Russian President Vladimir Putin stated Friday that Russia is considering changing its nuclear doctrine to allow for preventive – not just retaliatory – use of nuclear weapons. Such a change would align Russia’s nuclear posture with Washington’s own strategic doctrine and, at one stroke, make the world far more dangerous.
Putin’s highly unusual remarks leave no doubt that Russia views the U.S./NATO proxy war in Ukraine as the kind of existential threat that President John Kennedy perceived, when Moscow installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Those missiles were capable of hitting, within minutes, Washington and the Strategic Air Command in Omaha.
For readers who have missed this, US missile capsules already emplaced in Romania and Poland – ostensibly for "ABMs" – can accommodate overnight what Russia calls "offensive strike missiles" – with even shorter launch-to-target time – than those Kennedy strong-armed Khrushchev to remove from Cuba, under threat of nuclear war.
Did Biden Renege on a Promise?
Another largely unreported factoid: When Presidents Biden and Putin held a conversation on Dec. 30, 2021, the Kremlin readout stated: "Joseph Biden emphasized … that Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike missiles in Ukraine." At once, Senior Putin adviser, Yuri Ushakov, pointed out approvingly that this had been one of Moscow’s chief goals in proposing security guarantees for the U.S. and NATO to consider. Six weeks later, after a "follow-up" Putin-Biden call (on Feb. 12, 2022), Ushakov lamented that Biden did not address … nondeployment of strike weapons systems on Ukrainian territory. Ushakov: "We received no meaningful response."
Nuclear Deterrence – Strategic, Not ‘Tactical’
Putin’s remarks Friday also serve to put some context around the recent rash of contrived accusations that he has threatened to use "tactical nuclear weapons." That charge is a red herring – a highly mischievous one. The Kremlin strongly suspects some sort of false-flag nuclear explosion (perhaps a dirty bomb) might be used by West to "justify" responding with some kind of tactical nuclear weapon lying in bunkers in several European NATO member states. The Russians fear that NATO might opt for this kind of nuclear "solution" as the only possible way to stave off definitive defeat of Kyiv’s remaining forces this winter. Yes, Russia is fully capable of inflicting such a defeat on Kyiv, absent any prospect of serious negotiations.
Putin has not explicitly threatened to use "tactical" nuclear weapons; rather, from the outset in February, he has said he is committed to using "all the means at his disposal."
In his Dec. 9 remarks, excerpted below, he explains what those means mean, so to speak, from Russia’s point of view. He speaks of launch-on-warning of strategic weapons. THAT is the deterrent. Deterrence has worked in the past, but only when the US and Russian both had a healthy respect for the balance of terror. It was what Putin calls a "potent deterrent" (see below) – a deterrent the Russians fear may have lost its edge.
Nor are Putin and his military being paranoid in allowing for the possibility that the benighted "elite" around Biden might authorize (probably using the Ukrainians or NATO allies) something even more stupid and provocative than blowing up Nord Stream.
The excerpts below are from the Kremlin website:
Question to Putin at press conference, Dec 9
Konstantin Panyushkin, Channel One: … You said, and I quote: "If Russia does not use nuclear weapons first, it won’t use them second, either." This caused an uproar. Please explain what you meant.
Vladimir Putin: The United States has this theory of a preventive strike. … They are developing a system for a disarming strike … Regarding a disarming strike, perhaps we should think about using … their ideas about how to ensure their own security. We are just thinking about this. …. [Emphasis added.]
The United States has a theory and even practice. They have the concept of a preventive strike in their strategy … We do not. Our Strategy talks about a retaliatory strike. … What is a retaliatory strike? That is a response strike. It is when our early warning system, the missile attack warning system, detects missiles launched towards Russian Federation territory. First, it detects the launches, and then response actions begin. [Emphasis added.]
After the early warning system receives a signal indicating a missile attack, hundreds of our missiles are launched and they cannot be stopped. But it is still a retaliatory strike. What does that mean? It means that enemy missile warheads will fall on the territory of the Russian Federation. This cannot be avoided. They will fall anyway. True, nothing will remain of the enemy, because it is impossible to intercept hundreds of missiles. And this is, without a doubt, a potent deterrent.
But if a potential adversary believes it is possible to use the preventive strike theory, while we do not, this still makes us think about the threat that such ideas in the sphere of other countries’ defense pose to us.
That is all I have to say about that.
Western pundits have been largely silent on this. Those few who have mentioned it speak of "saber rattling" by Putin – bluffing. I would not be so cavalier.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).