If Russia Is This Bad At Conventional Warfare, What Does That Tell Us About Its Nuclear Posture?

 | 
January 2, 2023
UPDATED: 
January 2, 2023


Russia’s military performance in Ukraine has proven to be, in the words of the Economist’s year-end edition, “spectacularly incompetent.” Western observers have noted major deficiencies in intelligence, planning, training, equipment, logistics and other areas critical to military success.

Western intelligence agencies did not anticipate how poorly the Russian military would perform, and are therefore reassessing the nature of the security threat that Moscow poses. However, public discussion of lessons learned has focused almost entirely on the implications for future conventional warfare.

The more important question for Washington is what Russia’s debacle in Ukraine may tell us about the future of nuclear deterrence. As the Congressional Research Service notes in a recent report, “Russia is the only nation that poses, through its arsenal of nuclear weapons, an existential threat to the United States.”

That statement is profoundly accurate. A mere one-percent of the Russian nuclear arsenal would be sufficient to collapse the U.S. economy and kill many millions of Americans. And yet U.S. political leaders have seemed to dismiss Moscow’s persistent threats of nuclear use throughout the Ukraine campaign.

Whether this reflects a sound assessment of Russian intentions or merely a projection of U.S. values is open to debate. Either way, it is time for a more complete analysis of what Russia’s recent performance in Ukraine may tell us about its approach to nuclear war.

Declaratory strategy. Declaratory strategy is what nuclear nations publicly state they will do with their arsenal, as opposed to what their secret employment plans might dictate. During the Ukraine crisis, President Putin and key subordinates have repeatedly threatened nuclear use if their military plans were opposed by the West. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review warned of such behavior.

Although Russia’s public messaging in this regard is intended to convey an image of strength and resolve, the threats may actually reflect a feeling of weakness. Moscow is increasingly aware that its conventional forces are outclassed by those of the West, and that its economy—barely a tenth the size of America’s—lacks the resources to right the balance. It therefore invokes its nuclear force to level the playing field, recognizing that NATO has scant capacity to blunt a nuclear attack.

Employment strategy. Moscow’s propensity to actually use nuclear weapons is determined largely by President Putin, who is a de facto dictator and the final decider on when weapons of mass destruction shall be employed. Putin has become increasingly reclusive in recent years, and relies on the advice of a shrinking inner circle that is populated mainly by hardliners. During the Ukraine campaign, he has repeatedly overridden the advice of senior military leaders.

Putin sincerely believes the West is trying to destroy Russia, and he is surrounded by subordinates who reinforce his fears. With few checks on his actions and little outside information—he avoids using the internet—Putin is more likely to cross the nuclear threshold in a conventional conflict than Western leaders would be. Like the U.S., Russia says it might resort to nuclear use if vital interests are threatened in a conventional conflict.

Indications & Warnings. Russian intelligence agencies have appeared surprisingly ill-informed during the Ukraine crisis, in part because they are corrupted by a desire to generate reports pleasing to Putin. Information passes through multiple layers of vetting before reaching Putin, and as a result it is often outdated. Similar problems with accuracy and latency could occur in a nuclear crisis.

The danger of faulty indications influencing nuclear-use decisions in a crisis is exacerbated by Russia’s modest investment in missile-warning systems. There have been times in the recent past when Moscow operated no geostationary warning satellites that could detect and track hostile missile launches. This forces Moscow to rely on less timely and reliable sources of information, and encourages leaders to substitute preconceptions for hard data. One result: nuclear weapons might be put on a hair trigger in crises to minimize the danger of preemption.

Command & control. The U.S. nuclear system is designed to assure connectivity between command authorities and nuclear weapons under all circumstances, so that weapons are only employed pursuant to a legitimate order. However, the president in principle is the sole decider of when the nuclear force is employed; there is, for example, no formal procedure for assessing the sanity of a president ordering nuclear use. Below the president, there are elaborate checks limiting the discretion of other players in the chain of command.

The Russian command and control system resembles that of the U.S., however the Russian style of command—as demonstrated in the Ukraine campaign—probably produces a different operating climate. On the one hand, Putin is unlikely to be challenged even informally if he orders a nuclear launch because he is surrounded by obsequious subordinates. On the other hand, the nuclear chain of command is likely to operate more slowly given Moscow’s traditional distrust of local military leaders. Although designed to act quickly, it would probably not implement a launch order as fast as the U.S. system would. This could have important warfighting implications in a crisis.

Nuclear surety. Nuclear surety involves the safety, security and reliability of weapons. In the U.S., the military services operate and maintain the nuclear force, while a separate agency is responsible for surety. Both parts of the system function under rigorous protocols with highly trained personnel.

Although Russian nuclear personnel are often described as constituting an elite part of the armed forces, they probably are subject to the same corruption and incompetence exhibited by Russian conventional forces in Ukraine. Putin likely has no more understanding of conditions in his nuclear force than he did of those within his conventional forces. We have to assume the same rot exists everywhere, making nuclear accidents, low reliability and other problems likely.

Equipment quality. The Russian strategic nuclear force currently consists of about 300 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, ten missile-carrying submarines, and about five dozen long-range bombers. In addition to the 1,500 or so warheads assigned to this force, a further 1,900 warheads are assigned to non-strategic missions. Russia has recently completed modernization of its land-based Strategic Rocket Forces, generally considered the backbone of its nuclear deterrent.

Most of the information about this arsenal of weapons is highly classified, but given what we have recently learned about Russia’s conventional forces, the equipment quality of the nuclear force is probably uneven—in some cases inferior to its American counterparts. While Russia still possesses a fearsome nuclear force capable of obliterating the U.S. and its allies in a few hours, it likely lacks the capacity to execute flexible, tailored strike options with the facility the U.S. force can.

Operational culture. Reviewing some potential lessons of the Ukraine war, Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners recently observed that “militaries are reflections of societies that field them.” One lesson the West is slowly assimilating from Ukraine is that Russia is no longer a great power. Economically, technologically and demographically it has fallen far behind the West, and probably never will recover whatever greatness it once enjoyed.

It is prudent to assume that the Russian nuclear establishment is afflicted with lax discipline, pervasive corruption, and low standards of performance. The whole of Russian society exhibits such traits, and being ruled by a reclusive, paranoid dictator certainly doesn’t help. How U.S. decisionmakers integrate that possibility into their own nuclear plans is a puzzle, but it seems obvious that continuing to rely exclusively on the threat of retaliation to keep the peace is not an adequate posture.



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  • Chuck Parsons

    Chuck is Score LA’s Executive Director of Events and Marketing. He aims to help business owners and would-be entrepreneurs in Los Angeles improve their business practices.

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