Russia revamps its nuclear policy amid simmering tensions with NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin answers during his annual news conference at the World Trade Center in Moscow, Russia, 20 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV]

President Vladimir Putin approved a strategic document on the fundamentals of Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy on Tuesday (2 June), naming the creation and deployment of anti-missile and strike weapons in space as one of the main military threats to Russia.

The document outlining Russia’s policy on its nuclear deterrent was published online amid arms control tensions between Moscow and Washington over the future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last major pact regulating their nuclear arsenals.

According to the new strategy, Russia’s nuclear weapons policy is described as being “defensive in nature” and designed to safeguard the country’s sovereignty against potential adversaries.

However, in line with Russian military doctrine, it outlines four scenarios in which Moscow would order the use of nuclear weapons, two of them new and involving potential instances of nuclear first-use scenarios.

The two established protocols permit nuclear use when an enemy uses nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction on Russia or its allies, and in situations when conventional weapons “threaten the very existence of the country.”

In reverse, the two new provisions include cases in which the government receives “reliable information” that a ballistic missile attack is imminent or in the case of ”enemy impact on critically important government or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the incapacitation of which could result in the failure of retaliatory action of nuclear forces.”

The main threats for Russia are described as follows: the increase of the potential of NATO in territories and waters close to the country, bringing new weaponry close to Russia, including new anti-missile systems, deploying strike weapons in space and deploying nuclear weapons in non-nuclear countries.

Debate to relocate US nuclear weapons to Poland irks Russia

Some US officials are eyeing Poland as a new home to the US nuclear arsenal in Europe, after German Social Democrats reopened the debate about whether the country should remain under Washington’s protective nuclear umbrella. And the latest twist has already displeased Russia, Poland’s mighty eastern neighbour.

The publication comes only a week after an US decision to to exit the Open Skies Treaty, allows its signatories to conduct short-notice unarmed surveillance flights to gather information on each other’s military forces and installations, thereby contributing to inspections of conventional arms control and strategic offensive weapons and reducing the risk of conflict.

Open Skies is the third major security agreement, after the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a landmark 1987 pact with Russia banning a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, and the Iran nuclear deal, which Washington decided to scrap in recent years.

US withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty takes European allies by surprise

Washington announced on Thursday (21 May) it would withdraw from the 35-nation Open Skies Treaty, allowing unarmed surveillance flights over signatory states, the Trump administration’s latest move to pull the country out of yet another major global landmark accord.

Both, the US exit and Russia’s new strategy, come at a time as the last remaining major nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, New START, is due to expire in February 2021 and Moscow has already warned there is not enough time left to negotiate a full-fledged replacement.

The Trump administration has pushed for a new arms control pact that would also include China, but while Moscow has deemed such a solution unfeasible, arms control experts believe it would be too difficult to achieve.

Exercise tensions

At the same time, the Russian military on Monday (1 June) had accused the US and its NATO allies of conducting “provocative” military drills near the nation’s borders, according to statement that reflected simmering Russia-NATO tensions.

Russia will not conduct major military exercises near the borders with NATO member countries this year, Sergei Rudskoy, chief of the main operational department for Russia’s General Staff, said according to Interfax.

Rudskoy also said NATO has stonewalled Russia’s written proposal to scale down each other’s military activities.

He said Russia has moved large-scale drills scheduled for September, Kavkaz-2020, deeper inside the country and is “ready to adjust the locations of exercises on a parity basis” with the Western military bloc.

He pointed to recent NATO drills in the Barents Sea that he called first since the Cold War, as well as increasing nuclear-capable strategic bomber flights near Russian borders and US intelligence flights near Russian bases in Syria.

NATO had called off its planned exercises amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the health crisis, Europe was preparing for what security officials have called “the most extensive transfer of US soldiers to Europe in the past 25 years”, with around 37,000 soldiers taking part in the US-led military exercise “Defender Europe 2020” for the transfer of troops to Germany, Poland and the Baltic states.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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