This is an interview on Russian nuclear weapons strategy with Gudrun Persson who is an associate professor and research leader at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI). The interview was conducted by Zebulon Carlander, security policy program manager at Folk och Försvar, on February 24 and is based on a memo she wrote for FOI two years ago about Russian nuclear weapons policy. It was originally published in Swedish.
What role do nuclear weapons play in Russian security policy doctrine?
They play a vital role and I would even say that it plays a vital role in Russian security policy overall. They have done so for a long time. Russia’s security policy rests ultimately on two legs: the possession of nuclear weapons and the permanent membership on the UN Security Council. It is through these two instruments that Russia can influence the world.
I might add that in Putin’s speech to the nation last night, he made a threat of using nuclear weapons. He began by saying that Russia is a major nuclear power and then said that anyone who tries to get involved in what is going on in Ukraine will be met by something they have not encountered before in history. I cannot interpret that in any other way than that he is talking about nuclear weapons, which shows the important role they have.
How big is the Russian nuclear arsenal and how is it structured?
Russia and the United States have the largest nuclear arsenals. Together, they make up over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. As for the Russian force, it is estimated that there are about 80,000 personnel. They are called the Strategic Rocket Forces. That’s the formal name. It consists of what is called a nuclear triad: land, navy and air. Russia currently has around 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons under the New START Agreement in terms of strategic warheads. The non-strategic, ie. tactical amounts to around 1900 warheads. Then it should be remembered that in recent years Russia has modernized its nuclear arsenal to almost 90 percent.
In 2020, you wrote an analysis for the Swedish Defence Research Agency on Russia’s nuclear weapons policy, and that analysis was entitled “Russia’s nuclear weapons doctrine – the unpredictability confirmed”. What did you mean by that?
We have known this document has existed but it has previously been secret. That is interesting in itself. That it was published, I think it had to do with addressing a rather wild debate internationally about how Russia intends to use nuclear weapons, but also a discussion internally in Russia between different military thinkers. They felt it was important to present how they think about it all. It did not really give any new answers, but it communicates very clearly that no one should really know when and how Russia intends to use its nuclear weapons. They also want to make it clear that it is the Russian commander-in-chief who makes the decision. That is, Vladimir Putin.
In what scenarios does Russia claim to be prepared to use nuclear weapons?
There are some scenarios. Then it should also be said that in military doctrine there is a section that has not been changed since the year 2000. It says that it is the president who makes the decision and that the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only if the very existence of the state is threatened. It is basically a political decision. That is, it is the president who decides what threatens existence.
Then in the nuclear weapons policy it is said that if there are ballistic robots traveling towards the Russian Federation or its allies,they can use nuclear weapons or if an opponent uses nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation or its allies. Then it is also said in an interesting paragraph that it is conceivable to use nuclear weapons if an opponent attacks Russia’s critically important state or military objects whose unusability would mean that the defense capabilities of the nuclear forces would be undermined. And also if there are conventional weapons that threaten the existence of the state.
What is the role of nuclear weapons and armaments control in the ongoing game between Russia and the United States / NATO?
Yes, before this situation, with the military operation in Ukraine, Russia and the United States had begun negotiations on what is called strategic stability. It is very much about arms control and the restriction of nuclear weapons. Now it was the case that the New START agreement expired last year and was extended by five years. It was questionable whether it would be possible at all. It was then said that discussions would take place at the expert level to see how a new agreement could be drawn up to limit strategic nuclear weapons. Now we do not really know how it goes. Then I would also like to remind you that the INF agreement has fallen, ie the agreement that banned the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe. It could be possible for the Russian Federation to deploy medium-range missiles in Europe with nuclear warheads.
How important are nuclear weapons for Russia’s identity as a great power?
Yes, it is fundamentally important. As I said earlier, this is a very important part of Russia’s security policy. Then it is the case that Russian citizens do not go around thinking about what nice nuclear weapons they have. But I recall in 2014 in connection with the annexation of Crimea that t-shirts with strategic nuclear weapons were printed on it. It had a text saying “You should not be generated over your complexes” which referred to the nuclear complex. It was meant for the young population and to make it cool. During the Cold War, this was not done. In the Soviet Union, there was talk of nuclear weapons at the political level, but not of appealing to the young population.