Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new nuclear deterrent policy on Tuesday. While it retains some existing features that have been standard nuclear policy for decades, it adds two new provisions that are unique due to their first strike nature. 

Nuclear First

The use of nuclear weapons by any state has largely been governed by rules written and unwritten that they should only be launched in the event of a nuclear attack. That is to say, nuclear weapons have mostly been relegated to a defensive manoeuvre. Putin changed that with Moscow’s new nuclear policy, The New York Times reported. 

The policy document details two instances that would permit Russia to respond with nuclear force. The first is an attack from “conventional weapons that threatens the country’s existence.” The second is if Moscow receives “reliable information” of a ballistic missile attack on Russia or its allies, or if such an attack would damage government or military institutions to the point they could no longer respond with nuclear weapons.

In these cases, Putin has authorised Russia to strike first with nuclear weapons, a dramatic shift from decades of nuclear deterrence policy. The changes were prompted by a perceived threat from the US, according to the policy document.

US forces are stationed along Russia’s borders including missile launchers. Moreover, Moscow is concerned with space-based weapons. American President Donald Trump created a new Space Force designed to aggressively pursue the militarisation of space-based technology.

Back to the Cold War

Under Trump, the Washington–Moscow relationship has fallen to Cold War era lows. Not only has Trump deployed more military to states bordering Russia, but he has also reduced the trust the post-USSR world was predicated upon. By removing the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then the Open Skies Treaty, and now possibly the New Strategic Arms Reduction  Treaty (START), Trump has at every turn given Putin reason to distrust America.

Combined with the fact that Putin is ex-KGB and has pursued aggressive authoritarian measures to maintain a grip on power, the situation has reversed into a Cold War-like tone.

Washington’s answer to this has been to call for a multi-lateral agreement by bringing China on-board, an idea Beijing is vehemently opposed to. China has roughly 300 nuclear weapons compared to 1.550 in both Russia and the US. By signing onto a new treaty, presumably to replace the INF, it would at worst case need to cap itself at 300 and at best case be limited to 1.550.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian commended Putin for signing a new nuclear policy, TASS reported.

“We noted this event. China respects and supports efforts that Russia is making to ensure security,” Zhao said. He indicated further cooperation between Moscow and Beijing could be in-store for the future and added, “We are ready to facilitate maintenance of peace and security in the world together with Russia.”

America Rethinks Nuclear, Too

America’s own nuclear policy is “ambiguous,” Newsweek reported. In 2018, the Nuclear Posture Review called for the use of nuclear weapons “only in extreme cases when it is forced to defend the U.S. or its allies or partners.”

Last year, however, the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an unclassified document that alluded to potentially lowering the bar for scenarios that demand a nuclear response. The document was quickly deleted by preserved by the Federation of American Scientists.

“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict,” the report entitled “Nuclear Weapons: Planning and Targeting” read.

Battle of Strongmen

Both Trump and Putin have governed with a ‘strongman’ mentality, using force or the threat of force to have their way. It should come as no surprise then that nuclear weapons, the ultimate weapon, are on both of their agendas. While the Trump administration has erased most of Washington’s nuclear treaties with Moscow, that is by design. Doing so frees the US from restrictions as much as it does Russia.

Putin’s approval of a new policy featuring nuclear-first strike scenarios is an extreme step in reverse for a world that once decided they should never be used except as a deterrent. However, actions by the Trump administration haven’t been so peaceful either, and with Space Force, Putin is feeling surpassed in power. Russia is not a state to be complacent when it is outmatched. Consequently, more policy changes designed to counter an aggressive US military will likely come from Moscow with the singular goal of advancing the Russian state.