On 5 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted a joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability in the modern era. In the document, they have identified various factors that undermine global stability and international security.
In particular, both leaders have attached great significance to the nuclear restraint shown by all states in possession of such weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They have also emphasised that all nuclear powers should abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security policies, and “reduce the threat of nuclear war”.
So why are the leaders of Russia and China focusing on the need to reduce “the threat of nuclear war”?
The reason is because this threat has actually grown substantially over the last decade and a half. It happened during the presidency of Barack Obama, but has become even more noticeable under the administration of US President Donald Trump, who took office in January 2017.
A comparative analysis of Russia and America’s doctrinal provisions justifying the use of nuclear weapons, for example, shows the following trend with regard to Washington’s potential use of WMD, and it is a fairly dangerous one.
While the nuclear strategy approved by Barack Obama in 2010 listed six reasons for their use, the strategy approved by Donald Trump in 2018 had 14. In Russia’s current military doctrine, meanwhile, the section covering the possible use of nuclear weapons lists just two conditions: 1) in response to the use of WMD against Russia; and 2) in response to the use of conventional weapons against Russia, but only if the existence of Russia itself is under threat. These conditions remain virtually unchanged from doctrine to doctrine.
As can be seen, the total number of current US guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons (14) is more than double the number under the presidency of Barack Obama and seven times higher than the number of Russian conditions.
So speculation that the US has lowered its nuclear threshold or, to put it another way, increased the possibility of nuclear weapon use has grown considerably.
But that is not all. The situation has a few more peculiarities.
Donald Trump’s nuclear strategy contains an increased number of provisions on the use of nuclear weapons that could be interpreted relatively freely and arbitrarily by the US due to their ambiguous wording. A total of eight of the 14 conditions in this category could be freely interpreted. For example, US nuclear forces could launch a nuclear strike in the event of “technological surprises” or “potential challenges”. But the US nuclear strategy for 2018 remains markedly silent about what exactly these “technological surprises” and “potential challenges” could be.
Another peculiarity of America’s current nuclear strategy is that it is considered to be “unconditional offensive nuclear deterrence” and has a wide range of differing strategic guidelines. These include “extended nuclear deterrence”, clarified as “a credible nuclear umbrella extended to over thirty allies and partners”, and the idea of “escalate to de-escalate”, that is, increasing the possibilities of using nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts using conventional weapons.
The US nuclear strategy is supported by US agreements on sharing nuclear responsibility (agreements on joint nuclear missions), that is, agreements signed by Washington on the deployment of nuclear weapons and nuclear training exercises with NATO member states, including those without nuclear weapons. Important elements of the US nuclear strategy include the deployment of their tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and the Asian part of Turkey, and NATO’s round-the-clock, year-round Baltic air-policing mission in the skies over the three Baltic states using dual-capable aircraft that can carry nuclear weapons on board.
A feature of America lowering its nuclear threshold is also the fact that military exercises in NATO countries are undergoing a transformation. Where exercises simulating the use of nuclear arsenals and exercises involving conventional weapons used to be carried out separately, exercises involving conventional weapons are now usually carried out with the conditional use of nuclear weapons.
Another feature of the US nuclear strategy is that all US presidents have the sole authority to launch a first “preventive and pre-emptive” nuclear strike, that is, they can use any kind of nuclear weapons, strategic or tactical, at their discretion, without the need to consult with Congress or declare war on the state or group of states against which the weapon will be used.
The US nuclear threshold is also being lowered by the fact that Washington is still adhering to the extremely dangerous “launch-on warning” concept, which provides for the use of nuclear weapons almost immediately upon warning that an intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missile has been launched by another state, that is, before its nuclear warheads reach US soil. But this concept involves the possibility of the accidental and unintentional use of nuclear weapons or their use following the mistaken identification of missiles with conventional warheads launched from outside the US and aimed elsewhere.
Another factor lowering the US nuclear threshold is that US nuclear forces can use low-yield nuclear warheads, i.e. with a yield of 5 kilotons or less, which is about a third of the yield of the bomb that the Americans dropped on Hiroshima. US military and political leaders use certain “humanitarian” motives to justify the use of such warheads, saying that they will result in far less radioactive contamination of the area than high-yield nuclear warheads. It seems pretty sinister.
Increasing the possibilities of using nuclear weapons will obviously raise the possibility of the US resuming its nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site. Such a move is provided for in Donald Trump’s nuclear doctrine, ruling out the possibility of Washington ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and, at the same time, making it likely that underground nuclear weapons testing will be resumed.
It is deeply disappointing that Washington rejected Moscow’s rather simple proposal to repeat the easily understood adage of the Cold War era that a nuclear war cannot be unleashed, because there will be no winners. It is symptomatic in this context that the US is categorically unwilling to commit to not using nuclear weapons first or to not using them at all.