Escalate to de-escalate? NATO think-tank expert claims Russia is 'comfortable' using nuclear weapons
In a lengthy discussion on preparing for nuclear war with Russia, analysts from the neocon think tank lobbied for the US and NATO to spend more money on low-yield nuclear weapons and other methods of deterrence in order to dissuade Russia from using a limited nuke strike in order to "de-escalate" a conflict using the scare factor.
The panel argued that Russia has adopted a policy of "escalate to de-escalate" which lowers the bar for nuclear weapons use. Under this policy, Russia would respond to a large-scale conventional military attack by employing a limited nuclear response in order to deter further aggression against itself.
Matthew Kroenig, the deputy director for strategy at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, went further by suggesting that Russia is simply "more comfortable using and threatening nuclear weapons" than the West.
Russia's so-called "escalate to de-escalate" policy was even referred to in the latest Nuclear Posture Review from the Trump administration. But while the Atlantic Council and White House are seemingly adamant that Russia is almost looking for excuses to use nuclear weapons, others have argued that the West has actually misunderstood Russia's policy on nuclear use.
There is weak evidence that Russia has actually dropped its threshold for nuclear use at all. The theory that Russia is more willing to use nuclear weapons highly likely originates in a paper published in a Russian military journal in 1999, which suggested that using nuclear weapons to fight back against a conventional attack might force the aggressor to stand down. The same argument has been made by some Russian experts in more recent years, too.
But the "escalate to de-escalate" policy, in the way it has been framed in the West, has not actually made it into Russian military doctrine. This suggests that "proponents of a lowered threshold ultimately lost a bureaucratic fight" in Moscow, according to analysis from War on the Rocks.
In fact, Russian military doctrine does not specifically call for the use of nuclear weapons even if Moscow is actually losing a conventional battle. It states that nuclear weapons are to be used only in response to an adversary using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies, or in response to non-nuclear aggression, but only when "Russia's survival is endangered."
Russia's 2014 doctrine actually introduced the term "system of non-nuclear deterrence," which is explained as a focus on preventing aggression "primarily through reliance on conventional (non-nuclear) forces."
It is more than likely that the Atlantic Council and its members are fully aware of this, which leads to the question: are they misleading people on Russia's intentions in order to lobby for more military spending in Eastern Europe? In fact, there were even implications that Russia has some sort of secret plan to use nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, which it has not included in its formal doctrine.
Another argument made by the AC panel is that Russia's "rhetoric" on nukes is evidence of intent to use them, or somehow uniquely reckless. When Kroenig asserted that Russia is "more comfortable" threatening the use of nuclear weapons, he may have been referring to Vladimir Putin's comment that Russia was ready to put its nuclear weapons on alert over the crisis with Crimea in 2014 – but that did not happen.
In fact, for some really reckless threats about nuclear use, one need only look toward Washington. In recent months, President Donald Trump has used Twitter to threaten nuclear annihilation of North Korea. In 2016, Trump tweeted that the US "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability" – and he routinely makes comments intended to remind America's adversaries about its nuclear capabilities. In that context, to suggest Russia is unique in this regard is misleading at best.
The Atlantic Council is funded by military contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and Northrop Grumman; and is staffed by neoconservatives who consistently lobby for military action and defense spending.
So the question is – was AC's panel discussion designed as an effort to lobby for further military escalation with Russia by clearly and disingenuously misrepresenting what we know about Russian military doctrine?