Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons Threshold Revealed in New Document Leak

tactical nuclear weapons
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Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… newly leaked information has revealed Moscow’s threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a series of formerly secret documents that have been revealed by the Financial Times. In our analysis of the situation, we’ll be looking at 1) what the documents say about Russia’s threshold for the use of tactical nukes, 2) how the new revelations compare to our existing knowledge of Russia’s military doctrine on nuclear weapons, and 3) what the potential outcome could be on international relations in light of the new information.

Quote of the Week

“Moscow will become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities as it deals with the extensive damage to Russia’s ground forces.”

– 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community

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Now, it’s time to look at why newly leaked documents are raising concerns about Russia’s threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in wartime situations.

Leaked Files Showcase Moscow’s Nuclear Strike Criteria

Between 2008 and 2014, Russia’s military was secretly devising war-gaming scenarios involving the country’s use of nuclear weapons in the event of a potential invasion by neighboring China, and a range of other situations where nuclear conflict could arise.

These were among the key discoveries in a series of leaked documents this week that convey not only secrets about Russia’s military strategies, but also the country’s surprisingly low threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with another nation.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons
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The documents, first reported by the Financial Times, provide insights into Russia’s nuclear strategy and extend concerns about the country’s potential use of nuclear weapons beyond its ongoing war with Ukraine, and arrive just days after an acknowledgment by the Biden administration regarding national security concerns over Russian nuclear capabilities that could be used in space.

The revelations also add to existing concerns raised in a U.S. intelligence community assessment in 2023, which determined that losses the country has incurred during the Ukraine conflict have been significant enough that “Moscow will become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber and space capabilities” as it works to rebound from damages sustained by its ground forces.

Russia’s Threshold for Nuclear War Revealed

Based on information in the leaked documents, Russia’s threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons may be far lower than previously known or publicly acknowledged. Ranging from incursions by enemy nations to significant losses of its military assets, a variety of scenarios were outlined where Russia might resort to the use of nuclear alternatives when conventional methods could not be used to attain its objectives.

Notably, the documents also appear to expose the country’s concerns about its neighbors in China, even amidst alliances forged between Moscow and Beijing since the early 2000s.

Should a potential conflict arise with a foreign nation like China—or the United States—Russia appears to favor a doctrine of “escalation to de-escalate,” in which the deployment of a nuclear strike to attempt to circumvent a larger conflict might be utilized.

Although much of what the documents reveal relates primarily to strategic studies and wargaming scenarios, some of the sentiments conveyed about Russia’s suspicions do have real-world corollaries, which include the reinforcement of Moscow’s military capabilities near the Russian border with China, which to some extent have continued in recent years.

However, warming relations between the two countries in the years since the documents were produced have helped to facilitate the movement of Russian forces westward from the Chinese border in advance of its invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow’s Military Doctrine on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Some of what is revealed in the documents align with previous assessments of Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons under its military doctrine, which in 2000 stated the country may use such weapons to defend itself in response to a variety of attacks from other nations, which may include nuclear attacks against Russia, but was more broadly defined as any attack threatening “the very existence of the state.”

Tactical Nuclear Weapons
Above: Soviet OTR-21 Tochka missile. Capable of firing 100 kiloton warhead a distance of 185 km as part of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons arsenal (Credit: Gulustan/CC 3.0)

This remained unchanged in a subsequent version of Russia’s military doctrine produced in 2014. However, in 2020, the first declassified nuclear doctrine was made available by the Kremlin, which provided an expanded listing of four factors that could now result in a nuclear response from Russia. These include 1) data indicating a ballistic missile attack against Russia or its allies, 2) nuclear weapons or WMDs used against Russia or its ally nations, 3) attacks targeting Russian command, control, and communications components, and 4) the existing warning about any aggression toward Russia which it believes to be a threat to “the very existence of the state.”

New Revelations on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Given Russia’s seemingly lower threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons conveyed in the leaked documents, one outcome of the new revelations involves their impact on Moscow’s relations with Beijing and Washington, introducing concerns that are likely to influence diplomatic engagements in the forthcoming years.

Last week, more than 500 new sanctions were placed against Russia “for its ongoing war of conquest on Ukraine and for the death of Aleksey Navalny,” President Biden said in a statement.

Overall, the exercises revealed in the leaked documents offer a window into Russian ideology regarding its nuclear arsenal, a cornerstone of the country’s national defense architecture, and one that governs to a significant degree how its forces are trained, and thereby dictates the country’s nuclear strike capabilities under potential battlefield conditions.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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