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As can be read in various sources, for example The Guardian, Russia has put its ‘nuclear deterrence forces’ on high alert.

What does that even mean? Isn’t the point of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that these forces are always ready to go? The article states that it probably doesn’t mean that the bombers are actually being loaded. But I don’t imagine that matters anyway. If MAD wouldn’t work because bombers aren’t ready then it is pointless anyway. What am I missing here?

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Very hard to say what the actual changes are without looking at the specifics of Russian nuclear protocols (which nuclear countries do not generally share much, preferring to remain ambiguous).

Russia's forces, like US ones, are capable of reacting to a first strike and thus are capable of operation without being "warmed up". This is true for ICBMs and SLBMS (sub-launched).

However, at the political level, it is very clear what message is intended: "Russia is a nuclear state and don't you forget it". Nuclear alert levels were a ritualized signaling mechanism during the Cold War. Like a dog growling and raising its hackles it is meant to signal that it might bite. Not that it will bite, but that it wants you to know it is ready to (this is akin to moving the US's DEFCON levels, as Fluidcode points out)

Nuclear war is so dangerous that it is critically important to have a variety of signals to indicate intents and especially the level of threat you perceive from others or want to signal to others. Alert levels are part of that.


What it's not is an indication that Russian forces are prepping for launching a strike. Those wouldn't be broadcast in advance.


Most nuclear forces have been "off-alert", for whatever actual meaning that has, since the end of the Cold War. This is a spike back up.

If you go back earlier in time in the Cold War, nuclear readiness was more gradual and had actual meanings, with aircraft needing to be loaded and possibly being put on station near the enemy territory. Earlier Soviet ICBMs were liquid-fuelled and needed considerable prep before being ready for launch. This is not the case anymore however. You do probably have things like bases being locked down and personnel being pulled back from leave.

Putin already reminded us that Russia is a nuclear state in his original speeches on the 23rd. At one level, this is, usefully, reminding the more gung-ho of Western politicians that "boots on the ground" or engaging NATO air forces directly over Ukraine is a non-starter. What got us out of the Cold War in one piece is never to risk direct NATO-Russia combat.

This something Biden, correctly, identified back when he advised US citizens to leave.

Biden made the remarks in an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt, who asked him what kind of scenarios would prompt a U.S. rescue mission, if Russia invaded.

"There's not [one]," Biden said. "That's a world war — when Americans and Russians start shooting at one another, we're in a very different world than we've ever been in."

At another level, Putin would no doubt be thrilled if the West stopped supporting Ukraine altogether because the more timid amongst our politicians lost their resolve. However, this risks being another miscalculation - whatever Russia can do to NATO, NATO can do to Russia and Putin is losing world sympathy by the day with his antics. China, for one, would be horribly impacted if Putin managed to trigger a full on war. MAD is just as suicidal to all parties now as it was 30 years ago.

To give an example of nuclear alertness level influencing a crisis, Israel loaded their nukes during the early days of the Yom Kippur War, when they were not doing well. And the US, which before had dragged its feet on helping them, immediately flooded them with military aid.

Or during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

US alert level raised

Adlai Stevenson shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations, October 25, 1962. The US requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on October 25. US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. Ambassador Zorin refused to answer. The next day at 10:00 pm EDT, the US raised the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON 2. For the only confirmed time in US history, B-52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert, and B-47 medium bombers were dispersed to various military and civilian airfields and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes' notice.

Further readings:

Alert Status of Nuclear Weapons - Federation of American Scientists

Despite concern about realerting effect, both
US and Russian escalation strategies rely on
significant realerting to signal and boost
nuclear postures in a crisis.

Alert status of nuclear weapons - AIP Conference Proceedings

Since end of the Cold War, nuclear alert rates have been reduced in several ways: • Strategic bombers were taken off alert in 1991. • ICBM warhead loading reduced (United States); New START treaty included ICBM MIRV ban but was abandoned in favor of ballistic missile defenses against rogue states. • SLBM warhead loading reduced (United States). • De-targeting initiatives: ICBMs/SLBMs targeted at open ocean areas during peacetime (note: de-targeting is not dealerting). • Non-strategic forces taken off alert. Most warheads destroyed but remaining placed in central storage. Some still deployed on bases near launchers (US bombs in Europe; French cruise missiles).

Note that the AIP publication also uses the term to indicate weapon readiness, where they say that Russia and the US both have about 20% of their nukes ready to fire on short notice. That's likely not what this is about, short term. This is about personnel, not gear:

Putin has ordered the defence minister and the chief of the military to put nuclear deterrent forces in a ‘special regime of combat duty’.

Finally, in a some-dude-on-Twitter-said vein, I found this when I tried to compare US Defcon levels to what Russia is up to:

Like US DEFCON levels, Russia has a number of readiness levels:

  1. CONSTANT
  2. ELEVATED
  3. MILITARY DANGER
  4. FULL

Putin ordered nuclear forces to ELEVATED level today. Concerning but not cause for panic yet

(Where 1. would be lowest, as opposed to the US's DEFCON 1 being the worst and DEFCON 5 being "no worries"?)

DW has picked these levels up as well, but is not sure where Putin's "special level" sits.

"The expression he used to indicate some heightened state of alert does not exist in Russian military manuals," Eggert, DW's Russia affairs analyst said.

There are four levels of alert in the Russian military, he explained. Those four levels are: regular, heightened, the threat of war and full or complete.

"Nuclear forces are pretty much always on heightened alert," Eggert noted.

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    +1 Good point about the Israeli nuclear escalation when they were at the point of total defeat by Egypt. IMO one of the reasons for nuclear escalation was that the Israeli government knew that since Egypt was Soviet backed, any kind of nuclear offensive could mean a possible war with the US some time in the future, and so the US chose to assist Israel in terms of conventional war, and saved them from destruction. Of course Israel was an ally, and America did not want the balance of power to favor the Arabic nations, but I still think the Israelis may not have actually wanted to go nuclear.
    – joseph h
    Feb 28 at 1:21
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    This is a conventional war. Neither Putin or the US can use strategic nuclear weapons without being destroyed. Putin is trying to scare actors from engaging conventionally in support of Ukraine; but this is largely a bluff since Putin cannot use them. While direct NATO deployment in Ukraine would be risky from indirect outcomes, a powerful deployment eg. 60k troops in Poland and Moldavia would change Russia's perception that NATO and Europe are weak.
    – Thomas W
    Feb 28 at 4:45
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    @ThomasW Possibly. Above my pay grade on the deployment in Poland. There's plenty to what you say, but they would also have limited actual effect. Right now, he's probably well aware Western weakness is not all he hoped for. Cutting off Russia's central bank from its foreign reserves? Genius. And too many troops would help Putin spin a narrative of encirclement to his people. However, jets to protect Ukraine-bound weapon shipment transfer locations in Poland? Probably a good thing, just in case Russia gets an itchy trigger finger. Feb 28 at 17:31
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    The Israeli nuclear doctrine in particular is worth reading up on, since it's not only about deterring the possible attacker itself, it's more so about forcing the rest of the world into defending them: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_Option - basically "if we go down, we're taking the rest of the world with us", going as far as openly threatening the US into supporting them during the Yom Kippur war.
    – René Roth
    Feb 28 at 22:11
  • I'd love to know if there are some Game Theory mathematicians in some uni crunching their numbers about what's the best strategy here. I mean, the old story of v. Neumann being prodded about these things on his death bed... funny how this stuff becomes current again, and interesting to know if the theories have progressed since the end of the Cold War.
    – AnoE
    Mar 1 at 12:13
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It’s not very clear. Certainly, the British Defence Minister Ben Wallace speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme at around 8:20 UTC on Feb 28th seemed to think it's just a reminder from Russia of the existence of their nuclear deterrent rather than any concrete changes:

Interviewer: He's decided to put his nuclear arsenal on standby; how seriously do you take that threat?

Wallace: Well, I think we have to be really really clear with the words here Martha, because what he actually said was he was going to hand the deterrent forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty. So we've examined what that means, and what the follow-ups look like, and that is not a term that is in their doctrine, a 'special mode of combat duty'. What our current analysis of that is, is that this is him reminding the world that he's got a deterrent, he had a big nuclear strategic exercise - as he called it - last week, or the week before, where he fired off a few missiles and reminded the world, so he's put it out there to remind us all.

But secondly, it's part of a distraction as well, that he's put it out there, we're all talking about it rather than the lack of success they're currently having in Ukraine.

Tass provides a translation of the operative part of Putin’s statement as follows:

Top officials in NATO’s leading countries have been making aggressive statements against our country. For this reason, I give orders to the defense minister and chief of the General Staff to introduce a special combat service regime in the Russian army’s [deterrence] forces,

Quite what this ‘special combat service regime’ entails remains rather uncertain. The best information I’ve found comes from Pavel Podvig, a Senior Researcher in the WMD Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). He is also the Director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project. The Guardian article you refer to in your question mentions having spoken to Podvig, but has rather butchered his full comments. He gave the following explanation:

What is this "special mode of combat duty of the deterrence forces"? Hard to tell with certainty, but most likely it means that the nuclear command and control system received what is known as a preliminary command.

As I understand the way the system works, in peacetime it cannot physically transmit a launch order, as if the circuits were "disconnected". However, if the early-warning system detects an attack or if Russia believes it entered a "threatening period" the national command authority can bring the system into a working condition, connecting the wires, so if a launch order can go through if issued. There is also a protocol that protects the system from decapitation.

Once the preliminary command is issued, the system can act even if the president is taken out or cannot be reached. In this case the system, however, can only act if it detects actual nuclear detonations on the Russian territory. It is possible that in some cases the preliminary command could also trigger visible actions, such as submarines leaving ports or weapons loaded on bombers (and bomber dispersals). But it doesn't have to - everything could stay on the level of circuits.

In brief, once the forces are brought to this point, they are less vulnerable to a first strike, whether a decapitating or disarming one. It is not something that suggests that Russia is preparing itself to strike first, though.

In my view, a first strike has never been an option, and it's not an option today. But technically it makes a first strike or launch on warning possible on a rather short notice. An interesting question is whether this has ever been done before. Not to my knowledge, although I cannot rule out the early days, 70s and the early 80s. I am certain that it was NOT done in January 1995 in the Norwegian rocket incident. So, it's probably the first.

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  • Thanks, I already upvoted earlier, but holding off accepting any answers yet since maybe new information comes to light. Feb 28 at 9:25
  • Very informative answer! Thank you! :) Feb 28 at 21:51
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I think that the current answers are too long and confusing. After all technically it is the equivalent of the US stepping their DEFCON status.

Nothing else than increasing the number of active soldiers monitoring the defence systems, the number of patrols and patrol flights and their alert status.

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    Do you have any evidence for this? How do you know it’s equivalent to DEFCON? What (equivalent) level has it been stepped to? How do you know it means increasing the number of active soldiers / patrols / flights? What does increasing “alert status” mean?
    – Tim
    Feb 28 at 18:04
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    @Tim as the author of one of those long and confusing answers this one isn't half bad as a TLDR, upvoted. It is moving the pointer along the Russian equivalent to DEFCON, as a number of analysts have pointed out. The only thing is Putin's special readiness status doesn't fit neatly in Russia's DEFCON terminology. Perhaps we should just think of it as creative naming, just like a special military operation is not an invasion. Feb 28 at 18:28
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica sure, I think this answer is probably correct. But I only think that because I read those long answers. A TLDR with too little evidence isn’t (IMO) suitable as a standalone answer for this site.
    – Tim
    Feb 28 at 18:31
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica As I already wrote in comments many times I disagree with such philosophy. I think it is right to ask for evidence where it is really needed. Asking for evidence where it is trivial means treating the readers as idiots. I prefer to encourage readers to check the credibility of such posts against their own experience and knowledge.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 1 at 13:04
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    I saw 2 different interviews last night where an expert said this same thing (all it means is slightly more people sent to the missile control area) but couldn't find them after 3 minutes of searching just now. Mar 1 at 18:01

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