The new Russian nuclear threat/deterrence policy is defined in the Executive Order No. 355, called "Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence", which came into effect on June 2, 2020.
Firstly, Russian nuclear weapons are defined "only as means of deterrence", while their use is always and anyway an "extreme and compulsory" measure.
Moreover, retaliation is "inevitable" especially in the case there is a direct nuclear attack against the Russian Federation, while Russia also wants to keep for itself the possibility of inflicting "a guaranteed and unacceptable damage" on any kind of opponent, i.e. its quasi-destruction as a society and as a productive system.
The military dangers that the Russian Federation could incur in the future could be the creation of a wide conventional force by a Russian opponent - which, however, also has a nuclear arsenal, especially on the borders of the Russian Federation - or the deployment of missile defence systems, but also of non-nuclear, hypersonic, UAV and direct energy weapons, by States that consider Russia a potential enemy.
Or also the development of a missile defence and attack system - even a non-nuclear one - in the space by a potential opponent.
There is also the mere possession - by other States, seen as "opponents" or as parts of enemy alliances - of nuclear weapon systems and/or other types of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) which can, however, also hypothetically be used against the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Russian decision-makers, there is also the opponents’ uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, of their launch or use instruments, as well as the evolution of their technology.
Finally, Russia's military system carefully monitors the development of nuclear weapons and their presence in countries that have never previously had nuclear weapons on their territory. It deems it a severe threat.
How is the Russian nuclear or conventional military reaction to an adverse use of nuclear weapons against its own territory and resources triggered, according to the official mechanisms foreseen?
Firstly, with the initial collection of reliable data on a ballistic missile launch targeted against the territory and resources of the Russian Federation.
Secondly, with the obvious use of WMD or other advanced weapons against Russia and its allies. In this strategic calculation, the allies do not include China, but only Belarus and, probably, Kazakhstan to the South.
The triggering of a Russian nuclear reaction can also be caused by an attack launched by an opponent or an enemy alliance on the critical points of the Russian governmental, military, economic and, in this case, oil and gas organization.
In this case, if the Russian leadership or its primary economic resources were the target of a nuclear attack, the response would be a counter-attack by the Russian Federation against the opponent’s decision-making centres.
Moreover, a possible nuclear response from Russia should be calculated if the opponents launched a conventional attack capable of endangering the size, strength and control networks of the Russian Federation.
The supreme decision for the use of the nuclear weapon is in the hands of the Russian Federation’s President alone, who can inform the other States’ decision-makers or the international organisations - if he sees the need to do so - of the Russian willingness to launch a nuclear attack against an invader or attacker, at that moment and in that place.
Furthermore, also in this latest document, Russia sets the line of the "launch of the nuclear weapon together with the strategic warning".
This makes also the threat selection difficult, considering the reduced time to assess it. Just think here of the hypersonic weapons, which have infinitesimal warning times, or of the U.S. networks which are currently equipped with ballistic missiles with conventional warheads for immediate attack, which makes it increasingly difficult to immediately differentiate between a nuclear and a conventional attack.
This is where the old, Soviet-era, Russian theory of the nuclear threat also applies to a conventional NATO force having, however, size and weapons capable of "endangering" the very nature and stability of the Russian State.
If Vladimir Putin were to consider also the NATO threat to the strong Russian minorities in the Baltic, in Eastern Europe and in South-Eastern Europe, the strategic calculation would be extremely difficult.
For the Russian Federation - as was the case for Tsar Peter I - a base in the Mediterranean is also of fundamental importance.
To this end, the war in Syria has materialized, the last phase of a chain of "coloured wars" or "Arab Spring" which, in the case of Syria, were certainly not successful for the West.
Meanwhile, as has already happened in the Maghreb region, in Latin America and in other regions of the world, Russia wants to maintain some essential strategic assets: its grip on the old "pro-Soviet" areas, from the Middle East to Venezuela and Cuba; the clear reaffirmation of its own role as a great power, and finally Russia’s creation of its own role as a reliable mediator and broker, a stable and credible State, as well as an influential power.
Moreover, all this happens in a phase in which the modernization of Russian weapons and doctrines of the nuclear war and of what we could call post-conventional warfare (hypersonic, high-energy weapons, etc.) is not yet over.
In 2019, Vladimir Putin said that the updated and modern tools were over 82% of the Nuclear Triad of the Russian Federation (earth, sea and sky). He also said: "our armament must be the best of the best so as to be able to win in such a clash".
Apart from the acceptance of new and possible agreements for reducing strategic weapons, Putin also said: "We are building promising new missile and nuclear weapons systems" for deterrence.
Today, in mid-2020, the Russian Federation is supposed to have 4,310 nuclear warheads of various nature and size, which can be used by both long-range and short-range launchers, only by Strategic Missile Forces.
1,570 of these 4,310 warheads are already positioned: 810 are placed on ground-based strategic missiles; 560 are part of the submarine armament and 200 are placed on aircrafts and in their bases.
870 nuclear warheads are finally stored in a "warehouse", together with 1,870 non-nuclear warheads.
In addition to this data, it can be said that at least 2,060 warheads, now being dismantled, are just waiting to be "scrapped".
Hence the actual total number amounts to 6,370 warheads, considering missile, conventional and nuclear warheads.
On the date of February 5, 2019 - set by the START Treaty - the Russian Federation reduced the number of strategic warheads in action to 1,444 pursuant to the Treaty provisions.
Later Russia declared additional 1,420 warheads on 517 launchers and, in March 2019, it declared the existence of 524 launchers for 1,461 warheads, but today the data varies very quickly.
In October 2018 Vladimir Putin had stated: "Our strategic doctrine of nuclear weapons does not allow a preventive attack, but a mutual counter-attack", i.e. “we are able to react quickly to a nuclear or anyway existential attack, only when we know with certainty that a potential aggressor is attacking Russia".
The policy line is that of the doctrine of December 2014, which stated: "Russia will reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use that will be made - against Russia or its allies - of nuclear weapons or anyway of mass destruction, or even in the case of the use - against Russia - of conventional weapons if the very existence of the State is in danger".
Moreover, some Russian decision-makers have stated that Russian nuclear weapons can be used if there are credible threats against Russian ballistic missile sites, but also in regional scenarios that do not imply an existential threat to the Russian State or anyway do not use WMD.
There is also here the problem of weapons defined as "anomalous", such as the Poseidon - Kanyon, according to the U.S. jargon or Status-6 (NATO codename) - which is a nuclear torpedo capable of creating a vast area of marine contamination capable of blocking any military or economic operation for a long time.
The Russian Federation is supposed to currently have 302 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in place and operational, with a possible cargo of 1,136 nuclear or non-nuclear warheads.
Russia, however, stated at various stages of the START negotiations that it had almost 400 ICBMs on the "line of fire" or that the ICBMs were already as many as 513 at the end of September 2019.
The Russian ICBMs are organized in the Strategic Missile Force, for three different sectors, with a total of 11 divisions each consisting of about 39 missile regiments.
However, the 40th Regiment of the 12th Division, stationed in Yurya, has no nuclear weapons.
Today, however, Russia still has SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 missiles among its ICBMs.
The SS-18 (RS-20V, or R36M2 Voivoda) is a missile placed in silos, but it can carry a maximum of 10 warheads. There are still 46 SS-18 missiles with 460 warheads, kept as quasi-operational, in the 13th Missile Division stationed in Dombarovsky and in the 62nd Missile Division in Uzhur.
The SS-18 missiles should be withdrawn at the end of 2020, replaced by Sarmat, the RS-28.
The SS-19 (RS-18, or UR100NUTTH) will soon be replaced by the SS-27, another silo missile, but even today two regiments of the Strategic Missile Force are still very operational with the SS-19 missiles.
Russia continues to withdraw its SS-25, the Topol self-propelled missiles, at a rate of one-two regiments per year, which will be replaced by the SS-27 Mod. 2.
The missile that is at the core of the Russian modification of theatre weapons, the aforementioned SS-27, is a missile called in Russia RS-24, or Yars, which can accommodate as many as four Multi Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs). It is assumed, however, that currently Russia already has 140 Yars operational, mobile or in silos, with distribution of these new missiles to the Missile Guards Division in Teykovo, but also to the 39th Missile Guard in Novosibirsk, to the 42nd one in Niznhny Tagil, to the 29th one in Irkutsk, and finally to the 14th Missile Division in Yoshkar-Ola.
Russia is also developing a new version of the SS-29 missile, the Sarmat RS-28 which, as already noted, is supposed to have already largely replaced the SS-18.
With specific reference to the missiles launched by submarines, Russia currently has 10 nuclear submarines of three classes: six Delta IV, one Delta I, and three Borei.
Each submarine can carry 16 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and each SLBM can carry several MIRVs, for a total of over 720 warheads.
Until 2020, the axis of submarine and missile warfare will be the Delta IV, each equipped with 16 SLBMs.
All the Delta IV submarines are part of the Northern Fleet, based in Gazhyevo on the Kola Peninsula.
The Delta missiles will be entirely replaced by the Borei, each carrying 16 SS-N-32 missiles with six warheads each.
With specific reference to air nuclear warheads, Russia uses two types of bombers: the Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95 M5 Bear.
The total number of these aircrafts is 70 and both of them can carry the A-15 Kent and the AS-23B missiles.
Each TU-160 can carry 40,000 kilos of weaponry, including the 12 AS-15B missiles, with a total of 700 nuclear bombs transported that can be dropped from the aircraft.
Hence Russia foresees - and Russian decision-makers always attach great importance also to non-nuclear weapons - a nuclear force which can quickly transfer as much damage as possible to any attacker, with a combination of Land, Sea and Sky forces capable of inflicting "unbearable damage" even to the current superpowers.
Professor Valori is President of the International World Group