FT: The leak of secret documents showed the conditions under which Russia could use nuclear weapons

Oleksandra Opanasenko

The leak of secret documents showed when Russia will be ready to use nuclear weapons. This threshold turned out to be much lower than the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin had ever publicly stated. Yes, Russia can use tactical nuclear weapons even if it loses 20% of its strategic ballistic missile submarines.

The Financial Times writes about this with reference to secret Russian documents received from Western sources.

Journalists got acquainted with 29 secret documents that Russia compiled in the period from 2008 to 2014. Experts claim that they are relevant for modern Russian military doctrine.

The criteria for using nuclear weapons are:

  • landing of the enemy on the territory of Russia;
  • the defeat of units deployed on the border;
  • an imminent attack by the enemy using conventional weapons.

Other possible conditions include the destruction of 30% of Russian attack nuclear submarines, three or more cruisers, three airfields, or a simultaneous attack on the main and reserve coastal command centers.

Also, Russia can use tactical nuclear weapons for a wide range of purposes, including “deterring aggression […] or escalating military conflicts,” “stopping aggression,” preventing defeat in war, and improving fleet effectiveness.

At the same time, these factors are not rules for the use of nuclear weapons, because this decision is made by politicians, in particular, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin.

The documents demonstrate that the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons for Russia is quite low in the event that Moscow cannot achieve the desired result in the war by conventional means, said the director of the Berlin Carnegie Center for the Study of Russia and Eurasia Oleksandr Gabuev.

Last June, Putin said he was "negative" about the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but later boasted that Russia had a bigger arsenal than NATO countries. According to US estimates, Russia has at least 2 000 such weapons.

Despite the fact that Russia and China are now strengthening their partnership, the documents say that in 2001, Putin did not rule out the possibility of a nuclear strike on China without a first strike from the PRC. The Eastern Military District of the Russian Federation rehearsed many scenarios for the invasion of China. In one of the scenarios with a hypothetical attack by China, Russia (referred to as the "Northern Federation") responds with a tactical nuclear strike to the second wave of the offensive of the enemy army (in the legend "South"). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China stated that it has no suspicions against Russia, and Moscow refused to comment.

"Russia continues to test missiles with nuclear warheads in the Far East near the border with China. Most of these systems are capable of striking only China," says the director of the Strategy, Technology and Arms Control Department at the International Institute for Strategic Studies William Alberk.

At the same time, Alberk states that Russia probably has a higher threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, since Kyiv does not have its own nuclear potential or the ability to launch a "large-scale invasion."

"Russian leaders believe that a nuclear strike on Ukraine will most likely lead to an escalation of the conflict and direct intervention by the United States or Great Britain. This is the last thing Putin wants," Alberk noted.

According to the strategy outlined in the documents, Russia could use nuclear weapons as blackmail to end the conflict on its terms. Western observers call this tactic "from escalation to de-escalation" and claim that the Kremlin can specifically "instill fear".