A new Russian nuclear doctrine revealed this week spells out exactly when Russia will use nuclear weapons, and places the authority to fire Russia's nukes solely in the hands of the country's president, Vladimir Putin.
But in an important and somewhat unexpected provision, the new nuclear doctrine rules out launching the Russian nukes in a "preemptive" first strike against an enemy -- most likely the United States or its NATO allies.
A "preemptive" strike is an attack launched in order to prevent a suspected future attack. But while Russia has ruled out using its nuclear arsenal simply because it suspects NATO might launch at attack on the Russian Federation, the newly revised doctrine allows a wide range of circumstances when a Russian nuclear strike could be unleashed.
"We have never diminished the importance of nuclear weapons -- the weapon of reprisal -- as the great balancer of chances," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said last year, speaking to reporters.
Putin ordered the revised nuclear doctrine in September in response, Russian officials said, to NATO's announced plans to move 4000 troops into Eastern Europe as a "rapid response force" against possible Russian incursions outside of its borders. But Russia sees the NATO moves as aggression against Russia.
The new doctrine was expected to allow Russia's use of preemptive nuclear first strikes, after a top Russian general in September called for the first strike provision as a counterbalance to what he said were threats from the West.
"The likely enemy of Russia should be clearly identified in this strategic document, something absent from the 2010 military doctrine," General Yury Yakobov said in September. "In my view, our primary enemy is the U.S. and the North Atlantic bloc."
The Russian military insisted that a preemptive first strike provision be part of the new nuclear doctrine, a source told the independent Russian news agency Interfax. But in the end, the military did not get its way.
The previous version of the Russian nuclear doctrine, drafted in 2010, did not single out NATO and the U.S. as the most likely enemies of Russia in a nuclear or conventional conflict.
Though it does not allow for a preemptive first strike, the new doctrine grants Putin and Russia wide latitude in when to use nuclear weapons against NATO and the U.S.
"It [a nuclear strike] would become possible if the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation are under threat," said one official with knowledge of the new doctrine -- which allows for a nuclear attack even if the "threat" to Russia comes from conventional, not nuclear, warfare.
The new Russian nuclear doctrine is also designed as a response to the new United States Prompt Global Strike initiative, which will give the U.S. the ability to launch a conventional attack anywhere in the world within hours instead of weeks or months.