Russia’s Preemptive Nuclear War Doctrine

You Call It “Offensive,” We Call It, “Defensive!”

Russian President Putin and Chief of Staff Gerasimov watch military exercises in Russia's Zabaykalsky region
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov watch military exercises in Russia’s Zabaykalsky region July 17, 2013. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

The setting is the Pentagon. The year is 1964. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is at the height of his power. He is sitting at a conference table being briefed by a group of RAND Corporation B-Teamers who were assessing whether the Soviet Union really believed that they could fight and win a nuclear war with the United States. The think tankers’ conclusion was: yes, the Soviets really believed this. What’s more, the little information that could be gleaned from the USSR during this time indicated that the Soviet military acquired and designed their armed forces upon this principle. This explains why the USSR invested so heavily in amassing not only overwhelming amounts of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons, but also scores of tanks, as well as a rudimentary Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) network known as the Galosh System. According to these analysts, the Soviets did not view nuclear warfare in the same apocalyptic terms as most American policymakers (other than the likes of Dr. Herman Kahn) did. The Soviets never backed away from this offensive nuclear warfare doctrine until at least the Chernobyl Incident in 1986. Yet, even then, such newfound reticence was far likelier an old school Soviet Active Measure, designed to trick the West than it was an actual ideological paradigm shift.

Now, today, the Russian Federation is controlled by a former Soviet intelligence apparatchik in the form of Vladimir Putin. While he is most certainly not a Communist, he is a conservative imperial nationalist in the Tsarist mold, and therefore shares similar paranoid and aggressive worldviews that both the Tsars and the Soviets did. Thus, Mr. Putin has not only brought with him into power his old KGB playbook, but also, this pernicious form of imperialism known as Neo-Eurasianism, and also the old Soviet nuclear warfare doctrine.

A right front view of a vehicle-mounted Soviet Galosh anti-ballistic missile launcher.

The difference today from yesteryear is that more and more countries seem to be taken into the Russian fold (either out of fear, by force, or willingly) and Russia itself has embarked on a decade-long military modernization. Specifically, Russia has exponentially increased its tactical nuclear stockpile, it has begun a major modernization effort of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arsenal, Russia has fully modernized their space program and has vowed to weaponize space, and Russia is expanding their Pacific forces while at the same time maintaining the world’s largest tank force.

Alexander Dugin, chief Kremlin geostrategist (known as “Putin’s Brain”), talking about the impending U.S.-Russian War. Make no mistake, Dugin is a primary transmission belt for what Putin and his cadre are thinking and he is a primary influence shaping Putin’s disastrous worldview.

When listening to Kremlin insiders, one gets the impression that Russia is under active siege. While this is untrue, Western policymakers should take this into account. Putin and his cadre are convinced that the U.S. and its allies in NATO and the EU are plotting destroy him and dismember Russia. This is not to say that America should abandon actively resisting Russian revanchism whenever it can, and this is not to excuse Russian misbehavior over the years as purely defensive. This is merely to give U.S. policymakers insight and to let them understand that, if we are not careful, we may be speeding toward another Great Power War. And, as I stated here, I fear that the U.S. political elite is unprepared to wage and win such a war at this point in time. For, you see, it matters not what American policymakers believe or think. What is more important is what the Russian leadership believes. And, my friends, they are preparing for war.


How the West Fooled Itself

As Derek Leebaert recounts in his thrilling history of the Cold War, The Fifty-Year Wound, the American view of nuclear warfare as an exercise in Armageddon, Mutual Assured Destruction, was not shared by the Soviets. So, when the RAND Corporation analysts presented their findings to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he exploded in rage. His rage was not directed at the irresponsible Soviet doctrine. Rather, it was directed toward the RAND analysts themselves:

“McNamara ripped the pointer from Foster’s hands and slammed it against the charts. ‘No, no, no!’ [McNamara shouted], coloring dangerously. ‘As a Red marshal, I’m going to put them all on the cities!’ […] To McNamara, nuclear war was the end of his world, to be treated with fitting millenarianism. To real Red marshals–Sokolovsky, Malinovsky, and others–who had fought from Stalingrad to Berlin against the best army in the world [the German Wehrmacht], twenty million to forty million dead was experienced historic fact. […] It did indeed make them [the Soviets] grimly confident of enduring in ways that the civilized secretary was fortunate in not being able to imagine.” – Derek Leebaert, “The Fifty-Year Wound,” pp. 367.

vd_sokolovskyV.D. Sokolovsky was a contemporary of famous Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov. The two men served together in World War II. Sokolovsky was one of the architects of the Soviet military doctrine that was largely predicated on defending the USSR by constantly going on the offensive. His theories heavily inspired key Soviet war planners and shaped the way that the Soviets created their overall foreign policy. This is evidenced in his infamous treatise on Soviet military doctrine, entitled Soviet Military Strategy. Although Sokolovsky passed in 1968, his aggressive military doctrine lived on.

Then there is former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Timofeyevich Yazov.

41niavizcul-_sx373_bo1204203200_General Yazov is a particularly interesting figure. At 91 years of age, the old war dog is still alive-and-kicking strong in Russia today. Indeed, recently President Putin invited Yazov (now retired) to the Kremlin and honored him for his decades of service to Russia. Yazov is known as one of the greatest hardliners in Russia. He was so opposed to former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s rapprochement with the West that he was one of three men who led the 1991 coup against Gorbachev. Always obsessed with the “correlation of forces,” following the decisive American victory over Saddam Hussein’s army in Desert Storm, Yazov became obsessed with what he believed to be Moscow’s relative strategic weakness compared to the United States. Soon thereafter, he became convinced that the Russians must do all that they can–no matter how long it took–to reestablish what he believed was a natural strategic advantage over the Americans and the West. Yazov was one of the acolytes of Sokolovsky who fervently believed that Russia could fight and win a preemptive nuclear war against the United States. Since 2010, Yazov has been a highly influential and respected member of Putin’s inner cadre.

Putin proudly meeting the old Red War Dog, Yazov, last year for his 90th birthday.

Vladimir Putin listens to the likes of Dugin and Yazov. He has come to believe that not only is Russia under siege from the West, but that he must rebuild the old Russian Empire in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union. This is a manifestation of the Neo-Eurasianist theory that Dugin espouses. From Yazov (as well as others), Putin believes that he has the capacity to defeat the United States in war. What’s more, Putin, like so many of the paranoid Soviet apparatchiks who preceded him, has become convinced that he must strike the West now before the West strikes him.

One of Russia’s infamous mobile nuclear missile launchers. Russia has spent the last six years engaged in a historic modernization and expansion of their nuclear arsenal. It is so bad, in fact, that there is talk of the old nuclear arms gap between the West and Russia being closed in Russia’s favor.

What have American policymakers been doing in the interim? Have we been building our forces and preparing to defend vital centers? No. We have systematically gutted our nuclear force, as Paul Bracken recounts in The Second Nuclear Age. In a conversation not that long ago with former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed, I was informed that even many of the nuclear arms that we do have are likely non-functional, due to their plutonium cores degrading. We have allowed a critical gap to form between the number of our tactical nuclear weapons and the number of Russia’s. Furthermore, we have continued to slash our military spending and the size of our armed forces. Our force posture in Europe is a joke. Also, the reliability of our NATO partners is in severe question, should the proverbial dung hit the fan. And, if we were to be sucked into an open war with Russia, how would we respond? What would our strategic goal be? Russia, no matter how delusional their leaders are, have methodically laid the groundwork for fighting and winning what they perceive will be a limited nuclear war with the West. Meanwhile, the West has been categorically downsizing and abandoning its status as the preeminent military power in the world. While I do believe that the U.S. could prevail in a longer fight against the Russians, I question how reliable our allies would be in such a conflict. I question whether the American electorate–or economy–could handle such a conflict at this point in time. What’s more, I am dubious over the prospect that our leadership would be willing to meet Russian aggression in-kind.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during a national security meeting on Vietnam at the White House, February 9, 1968. REUTERS/LBJ Library/Handout

Like McNamara, a majority of America’s policymakers have an understandably apocalyptic view of nuclear warfare. But, this is not what matters. Indeed, the fact that America’s opinion (and, more importantly, its actions) on nuclear strategy are well known throughout the world means that our nuclear deterrent is less viable in the eyes of the Russians. They know our limits and recognize how unwilling we are to rely on nuclear arms in any serious fashion. We broadcast our limitations in official statements. During Congressional testimonies. In the midst of heated political campaigns. Our movies portray them to the world. Our books do as well. Yet, the Russians have remained quite consistent: theirs is a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine. Should they view their position as seriously compromised, should they perceive their relations with the West as irredeemable, they will strike in the least-expected, sudden, and most devastating way imaginable. Our predictable fear of nuclear arms has been our greatest weakness. The Russians have been consistent, but we aren’t listening. We keep assuming that they view nuclear arms the exact same way we do. Of course, how could they? We haven’t had their historical and cultural experiences and they have not had ours. No matter how similar we may be, no matter how much we interact with each other, we are still different. They cannot fathom how we view the world, and we cannot believe how they view the world in their way. Should the Russians manage to get a devastating first strike on American military and strategic nuclear forces, then, I suspect that the Kremlin will be able to run the proverbial table on us in Europe and elsewhere.

Thus, we have deluded ourselves into believing that the Russians view nuclear arms in the same millenarian fashion that our policymakers universally do.

Behaving As Scorpions In a Bottle

“We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer on the prospects of a nuclear war

The West has convinced itself that an “insensate wargasm” is the only result of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia. The Russians, on the other hand, fervently believe that they can win a nuclear conflict with the West. Even if the U.S. is able to totally retaliate against a Russian surprise nuclear attack, the Russians figure that they can handle the hit because their first strike will have debilitated the Americans to such a point that they can withstand it. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Regardless, I do not believe that the U.S. can survive a post-nuclear war scenario. The Russians would likely also not survive, but they do seem to be poised to last a lot longer than we are. Our military is spread thin and under-resourced. Our strategy is listless. Our capabilities are strained. And, we don’t even know that there is a serious risk of warfare. American policymakers must stop mirror-imaging; they must stop assuming that everyone views the world as they do. They must also stop in the wishful thinking that everything will work out because…America, Hell Yeah!


Mr. Putin may have a skewed view of reality, but he has fashioned a fighting force that is highly torqued and capable of upending the American-led order in the former Soviet space. The U.S. is not ready. America must choose its next engagement with Russia carefully. Standing down will signal weakness and encourage the Russians to grab for more. But mindless antagonism will only encourage greater irresponsible behavior on the part of the Russians. Sun Tzu once said, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” America should take heed. We are an overall stronger nation, but we are distracted and led by those who suffer from Strategic Dissonance. While we must hold the line in Ukraine, we might want to start reassessing our posture in places like Syria, for starters. Unless the U.S. acknowledges that a) there is, in fact, a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine in Russia and, b) the Russians are convinced that war is inevitable, then we will blunder into a devastating war that will tear the world asunder as never before.



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