April 22, 2018

Interpreting Bajwa’s Call For Dialogue With India


Interpreting Bajwa’s Call For Dialogue With India

April 21, 2018 Commentaries

If you are the Chief of Army Staff in a country like Pakistan, then you are heard too seriously. Your words are subject to all kinds of interpretations and over-interpretations. This is what has happened in the wake of the present Pakistani army chief’s address on the occasion of the passing out parade of 137th Pakistan Military Academy’s ‘Long Course’.

His mention of ‘dialogue’ with India has led some commentators to conclude that he was backing the process of peace and reconciliation and it should be taken as a positive signal by policy makers in India. That is not the case. In close scrutiny, Gen. Bajwa’s overtures on India may not be as assuring.

This is not the first time that Gen. Bajwa has talked about ‘talks’ with India ever since he assumed office as Chief of the Pakistan army in November 2016; only months after India’s surgical strike across the LoC. It was widely reported that on one occasion, during his visit to a Pakistan army post along the LoC, he had snubbed a commander venting out his spleen against India and expressed his scepticism about advocating a policy of confrontation with India. This was interpreted by many as an instance of Gen. Bajwa’s inclination for dialogue with India.

Some Pakistani observers even said that he shuffled corps commanders and top army posts to ensure that hawks appointed by his predecessor would not obstruct any opening for dialogue with India. In September 2017, he was quoted as saying: “Welfare of millions of people of these two countries is linked with permanent peace” and Pakistan wanted to address the Kashmir issue through dialogue.

In December 2017, in his briefing to the ‘Senate Committee of the Whole House’ on national security, he reportedly signalled to the Pakistani parliament that the army would not oppose dialogue with India. He said that the army “had nothing to do with the retired army officials who appear on TV in the capacity of defence analysts” and the army would abide by the policies formulated by the parliament on all issues including “defence and foreign affairs”!

In March 2018, in his informal interaction with select journalists he talked about having trade relationship with India along the US-Canada model, which was touted as yet another indication of his wish to pursue peace with India. And now in April, he has stated that “the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue” and “Pakistan remains committed to such a dialogue”. On the face of it, these statements, when quoted selectively, look pretty much like overtures to India for dialogue. However, upon closer reading, the unquoted portions of the statements would reveal that there is hardly any change in the army’s thinking about India.

On all these occasions, the Pakistan army Chief has spoken against Indian forces targeting “innocent and unarmed people on the LoC”; he had also supported the terrorists targeting innocent Indian citizens in Jammu and Kashmir. He has talked about the need for India to seek out “a political and diplomatic process instead of abusing Pakistan and expressed his hope that India would, within years feel compelled to talk to Pakistan! He has emphasized all along that Kashmir remains “the core issue” which India has to resolve. There is thus no appetite in him to go back to the Musharraf formula or restarting the 2004-2007 dialogue that many in India and Pakistan continue to romanticize about.

It must be noted that the growing hold of the deep state over Pakistani society and politics does not augur well for that country. With an obliging judiciary acting in consort to remove strong backers of effective dialogue with India from the domain of democratic politics, Pakistan’s India policy is not at all defined. The army’s perception of India as an implacable enemy remains frozen in time. It continues to shape the limits of engagement with India and would not allow the political leadership to build bridges with India at the cost of what the army perceives “the core national security interests” of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding this however, peace always deserves to be given a chance and it has been the consistent policy of India that dialogue for peace is always welcome, in a conducive environment. For the present,p onus remains on Pakistan to take initiatives towards ensuring such an atmosphere.

Script: Dr. Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow IDSA

Talks of talks between India and Pakistan & the Terrorism conundrum


Talks of talks between India and Pakistan & the Terrorism conundrum


After increased tensions on the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement of Saturday, 15 April 2018, saying that peace is the only solution to improve the situation in Jammu & Kashmir and it could only be solved through dialogue between India and Pakistan, comes as a ray of hope. Not entirely coincidental, hours after his statement, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa, while speaking at a passing-out parade of cadets, said; “That only through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue a solution could be found for the disputes between the two countries”.

After almost three decades of violence between the two nuclear neighbors, talks in order to achieve a peaceful atmosphere would be a welcome step for the people of both countries and the wider region of South Asia. However, history has not been very kind to the outcome of instances in which ‘talks of talking to each other’, do rounds in either Islamabad or New Delhi. Mainly, because the epicenter of power in Pakistan, Rawalpindi, has had a thinking of its own.

Instances of initiated gestures of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan are often marred by violence; In February 1999, in an unprecedented gesture, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore, on the newly opened Delhi –Lahore Bus service to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both Prime Ministers signed the Lahore Declaration, the first major agreement between the two countries since the 1972 Simla Agreement, in which both countries reiterated to remain committed to the Simla Agreement and agreed to undertake a number of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) aimed at improving bilateral relations. Three months after Prime Minister Vajpayee’s bus journey, the Kargil conflict broke out when Pakistani forces intruded and occupied strategic positions on the Indian side of the LoC, prompting an Indian counter offensive. Two years later, on December 13, an armed attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi left 14 people dead. Pakistani based terrorist organizations, Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) were held responsible for the attack. The attack led to a massing of the militaries of India and Pakistan along the LoC and the International Border, and the standoff ended only in October 2002, after international mediation; Both countries came very close to an all-out war.

Two years later, in 2004, Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf held direct talks at the 12th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, and the two countries' Foreign Secretaries met later in the year. The year marked the beginning of the ‘Composite Dialogue Process’, in which bilateral meetings were held between officials at various levels of Government. A relative period of calmness was followed by the gruesome terrorist attack in Mumbai, in 2008, in which 164 people died. Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani national and the only attacker captured alive, confessed that the attackers were members of Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) and subsequently, all tracking calls and communications linked back to Pakistan, from where the entire attack was plotted and directed. In the wake of the attack, India broke off talks with Pakistan.

After a series of highs and lows, cautious optimism was raised when the newly elected Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi in 2014. A year later, Prime Minister Modi made a surprise stop-over in Lahore on his way from Kabul to wish the Pakistani Prime Minister on his birthday and on his granddaughter’s wedding. Barely a month and a half after Mr. Modi’s surprise visit, the Pathankot Air Force Station, part of the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force in Pathankot, was attacked by terrorists of the Pakistani based Jash-e-Muhammed and the United Jihad Council.

Half a year later, in September 2016, the Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, near the Line of Control was attacked in a pre-dawn terrorist attack, killing 17 Indian soldiers. Again, evidence lead to terrorists of the Pakistani based Jaish-e-Muhammed being responsible for this brazen attack. Having absorbed terrorism from Pakistan for years with no noteworthy military reaction, in response to the attack in Uri, India conducted surgical strikes against terrorist launching pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir. India’s decades old policy of strategic restraint changed after consecutive attacks on its soil and carried a message to Pakistan; “This far and no further”.  

One of the main reasons that relations between India and Pakistan are not as we all would have wished for, is perhaps the sheer incompatibility between both the nuclear powers. While both countries have their own set of problems, the actual nature of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has proven to be conflicting with the nature of the Republic of India; The military in Pakistan has been de facto in charge of the country since the time Pakistan came into existence, and the Army is still in the driving seat after more than 70 years in Pakistan, with Pakistani Courts being instrumental in engineering political outcomes in favor of Rawalpindi. The deep-rooted anti-India stand, and inflexible hostility has been complemented by the continuous undermining of democratic institutions by the Army in Pakistan, which makes it difficult to know, whom to talk to in Pakistan when one is embarking on a path of normalizing relations. Tensions among Pashtuns in Paksitan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, volatility in Balochistan, political and ethnic divisions in Sindh and Punjab, a rights movement in Gilgit Baltsitan and the never ending civil-military tensions in local Pakistani politics, do not contribute to a possible scenario of talks with India.

China’s role and tacit support to the Pakistani Army, in this fragile equilibrium, should also not be underestimated. China does not want to take high risks regarding the future of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, as its geo-political stakes remain unchanged and it has already invested substantial amounts into the project. Beijing has been pushing to give the Pakistani Army the lead role in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects as Pakistani Ministries charged with carrying out the projects have incurred delays because of infighting. Chinese decision to save Mazood Azhar (Chief of Jaish-e-Muhammed) by using its veto, from being declared a terrorist by the UN, should be viewed in this larger context. In addition, the Pakistani Army’s actions to mainstream members of armed groups, like Lashkar-e-Taibah Chief Hafiz Saeed, into the country’s political process, do not enhance an atmosphere for dialogue with its nuclear neighbor. Understandably, as people like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar have been responsible for numerous deadly terrorist attacks in India.   

In the heat of such a difficult history, it merits to conclude that despite intermittent statements coming from either the Chief of Army in Pakistan or India, the relationship between India and Pakistan will remain wilted until and unless there is a complete halt in cross-border terrorism. It is of the utmost importance, that talks, dialogue and diplomacy should be preceded and succeeded by efforts of tranquility which ensure that rapprochement endeavors do not go in vain.

It remains to be seen whether General Bajwa truly believes that only ‘comprehensive and meaningful dialogue’ will lead to solutions between India and Pakistan. If he does, the first confidence building measure should be that the Pakistani Army halts its two-faced counter terrorism strategy which includes considering terrorist outfits operational in the Kashmir Valley, India and the Taliban in Afghanistan as, ‘strategic assets’. The real and long-term benefits of distinguishing between ‘bad’ terrorists and ‘good’ terrorists, to the political and economic wellbeing of Pakistan, and to the cause of regional stability may be dubious, but till such time as the Pakistani Army recognizes this, the situation will not change. The real question is, whether General Bajwa does?

As of now, it has only resulted in the questionable 'achievement' that the country has emerged as the epicenter of global terror, thereby risking a permanent state of instability in the region of South Asia and a possible nuclear confrontation with its neighbor, India

April 21, 2018

EU Ambassadors Condemn China’s Belt and Road Initiative


Clearly, European countries aren’t buying China’s rhetoric of the BRI as “win-win cooperation.”

By Ravi Prasad

April 21, 2018

On Wednesday, it was reported by Handelsblatt that 27 out of 28 EU ambassadors to China signed a report criticizing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Hungarian ambassador was the only exception. It is unclear when the report will get published, and whether Handelsblatt saw a draft of the report or a finished version. However, if Handelsblatt’s claims turn out to be true, it will mark one of the biggest setbacks the BRI has seen to date.

Europe is the final frontier of the land routes central to the BRI. Every day trains from the Chinese trading hubs of Yiwu, Chongqing, and elsewhere begin epic three-week journeys to Europe – ultimately arriving at distribution hubs in Duisburg, Madrid, and London. Moreover, the 16+1 Initiative between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries is heavily linked to the BRI. Yet the success of further opening up of trade routes into Europe, Chinese infrastructure projects in the region, and the entirety of the 16+1 Initiative are threatened by Europe’s increasing reticence with Chinese involvement in the region. This latest report focusing on the BRI is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The report’s primary critique of the BRI is that it “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalizing trade and pushes the balance of power in favor of subsidized Chinese companies.” This critique is not new; there has been concern for some time that the projects that make up the BRI, particularly in the infrastructure space, are often being discussed on a bilateral basis, while flouting international trade and investment rules. Indeed, China might be using its financial muscle to force smaller recipient countries to negotiate in this way.

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Whilst this narrative undoubtedly hides a deeper insecurity that Western multinationals now fear Chinese competitors more than ever before, there still remains considerable truth to it. The Belgrade-Budapest Railway is a case in point; in the early discussions of the project, Chinese financiers and their Hungarian partners wanted to keep bidding closed and nontransparent, in doing so circumventing EU regulations. The project was ultimately stalled by EU authorities until a more transparent bidding process was adopted.

This approach is reflected in the fact that 89 percent of projects that are labeled as part of the BRI have been implemented by Chinese companies. Foreign companies complain about their lack of access to the BRI, and combined with China’s reluctance to welcome foreign investments, it casts doubt on whether the BRI is a two-way street. Even though Chinese rhetoric around the BRI has international aspirations and calls for enhanced international participation, it remains effectively a Chinese initiative.To become truly international, the BRI needs to be more than just a vehicle for Chinese investments overseas. It needs to promote idea sharing and evolve by adopting international best practices through an inclusive consultative process with partners, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The positive for China is that the EU ambassador’s report is not an outright rejection of the BRI. Indeed, it still leaves open the prospect of European collaboration on the BRI – but if and only if Europe’s concerns are addressed. As one senior EU diplomat stated, “We shouldn’t refuse to cooperate but we should politely yet firmly state our terms.”

Chinese policymakers are doing their utmost to brand the BRI as epitomized by “win-win cooperation.” Clearly, this report shows that there is a marked disconnect between that rhetoric and the perception of policymakers in the world’s largest trading bloc. It should serve as a warning to Chinese policymakers as to what the consequences might be if the BRI continues to lack inclusiveness, fails to invite foreign participants, and does not act as a two-way street.

It’s not inconceivable that, following in the footsteps of Europe, other economic blocs could begin to band together to voice their concerns surrounding the BRI. For the sake of the BRI’s success, it would be better for Chinese policymakers to pre-emptively address those concerns, as opposed to continuing to create the impression that the initiative remains a panacea.

Ravi Prasad is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and Co-Founder of www.beltandroad.blog

Russia’s Nuclear Policy: Worrying for the Wrong Reasons


DownloadPDFThe Russian nuclear problem is real and serious – but it is political more than it is military.

By: Bruno Tertrais

Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy April–May 2018

Article Type: Commentary

Pages: 33-44

Volume: 60

Edition number: 2

Date: 20 March 2018

The dominant narrative about Russia’s nuclear weapons in Western strategic literature since the beginning of the century has been something like this: Russia’s doctrine of ‘escalate to de-escalate’, and its large-scale military exercises, show that Moscow is getting ready to use low-yield, theatre nuclear weapons to stop NATO from defeating Russia’s forces, or to coerce the Atlantic Alliance and end a conflict on terms favourable to Russia.

Examples of this narrative abound in recent official and non-official statements and writings. In 2015, two senior US Department of Defense (DoD) officials testified to Congress that ‘Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy – a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use’.1 In 2016, Admiral Cecil Haney, then commander of US Strategic Command, said that Russia was ‘declaring and recklessly demonstrating its willingness to escalate to deescalate if required’.2 That same year, a NATO secretary-general report claimed that Russian large-scale ‘exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on NATO Allies (e.g., ZAPAD)’.3 A US expert declares that ‘in the event of a major war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [Russian] plans call for “de-escalatory” nuclear strikes. That is, Vladimir Putin would order limited nuclear attacks early, so as to frighten the US into ending the conflict on terms favourable to Moscow.’4 A towering figure of the US strategic community asserts that: ‘The Russian military has devised a doctrine which envisions using a small number of very low-yield nuclear weapons to attack NATO forces defending Alliance territory’.5 A European analyst writes that during recent exercises, ‘Russia rehearsed the use of limited low-yield nuclear strikes to intimidate the West into accepting Russian territorial gains’.6 Breathless reporting in Western media often includes the same claims.

The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) exemplifies this narrative and paints a rather frightening picture of the Russian theatre-nuclear threat. To wit:

Russia’s belief that limited first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its great number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict. Recent Russian statements on this evolving nuclear weapons doctrine appear to lower the threshold for Moscow’s first-use of nuclear weapons. Russia demonstrates its perception of the advantage these systems provide through numerous exercise and statements.

Russia may also rely on threats of limited nuclear first use, or actual first use, to coerce us, our allies, and partners into terminating a conflict on terms favorable to Russia …

[Russia] mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia …

[Russia] is also building a large, diverse, and modern set of non-strategic systems that are dual-capable (may be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons). These theater- and tactical-range systems are not accountable under the New START Treaty and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear modernization is increasing the total number of such weapons in its arsenal, while significantly improving its delivery capabilities …

Most concerning are Russia’s national security policies, strategies, and doctrine that include an emphasis on the threat of limited nuclear escalation, and its continuing development and fielding of increasingly diverse and expanding nuclear capabilities. Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. Some in the United States refer to this as Russia’s ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine. ‘De-escalation’ in this sense follows from Moscow’s mistaken assumption of Western capitulation on terms favorable to Moscow.7

Most of the elements of this narrative, however, rely on weak evidence – and there is strong evidence to counter many of them. Russia is not building new dedicated theatre-nuclear systems, and there is little evidence of new ‘low-yield’ warheads; it does not have an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ doctrine; and it is not practising the use of nuclear weapons in large-scale military exercises. The Russian nuclear problem is real and serious – but it is political more than it is military.

Russia’s arsenal

Almost all open sources, including the US 2018 NPR, refer to a Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) arsenal of about 2,000 warheads (‘non-strategic’ here referring to those weapons not designed to be carried by New START-constrained launchers). The same sources differ in their evaluation of the number of operationally available warheads (that is, those which are available for planning and are not held in reserve). The most detailed recent open-source study, published in 2012, suggests that out of 1,900, only about half of this arsenal is available, most of it being assigned to naval, air and air-defence forces in western Russia.8 A total of 1,900 would amount, according to data provided by the author of the study, to less than 10% of the late Cold War Soviet NSNW arsenal. Such a 93% reduction, one should note, would not be vastly different from what NATO’s own deployed NSNW arsenal has undergone since its 1970s peak (a 97% reduction).9

Rumours and Russian threats of new nuclear deployments in Kaliningrad started about two decades ago. These rumours and threats generally involved a degree of confusion, perhaps deliberate, between missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on the one hand, and the warheads themselves, on the other. References were made first to the dual-capable short-range missiles SS-21 Tochka-Uand then, in the past ten years, to the more modern SS-26 Iskander-M, which is almost certainly dual-capable, although its nuclear capability has never been publicly acknowledged by Moscow.10 After years of Russian threats to do so, the Iskander-M was deployed in the enclave in 2016, allegedly temporarily, as a supposed reprisal for the deployment of NATO ballistic-missile defences. Specific references to nuclear warheads, however, have been scant. It is possible that Kaliningrad, which hosts large military facilities, has been a depot of nuclear warheads for some time, notably for the Russian navy; but there is no evidence of nuclear-warhead deployments dedicated to the Iskander-M. It has been speculated that the nuclear warhead for this missile could be either the one designed for the SS-21 or the one designed for the SS-23 Oka.11 Given the relatively short shelf life of Russian non-strategic warheads, it is at least equally possible that Russia adapted one of these designs.

Has Russia developed new types of warheads of the low-yield variety? It is possible that it reduced the yield of existing ones, as several nuclear powers have done in the past or are doing today, by reducing the amount of fissile or fusible material contained in the warhead. But evidence of new types of low-yield warheads is absent – and programmes to develop such warheads would be of dubious reliability in the absence of full-scale testing. The only available source is a nearly 20-year-old declassified (though heavily redacted) CIA Intelligence Memorandum, which seems to refer to Russian interest in, more than development of, a new, tailored, low-yield warhead.12

Ambiguity is at the core of Russian strategy. However, for our purposes here we should distinguish between ambiguity as a political strategy (intentionally projecting uncertainty about the nature of the threat) and ambiguity as a technical fact (the built-in dual capability of launchers). Dual capability applies to many bombers and missiles: it is in the genes of Russian strategic culture. It is also a product of the severe budgetary constraints of the 1990s and 2000s, as well as a practical matter, to simplify force management. Lest we forget, some Alliance assets are also dual-capable (the F-16, Tornado and Rafale bombers). Finally, as others have observed, retaining a large NSNW arsenal may also be a bargaining chip: ‘Russia is quite simply loath to give up something it has a lot of without getting something else in return.’13

Yes, Russia is ramping up the development, deployment and use of theatre-range launchers and missiles – including the new SSC-8, a cruise missile that almost certainly violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. But this does not mean a renewed emphasis on the nuclear capability of such systems.

Russia’s doctrine

In 2010, Russia raised its stated nuclear threshold. Today, its doctrine no longer emphasises nuclear deterrence, but ‘strategic deterrence’ (nuclear and non-nuclear). As described in the 2014 military doctrine:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.14

This wording – the same as in 2010 – suggests that NSNW are no longer weapons to compensate for military weakness or reverse the course of a battle, but rather instruments of war termination. That is, they would be used to re-establish deterrence more than they would be used to win the war in military terms. Russian officials have suggested that in 2010 a secret document accompanying the published doctrine was also adopted.15 But, rather than being a ‘secret nuclear doctrine’ to contradict the official one, this is much more likely to have been a more detailed version of the official document, for the purposes of planning or programming.

This change is not surprising; indeed, it is consistent with what we know about the evolution of Russian conventional armed forces over the past decade. Moscow feels much more comfortable with its capabilities than it did ten years ago, at the time of the invasion of Georgia.

Does the expression ‘escalate to de-escalate’ aptly characterise Russian nuclear doctrine? Taken literally – as its original authors (three Russian military experts) suggested in 1999 – there is nothing shocking about this concept.16 It suggests that, if Russia found itself in a losing situation, the limited use of nuclear weapons would aim at an early termination of the conflict by re-establishing deterrence. Isn’t that how NATO and its nuclear powers have traditionally thought about limited use?

In any case, the expression has long since disappeared from official Russian writings. As a matter of fact – and although some Russian officials occasionally used it in public statements in the 2000s – the word ‘de-escalation’ seems to have appeared only once in a Russian official document, a Ministry of Defence report of 2003. That document described four missions for strategic deterrence: ‘in peacetime – to prevent power politics and aggression against Russia or its allies; in wartime – de-escalation of aggression; termination of hostilities on conditions acceptable to Russia; impair the adversary’s capability to a target level’. The report also included a box defining de-escalation as follows: ‘De-escalation of aggression: forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons.’17 (Note, incidentally, that the de-escalatory threat was much broader than nuclear use.) As Olga Oliker, a noted expert on Russia, puts it, ‘the evidence that Russia’s nuclear strategy is one of “de-escalation”, or that it has lowered its threshold for nuclear use, is far from convincing’.

It is thus baffling that the US NPR referred to this expression. At least its drafters were wise enough to be cautious in one of the two references: ‘Some in the United States refer to this as Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.’18

Of course, at the end of the day, it is likely, as a NATO analyst put it after a careful review of Russia’s military thinking, that ‘Russia’s nuclear threshold in a crisis or conflict would be … subject to political decisions in the circumstances of the moment. The bottom line is that Russia’s nuclear threshold would be wherever the president, as commander-in-chief, chooses.’19 However, this last sentence, taken literally, is also true for France, the United Kingdom and the United States.20

As for Russian ‘nuclear threats’, these are generally made by mid-level officials and parliamentarians. By contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s own statements on this question are rarely shocking. To give but one example, Putin’s much-discussed 2015 statement about the Crimean crisis was simply an ex post declaration stating that Putin had been ‘ready’ to put nuclear forces on alert if need be.21 Hardly a threat.

Russia’s exercises

Exercises are important for understanding Russia’s nuclear posture, because, as the saying goes, Moscow trains as it fights and fights as it trains. So what do large-scale ones such as the Zapad (Western front) and Vostok (Eastern front) exercises tell us?

They tell us that the last time one of them indisputably included nuclear use was almost 20 years ago, in 1999 (Russia was explicit about it), and that no known theatre military exercise has included nuclear-weapons use for a decade. This is unsurprising: Russia now ‘wins’ – or at least ‘resists’ – without nuclear weapons.

It is often claimed that Zapad 2009 included a nuclear strike against Europe, but this claim comes from a single source, a report by the Polish magazine Wprost. A cable reporting on a NATO debriefing of the exercise shows how the frequent confusion between ‘nuclear’ and ‘nuclear-capable’ permits speculation to be reported as fact. The US ambassador to NATO described it as follows: ‘The exercise included … missile launches, some of which may have simulated the use of tactical nuclear weapons.’22 However, as quoted by a respectable expert, this became: ‘A Wikileaks document suggests that recent military exercises in the Baltic region and the Russian Far East involved simulated nuclear launches.’23

Regarding Zapad 2013an in-depth analysis of the exercise co-published by the Jamestown Foundation – hardly known as a hotbed of Russia appeasers – concludes that ‘the limited use of nuclear weapons was not simulated during Zapad-2013’.24 Same for Zapad 2017: a conservative US expert on Russian military issues concluded in a long analysis that ‘Unlike the earlier Zapad exercises, there was no indication that Russia was in a desperate situation when they initiated simulated nuclear strikes. Indeed, they had won’.25

There is a nuclear dimension overshadowing large-scale exercises such as Zapads. In 2017, for instance, RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests bracketed or bookended Zapad: one (silo-based) test took place on 12 September, two days before the exercise; another (mobile) one happened on 20 September, its last day, although there was no indication that it was part of Zapad.26 A ballistic missile was reportedly ‘launched’ from a Northern Fleet submarine during the defensive phase of Zapad 2017, but an official Ukrainian statement – another source not known for disparaging Russian military threats – refers to it as only an ‘electronic’ launch, or a simulation.27

Nuclear exercises may thus be connected with, yet separated from, recent Zapads. (Autumn is generally the season of Russian strategic-nuclear-forces readiness exercises.) As an in-depth Swedish analysis of Russian exercises from 2011 to 2014 put it, ‘nuclear forces often, but not always, trained in connection with annual strategic exercises or major surprise inspections’.28 If so, this suggests an obvious conclusion: Russia would see any conflict with the West as a potentially nuclear one, and Moscow would engage in nuclear signalling during the conflict for the purpose of political coercion.

The psychological dimension of this issue is important. When Russia uses dual-capable bombers such as the Tupolev-22, observers often choose to see a nuclear strike even though nothing indicates that this is the case. They are subject to confirmation bias. A long-distance strike against Sweden was simulated by such bombers in late March 2013. Its claim to fame stems from the fact that this was – bizarrely – mentioned as a ‘nuclear’ strike in a NATO secretary-general public report.29 But there is no evidence that this was the case. Sloppy drafting happens even in respectable organisations. Likewise, the dual-capable Iskander-M is often used in exercises – but short-range conventional ballistic missiles have been a fixture of Russian theatre operations from Afghanistan to Georgia and Syria, so there is no intrinsic reason to believe that this is a simulation of nuclear use.

For observers who genuinely think that Russia has a low nuclear threshold and regularly practises theatre-nuclear strikes, analysing its exercising can trigger cognitive dissonance: they can only reconcile the facts with their beliefs by choosing to see a nuclear strike even though nothing indicates that this is the case. This author remembers that in 2015, during a discussion with Western experts, an analyst confessed that having studied Russian large-scale exercises, he ‘could not understand’ why there seemed to be less and less emphasis on the nuclear dimension. Having unconsciously discarded the hypothesis according to which Russia was increasingly comfortable with its classical forces, he had forgotten the cardinal rule of research sometimes known as Ockham’s razor: the simplest explanation is often the correct one. There might be an element of groupthink here.

* * *

Russia is once again proud of its conventional forces, and it wants to be perceived as an equal to the United States. Hence its emphasis on ‘strategic deterrence’ and the use of long-range conventional cruise missiles such as Kalibr in Syria. Moscow is deliberately ambiguous about the characteristics of its forces and the nature of the exercises it conducts: it does not say whether they are nuclear or conventional. This is probably a political strategy. Russia has seen that nuclear ambiguity makes us uncomfortable, and that it potentially complicates our thinking and our planning. So Russia plays with that fact. As Oliker has observed of the nuclear arming of Iskander-M, ‘the Russians have realized that the prospect makes the United States and its NATO allies nervous’.30

To reiterate the point, it would not make sense for Russia to hide a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons or a low nuclear threshold, because it knows that this is what scares us. Alternative explanations are unsatisfying: it is highly dubious, for instance, that the absence of a nuclear element in recent exercises reflects ‘concern over the unfavourable publicity’ that it would bring Moscow.31

To be clear, this has no direct implications for the Atlantic Alliance’s nuclear posture. Irrespective of what Russia’s nuclear policy is, NATO needs to have a solid deterrent that includes the possibility to selectively strike Russia to deter Moscow from – and, if needed, respond to – limited nuclear use. Thus, even if the US NPR’s diagnosis of Russian nuclear policy is flawed, it does not necessarily follow that its decisions with regard to the improvement of deterrence in Europe are off the mark.

But the Russian nuclear-threat narrative needs to be deconstructed. There are enough good reasons to worry about Russia’s behaviour – from its reckless and dangerous military provocations to its violations of arms-control and disarmament treaties, and its temptation to play the nuclear card as a tool of political coercion – to worry about its nuclear weapons for the wrong reasons. Kristen Ven Bruusgaard, a prominent European analyst of Russian military affairs, has it right: ‘The fixation with the alleged “lowered nuclear threshold” is a symptom of a larger challenge the West has not had to face for some time: a nuclear-armed adversary with mature capabilities and concepts designed to take advantage of Western weaknesses.’32


The author would like to thank Isabelle Facon, Thomas Moore and Brad Roberts for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.


1 ‘Statement of Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Before the House Committee on Armed Services’, 25 June 2015, p. 4, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20150625/103669/HHRG-114-AS00-Wstate-WorkR-20150625.pdf.

2 Admiral Cecil D. Haney, remarks to the Project on Nuclear Issues Capstone Conference, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, 13 April 2016, http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/986478/project-on-nuclear-issues-capstone-conference/.

3 Jens Stoltenberg, ‘Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015’, NATO, 28 January 2016, p. 19, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_01/20160128_SG_AnnualReport_2015_en.pdf.

4 Matthew Kroenig, ‘The Case for Tactical US Nukes’, Wall Street Journal, 24 January 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-case-for-tactical-u-s-nukes-1516836395.

5 Franklin C. Miller, ‘The Nuclear Posture Review: Fiction and Fact’, Real Clear Defense, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/02/20/the_nuclear_posture_review__fiction_and_fact_113080.html.

6 Gustav Gressel, ‘The Draft US Nuclear Posture Review Is Not As Crazy As It Sounds’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 19 January 2018, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_draft_us_nuclear_posture_review_is_not_as_crazy_as_it_sounds.

7 US Department of Defense, ‘Nuclear Posture Review 2018’ [hereafter 2018 NPR], February 2018, pp. XI–XII, 7, 9 and 30, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.

8 Igor Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces’, Royal United Services Institute, 2012, https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/201211_op_atomic_accounting.pdf.

9 US Department of Defense, ‘Report of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management, Phase II: Review of the DoD Nuclear Mission’, December 2008, p. 59, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/PhaseIIReportFinal.pdf.

10 For background, see Nikolai Sokov, ‘A Second Sighting of Russian Tactical Nukes in Kaliningrad’, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, 15 February 2011, https://www.nonproliferation.org/a-second-sighting-of-russian-tactical-nukes-in-kaliningrad-2/.

11 Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces’.

12 See Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Evidence of Russian Development of New Subkiloton Nuclear Warheads’, 30 August 2000, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001260463.pdf; and Jeffrey G. Lewis, ‘Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons’, Arms Control Wonk, 3 December 2010, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/203309/russian-tactical-nuclear-weapons/.

13 Olga Oliker and Andrey Bakilitsky, ‘The Nuclear Posture Review and Russian “De-Escalation”: A Dangerous Solution to a Nonexistent Problem’, War on the Rocks, 20 February 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/nuclear-posture-review-russian-de-escalation-dangerous-solution-nonexistent-problem/.

14 ‘Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2014’ [The 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation], paragraph 27, http://Kremlin.ru/media/events/files/41d527556bec8deb3530.pdf.

15 See Mark B. Schneidet, ‘Escalate to De-Escalate’, Proceedings, vol. 143, no. 2, February 2017, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-02/escalate-de-escalate.

16 Major General V.I. Levshin, Colonel A.V. Nedelin and Colonel M.E. Sosnovskii, ‘O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voennykh deistvii’ [On the use of nuclear weapons for the purposes of de-escalation of military confrontation], Voennaya Mysl’ [Military Thought], Moscow, January 1999, http://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/2449543.

17 ‘Aktoual’nye zadatchi razvitiia vooroujennykh sil Rossiïskoï Federatsii’ [Priority Tasks for the Development of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces], October 2003. For the English text, see p. 70 of http://red-stars.org/doctrine.pdf.

18 Olga Oliker, ‘Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine. What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means’, Center for Strategic and Security Studies, May 2016, p. 2, ttps://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160504_Oliker_RussiasNuclearDoctrine_Web.pdf.

19 Dave Johnson, ‘Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds’, Livermore Papers on Global Security, no. 3, February 2018, p. 69, https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/Precision-Strike-Capabilities-report-v3-7.pdf.

20 Johnson rightly notes, in this regard, that the mention of ‘the State’ (gosudarstsvo) should be understood as state institutions or the normal functioning of the central government. See David Johnson, ‘Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict’, Recherches & Documents, no. 06/16, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, November 2016, p. 61.

21 ‘Ukraine Conflict: Putin “Was Ready for Nuclear Alert”’, BBC, 15 March 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31899680.

22 ‘NATO–RUSSIA: NAC DISCUSSES RUSSIAN MILITARY EXERCISES’, cable, 23 November 2009, available at https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/i/BlJ7l/23112009-NATO-RUSSIA-NAC-DISCUSSES-RUSSIAN-MILITARY-EXERCISES.

23 Sutyagin, ‘Atomic Accounting’, p. 54.

24 Liudas Zdanavičius and Matthew Czekaj (eds), ‘Russia’s Zapad 2013 Military Exercise: Lessons for Baltic Regional Security’, Jamestown Foundation, December 2015, p. 6, https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Zapad-2013-Full-online-final.pdf.

25 Mark B. Schneider, ‘Zapad-2017: A Major Russian War Against NATO, Again’, Real Clear Defense, 6 October 2017, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/10/06/zapad-2017_a_major_russian_war_against_nato_again_112441.html.

26 Ibid.

27 See Johnson, ‘Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds’, p. 88; and National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, ‘Olexandr Turchynov: Missile-Nuclear Finale of the “Zapad-2017”’, http://www.rnbo.gov.ua/en/news/2887.html.

28 Johan Norberg, ‘Training to Fight: Russia’s Major Military Exercises 2011–2014’, Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut [Swedish Defense Research Agency], December 2015, p. 61, https://www.foi.se/reportsummary?reportNo=FOI-R--4128--SE.

29 Stoltenberg, ‘Secretary General’s Annual Report 2015’, p. 19.

30 Oliker, ‘Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine’, p. 11.

31 Zdanavičius and Czekaj (eds), ‘Russia’s Zapad 2013 Military Exercise’, p. 9. A possible explanation would be fear of pre-emption; but nothing indicates that this is actually the case.

32 Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, ‘The Myth of Russia’s Lowered Nuclear Threshold’, War On The Rocks, 22 September 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/the-myth-of-russias-lowered-nuclear-threshold/.

Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique.