November 11, 2015

Countering Russian Nuclear Strategy In Central Europe

By Elbridge Colby

The Setting

Conflict involving Russia has become materially more plausible in Eastern Europe in recent years. Coupled with Russia’s increased focus on manipulating its large and diversified nuclear forces for strategic advantage, this is increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in the region. This set of developments presents a significant challenge for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, neither of which currently appears adequately prepared or postured to respond effectively and appropriately to a conflict with Moscow, especially one involving nuclear weapons. The United States and NATO should therefore take steps to rectify this problem by adapting their strategic and military postures, strategies and doctrines with the aim of persuading Moscow that any attempt to use its nuclear forces against the alliance would be too risky, costly and dangerous to be worthwhile.

The Problem and its Implications

The fundamental problem at issue is composed of the heightened plausibility of conflict between the Atlantic Alliance and Moscow and the relevance of nuclear weapons in such a struggle. This latter element stems primarily from Russia’s increased focus on and capabilities for the coercive use of its nuclear and strategic conventional forces. Left unaddressed, this heightened salience could give Moscow greater leverage in both war and chilly peace by strengthening the credibility and force of its threats.

The possibility of conflict between NATO and Russia

At the strategic political-level, there is increasing tension between Moscow on the one hand and many of its neighbors and those allied to them, including Washington, on the other over a range of political, economic and military issues in Eastern Europe. This is leading to an increased fear of war in the region, including involving NATO members. On the one side, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its incursions into and support for separatist forces in Ukraine, and its increasingly bellicose rhetoric and menacing behavior regarding its former possessions to the west and south have persuaded many in the region and beyond that Moscow is prepared to employ force to pursue its strategic objectives, one of which many believe to be regaining ascendancy, if not hegemony, in its historical “near abroad.” Countries such as the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania in NATO, and Georgia and Ukraine outside of it, are thus concerned that they could become the victims of Russian military assault (or, in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, further assault). Indeed, many in these countries already regard themselves as being under at the least harassment and, to some, a form of political attack by Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to be convinced that the West is out to emasculate Russia and make it a supine satellite. Moscow views as threatening and hostile steps viewed as legitimate and peaceful by the West, such as the integration of former Soviet republics into European and trans-Atlantic politico-economic and security institutions such as the European Union and NATO and the promotion of political reform and democratizationthroughouttheregion.4 Moscowthereforeseemsincreasinglyreadyto fight to secure what it judges to be its rights and prerogatives, some of which Moscow evidently sees as extending beyond its recognized borders. For instance, Moscow has pledged that it will protect ethnic Russians or Russian speakers beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

In light of these starkly differing and in key respects opposed perspectives, it seems plausible that conflict involving Russia and one or some of these states, including those that are members of the Atlantic Alliance, could break out. Such a conflict might emerge from an escalation of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, disputes over the orientation of Moscow-affiliated states like Belarus, the handling of internal political reform in such countries, attempts by the Kremlin to engineer or capitalize upon unrest in NATO states among Russophone or Russophile populations, and even outright attempts by Russia to seize territory it regards as having been illegitimately severed from it with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

These or comparable political disputes could lead to the involvement of Russian-aligned “hybrid” elements (such as the much-discussed “little green men”) and, if the conflict intensified, an assault by regular Russian forces.6 If the contest were to take place on NATO territory, this would presumably entail hostile contact between such Russian forces and those of NATO or at least some subset of NATO countries, as the alliance would need to respond forcefully and ultimately effectively to such an armed assault on the part of Moscow. A failure to reply in such a fashion would call into question the efficacy, credibility and, ultimately, the viability of the Atlantic Alliance, with dramatic potential repercussions.

The relevance of nuclear weapons in a NATO-Russia confrontation

Should such a conflict break out between NATO and Russia, it would invariably unfold under the shadow of nuclear weapons, since Russia has a large and variegated nuclear arsenal, as does the United States and, albeit in smaller numbers, do the United Kingdom and France. Once a war broke out, no one could be sure that conflict would not escalate, and thus all parties would be acutely conscious of the potential for escalation and particularly escalation to the nuclear level. Indeed, such a conflict between NATO and Russia might “go nuclear” for a number of reasons. Such a war might spiral to higher levels of intensity even if neither side wanted it to, for instance through a failure to understand or observe each other’s respective red lines, inadvertent escalation stemming from the nature of how the sides implement their military plans, and even simple accident.

But it is also possible that such a war might escalate to the nuclear level as the result of a deliberate choice by one of the combatants. Probably the most plausible-such escalation pathway would be through Moscow’s attempt to use its nuclear forces to intimidate NATO into backing down. Indeed, there is significant evidence that Russia plans to make such higher-order capabilities part of a war with NATO. 

In particular, Moscow appears to be refining a strategy of using nuclear and strategic conventional weapons (such as long-range, precision conventional munitions) in tailored and pointed ways with the idea of forcing Russia’s opponent to acquiesce or settle on termsfavoringMoscow. Russian sources have occasionally described the objective of such nuclear employment as “de-escalation of aggression,” an approach sometimes termedan“escalatetode-escalate”strategy. An influential 2003 official document, for instance, described “[d]e-escalation of aggression” as the effort to “forc[e] the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity withrelianceonconventionaland(or)nuclearweapons.”9 Russiaappearstoseeboth nuclear weapons of tailored effect and non-nuclear but “strategic” conventional weapons as being of potential use in such scenarios.

Nor is this doctrine merely a paper proposition. Rather, Russian procurement and posture appear to provide Moscow with at least some ability to put its enunciated doctrine into practice. Based on its variegated nuclear forces and the platforms to deliver them, Russia appears to have the fundamental hardware required to conduct limited nuclear strikes against both military and non-military targets of value to the Atlantic Alliance, both in Russia’s near abroad and deeper into Western Europe and even North America. Russia could use its large and diverse tactical nuclear arsenal as well as strategic-range nuclear and conventional weapons to conduct controlled strikes from a variety of aerial, maritime and ground platforms. It is also known that Russia has exercised its forces to conduct such limited strikes designed to force war termination on terms favorable to Moscow. Indeed, one expert claims that all of Russia’s large-scale military exercises since 2000 have included the conduct of limited nuclear strikes. Other reports have also indicated that Russia has frequently exercised such options.

In a contest with NATO, then, Russia might threaten to use or actually employ its nuclear forces in selective, tailored strikes to demonstrate Moscow’s willingness to “go nuclear” and thereby shock the alliance, break its political cohesion, and ultimately compel it to back down and terminate a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. The purpose of such strikes would not, presumably, be to defeat the alliance’s military or strategic forces outright, but rather to manipulate the risk of escalation in such a way that Moscow
would come out of the contest of wills the victor. Russia would have a range of options as to how to mount such attacks. It could, for instance, strike at targets deep in western NATO, hoping to shatter the sense of security and sanctuary of populations in Western Europe and North America. Alternatively, given Russia’s large and diverse tactical nuclear arsenal, Moscow might use its nuclear weapons in relatively contained and controlled ways to exercise substantial influence on the course of the conventional fight, particularly since Moscow recognizes that it is conventionally inferior to NATO if NATO is able to bring the full brunt of its military power to bear. 


The implications of this capability for the United States and NATO are significant and potentially grave. This is because, left uncountered, such a capability could provide Moscow with a formidable escalation advantage in the event of conflict with the Atlantic Alliance – or in calculations short of war about who would prevail in such a contest, which of course have significant strategic ramifications of their own. In concrete terms, an ability to use nuclear weapons flexibly and relatively controllably could allow Moscow to threaten to escalate to nuclear use in ways that would unfavorably shift the onus of escalation onto NATO and leave NATO “holding the bag.” Such use would do so not only by providing a breathtaking signifier of Russian resolve and ability to hurt the alliance, but might also involve gaining Russia a substantial advantage in a conventional fight over, for instance, the Baltics.

Without a corresponding counterpunch to such Russian employment, NATO would be left with the choice of either not responding (or responding fecklessly) on the one hand or dramatically escalating in response. This choice would be especially urgent and difficult if Russian use had hobbled NATO’s ability to fight a conventional war, for instance by interrupting the flow of forces into the region from farther in the rear. The demerit of a feeble response would be that Russia would thereby be incentivized to “double down” on its tailored nuclear options, continuing to employ them to try to force NATO to back down. The downside of dramatic counterescalation, on the other hand, would lie in the reality it could well court a matching response from an adversary possessed of a nuclear arsenal roughly equal that of the United States in strategic forces and considerably outmatching NATO’s in theater-range systems. In brief, the challenge is not that Russia has any semblance of escalation dominance, but rather that it has capabilities to act at more and potentially more suitable echelons of the escalatory ladder. Given that neither side would want to continue mounting that ladder in the event of war, such advantages in flexibility and suitability could prove of great value and significance.

Without an adequate NATO riposte, then, Russia might be able to ascend to a level of the escalation ladder that the alliance could or would not match, and then use the coercive leverage created by this advantage to compel the alliance to accede to Russian terms, with possibly calamitous consequences for the integrity of NATO and the security order it oversees. At the least, such a result would be likely to lead to a marked increase in Russian power over parts of Europe and to the serious weakening or even collapse of NATO, as well as to considerably greater security tensions and competition within and around Europe. 

What, then, would an adequate NATO response look like? Needless to say, there is no “right” answer to this question. Strategists differ about whether an alliance riposte to a Russian attack along these lines should be essentially proportionate to telegraph control or somewhat escalatory to emphasize the unwillingness to enter into a tit-for-tat fight, whether conducted in the same domain to maintain symmetry or in another to convey the willingness to surprise and discomfit Moscow, whether conducted off Russian territory to try to communicate restraint or on it to avoid harming the states the alliance is trying to defend, as well as along a number of other axes of potential decision. Nonetheless, while the precise advisable retort to a Russian use of nuclear weapons would depend on circumstances and indubitably be subject to heated debate in the councils of the implicated governments and in the North Atlantic Council, in general terms it can confidently be said that the alliance would want to have the capabilities, strategy and deployments needed to respond to Russian employment in a controlled, discriminate and flexiblefashion. That is, regardless of one’s view of how to respond to such Russian use, it would certainly need to be limited and controlled in some meaningful way, and thus the alliance or its nuclear-armed member states, particularly the United States, need the nuclear forces and supporting architecture required to make such limitation feasible. Of course, neither side could be at all confident that a war involving nuclear weapons – or any significant war – between them could ultimately be limited, but it would be incumbent upon NATO to have the capabilities to try to limit one, not least because the absence of such an ability would open substantial possibilities for Russian coercive advantage.

Fortunately, NATO and the United States are not without the means to respond to such an attempt by Russia to use its nuclear weapons for strategic gain. The United States has consistently sought the ability to conduct controlled, limited nuclear operations since the 1960s. The United States therefore has many nuclear capabilities and their associated strategic assets, particularly the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems, suited for the conduct of a limited nuclear war. These capabilities include the forward-deployed B-61 gravity bombs based in Europe for defense of NATO, weapons that can be delivered by the aircraft of the members of the alliance participating in the nuclear mission. The United Kingdom and France also have some capability for the conduct of limited nuclear operations, though the size of their arsenals and, more relevantly in this case, the limited reach and controllability provided by their C4ISR and supporting architecture mean their capabilities for flexible use are more modest than those of the United States.

The problems for NATO are not, however, in its basic ability to conduct limited nuclear operations. Rather, the problems are essentially those of preparedness and degree
of ability. It is not that the alliance is bereft of capabilities to conduct limited nuclear operations in response to Russian nuclear employment, but rather that the alliance is relatively ill-prepared to do so and that its ability to do so may be inferior to Russia’s, and perhaps considerably so. The consequences of such inferiority in the capability to conduct a limited nuclear war could be that NATO would not be ready or able to respond effectively and appropriately in the event of a Russian attempt to “escalate to deescalate.” Without the right capabilities and degree of readiness, the choices the alliance might face as to how to respond in such an eventuality might be too painful or demanding to be adopted. 

The reasons for NATO’s relative lack of preparedness in this domain are not mysterious. Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has largely neglected consideration of how
to grapple with Russia in a nuclear-shadowed contest. Indeed, this has been of a piece with the alliance’s general disinclination to plan and prepare for any kind of conflict with Russia, despite the invitation and initiation into the alliance of multiple new member states that were once part of the Soviet bloc and even the USSR itself. Thus, while the alliance has extended the North Atlantic Charter’s somber guarantee that all state parties would treat an attack upon one as an attack upon all to countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, the alliance has until recently done very little in the way ofconcretizingthatpledgeinthefaceofaresurgentRussia. Asaresult, thealliance has been far from fully prepared for a conflict with Russia, and particularly for one that escalates to the nuclear level.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change in the wake of Russia’s aggressive actions and belligerent noises since winter 2014, but NATO’s progress in readying the alliance for the effective defense of its eastern members appears fitful, uneven and incomplete. Thus, while NATO has conducted a series of reassurance initiatives and the United States has announced the deployment of equipment and forces, including heavier elements, to the newer member states, these initiatives still leave NATO largely outgunned by Russian forces in the local balance of forces.25 

More to the point, the alliance’s nuclear strategy and posture have been the area perhaps least touched by NATO’s increased willingness to adapt its posture in light
of the new threat from Russia. There has been some discussion of the need to adapt NATO’s nuclear strategy in light of the evolved Russian threat and specifically Moscow’s revised doctrine for employment of its strategic forces, but it is not clear how far
these discussions have advanced or what concrete policy or posture shifts they have initiated.26 Indeed,atleastfromtheperspectiveofanoutsideobserver,littlethusfar seems to have changed in the alliance’s nuclear posture or strategy.

This is a problem because the alliance needs to be better prepared than it currently is to deal with a Russian attempt to use its strategic forces for escalation advantage in the midst of a conflict. NATO’s best deterrent to a Russian attempt to leverage its escalate- to-deescalate strategy and capabilities for advantage is a demonstrated capability and will to respond in ways that are effective and, at the least, show Moscow that the costs and risks of such employment would outweigh its benefits. In other words, NATO’s response should at the least vitiate any gains accruing to Moscow from such use. Ideally, the alliance should evince a clear awareness of the nature of the challenge posed by Moscow’s tailored nuclear coercion strategy, demonstrate the will and preparedness to respond to such employment appropriately, and field a nuclear and strategic force capable of discriminate, controlled use. This posture would be best suited to deterring Moscow from seeking to gamble that it could materially gain by putting its strategy into practice. 


To develop such a posture, the alliance could profitably take a number of steps. Such steps should be designed to deepen and show NATO’s appreciation of the problem posed by Russia’s strategy, improve the alliance’s own ability to conduct limited nuclear operations, and strengthen and demonstrate its collective resolve and cohesion.

A crucial step in meeting this challenge is for the alliance to strengthen its ability to conduct a conventional defense of its eastern member states. Russia’s ability to exploit its nuclear forces for coercive advantage likely turns on its ability to create a favorable fait accompli through its use of hybrid and conventional forces.27 In light of the old saw that deterrence is easier than compellence, Russia would be in a stronger position to employ its coercive de-escalation strategy if it was only threatening nuclear escalation to block vigorous NATO counteraction (or, more likely, the scale of counteraction needed
to eject Russian forces) than if it simply threatened to use nuclear weapons to try to gain territory. If the alliance can prevent Moscow from gaining such a foothold, therefore, it will be in a stronger position to prevent Russia from capitalizing on its escalate-to-deescalate strategy. Accordingly, the alliance would be well-advised to deploy additional defensive capabilities, particularly heavier forces, to the vulnerable eastern member states, especially the Baltic states and Poland. Such forces should be manifestly defensive but designed to make a Russian incursion into NATO territory a much costlier and more difficult proposition.28

In the nuclear realm, perhaps the most immediately useful remedial step is for NATO to develop a deeper internal grasp of the nature of the problem posed by Russia’s integrated hybrid-conventional-nuclear posture and to develop a keener understanding of how the alliance should specifically posture and prepare itself to meet this challenge. The alliance would therefore benefit from candid, frank and informed discussions and analyses about the nature of the threat and methods of dealing with it. These should include policy deliberations and intelligence assessments on the matter as well as war- gaming, tabletop exercises and other scenario activities, which are useful in concretizing challenges and identifying effective mechanisms to counteract them. The alliance should also encourage appropriate government bodies as well as expert institutes and affiliates to analyze the challenge more deeply and propose responses. In addition, the alliance should ensure that planning staffs at Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe 

(SHAPE) are adequately manned and that such positions are appropriately valued and employed. Accordingly, such staffs should regularly exercise and train for nuclear contingencies and should include adaptive planning efforts designed to ensure NATO can respond to unfolding and unpredictable scenarios effectively and appropriately. SHAPE linkages with U.S. as well as UK and French nuclear planning staffs should also be adequately grooved to ensure effective planning capabilities, including adaptive planning.

But these exercises would and should also serve deterrent and political purposes. For instance, such exercises could usefully be held in part or as a whole in member states located in Eastern Europe, not only to improve military performance in that area but also to demonstrate the exercises’ relevance to potential contingencies there. The exercises should also therefore be soberly and judiciously but appropriately publicized to send a deterrent message to Moscow that it could not expect to shock NATO into submission through nuclear employment. The exercises would also signal the cohesiveness of the alliance in sustaining and readying a credible collective nuclear deterrent. This would telegraph to Moscow that its nuclear use would be less likely to result in the splintering of the alliance than its will to respond in kind.  Such an ability would show Moscow that its military gains from nuclear use would be less than it might expect, riskier than it would hope, and thus too dangerous to be reasonably contemplated. Such resolve can also usefully be advertised by the continued rotation of U.S. nuclear-capable strategic assets through the European theater for such exercises and other purposes.

But while tabletop and field exercises are important in preparing the alliance and demonstrating its readiness to respond to Russian aggression, such practices would
be idle without adequate capability. And it is not clear that alliance member states have the optimal forces for responding to a Russian use of nuclear weapons, especially in the medium- to longer-term. The alliance should not allow a situation in which it does not have the hardware necessary to effectively conduct limited nuclear operations against Russia, as this could open a significant gap in NATO’s deterrent. Accordingly, the alliance – meaning here especially the United States – should focus on fielding nuclear forces suited for controlled, discriminate and flexible use. In concrete terms, it should focus on developing nuclear forces able to conduct precise, variable-yield strikes from a variety of platforms even in the face of sophisticated and dense adversary defenses, such as the ones Russia is and will be deploying in the coming decade.

Programmatically, the United States should therefore ensure that it develops and procures in adequate numbers a new penetrating bomber (the LRS-B) that can carry gravity bombs and cruise missiles offering a variety of yields; a new long-range standoff cruise missile also offering a variety of yields to ensure a redundant penetration capability; and the F-35 variant to fulfill the DCA mission in Europe. The United States should also modify one or two Trident II D5s on each fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) for primary-only detonation, thereby enabling a lower yield option from the sea-based ballistic missile force. The United States should also ensure that it has the appropriate enabling capabilities to conduct limited nuclear operations against Russia. These include developing jamming, electromagnetic pulse, and cyberattack-resistant C4ISR for nuclear operations, and especially terrestrial or air-breathing links to avoid excessive reliance on vulnerable space assets.

At the same time, other alliance members, particularly those involved in the DCA and SNOWCAT (support to nuclear operations with conventional air tactics) missions, should ensure that they adequately resource and exercise their elements of these important roles.31 Inparticular,alliancemembersshouldreplaceagingF-16andTornadoaircraftwith theirnuclear-capablesuccessors.32 Inaddition, SNOWCAT participants shouldensure they adequately fund and prepare for the essential supporting aspects of any DCA mission, in particular the vital penetration capability. DCA that cannot plausibly penetrate Russian air defenses will be a far less credible deterrent; functions such as electronic attack and air defense suppression therefore may be as crucial to mission success as the actual carriage of the nuclear weapons themselves. 


A disgruntled but somewhat reinvigorated Russia that sees itself pressed, encircled and disrespected is seeking to restore its leading position, if not its dominance, in the area
of its former empire. To do so, it has been funding a significant military modernization campaign over the last decade or more, one that appears it may continue even as Russia faces economic headwinds. This buildup has already yielded a Russian force capable

of acting quickly and efficaciously in its near abroad. It has also yielded a nuclear and strategic conventional force that appears capable of and ready for limited, controlled employment designed to force an adversary – namely NATO – to back down in the midst of a conflict. In other words, Russia at least plans and is posturing itself to take
– or credibly threaten to take – a conflict with the West to higher levels, even if NATO would prefer not to do so. This has direct military and strategic implications in the event of outright conflict, but it also gives Moscow substantial coercive leverage, since even the credible threat to escalate – even without actually doing so – could give Russia

the political upper hand in a crisis or war. Such leverage will be especially pronounced if NATO does not possess reasonable and credible responses to such controlled escalation.

For this reason, NATO must face forthrightly the real problem to its security caused not only by Russia’s general aggressiveness but also in particular by Russia’s ability to use nuclear and strategic conventional forces for advantage, and it must take the steps needed to minimize the strategic leverage Moscow could gain from its doctrine. Failing to do so would be to leave a considerable and possibly significant vulnerability in the alliance’s defense, one that a more assertive Moscow might be willing to try to exploit. The best way to persuade the Kremlin that such a gamble would be far too risky and perilous is for the alliance to field the forces – conventional and nuclear – needed to respond efficaciously to such Russian aggression, and to demonstrate the readiness and will to employ them appropriately but nonetheless vigorously.

Failing to do this risks placing the future of European security in the good graces of the Kremlin. This, surely, is no safe or reasonable proposition. Rather, a measured but formidable strength, in the old but often validated formulation, is the surest guardian of stability. This has always been NATO’s basic logic. There is no reason to think, after three quarters of a century of safety without war, that this is not still the most prudent approach. 

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