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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primakov Embraces 'First Strike' Policy

Russia has publicly embraced the concept of using nuclear weapons first in a war, a policy the United States has long maintained but that Russia had not stated until recently.

The "first-strike" notion was first voiced earlier this month by senior security officials. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov became the highest-ranking Russian official to endorse it.

"If we are subjected to an attack and are unable to contain it, we could be the first to use nuclear weapons," Primakov said on Russian television.

Despite the easing of tensions between the United States and post-Soviet Russia, the Russians maintain an estimated 8,000 nuclear warheads at a high level of readiness.

Although down sharply from the Soviet Union's Cold War arsenal, it is still enough to destroy the United States.

The first-strike concept was one of the pillars of the Cold War, with both the United States and the Soviet Union basing their nuclear weapons policy on the assumption that the other side might strike first.

The policy in post-Soviet Russia had not been clear until May 9, when Boris Berezovsky, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, said a first-strike policy is "an absolutely responsible stand" that has President Boris Yeltsin's endorsement.

A few days after that, Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin reiterated the policy. "If terrible damage is done to our country through the use of biological, bacteriological and other kinds of weapons, we will naturally hit back with everything we have got," he told Ekho Moskvy radio. "This is our right."

The enunciation of the new policy coincides with a time of crisis for Russia's military. Yeltsin named a new defense minister Friday, one day after firing Igor Rodionov for failing to carry out radical cuts in troop strength.

The Security Council recently adopted a new national security policy, which Rybkin described in a lengthy interview with the newspaper Rossiiskiye Vesti.

"In order to really ensure the Russian Federation's security, it is necessary to have the gift of foresight and the ability ... to take preventive measures to avert threats in national security," he said.

The Soviet Union's public policy, enunciated by then-president Leonid Brezhnev in 1977, was that a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought. The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, adhered to that policy in his public statements.

In 1990, top Soviet leaders visiting the U.S. Strategic Air Command said they would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, and called on their American counterparts to promise the same.

U.S. officials refused. They have long maintained the right to a first strike and always assumed the Soviets were secretly willing to do the same.

The new Russian policy has already sparked some criticism. After Berezovsky made his declaration -- on Victory Day, the holiday marking the end of World War II -- members of the liberal Democratic Russia party called the remarks "irresponsible" and an endorsement of "nuclear blackmail."