April 27, 2017

CNAS Releases New Report “The Unsettling View From Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Pre-emption”

By Alexander Velez-Green

Washington, April 27 – As U.S.-Russian tensions rise, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Defense Strategies and Assessments Program has released a new report examining the Russian military’s internal debate on a doctrine of pre-emption. In “The Unsettling View From Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Pre-emption,” Alexander Velez-Green examines the factors causing Russian strategists to call for pre-emption, how Moscow might enact a doctrine of pre-emption, and the risks such a doctrine would pose for U.S. national security. Velez-Green offers a series of recommendations to reduce the expected value of – and the perceived need for – a doctrine of pre-emption.

The full report can be found here: https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/the-unsettling-view-from-moscow.

The new report comes on the heels of CNAS’ recently-released report “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” which examines China’s strategic thinking on how and when to escalate a crisis or conflict.

Please find the Executive Summary of “The Unsettling View From Moscow: Russia’s Strategic Debate on a Doctrine of Pre-emption” below:

A rising number of Russia’s senior military strategists are advocating for the adoption of a doctrine of pre-emption for the defense of their nation. This doctrine would be intended to protect the territorial integrity and vital national interests of the Russian Federation. To achieve these fundamentally defensive aims, Russian military strategists argue that if an attack on Russian vital interests appears imminent, Moscow must be prepared to use strategic non-nuclear or limited nuclear force first in order to deter or defeat the United States or NATO. Pre-emption could occur in crisis or in the early stages of an escalating conflict. Russian advocates of pre-emption argue that the pre-emptive attacks on U.S. or NATO targets could serve one or more of three purposes.

  1. Deterrence by cost imposition. Pre-emptive attacks on countervalue targets could provide a “punch in the nose” that deters U.S. or NATO aggression by communicating to Western policymakers and publics alike that the costs of attacking or escalating a military confrontation with Russia will outweigh any plausible benefits.
  2. Deterrence by denial. Pre-emptive attacks on counterforce targets could degrade U.S. or NATO power projection capabilities, and change the “correlation of forces,” such that Washington and other NATO capitals no longer believe that they can prevail in a major war, at acceptable levels of escalation, against Russia.
  3. Pre-emption as a defeat mechanism. Some advocates argue that pre-emptive attacks on key Western aerospace – and other – capabilities may allow the Russian armed forces to degrade or eliminate U.S. and NATO forces’ comparative advantages, such as long-range strike, thereby improving Russia’s relative military-operational position.

Russia’s potential adoption of a military doctrine based on pre-emption appears to remain in debate. The Kremlin does not yet appear to have shifted to a pre-emptive posture, based on open-source reporting. However, arguments for Russia’s shift to pre-emption seem to have gained traction in Moscow since the mid-2000s. And there is a significant likelihood that Moscow may ultimately endorse pre-emption for the defense of the Russian state in the coming decades.

Consideration of a pre-emptive military doctrine is motivated first by Russian policymakers’ dismal geopolitical outlook. Moscow sees the United States as the world’s sole remaining superpower, intent on maintaining its position by constraining aspirant powers and imposing its own will on other nations – chief among them Russia. The Kremlin has indicated as well its belief that the United States would be willing to use force to impose its will on Russia in the future, if Russia is not prepared to defend itself.

Simultaneously, a growing number of Russian military strategists forecast that defensive or retaliatory operations alone will soon be insufficient to protect Russia’s vital interests. They assess that a host of new military technologies are collapsing the battlespace and giving growing advantage to the side that escalates first. These systems will allow both Russia and the United States to act more rapidly across broader geographic expanses than before. Moreover, many of these emerging technologies – including cyber, counterspace, conventional prompt global strike (CPGS), and certain autonomous weapons – may hold Russia’s strategic nuclear forces at unprecedented risk in the coming decades.

From a Russian perspective, seizing the initiative will be the key to deterrence or if necessary military defeat of Western aggression in this collapsing battlespace. Pre-emption advocates contend that if Moscow does not escalate first in a future crisis or conflict, then the United States and its allies will. If that happens, they fear that Russian defenses will be unable to repel or absorb the U.S. or NATO attacks on Russian vital interests. They expect further that the Russian Federation will be unable to seize back the initiative once it is lost. Indeed, if the initial period of this future war is as devastating as many expect, the Russian armed forces may have limited retaliatory options left.

Russia’s adoption of a defensive doctrine of pre-emption would severely complicate efforts by U.S. and NATO policymakers to deter Russia or manage a future crisis or conflict on NATO’s eastern flank – such as a Baltic contingency – without triggering runaway escalation. It would deny Russian, U.S., and NATO officials the time required to determine whether an attack is actually imminent and enact a proportionate response. The result would be to increase the risk of rapid early military strikes and rampant escalation. This will be especially dangerous in the coming years. In view of the growing perceived fragility of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces, once war begins, it may prove difficult to contain at non-nuclear levels.

The United States should therefore take steps to dissuade Moscow from shifting to a doctrine of pre-emption. It is beyond the scope of this study to offer exhaustive recommendations to this effect. As a starting point, U.S. policymakers should seek to reduce both the expected value of and the perceived need for a doctrine of pre-emption, as seen by Moscow.

To reduce the expected value of pre-emption, as seen by Moscow, the United States should:

  • Seek recognition of “rules of the road” for cyber and counterspace operations.
  • Prioritize the development of more resilient U.S. and NATO operational concepts.
  • Demonstrate NATO’s emphasis on resilience in future military exercises.
  • Boost investment in cyber resilience.
  • Expand investment in space resilience.
  • Bolster conventional deterrence in Europe.
  • Sustain Third Offset technological, doctrinal, and organizational innovations.
  • Reaffirm the United States’ intent to respond forcefully to Russian aggression.

To reduce Moscow’s perceived need for pre-emption, the United States should take a complementary but distinct set of steps:

  • Restore U.S.-Russian military-to-military contacts.
  • Sustain engagement with Russia on NATO ballistic missile defenses.
  • Consider limitations on U.S., Russian, and Chinese CPGS forces.
  • Promote the responsible use of military autonomy.
  • Clarify the United States’ preference against pre-emption.
  • Engage Russia on geopolitical concerns.

This policy approach is not without risks. Yet, the evolving security environment demands a more active U.S. strategy. If the Russian Federation officially adopts a defensive doctrine of pre-emption, it will signify the opening of a deeply concerning chapter in U.S.-Russian relations. That chapter would be defined by more acute fear, hastening timelines, and perilous risk-taking in a security environment defined by uncertainty. It would constitute a return to Cold War–level tensions, only this time with more ways for the United States and Russia to stumble into potentially catastrophic escalation than before.

Velez-Green is available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409


  • Alexander Velez-Green