The Putin DoctrineTrump Military Study Explains Why Putin May Escalate Nuclear Threats
A US Army study commissioned by Trump’s Secretary of the Army warned that a Russian ‘information blitzkrieg’ which began in 2014 could go nuclear if Putin believed he was losing a conventional war
Four years ago, Donald Trump’s administration commissioned a US Army study to assess the needs of the European military stretching to 2028, especially in relation to Russia’s military posture.
The extraordinary piece of work not only anticipated escalating Russian aggression in eastern Europe, but described in detail how Vladimir Putin’s ‘information war’ against the West – including “election interference” and “mass produced misinformation” – could escalate into a regional nuclear conflict.
The study, by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, was commissioned in 2018 by then US President Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, who would go on to serve as Trump’s Secretary of Defense. It was published in July 2020.
As Byline Times has previously reported, the study commissioned by the Trump administration concluded that Russia was engaged in a long-term military strategy against the West, focusing on the use of information warfare as a means of weakening Western institutions and extending Russia’s sphere of influence.
But it also contained another, far more sobering, warning – one that puts into context the nature of the Russian President’s recent nuclear threat against the West.
The study not only warned accurately that Russia’s ongoing internal military and economic decline would probably lead to an escalation of Russian aggression in eastern Europe, it also set out how a regional conventional war could risk nuclear escalation.
The Putin Playbook
Vladimir Putin declared on Sunday that he was placing Russia’s nuclear weapons in a state of readiness in response to what he called “illegitimate sanctions” by NATO powers. The following day, it was confirmed that Russia’s nuclear arsenal was on high ‘combat alert’.
This announcement appeared to signal that Putin had created the legal authorisation to launch nuclear weapons. As such, it represents the worst nuclear escalation between the West and Russia since the Cuban mission crisis.
In response, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that Putin’s declaration amounted to little more than a “battle of rhetoric” designed to distract from “what’s going wrong” in Ukraine.
“We don’t see or recognise in the sort of phrase or the status he described as anything that is a change to what they have currently as their nuclear posture”, Wallace told the BBC. “This is predominantly about Putin putting it on the table just to remind people, remind the world, that he has a deterrent.”
As Byline Times has revealed, the Defence Secretary received funding from lobbyists for sanctioned Russian banks linked to Putin. It is perhaps not entirely surprising then that Wallace’s comments ignore evidence that Putin’s sabre-rattling fits into the Russian President’s little-understood ‘first strike’ nuclear doctrine.
Although a shock to the world, the circumstances behind Putin’s declaration were foreseen in the 2020 Trump military study.
It argued that Putin’s ‘first strike’ policy is intimately related to Russia’s self-recognition of its declining military power. Although “a formidable force when operating near its borders”, the Russian military will quickly lose its advantages “during a sustained conflict or when Russian military forces are required to operate in areas far from their borders”, it assessed.
In hindsight, Russia’s inability to consolidate control of Ukraine indicates that even this assessment may have over-estimated Russia’s military capabilities.
The biggest danger in this scenario is that Russia may become embroiled in a conventional war that it cannot win – increasing the probability of Putin resorting to nuclear options.
Although the study makes clear that “Moscow would not likely be reckless in the application of nuclear weapons”, it points out that “Kremlin leaders may use these weapons if the conflict is progressing unfavourably for them in such a way that could lead to an existential threat”.
While Russia views nuclear weapons “as the top tier of the escalation ladder”, the study added, it “would reserve their use until it becomes critical to protect vital Russian interests”.
The question then arises: how does Russia define an “existential threat” and “vital Russian interests”?
Section 20 of the 2014 Russian Federation Military Doctrine reserves Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons “in a case of aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the existence of the state”.
Section 14 further elaborates on what Russia might perceive as such a danger, including: “impeding the operation of systems of state governance and military command and control of the Russian Federation, disruption [of] the functioning of its strategic nuclear forces, missile warning systems, systems of outer space monitoring, nuclear munitions storage facilities, nuclear energy facilities, nuclear, chemical, pharmaceutical and medical industry facilities and other potentially dangerous facilities”.
These terms are so vague that they could involve almost anything – such as the current comprehensive economic sanctions – which could be perceived to ‘impede the operation’ of Russia’s Government, military and industry.
As a result, the US Army study concluded: “The ambiguity surrounding Russian nuclear doctrine intentionally leaves open the potential for Russia to use nuclear weapons for nearly any reason in an armed conflict.”
This is, in effect, a first strike nuclear weapons doctrine, as it does not require another party to initiate the use of nuclear weapons but merely for Putin to believe that the Russian state’s operations are impeded to the degree that its existence is in “danger”.
Nothing Ruled Out
But it is important to note that the most plausible scenario according to the study is one in which Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons to avert a humiliating defeat in a conventional war – rather than a direct attack on Western population centres.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal, the study pointed out, is more diverse than the United States’ and “contains low-yield systems that could find a use if Moscow perceived the stakes high enough”. Russia would therefore use its nuclear arsenal strategically as a mechanism for “deterrence and escalation management”.
According to the Trump military study, Russia would employ nuclear weapons if it believes that a nuclear attack is imminent, in which case a pre-emptive nuclear strike would be considered self-defence; and “as a tool of escalation management” using “a low-yield nuclear weapon as a symbol of their resolve”.
In this second scenario, Russia might simply detonate a nuclear weapon in “a remote, unpopulated location” and “would avoid employing nuclear capabilities directly against Western forces or population centres, which risks nuclear escalation”.
A third scenario is most relevant to the invasion of Ukraine and also, according to the study, the “most plausible” one. This would involve “the use of medium- to low-yield nuclear weapons to prevent defeat in an otherwise conventional clash of forces”.
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But it is also possible that the Russian President may see potential military defeat in Ukraine, coupled with Western sanctions, as a mortal geo-strategic blow – signalling the repudiation and demise of the existing structure of the Russian state under his rule.
This may provide an explanation for why Putin believes his nuclear doctrine justifies placing Russia’s arsenal on high alert, despite no nuclear provocations from other states.
The US Army study did not consider this a high probability scenario and emphasised that “one cannot know for certain Russia’s tolerance for collateral harm and risk of nuclear escalation”. But it went on to warn in no uncertain terms that “given their stated policy, the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons should not be ruled out”.
In hindsight, the study’s risk assessment appears to have been accurate. It made clear that a full-scale Russian nuclear assault on the West is unlikely. But it also revealed some of the geo-political calculations that could lead Putin to decide to use a low-yield nuclear weapon to avert the prospect of defeat in Ukraine – which in itself could be the first step to further escalation.
According to Harvard nuclear non-proliferation expert Francesca Giovanni, right now this is not a likely scenario – but the longer the conflict drags on, the potential for a more ominous outcome emerges: “The longer he and the West resist, the more they might involuntarily push Putin to consider further escalations, including to the nuclear threshold.”
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