My view is that Putin’s decision to assert that Russia’s plans for use of nuclear weapons provide for counter-strike on warning for the second time this year (and quite possibly for the second time ever) does not not constitute a change in Russia’s official nuclear posture if only because he and his commanders have made similar statements before. Rather, it is part of the Kremlin’s strategic signaling to U.S. as INF is dying and New START awaits extension
In his remarks at the 10.18.18 session of the Valdai Forum outside Sochi Vladimir Putin had the following to say about ways he saw Russia could use nuclear weapons: “Мы готовы и будем применять ядерное оружие только тогда, когда удостоверимся в том, что кто-то, потенциальный агрессор, наносит удар по России, по нашей территории” which can be translated as “We are ready and we will employ nuclear weapons only when we have ascertained that someone, a potential aggressor, is conducting a strike against Russia, our territory.”
Putin also said Russia’s concept of using nukes does not provide for a “превентивный удар” (preventive strike), but that, if attacked, Russia would carry out an “ответно-встречный удар“ which can be roughly translated as a counter-strike on warning, one that you carry out after ascertaining that adversary’s warheads are already on their way and their trajectories end Russia, but you don’t wait for them to land before pushing the button.
On one hand, the language Putin used at the Valdai Forum on use of nukes differs from that of the 2014 military doctrine which does not explicitly mention “ответно-встречный удар” (counter-strike on warning) explicitly and which has the following language on use of nukes: “The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” So the doctrine’s language is more restrictive than Putin’s promise to use nukes “only when we have ascertained that someone, a potential aggressor, is conducting a strike against Russia, our territory.” Putin’s language entails a wider range of scenarios for 1st use of nukes than the doctrinal language, but does not explicitly contradict it.
It should be noted that Putin has referred to the counter-strike on warning at least once before. For instance he said in an interview for the Russian-language World Order – 2018 documentary that aired in March 2018 that Russia’s plans of using nuclear weapons call for a “ответно-встречный удар,” (counter-strike on warning) offering a similar explanation of conditions under which would carry out such a strike. (That statement went, by the way, largely unnoticed in Western press, in my view, but Putin’s interviewer at the 10.18.18 session of Valdai Forum, Fyodor Lukyanov, brought it up and he could have done it for a reason).
In some earlier instances, Putin has also actually distinguished between “ответный удар” (counter-strike or retaliatory) and “ответно-встречный удар” (counter-strike on warning) Putin did so in his 10.22.15 remarks at the Valdai Forum saying “Если одна страна считает, что она создала над собой «ракетный зонтик» и может обезопасить себя от ответного либо ответно-встречного удара, – ну, тогда у неё руки развязаны в применении любых видов вооружений” which can be translated as “If one country believes that it has created a “missile umbrella” above itself and can protect itself from a counter-strike or a counter-strike on warning, well, then its hands are untied in the use of any types of weapons.” This statement indicates he sees a certain difference between the two kinds of strikes.
It should also be noted that while Russia’s military doctrine has no explicit references to counter-strike on warning, that concept has been clearly present in the actual military planning both in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. For instance, commander of the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) Sergei Karkaev has referred to counter-strike on warning as something his forces’ mobile ICBMs would be involved in case of war. In his 2011 interview, Karkaev also distinguished between a “counter-strike on warning” rather than an “a strike in response to (a counter-strike).” He offered an explanation of what would constitute a counter-strike on warning similar to that of Putin, saying Russia would launch its nuclear weapons after detecting a “mass launch” of adversarial nuclear weapons before the warheads land in Russia. He also explained that in contrast “a strike in response to (a counter-strike)” would commence only after the warheads land in Russia.
Some of Russia’s former top nuclear commanders, such as chief of RVSN staff Viktor Yesin, have Laos made it clear that post-Soviet Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have also continued to plan for carrying out counter-strike on warning. Russian influentials, such as Russian military strategy experts and Russian weapons designers, have also referred to the counter-strike on warning as a notion that the Soviet strategic nuclear forces planned for. However, prior to the March 2018 interview (the counter-strike on warning aspect of which, as I stated above, largely went unnoticed in Western press) I could not find any statements by Putin, in which he would state that the counter-strike on warning is something Russian armed forces plan to carry out.
So why would the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces personally assert twice this year that Russia’s concept of use of nuclear weapons provides for a “counter-strike on warning” rather than an “a strike in response to” (a counter-strike), which is something that Russia’s doctrine calls for?
Now, one, of course, could also argue that Putin could have been quoting from some classified document on use of nukes (e.g. classified regulations on use of nukes that were adopted along with the 2010 doctrine) because he forgot that it was classified. Or he could have simply forgotten the exact language of the 2014 doctrine. However, I doubt that Putin would misspeak on the same issue twice in a year. Nor do I think Putin’s statements constitute an official change in Russia’s nuclear posture if only because his commanders have made similar statements before.
Rather I think he maybe making as part of his participation in Russian-American nuclear saber rattling that we have increasingly heard since the beginning of Ukraine crisis. His vow that Russia would soon commission new long-range weapons, such as the hypersonic Avangard glide vehicle, and the colorful language that he used at the Valdai Forum, which draws prominent Western experts on Russia among others (e.g., in the event of a nuclear war, “the aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable, and he will be destroyed… we would be victims of an aggression and would get to go to heaven as martyrs, they will simply drop dead) indicates it is all part of Kremlin’s strategic signaling to U.S. as INF is dying and New START awaits extension.