Leaked Documents Show Russia Willing To Use Nukes on Battlefield

Russian president Vladimir Putin / Getty Images
February 28, 2024

Leaked Russian military documents revealed Wednesday suggest Russia is willing to use tactical nuclear weapons in a war.

A cache of 29 documents dating between 2008 and 2014 reveals the criteria that would permit a tactical nuclear strike—including an enemy incursion into Russian territory and the destruction of a certain number of its submarines and ships, the Financial Times reported. The documents indicate a lower threshold for triggering a nuclear response than President Vladimir Putin's government has publicly stated, experts told the outlet, adding that the files are relevant to Russia's current practices, even given their age.

"This is the first time that we have seen documents like this reported in the public domain," Alexander Gabuev, who directs Berlin's Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, told the outlet. "They show that the operational threshold for using nuclear weapons is pretty low if the desired result can’t be achieved through conventional means."

The documents also indicated that Russia is suspicious of China, despite the countries' growing ties in recent years, per the outlet. The files contained war games to respond to a hypothetical invasion by China, which included a possible nuclear strike to stop a second wave of forces.

China's foreign ministry told the outlet there were no reasons for Moscow to be suspicious.

"The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between China and Russia has legally established the concept of eternal friendship and non-enmity between the two countries. The ‘threat theory’ has no market in China and Russia," a spokesman told the Financial Times. That treaty includes a no-first-use provision on nuclear weapons.

A spokesman for Putin cast doubt on the authenticity of the documents in a statement to the Financial Times, adding that "the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is absolutely transparent and is spelled out in the doctrine."

Experts did tell the Financial Times, however, that Russia's criteria for using nuclear weapons in its current war in Ukraine is likely higher than the leaked documents suggest, given the possibility that doing so could draw the United States or other NATO countries into the conflict and the fact that Ukraine does not have its own nuclear arsenal.

Putin has previously said he felt "negatively" about using nuclear weapons but has also boasted that Russia's capability in that regard is greater than NATO's. He has also said that he would use such weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia or if "the territorial integrity of our country is threatened."

The Financial Times's piece comes after reports earlier this month indicated that Russia was planning to put a nuclear weapon into space that could destroy satellites. Russia has denied that it is putting together such an initiative, and intelligence agencies are divided on the exact nature of Putin's plans.