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FT: Leaked Russian military documents show lower threshold for use of nuclear weapons than Putin claims

However, the nuclear threshold may be higher regarding Ukraine, according to William Alberque, the director of strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
nuclear exercises 2022
Russia nuclear exercises amid heightened rhetoric over when the weapons could be used in October 2022. Credit: Russian Defence Ministry
FT: Leaked Russian military documents show lower threshold for use of nuclear weapons than Putin claims

Recently leaked Russian military documents reveal a lower threshold for the use of nuclear weapons than what has been publicly stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Financial Times (FT) reported on 28 February, reviewing 29 classified files.

Since the start of the full-scale war against Ukraine, Putin has frequently threatened the use of nuclear weapons. In October 2023, he said that Russian military doctrine has two reasons for using nuclear weapons: a response to the use of such weapons by the enemy or a threat to the existence of the Russian state.

The documents, dated between 2008 and 2014 and deemed relevant to current Russian military doctrine by experts, outline several conditions that could trigger the use of nuclear arms.

“Among other possible conditions is the destruction of 20% of Russian ballistic missile submarines, 30% of nuclear attack submarines, three or more cruisers, three airfields, or a simultaneous attack on the main and backup shore command centers,” the FT reported.

The files also list stopping an “enemy invasion” of Russia, defeating army formations deployed on the border, or an impending attack using conventional weapons as reasons for a nuclear strike.

“These documents show that Russia’s threshold for nuclear use is rather low, if Russia cannot achieve its goals with conventional means,” Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the FT.

However, regarding Ukraine specifically, the nuclear threshold may be higher since Ukraine lacks nuclear capabilities or the ability to mount a large-scale invasion, the director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, William Alberque, said.

The FT also reported that Russia continues to conduct military exercises. In particular, Russia held exercises using nuclear-capable missiles in June and November 2023 in regions bordering China.

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