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Russian Use of Battlefield Weapons of Mass Destruction

Introduction

Since the early-2000s, an aberrant military doctrine unique to the Russian military has emerged.  For the purposes of this overview, we characterize it as using weapons of mass destruction on a battlefield. The doctrine focuses on tactical-level weapons able to generate massive amounts of firepower, wreaking havoc on civil populations and civil infrastructure to attack a defending army from its rear, bringing about surrender.

The doctrine is insular-looking, does not take into international reaction, and sits outside conventional norms of modern warfare and Western-style military thinking about the restraint of military force, proportional response, escalation and the avoidance of civilian deaths, or unnecessary damage to civil infrastructure. Massive attacks by missiles, rocket artillery, heavy batteries, weaponized chemical, or low-yield nuclear weapons are treated as equivalent in value and not part of an escalatory ladder.  These are a menu of choice for a field commander and are used interchangeably in varying combinations to break the back of any potential opposition.

Weaponized chemical or low-yield nuclear weapons, rather than fall into a special category (or to comply with the fact that one is internationally banned) instead are designed for battlefield use available as an option for warfighting and are justified in terms of an oscillating pair of strategic goals (which rely on acts of sheer indiscriminate violence) to:

1) Crush a population:  Causing such death and destruction that opposing governments, and their militaries, are compelled to surrender; or,

2) Immediately liquidate a threat to the borderlands of the Russian State:  Where Russian military forces run the risk of being defeated or overrun on the battlefield.

The Triad Model of Potential Weapons Choices and Two Strategic Goals

The Triad Model of Potential Weapons Choices (above) looks at a triad of potential Russian weapons choices ranging between missile, rocket artillery, heavy battery, weaponized chemical, or low-yield nuclear weapon, as a set of options that can be used to achieve a strategic goal. One of the strategic goals is to attack the civil heart of an opponent society, its populated areas, and infrastructure. The other strategic goal is ending the threat of a battlefield loss to an opponent. Fundamentally, this view of strategy operates outside the international order and is devoid of norms and conventions. The triad of weapons choices are individually treated as equivalent in value to each other. Use from one to the next is not viewed as an escalation of force.

The Emergence of the Model

Within Russian military thinking, around the early-2000s, a doctrine revolving around the use of a non-strategic nuclear weapon was discussed in the context of what is called “de-escalation of a military action” (Kipp, 2001). This involved using what was known at the time as an operational-tactical nuclear weapon within a theatre of military operations (Kipp, 2001). The difference between a strategic-level nuclear weapon and a tactical nuclear weapon is that the latter is typically a low-yield device with a fraction of the strength of a strategic level nuclear weapon – reducing its lethality and, as a result, limiting the zone of destruction and radiation field.

Currently, “Russia … possesses some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons kept in storage facilities throughout the country, developed to be used against troops and installations in a small area or in a limited engagement.” (Tannenwald, 2022) Notionally, the low-yield device is intended for use on a battlefield as a greater form of missile, rocket artillery, heavy artillery, and air bombardment.  In the context of the Russian military thinking and debate in the early 2000s, consideration of the use of a low-yield device was seen as justifiable for the following reasons:

  • “In an unfavourable defensive operation, it could deter the threat to destroy defenders, decisively change the correlation of forces on the operational direction (directions) and liquidate any enemy breakthrough.” (Kipp, 2001)
  • Russian military debate when it came to the Nuclear Strategic Force has since the 2000s been conducted in terms identical to that seen in the West. Nevertheless, there continued to be a sub-category of tactical-level nuclear weapons which fell into a completely different class intended for solely battlefield use. General Valery Gerasimov has been the key proponent of an Active Defence concept that “stresses firepower to both wear down an attacking force and the economic infrastructure of the attacking nation. This is firepower from tactical nuclear weapons, aircraft area bombing, rockets, artillery, and cluster munitions.” (Layton, 2022)

Effectively, a bipolar strategy has arisen:  one pole is a primary strategic goal of attacking the civil heart of an opponent society and its civil populated areas. The other strategic pole is dealing with the threat of battlefield loss to an opponent. Fundamentally, this view of strategy operates outside of the international order – and is devoid of norms and conventions.

A triad of potential weapons, treated as essentially equivalent to one other (rather than as an escalation of force), moves from one target to the next, based on a shifting view of the threat. In one context, the threat is being made towards an opponent using extreme firepower in massive acts of indiscriminate violence; or using that same menu of weapons to destroy an imminent threat posed by an opponent. In effect, there are only two strategic goals rooted in a completely insular view that –beyond the immediate battlefield–nothing matters:  there is no concern for international consequences the Laws of War, or public opinion.

What Next?

A vital unknown variable is that weaponized chemical or low-yield nuclear weapons can be launched, “on the same short-range missiles Russia is currently using to bombard Ukraine, such as its Iskander ballistic missile, which has a range of about 500 kilometres.” (Tannenwald, 2022)

According to the general designer KB Mashinostroyeniya, the minimum launch range for the Iskander can be as close as 50 kilometres. Given a few Iskander-M Short-Range Ballistic Missiles have been sighted in Ukraine (either at the ready on their Transporter Erector Launcher missile vehicles or being moved by the integrated prime mover vehicles) any one of these could be carrying a dummy, conventional, weaponized chemical or low-yield nuclear weapon – and could be launched at targets at relatively short ranges with minimal warning time.

Photo:  Iskander-M Short-Range Ballistic Missile on its Transporter Erector Launcher missile vehicle with integrated prime mover vehicle.

This aberrant military doctrine is unique to Russia – which seeks to use weapons considered extreme and escalatory to turn a potential battle defeat into a victory.  Or to use an international banned weapon (such as weaponized chemicals to attack a civil populated area) to terrify a people into submission and destroy effective opposition.   This doctrine extends into a range of exotic weapons use – such as lasers used for mass blinding (internationally banned) or deployment of nuclear mines in space (also internationally banned).

So far in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have seen a rapid transition from supporting conventional army-on-army fighting to an expanded notion of the battlefield.  Russian missile, rocket artillery, heavy batteries, the Air and Space Forces are focused primarily on delivering massive firepower onto the cities, causing indiscriminate loss of life in civil populated areas, and mass destruction of the civil infrastructure.  The strategic goal is forcing a surrender of the Ukrainian Government and its military.

At the other end of the spectrum, the disproportionate losses suffered by the Russian field army in Ukraine is likely at some point to lead to a reversal, pushback, or retreat. An event such as this, close to the Russian border, would bring about the unthinkable – and see the triad of potential weapons choices rapidly shift to the second strategic goal of achieving Rapid Tactical Battlefield Destruction, which is the immediate liquidation of a successful enemy attack that threatens the Russian State on its border, in order to stop: 1) Russian defeat and surrender; 2) Mutinies by the Russian army; and 3) a possible limited invasion of Russia by Ukrainian troops chasing the Russians out.

 

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Chris Flaherty

Chris Flaherty

Dr. Chris Flaherty is a commentator on security, defence and counter terrorism research, its application, and project management. Currently living in London. He is involved in the development of a "Scripted Agent Based Microsimulation Project". This project began at the University of New South Wales, and has moved to the University of Wollongong (NSW, Australia). As well, this research incorporates affiliate team membership with the London Metropolitan Business School: Centre for International Business and Sustainability. He has also developed basic research and tools for vulnerability and resilience analysis. His current research work is on 3D Tactics and counter terrorism building vulnerability analysis for mass gathering commercial, industrial and shopping areas. He is currently a Senior Risk Consultant at Greymans Limited. And was recently made a Fellow of the UK Security Institute (April 2010).