Assessing the “Kalibr” of Russia’s Conventional Deterrence Strategy

By Andre Gellerman, MALD 2022 alumnus of The Fletcher School

As Russia escalates its nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine, the question of deterrence has returned to the fore. Since the start of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the fear of open confrontation between the West and Russia has prompted renewed public and scholarly interest in Russia’s nuclear doctrine. While such overt attention to the subject may be a relatively new phenomenon in the 21st century, military theorists have long studied the evolution of Russia’s nuclear strategy. More recently, some have posited that Russia has pivoted away from its longstanding reliance on “strategic” nuclear weapons as instruments of deterrence in favor of utilizing long-range conventional precision-guided munitions (PGMs) that can better discriminate against targets. Assessing the veracity of this claim is important to understanding how Russia conceptualizes the likely progression of a shooting war with the West, which in turn should guide Western policy responses as tensions continue to rise.

While the details of this theory’s considerations cannot be fully explained here, some basic points regarding Russia’s nuclear doctrine must be established. First, in the Russian military-analytical tradition, what Westerners refer to as “deterrence” is more accurately rendered as a set of sometimes-overlapping concepts: ustrashenie (устрашение) and sderzhivanie (сдерживание). The first term refers to activities intended to shape adversaries’ decision-making by the threat of actual or implied consequences, whereas the latter is typically intended to reflect what Western analysts refer to as “containment.” Second, while the precise definition of what constitutes “strategic deterrence” is subject to continued scholarly debate, the basic belief is that the concept encapsulates actions intended to secure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian state. Using these assumptions, scholarly consensus has coalesced around the notion that Russia’s reliance on nuclear arms, dating back to its inception during the early 1990s, reflects a conviction that its adversaries can be deterred from taking actions against its interests because of their fear of the consequences of nuclear use.

There are several intertwined theoretical and practical challenges with this approach. Foremost among these is Russia’s credibility to threaten annihilation in response to perceiving danger. Like other states with a second-strike nuclear capability, Russia’s response options lie along a spectrum. On one end, Russia could choose to be completely passive and not react at all to hostile actions. On the other, Russia could unleash global nuclear war. This basic framework creates issues for Russia’s military theorists: what should it do in response to threats that are serious but do not merit risking nuclear armageddon? Moreover, how can any warning of a nuclear response be made credible if adversaries can impose similar, if not worse, pain on Russia? This basic challenge is aggravated by Russia’s implicitly self-acknowledged relative weakness to its most likely adversary, NATO, in conventional power, which severely limits its ability to avoid the potential political consequences of being the first state to utilize nuclear arms since World War II. 

These issues are not novel and were identified by strategists at the dawn of the nuclear age. Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers grappled with the nuances of such challenges and created an endless array of tactical nuclear arms whose use was seen as more credible and militarily effective relative to strategic nuclear weapons capable of flattening cities. However, the advent of powerful microprocessors and microelectronics in the late 1970s led both the U.S. and Russia to realize that these could be used to create PGMs that could inflict substantial but carefully tailored damage on adversaries without resorting to nuclear arms.

The revolution in military affairs that this technological shift prompted and the United States’ use of PGMs to great effect in the First Gulf War profoundly influenced the Russian military’s thinking on deterrence. Russian theorists readily acknowledged the utility of a weapon that could be used to target, say, an enemy ammo dump or substation in a crisis, but whose use would not be as escalatory as that of a nuclear weapon’s. The proliferation of PGMs also allowed Russia, at least doctrinally, to become more assertive in its foreign policy, as it could credibly respond with conventional means to foreign security threats while avoiding the social, economic, and political costs of otherwise mobilizing its armed forces.

Accordingly, several experts have treated Russian strategists’ theoretical work about PGM-based deterrence and Russia’s public touting of its new PGM capabilities as indicative of an actual shift in its doctrine. Unfortunately, however, data limitations in the public domain have prevented scholars from examining whether theoretical changes discussed in Russian military journals are operationalized.

Seeking to better understand this issue, my recent research has examined Russia’s output of Kalibr-type cruise missiles, a form of PGM, which are both technically well-suited for deterrence purposes and have been repeatedly noted by Russia’s leaders as indicative of their country’s military prowess. Using exclusively open-source, primary information, I estimated that Russia can produce approximately 290-350 Kalibr missiles per year. In comparison, the U.S. Navy can procure 450 similar Tomahawk missiles per year, although it only purchases between 60-120 annually, to fund its manufacturer’s production lines.

These figures suggest that Russia will not be able to operationalize the use of PGMs as instruments of deterrence at the scale envisioned by notable Russian and Western theorists. While they do afford Russia a degree of flexibility in choosing how to respond to foreign threats, they are likely to be of limited use in a crisis with a conventionally superior, nuclear-armed adversary that has sufficient landmass and infrastructure to absorb the comparatively limited damage that a single or even grouped cruise missile strike could inflict. Evidence of Russia’s limited capacity to use PGMs to influence adversarial behavior can be seen in Ukraine, where, despite repeated cruise missile strikes on military and civilian targets, the Ukrainian government has kept fighting and mounted counter offensives. As of this writing, these have pushed Russian troops back to the borders of territory contested before the latest invasion in February 2022, although the military situation remains fluid.

Additionally, the information used to estimate Russia’s annual cruise missile output predates the latest rounds of sanctions that were imposed on Russia by the West after the 2022 invasion. The most precise evidence dates to 2017. Since then, the longstanding problems plaguing its arms industry, such as high debt and recruitment challenges, have become exacerbated by the loss of foreign machine tools and technologies required to create some types of PGMs. While Russia has long sought to minimize its dependence on imported goods and know-how in its defense-industrial base, further disruptions are likely to prove harmful to contractors’ ability to meet both production quotas and quality standards.

Therefore, while Russia has indeed taken concrete theoretical and practical steps to expand its arsenal and reduce its reliance on nuclear arms, persistent industrial challenges will likely constrain its ability to pursue non-nuclear avenues of settlement in an escalatory conflict with the United States or China.

Read Andre Gellerman’s capstone thesis here: Kalibr Production and Russia’s Non-Nuclear Deterrent (2022)

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