Arms Control Today
Over the last decade, Russia has been putting into operation its vision of strategic deterrence, a doctrinal approach built on a demonstrated spectrum of capabilities and a resolve to use military force. Russia’s strategic deterrence is conceptually different from its Western namesake in that it is not limited to nuclear weapons.
This article introduces Russia’s strategic deterrence, highlights its escalatory potential, and discusses challenges in mitigating its dangers.
Russian military analysts describe strategic deterrence as primarily a defensive strategy that seeks to prevent conflict and to control escalation if a conflict breaks out.1 If tested in a military conflict with the West, however, some of its elements could well fuel escalation dynamics. Most notably, Russia’s plans to control escalation by using conventional precision-strike missile systems on an opponent’s military and economic targets raise the risk of unintended escalation, especially when employed alongside cyber- and electronic warfare capabilities.
If a conflict involving Russian and U.S./NATO forces erupts, policymakers on both sides will find themselves unprepared to deal with numerous escalation-management challenges, which include understanding the nature of Russia’s deliberate escalation and mitigating the dangers of unintended escalation on both sides. The most urgent step to curbing the escalation potential of such a conflict is a shared commitment to avoid the unintended use of nuclear weapons. This foundation can help facilitate the management of escalation risks that will persist in the relationship between Russia and the West for the foreseeable future.