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Russia: Analysis From Washington: A Lower Threshold, A Greater Threat

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's new military doctrine lowers the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons, calls on the military to be ready to quell domestic unrest and secessionist challenges, and proclaims Russia's intention to oppose American domination of the international system.

Each of these provisions reflects Moscow's weakness rather than its strength, but taken together, they suggest that the Russian government under acting President Vladimir Putin plans to pursue a far more nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy than Moscow has since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On Friday, the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" published in its weekly military supplement the text of the new Russian Federation military doctrine that was approved by Putin and the Russian Security Council on January 6.

Among its numerous provisions, including an open acknowledgment of the need to rebuild Russia's economy in order to support Moscow's aspirations to great power status, are three which depart from earlier versions of this document and which seem certain to provoke concern around the world.

First, the new document significantly lowers the threshold at which Moscow would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. In the past, Russian doctrine has held that the use of nuclear weapons should be considered only if the country's national sovereignty and survival were at stake.

Now, according to the latest, Putin-approved version, Moscow is prepared to use nuclear weapons to oppose any attack on its territory if the other military means at its disposal have failed to repel an aggressor.

Such a stance certainly is far more aggressive and indeed could lead Russia to employ nuclear weapons far sooner than it might have under the terms of the earlier doctrine. But in fact, as analysts have already suggested, this shift may be nothing more than a reflection of the extraordinary weakness of Russia's conventional forces.

Second, the new doctrine devotes far more time and attention to using the military to put down internal unrest and secessionist challenges. It is thus an extension of Putin's proclaimed aim of ending "the breakup of Russia." But this provision could point to something else as well: a dramatically increased role for the military in Russian public life.

In the past, Russian commanders have usually stayed out of politics and opposed the use of their forces against domestic opponents. But now that Moscow has committed its army against Chechnya, the generals may be demanding a larger say in how the Russian government functions.

Viewed in that light, Putin's recent pledge to dramatically increase the expenditures on the military and military industries could represent a new bargain between the Russian armed forces and the country's post-Yeltsin political leadership.

And third, the new doctrine underscores Moscow's intention to actively oppose a unipolar world dominated by the United States as part of its effort to strengthen Russia's position not only in areas near its borders but also around the world and to be willing to use its military toward that end.

According to the new doctrine, "the level and scale of threats [to Russia] is growing," and it is for that reason that Moscow must build up its military forces.

The document adds that "other states threaten Russian national security by attempting to oppose the strengthening of Russia as a center of influence in a multipolar world, impeding efforts to protect its national interests and weakening its role in Europe, the Middle East, the Transcaucasus, Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region."

Given Russia's current economic, political and military weakness, it is unclear how far Moscow will be able to act on this intention by itself. But the way in which the new doctrine frames this issue is extremely disturbing.

The new text suggests that Moscow must rely on its military forces rather than diplomatic means to advance its interests, a view Soviet leaders frequently put forward but one that had been absent from most post-Soviet writings. And it further implies that Moscow under Putin will be more willing to confront the West rather than to work with it.

As one Russian commentator put it after the new military doctrine was published, "the idea of partnership has vanished." He could easily have added that the idea of confrontation has reemerged, even if Moscow currently lacks the ability to back up all its claims.

That makes the world a more dangerous place than it was a month ago, only the latest of a series of self-fulfilling prophecies that Russia's new leaders appear certain to blame on the United States and other Western countries.