are unacceptable and that nuclear threats will not work against the EU. The EU’s active engagement in opposing Russia’s nuclear threats could also help to deepen EU-NATO cooperation. It could supplement joint work to counter hybrid threats, which, as Russia’s actions against Ukraine have demonstrated, are likely to be backed up by nuclear muscle-flexing.


Jacek Durkalec is a scholar with PISM, Poland. 


[1] For a background reading on Russia’s approach to nuclear weapons over past two decades, see for example: David S. Yost, “Russia’s Non-strategic Nuclear Forces,” International Affairs 2001, vol. 77, no. 3; Roger N. McDermott, Russia’s Conventional Military Weakness and Substrategic Nuclear Policy, The Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth 2011,

[2] For a broad list of examples of different types of Russia’s nuclear signals during the Ukraine crisis, see: Jacek Durkalec, Nuclear-Backed 'Little Green Men:' Nuclear Messaging in the Ukraine Crisis, Polish Institute of international Affairs, July 2015,

[3] The specific examples include: Russia’s nuclear-related exercises accompanying NATO defense ministers’ meeting in October 2015; a leaked blueprint of nuclear torpedo designed to create “extensive zones of radioactive contamination”, or snap nuclear strike drills of Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad in December 2015. See: News Transcript: Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Breedlove in the Pentagon Briefing Room, 30 October 2015,; “Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV 'leak'”, BBC, 12 November 2015,;  “Russia Could Block Access to Baltic Sea, US General Says”, Defense One, 9 December 2015,

[4] See more: Dave Johnson, “Russia’s Approach to Conflict— Implications for NATO’s Deterrence and Defence,” NATO Defence College Research Paper No. 111, April 2015,;  Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy,” Proliferation Papers, No. 54, November 2015, For insightful analysis of the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s theory of victory, see: Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Stanford University Press 2016, pp. 128-138.

[5] See more: Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike “de-escalation”,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 2014,

[6] The scenario was popularized by Russian expert Andrei Piontkovsky.  Paul Goble, “Putin Believes He Can Win a War with NATO, Piontkovsky Says”, The Interpreter, 10 August 2014,

[7] “Putin says he 'hopes' nuclear warheads will never be needed against Isis… or anyone else”, The Independent, 9 December 2015,

[8] “Gen. Petr Pavel warns that NATO and Europe have taken ‘embarrassingly ineffective’ steps to combat threats,” Prague Post, 27 May 2015,; “Russian tensions could escalate into all-out war, says NATO general,” The Telegraph, 20 February 2015,

[9] More about NATO’s response to Russia’s nuclear brandishing and its shortcomings, see: Jacek Durkalec, Nuclear-Backed 'Little Green Men:' Nuclear Messaging in the Ukraine Crisis, op. cit.

[10] Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference, 13 February 2016,

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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