Pool/REUTERS Bringing out the big guns: at a military parade in Moscow, September 2017

Moscow’s Nuclear Enigma

What Is Russia’s Arsenal Really For?

Talk to anybody in Washington (except, perhaps, the U.S. president), and you will hear an ominous mantra: the Russians are back. Moscow, resurgent, is sowing discord among Western states and trying to reestablish its sphere of influence in former Soviet countries and beyond. One development, in particular, has caused much hyperventilating in Western ministries and think tanks: the Russian Federation not only has more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world but also is investing in an arsenal of modern, low-yield nuclear weapons that could be used for limited nuclear warfare. 

These investments have many analysts worried that Russia would be the first to pull the nuclear trigger in a future war, and that it would do so early on, hoping to quickly bomb its adversary into submission and end the conflict—a strategy dubbed “escalate to de-escalate.” If military confrontation of any kind might push Moscow to go nuclear, preparing for war with Russia means preparing for a potential nuclear war. The United States, the thinking goes, can only defend itself and its allies by modernizing its own nuclear arsenal. Above all, Washington should develop more low-yield nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield or risk being outgunned in a future war. 

But those who fret about the Russian arsenal misread the Kremlin’s intentions and put forward the wrong solutions. The real danger is not a new and more aggressive Russian nuclear strategy; it is the Kremlin’s failure to communicate its goals effectively to leaders in Washington and elsewhere. Russia’s actual strategy has not diverged much from plain old-fashioned deterrence: Russia believes that any major war with the United States could result in a massive U.S. nuclear attack, and so it maintains a nuclear arsenal of its own in order to discourage such an attack. But its policy of deliberate ambiguity is feeding into apprehension in Washington, driving a dangerous cycle of escalation that is bound to worsen suspicions and heighten the risk

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