The elephant in the room during the current fighting between Russia and Ukraine has been the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia. Shortly after the fighting began, Vladimir Putin announced in a televised speech " "Top officials in leading NATO countries have allowed themselves to make aggressive comments about our country, therefore I hereby order the Minister of Defense and the chief of the General Staff to place the Russian Army Deterrence Force on combat alert." As the fighting has proven unexpectedly difficult and costly for Russia, Western aid to Ukraine has ramped up extensively, and Finland and Sweden abandoned neutrality to join NATO there is more frequent talk that Russia would have to alter or loosen its policy adopted during Cold War times. Russian nuclear doctrine excluded the first use of nuclear weapons. In an interview with RIA Novosti following the Finnish and Swedish decision to join NATO, Russian military expert Igor Korotchenko openly recommended that Russia should henceforth rely on tactical nuclear weapons to deter its foes.
If Korotchenko's proposal is accepted it will mark a stunning reversal of roles from Cold War times. In the original Cold War, it was the West that relied on nuclear deterrence starting with massive retaliation and then with the added tripwire of American conventional forces in Europe. The calculus was that only via nuclear weapons could the West offset Russia's conventional superiority. Korotchenko's logic is the same; Russia cannot match NATO in conventional forces and must rely on nuclear deterrence. A review of the positions voiced by Russian officials and commentators follows below:
Adherence To The Classic Doctrine
Some Russian officials continued to rule out first use of nuclear weapons. Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin enunciated the most restrictive interpretation of Russian nuclear weapons use doctrine. As far as Russia was concerned, a nuclear strike is prescribed in its strategic documents as purely a retaliatory measure.
"We have a sole answer. This is only for defense. If they do [use nukes], we will respond. But as for the United States of America, they have a preemptive one. We need to be afraid of them...on the part of our state, everything is clear. And we proceed from the fact that this [the use of nuclear weapons] can only come as a response to a nuclear strike - nothing else, ”
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister and former ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko was similarly categorical in an interview to RIA Novosti: "We have a military doctrine, everything is written there. It does not give any other interpretation, except for what is there in black and white."
Russia's Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov claimed that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons only in extreme cases: in response to the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) against Russia and its allies, "or in the event of aggression against our country when the very existence of the state is jeopardized."
Russian Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov (Source: Tass.com)
Creating Room For Uncertainty
Some Russian officials, while not renouncing the classic Russian doctrine sought to create uncertainty. Russia's First Deputy Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyansky, speaking about the likely use of nuclear weapons, said that countries dealing with a nuclear power and threatening it "should consider all options." Polyansky said: “I am not a military man, and it is not for me to draw such conclusions. But I think if you are dealing with a nuclear power, if you are threatening an armed power, you should consider all options."
According to Polyansky, if there is a threat to Russia, then the country could resort to nuclear weapons. "I am a diplomat, I do not belong to the circles that make decisions on nuclear strategy. But I can say that yes, we have nuclear weapons, yes, if there is an existential threat to Russia, then I am absolutely sure that we can use nuclear weapons."  This of course left open the question of what Russia considered an existential threat.
In creating this nuclear ambiguity, Polyansky was merely following the path set by his boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov had drawn a rebuke from the US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan. Sullivan said that the US authorities "do not engage in irresponsible rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons." This followed Lavrov's remarks that the risks of nuclear war are "very significant."
Russia's former president and the current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev continued to blur the issue of Russia's nuclear threshold when he posted on his Telegram channel on Thursday, May 12, 2022, that in the event of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO, it could escalate into a nuclear war.
"The supply of Ukraine by NATO member-states with arms, the training of its troops in handling skills for the Western equipment, the deployment of mercenaries and the holding of exercises of NATO member-states in the vicinity of [Russia's] borders increase the prospects of a direct and open confrontation between NATO and Russia instead of 'war by proxy' that is underway now. Such a conflict always runs the risk of turning into an actual nuclear war... this would be a disastrous scenario for everyone."
Dmitry Medvedev (Source: Rbc.ru)
Military expert, Viktor Litovkin backed Medvedev's warning and claimed that Russia's military doctrine allows the use of nuclear arms, provided Russia is attacked by a country, or coalition that possess nuclear arms in its arsenal.
Commenting on Medvedev's statement, Litovkin voiced his agreement adding that NATO isn’t ready for a nuclear struggle with Russia. Litovkin opined that Russia should resort to nuclear weapons if NATO crossed the border into Ukraine:
"We’ll have the right to use nuclear arms in case of NATO will attack Russia. This will be World War III, a nuclear war. I believe that NATO is not ready for this... NATO understands that Russia is a nuclear power that possess corresponding missiles. This means bad consequences for the EU and the US... There will be provocations, but their troops won’t dare to cross the border of Russia or Ukraine."
Explicit Endorsement Of First Use By Russia
Vladimir Vasiliyev writing in the Regnum outlet favored the use of tactical nuclear weapons to minimize Russian casualties. The heartless Ukrainian regime was turning its population into canon fodder, but however suicidal the policy it would result in the loss of many Russian lives. "They are now writing from the conflict zone that 'the Armed Forces of Ukraine, being on the defensive, lose at least 7 times more soldiers.' Let's take this ratio - 1 to 7, although it is very, very optimistic, because we are still advancing. With the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 300-500 thousand people, our losses will amount to approximately 43-71 thousand people.
"Looking at these figures, I would not rule out the selective use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the 'war to the last Ukrainian' scenario in order to win this conflict faster and, accordingly, with fewer losses on our part."
The clearest call for a change in Russia's strategic doctrine came in a recent interview by military expert Igor Korotchenko to RIA Novosti. The interview went as follows
"In response to the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, Russia should introduces changes to its military doctrine, specifying the conditions for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in response to possible aggression, as well as fit Kalibr and Iskander [missiles] facing west with nuclear warheads, military expert, Igor Korotchenko editor-in-chief of Natsionalnaya Oborona [National Defense] said in an interview with RIA News.
"According to him, 'upon Finland and Sweden joining NATO by the summer under the accelerated procedure, the armed forces of these countries will be fully integrated into the military structure of the North Atlantic Alliance. In the event of an aggravation of the situation in the European theater of military operations, strike groups of NATO's combined armed forces of may be deployed or other actions taken that critically affect Russia's national security. For Moscow, it is crucial to quickly neutralize these and other threats, yet creating a deterrent potential in the form of new brigades, divisions, strengthening the air defense system, especially to cover the long border with Finland, will require significant financial resources and a great deal of time.
"'Only the entry in 2022 of tactical nuclear weapons for the troops of the Western Military District and the Baltic Fleet will be able to quickly remove the disparity that exists today, and which will further increase when the potential of the Russian Federation's Armed Forces is compared to that of the NATO countries with its new members, which significantly outweigh us in terms of manpower and the quantity of armaments and military equipment. We need to be pragmatic and modify the Russian military doctrine - reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons should become the basis for deterring NATO's aggressive aspirations,' Korotchenko said.
"In his opinion, it is also necessary to start developing a land-based version of the mobile complex with Kalibr cruise missiles, with subsequent deployment in the northwestern regions of the country.
"Already today, the Russian Security Council should start working on possible response steps.
"'The conditions must be clearly described under which, in response to aggressive actions or an attack on the Russian Federation, we will deliver tactical nuclear retaliatory strikes against NATO military facilities and military infrastructure, under what conditions this can be done, how the relevant procedures will be implemented- a doctrinal review is needed. all these issues. Relevant work should be carried out under the leadership of the Security Council of Russia and begin immediately now, since the issue concerns our country's security' the expert noted."
Igor Korotchenko (Source: Ria.ru)