What does Russia mean by “strategic deterrence”?

Nov 30, 2017 | Anya Loukianova Fink

Since the mid-2000s, Russian security analysts and military officials have worked to outline a vision for Russia’s own “strategic deterrence” (стратегическое сдерживание). In a 2008 speech, president of the Academy of Military Sciences Makhmut Gareev highlighted the importance of a new “strategic deterrence strategy” that included military and non-military approaches as a response to threats posed to Russia’s security by globalization, trends in geopolitics, and uses of military force.  The term “strategic deterrence” has since made appearances in Russia’s military doctrine and in numerous military writings, as Western analysts have documented. 

Russia’s “strategic deterrence” is different from its U.S. counterpart, which is used and understood primarily in the context of strategic nuclear forces. Russian military analysts and leaders, in contrast, potentially envision conflicts on a spectrum that draws on non-military means, non-nuclear systems, and nuclear assets as tools of "strategic deterrence."

In order to begin to understand the implications of the differences in how the United States and Russia think about this concept, it’s important to first have a clear understanding of the differences. To this end, I’ve translated the Russian Ministry of Defense’s lengthy definition of the term:

Please note that (1) words in [square parentheses] are my clarifications, and they do not appear in the original text; and (2) in order for the definition to make more sense to a Western audience, “subject” could be substituted with “Russia” while “object” could be substituted with “the United States and/or NATO.” 

STRATEGIC DETERRENCE [SD] is a coordinated system of measures of non-forceful [non-military or those not involving the use of military forces] and forceful [military or those involving use of military forces] nature, taken sequentially or simultaneously by one side (subject, coalition of states) toward another side (object, coalition of states) in order to deter the latter from taking forceful actions, which inflict or could inflict damage of strategic levels to the former. Such forceful actions include: forceful pressure or aspiration to engage in forceful pressure by the object on the subject, aggression or preparations toward aggression by the object toward the subject, escalation by the object of a military conflict. Implementation of SD is based on, as a rule, on the principle of “denying victory.” In certain conditions, SD could be based on the principle of “making victory hollow.” SD is aimed at the stabilization of the military-political environment. Targets of influence of SD implementation could include the military-political leadership and public of the state (coalition of states) of the potential adversary (aggressor).

In contrast to measures of military-political deterrence, taken by a state (coalition of states) to prevent aggression, threats to peaceful development, or vitally important interests, SD measures are carried out by a subject continuously, in peacetime an in wartime, and not only to prevent any type of forceful actions, which inflict or could inflict damage of strategic levels to a subject, but also to contain the object in certain boundaries, and to de-escalate a military conflict.

Measures of non-forceful [non-military] nature include: political, diplomatic, legal, economic, ideological, scientific-technical, and others. They are carried out continuously by federal agencies of executive power in Russia in close cooperation with international organizations, increase during the emergence, development, and resolution of various conflicts (military, armed activities—up to large-scale war). These measures are implemented in order for the subject to achieve success in engaging in (conducting) negotiations through diplomatic channels, implementing activities to strengthen interstate relations, exiting from international legal agreements or abrogating them, etc.

Measures of forceful [military] nature include: reconnaissance-information actions; demonstration of military presence and military force; actions to guarantee the safety of economic activities of the state; peacekeeping activities; air defense activities, and the defense and safeguarding of the state borders in the airspace, on land, and in the maritime domain; military presence; demonstrative transition of troops (forces) from peacetime to wartime (alerting them to highest levels of military readiness); qualitative increase (deployment) of groupings of troops (forces);  demonstrative preparations of select forces and means (including those armed with nuclear weapons) to carry out strikes; engagement in or threats of carrying out single strikes (including nuclear), and others. They are carried out by Russia’s Armed Forces and other troops at all levels of preparations and engagement in military actions: in peacetime—in order to prevent threats and not permit aggression; in wartime—in order to prevent and not permit escalation, or to de-escalate, or to ensure the speediest halt of military conflict on terms favorable to Russia, including up to massive use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction in a large-scale war.

In peacetime, SD is carried out in the interest of countering threats and the prevention of aggression (of any actions that could inflict damage of a strategic level) toward the subject, and in wartime—in the interest of prevention (proscription, cessation) of escalation (or in the interests of de-escalation) of a military conflict or in the interests of its earliest cessation on terms favorable to the subject.

In the current conditions and in the near term, in taking measures of forceful [military] nature, Russia must base SD primarily on its nuclear forces in general and its strategic rocket forces, as their main component, in particular.

In the conditions of the emergence, development, and resolution of interstate (inter-coalitional, single- and multi-party) conflicts of various nature, SD is carried out, as a rule, through the combination of non-forceful [non-military] and forceful [military] means in various spheres of state activity: political, economic, legal, diplomatic, ideological, military, and others; and in the conditions of a military conflict, it is carried out with the basis (or the prevalence) on military force, with the mandatory compliance to two key principles: adequacy [proportionality] of reaction and the avoidance of provoking threats or aggression.

SD is implemented based on the thinking and under the direction of the highest political-military leadership of the state (direct leadership of the Supreme High Command) in both peacetime and wartime.