Accessibility links

Russia: Moscow Struggles To Clarify Stance On Preemptive Force

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in recent days have made vague and sometimes conflicting statements on Russia's position on the use of preemptive strikes. The debate comes as the international community itself is struggling to define preemptive force. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent looks at the policy concerns that may be underlying the Russian officials' words.

Moscow, 14 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Would Russia throw the first punch if it felt threatened? For days now, observers have been trying to make sense of statements by President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on what appears to be Moscow's preemptive-strike policy -- both nuclear and conventional.

On 9 October, Putin told journalists in Yekaterinburg that Russia "retains the right to launch a preemptive strike, if this practice continues to be used around the world." Putin did not specify whether or not he would limit such strikes to conventional weapons. But the remark echoed a statement he made earlier this month -- boasting about the possibility of taking SS-19 missiles out of storage. "Russia retains a significant number -- I want to emphasize this -- a significant number of land-based, strategic missiles," he said. "I am talking about our most menacing missiles, the [SS-19]. I am talking about very serious potential, about tens of rockets."

Defense Minister Ivanov also attempted to explain Russia's position in remarks on 6 October. Speaking at a news conference in Reykjavik, Ivanov said Moscow can use preventive military force in cases where a threat is growing and is "visible, clear, and unavoidable."

Ivanov added a key detail, saying that military force can be used "if there is an attempt to limit Russia's access to regions that are essential to its survival, or those that are important from an economic or financial point of view."

So is Russia attempting to lay out its own preemptive-strike policy? The notion of preemption -- the use of military and covert force to disarm an enemy before it can launch a strike of its own -- has been back in the news since U.S. President George W. Bush declared it a viable approach to the war on terrorism. The U.S. leader argues that a new era of military and terrorist threats requires preemptive responses.

Strictly speaking, Article 51 of the United Nations Charter allows states to use military force without Security Council clearance only in the instance of self-defense. But the debate is still raging over whether preemptive action falls under Article 51 or not.

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer writes off the statements by Putin and Ivanov as yet another example of Russian political double-speak -- when Russian politicians assume a tough posture to please audiences at home but are more conciliatory abroad. "There's nothing new," he said. "Really, the statements were for domestic consumption, since later, [at the meeting of NATO defense ministers] in Colorado Springs, Ivanov said Russia's nuclear-weapons policy would remain the same, that nuclear weapons would remain a means of political deterrence."

Indeed, at a NATO meeting on 10 October, Ivanov quite clearly sought to allay the military alliance's concerns that Russia might use a preemptive nuclear strike to ward off a potential threat. "Russia's doctrine differs from the American doctrine," Ivanov said. "Under no circumstances would Russia be the first to strike with nuclear weapons." NATO is concerned about a document dubbed the "Ivanov doctrine," in which the minister warns that Russia will be forced to change its nuclear strategy if NATO continued its "offensive" doctrine.

The document is meant as a corollary to Russia's military doctrine adopted in May 2000. That doctrine states that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, as well as in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.

Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, told RFE/RL that Russia's policy is no different from those of other nuclear countries. "In extreme cases, any of them would consider using it," he said. Zlobin also noted the concept of preemption is not new to Russian policy. "The Bush doctrine took a lot from the Brezhnev doctrine. Preventive strikes were used by the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Hungary, in Germany -- all those were preemptive strikes. But the problem with Russia is that its preemptive strikes can potentially be used in its sphere of influence -- and that, of course, concerns Eurasia," Zlobin said.

In Reykjavik, Ivanov said Russia would act to defend regions beyond its own borders, encompassing large parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Russian defense minister said that, in case of "instability in the CIS" or a "direct threat" to Russian citizens in the region, Russia can "hypothetically" use force if other means of coercion -- like diplomatic and economic sanctions -- fail.

The remarks raised alarm bells in some parts of the CIS. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze took Ivanov's statements -- especially those regarding the rights of Russian compatriots -- as a covert threat to his country. The Georgian leader said, "Russia means Georgia when it talks about preemptive strikes."

Last year Georgian authorities accused the Russian military of launching several bombing raids on Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, which Moscow claims is a haven for Chechen separatists.

Zlobin agreed that Ivanov could have been directing some of his Reykjavik remarks at Georgia. "As far as I can understand, the concept behind the strikes [in Georgia] last year was not an attempt to change Tbilisi's policy, but -- at least according to statements made by Russian officials -- the destruction of terrorist groups in the Pankisi Gorge," he said. "So I would say that formally, it doesn't fall under the category of preventive strikes. But from a political point of view, it's generally a step in that direction. From a military point of view, it's most certainly a step in that direction."

But Zlobin also said that Russia lacks the international clout to launch a preemptive strike on its own. "The Eurasian region, as a sphere of Russia's national interests, can only be recognized as such as a result of political discussions, compromise, and -- to speak frankly -- negotiations with the United States," he said.

Zlobin said Moscow's unclear stance on preemptive strikes is yet another indication that much of the international community has yet to adopt a new security posture following the end of the Cold War.