President Vladimir Putin said Russia would only use its nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on the country, in what some arms control experts said appeared to be an important clarification of Russian doctrine.
The comments by Putin, made October 18 at an international policy forum, jolted nuclear analysts and arms control experts who have worried that the state of U.S.-Russian relations has increased the dangers of a nuclear exchange.
Putin told the forum that Moscow would only use nuclear weapons if early warning systems spotted nuclear missiles heading toward Russia.
"Our strategy of nuclear weapons use doesn't envision a preemptive strike," he told the Valdai Club, an annual gathering of Russian and Western foreign-policy experts. Our concept is a launch under attack.”
"Only when we become convinced that there is an incoming attack on the territory of Russia, and that happens within seconds, only after that we would launch a retaliatory strike," he said.
Putin’s comments appeared in part to be a response to the new U.S. “nuclear posture review,” a Defense Department planning document that lays out the criteria for when Washington would use nuclear weapons.
The review, released in February, calls for revamping the U.S. arsenal and developing new low-yield atomic weapons.
The document also highlighted a Russian doctrine that experts say has been around since the Cold War but has gained new attention amid the tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Under that doctrine, known as "escalate to de-escalate," Moscow stipulates it would use or threaten to use smaller-yield nuclear weapons in a limited conventional conflict in Europe to compel the United States and NATO to back down.
That was seen by many Western officials as lowering the threshold for when such weapons would be used.
Putin’s comments appeared to be an effort to clarify that position, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research organization.
“It appears that he was trying to clarify and respond to the charge or concern that Russia had this strategy about nuclear use,” Kimball told RFE/RL. Putin’s comments “are about as authoritative a response as you can get.”
Kimball also said Putin’s comments might be a signal that Russia wants to hold substantive talks with the United States about several nuclear-related problems, including extending the New START treaty, resolving the dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and other issues.
The ambiguity surrounding Russia’s exact position on nuclear weapons use has been problematic for Western officials trying to understand Moscow’s intentions, according to Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The real danger is...the Kremlin’s failure to communicate its goals effectively to leaders in Washington and elsewhere,” she wrote in an article published by Foreign Affairs, released prior to Putin’s comments.
“Its policy of deliberate ambiguity is feeding into apprehension in Washington, driving a dangerous cycle of escalation that is bound to worsen suspicions and heighten the risk.”
In his comments, Putin also repeated past warnings about the consequences of Russia being attacked.
"It would naturally mean a global catastrophe, but I want to emphasize that we can't be those who initiate it because we don't foresee a preventive strike," he said. "The aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable and he will be destroyed."
"We would be victims of an aggression and would get to heaven as martyrs," Putin said. Those who attacked Russia would "just die and not even have time to repent."
He also repeated past boasts about a new series of advanced weapons that Russia is reportedly developing, including a hypersonic missile and an international-range missile called the Avangard.
His blunt talk on nuclear weapons comes as Russia's relations with the West remain tense over such issues as the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in elections.
Putin sharply criticized Washington's issuance of a series of sanctions against Russia, saying such selective economic punishment measures "undermine trust in the dollar as a universal payment instrument and the main reserve currency."
With reporting by AP and Interfax