Russia rewrites nuclear rule book to fire first
Senators in the Federation Council, the upper house, have recommended tearing up the military doctrine that forbids initial use of weapons of mass destruction. It comes after Mr Putin said that Moscow would retaliate if the United States withdrew from a landmark Cold War missile treaty.
The revision would allow the president to order nuclear strikes in response to enemy use of conventional weapons, a significant departure from the military doctrine that prohibits first use unless Russia is threatened by weapons of mass destruction or if its “very existence is in jeopardy”.
The council proposes that Russia be allowed to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the country is attacked by “hypersonic and non-nuclear strategic weapons”. The recommendations, which are non-binding, were drawn up after discussions with defence ministry officials.
Mr Putin met military officials on Monday to discuss Russia’s response to President Trump’s announcement that the US intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr Putin said that an American withdrawal from the treaty “wouldn’t be left without an answer from our side”, but gave no further details.
The Kremlin warned that the US decision would make the world “a more dangerous place”.
The United States alleged that Russia had violated the agreement by deploying medium-range, land-based, nuclear-capable cruise missiles, while Moscow claimed that a Nato missile shield in Romania was a contravention of the deal. Mr Putin and Mr Trump are scheduled to discuss the treaty at a G20 meeting in Argentina this month.
Franz Klintsevich, a member of the council’s defence committee, said that the upper house’s recommendations were a warning to eastern European countries that host Nato military bases, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania —all former Soviet states that border Russia. “These countries should understand that we won’t simply look at that through our fingers —we will react,” Mr Klintsevich said.
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the council’s foreign committee, said that the US intention to withdraw from the treaty could lead to Russia deploying missiles banned by the pact “on the territories of our allies”.
Mr Kosachev noted that those options were hypothetical and Russia still hoped that the treaty could be saved. “We are actively working with all those who are ready to work with Russia to raise the pressure on the US in order to preserve the treaty,” he said.
Russian state media portrayed the senators’ proposals as a response to the Pentagon’s release of its updated nuclear policies in February. The US document, called the Nuclear Posture Review, widened the range of circumstances under which it would carry out nuclear strikes to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”, as well as crippling assaults on infrastructure.
Analysts warned that a Kremlin endorsement of preventive strikes could lead to a rapid escalation of nuclear tensions between Russia and the US. Alexei Leonkov, a military expert, said that Washington could respond by tearing up New Start, a treaty that puts caps on long-range nuclear arsenals. “The situation would then develop in line with the worst scenarios of the Cold War,” he said.
New Start was signed by President Obama and President Medvedev in 2010 and is scheduled to expire in 2021. Without the deal, there would be no legally binding agreements regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.
The US and Russia have 1,750 and 1,600 nuclear warheads ready for use respectively, a significant reduction from the height of the Cold War, when stockpiles reached into the tens of thousands.
John Bolton, the US national security adviser who is reported to have played a significant role in persuading Mr Trump to leave the INF Treaty, has heavily criticised New Start. “He views arms control with disdain,” Steven Pifer, an arms- control expert and former State Department official, said.
The advice to the Kremlin comes a month after Mr Putin reconfirmed Russia’s policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, saying: “Only when we become convinced that there is an incoming attack on the territory of Russia and that this will happen within seconds . . . would we launch a retaliatory strike.”
However, in comments that drew widespread criticism, he also said: “The aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable, and he will be annihilated. We will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just drop dead. They will not even have time to repent for this.”
In March Mr Putin unveiled what he said was a new arsenal of advanced weaponry, including nuclear warheads that he said could not be detected by any existing antimissile systems and underwater nuclear drones. His speech was accompanied by an animated video broadcast live on national TV that showed Russian warheads raining down on Florida, where Mr Trump often spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
The Doomsday Clock, which represents how near top scientists and other experts believe that the world is to a man-made apocalypse, was moved to two minutes to midnight this year, the closest since 1953.