President Putin’s administration is again on record as asserting the right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Putin was widely reported as establishing the nuclear threat at the very start of the war, warning that western intervention would reap ‘consequences you have never seen.’ Now the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reached a stalemate with unexpected fierce resistance from Ukrainian fighters reported taking back the city of Kherson. The possibility of a limited nuclear strike has been mentioned in relation to the first strike tactical objective of ‘de-escalating’ the conflict on terms favourable to Russia. This possibility is no longer in the realms of science fiction. The conventional understanding in Washington is that as long as the US and NATO do not enter into a direct military engagement with Russia in Ukraine, the likelihood of nuclear conflict is minimal, but the risks increase, the closer that NATO edges toward this nebulous line in the sand. Supplying weapons to Ukraine might not invoke it but imposing a no-fly zone almost certainly would. Daniel Boffey reports that the former President, Dmitry Medvedev, said Moscow could strike against an enemy that only used conventional weapons while Vladimir Putin’s defence minister claimed nuclear ‘readiness’ was a priority. Medvedev indicated that Russia’s nuclear deterrence doctrine ‘did not require an enemy state to use such weapons first.’ The basic principles of the Russian policy of nuclear deterrence were released only last year, no doubt as part of the build-up to this historical moment.
The President of the Russian Federation released an executive order, ‘On Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,’ translated into English on June 8. The seven-page document represents ‘a strategic planning document in the area of ensuring defence and reflect the official view on the essence of nuclear deterrence, identify military risks and threats to be neutralised by the implementation of nuclear deterrence, the principles of nuclear deterrence, as well as the conditions for the Russian Federation to proceed to the use of nuclear weapons.’ Paragraph 15 outlines the principles of nuclear deterrence as:
- compliance with international arms control commitments;
- continuity of activities ensuring nuclear deterrence;
- adaptability of nuclear deterrence to military threats;
- unpredictability for a potential adversary in terms of scale, time and place for possible employment of forces and means of nuclear deterrence;
- centralisation of governmental control over the activities of federal executive bodies and organisations involved in ensuring nuclear deterrence;
- rationality of structure and composition of nuclear deterrence forces and means and their maintaining at the minimal level sufficient for implementing the tasks assigned;
- maintaining permanent readiness of a designated fraction of nuclear deterrence forces and means for combat use.
The document also makes clear that ‘18. The decision to use nuclear weapons is taken by the President of the Russian Federation.’
Shannan Bugos notes that ‘The document presents four scenarios that might warrant nuclear use, two of which did not appear in the 2014, 2010, and 2000 versions of Russia’s military doctrine.’ Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons against the Russian state but also in the event of using conventional weapons when ‘the very existence of the state is in jeopardy’ or when ‘a conventional attack might cause such a disruption that might undermine nuclear forces response actions.’
While the essence of the policy is defensive, it also describes ‘the inevitability of retaliation in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies’ and describes the military threats of aggression deterrence is designed to neutralise, including the deployment of ‘missile defence systems and means, medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, non-nuclear high–precision and hypersonic weapons, strike unmanned aerial vehicles, and directed energy weapons.’ The summary occurs at paragraph 19:
The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:
- arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
- use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
- attack by an adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;
- aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.
These conditions should not form the framework for an assessment of a limited nuclear war occurring in Ukraine as part of the Russian offensive. One must begin to realise that what appeared like a minimal risk of nuclear war now seems not unimaginable, possible and a lot more probable. The risks of nuclear war in Ukraine on the basis of this policy should be taken a lot more seriously. They state quite precisely the conditions of use, and NATO should now engage the new rules that now shape the future of European security with care.
Reputedly, Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, with over 6,000 nuclear warheads in 2022: ‘Nearly half of the world’s 12,700 nuclear weapons are owned by Russia’ with the Soviet Union having stockpiled 45,000 at its peak in 1986. Hans M. Kristensen, who, as Editor of The Nuclear Notebook column, has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987, makes the following estimate:
Russia’s nuclear arsenal … includes a stockpile of approximately 4,477 warheads. Of these, about 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, while an approximate additional 977 strategic warheads, along with 1,912 nonstrategic warheads, are held in reserve. Russia is continuing a comprehensive modernisation program intended to replace most Soviet-era weapons by the mid- to late-2020s and is also introducing new types of weapons.
As Kristensen reports, Russia has modernised over 88 per cent of its nuclear arsenal and quotes Putin’s extreme concern at the Mk 41launchers installed in Romania easily adaptable to the use of the Tomahawk strike systems and his disappointment at the deterioration of US-Russia arms regime control. Russia has over 300 launchers for ICBMs with a total of 534 strategic offensive forces for an overall total of 5,977 warheads, with some retired warheads waiting to be dismantled. He also notes Gen. John Hyte, the former head of the US Strategic Command’s, assessment of the Russian doctrine ‘to escalate to de-escalate and the implication that Russia may use a nuclear weapon in a first-strike capacity.’ Cordon Corera clearly thinks that Russia could conceivably use ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ – bombs and missiles used as ‘battlefield’ weapons – against Ukraine.
In ‘Putin’s Philosopher,’ Anton Barbashin begins his account by mentioning a documentary shown on Russian TV in 2000 on the anniversary of Putin’s inauguration: ‘the movie offered a blunt message: in the 15 years of Putin’s rule, he had saved Russia from the forces of destruction, both internal – Chechnya and the oligarchs – and external – insidious Western influence’; ‘Putin is not just a political saviour: his leadership has also been important for the spiritual revival of Russia and its people.’ As Barbashin indicates, Putin has become the spiritual leader of Russia as well as the political leader – it’s a spiritual politics built on the legacy of the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954). Ilyin was brought up[ in the grandeur of the Grand Kremlin Palace. His mother, a German-Russian Lutheran, converted to Russian Orthodoxy when she married Alexander Ilyin. He completed a law degree at Moscow State University, becoming interested in Christian jurisprudence and liberal philosophy under Pavel Ivanovich Novgorodtsev, who was a neo-Kantian who believed in natural law as a criterion for improving positive law. Ilyin studied Hegel on the philosophy of state and law. Having first supported the February Revolution, he turned against it assessing it as ‘the most terrible catastrophe in the history of Russia.’ He became increasingly anti-communist and was eventually expelled in 1922, becoming the philosopher of the White Russian movement outside Russia and looking to the historical moment when Russia would rescue itself through Christian fascism. He held that the Russian nobility had not provided spiritual guidance and direction to the Russian people, posing Christian fascism as a possible third way between democracy and totalitarianism. The consciousness of law, a concept he developed from Hegel in About the Essence of Consciousness of Law, was a consciousness cultivated by the individual that was both righteous and morally proper as a state of obedience to the state. The consciousness of law in a monarchy would unite the people and the state. In National-Socialism: The New Spirit(1933) and On Fascism (1948), Ilyin advocated fascism and saw in it a way to protect Russian civilisation. As he writes:
Fascism is a complex, many-sided phenomenon and, historically speaking, is far from outdated. It has healthy and sick, old and new, state-protective and destructive [forms]. Therefore, in assessing it, calmness and justice are needed. But its dangers must be thought through to the end. Fascism arose as a reaction to Bolshevism, as a concentration of state-protective forces to the right. During the onset of left-wing chaos and left-wing totalitarianism, this was a healthy, necessary and inevitable phenomenon. Such a concentration will continue to be carried out even in the most democratic states: in the hour of national danger, the healthy forces of the people will always be concentrated in a protective-dictatorial direction. So it was in ancient Rome, so it was in the new Europe, and so it will be in the future. (Google translation of the opening lines of On Fascism).
Later, he writes: ‘Finally, fascism was right, because it proceeded from a healthy national-patriotic feeling, without which no people can either assert its existence or create its own culture.’ He suggests that the gaps and errors of the past were:
- Hostility towards Christianity, towards religions, denominations and churches in general.
- Creation of right-wing totalitarianism as a permanent and supposedly ‘ideal’ system.
- The establishment of a party monopoly and the corruption and demoralisation that grows out of it.
- Going to extremes of nationalism and militant chauvinism (national “grand mania”).
- Mixing social reforms with socialism and slipping through totalitarianism into the nationalisation of the economy.
- Falling into idolatrous Caesarism with its demagoguery, servility and despotism. (ibid., Google translation)
His works were first promoted within the Kremlin’s inner circle and then quoted by various state officials throughout the second half of the first decade of the 2000s. Putin’s own interest in Ilyin became apparent after 2006, when he began to feature the philosopher prominently in some of his major addresses to the public… Ilyin argues that the Russian state – by which he meant the old Russian Empire and its geographic descendant, the Soviet Union – is a unique geo-historical entity tied together by the spiritual unity of the Euro-Asiatic nations.
Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale and advisor to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, has recently published The Road to Unfreedom, in which he maintains that the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin ‘provided a metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism’ now used and updated by Vladimir Putin to develop the practical outlines for a fascist state. Snyder discusses the Eurasian ideology originating with another Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who proposes the realisation of National Bolshevism. As Snyder writes:
Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union; it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years, Dugin has openly supported the division and colonisation of Ukraine.
Aleksandr Dugin (1962-) was the main organiser of the forerunner of the Bolshevik Party and became a dissident and anti-communist in the 1980s after dabbling in mysticism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he wrote the program for The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, a party committed to Marxist-Leninism. In 1997, he published The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, which quickly became an established text for the ruling elite and was seen as a kind of manifest destiny. In The Fourth Political Theory (2012), Dugin seeks foundations for a new ideology that supersedes liberalism, Marxism and fascism based on a geopolitical development of Martin Heidegger’s Dasein (existence) to question the universal values of liberalism and the hegemonic position of the US and to put forward essentially conservative values and far-right ideologies. On this basis, he theorises the foundations of a Euro-Asian civilisation together with the union of all Russian-speaking peoples and the rejection of the USA and its strategic control. He founded the Eurasia Party in 2001, and he was pro-Russian conflict with Ukraine because he regarded it as a mere administrative state. By supporting the war against Ukraine, he hopes to restore its Eurasian mantle as a credible world power.