This is what you get when you ask KGB graduates to write a military doctrine - Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council, in an interview in Izvestia discussed some aspects of Russia's new doctrine, which is expected to be adopted later this year.
The new document apparently will have some interesting new provisions. Here are the paragraphs from the interview that are relevant to the issue of the possibility of preventive/preemptive nuclear strike - I tried to make the translation as close to the meaning of the original* as possible:
With regard to the provisions that regulate the possibility of using nuclear weapons, this section of the military doctrine is written in the spirit of the fact that Russian Federation is a nuclear power, which is capable of using nuclear deterrence to deter potential adversaries from aggression against Russia and its allies. It is the most important priority of our country in the foreseeable future.
We also adjusted the conditions of use of nuclear weapons to counter a conventional aggression – [now they apply] not only to full-scale wars, but also to regional and even to local wars.
In addition, the doctrine provides flexibility in the possibility of use of nuclear weapons depending on the situation and the intentions of the enemy. In situations critical for national security we do not rule out a possibility of using a preemptive (preventive) [sic!] nuclear strike against the aggressor.
If we are into serious hair-splitting, Partushev did not say anything radically new - he seemed to make sure that uprezhdayushchiy udar is understood as preventive strike, but it it can be preemptive as well. Then, since nuclear weapons are to be used against an aggressor, this at least implies that there is one, i.e. that Russia is under attack already. All this may be no more than just a reiteration of the current "first-use" posture. After all, this is not the first time the Russians are using words like "preemptive".
But maybe not. The final text of the doctrine may be more careful about making the distinction, but whatever the doctrine will actually say, it is clear that the idea of using nuclear weapons as an instrument of politics is very dear to the current Russian leadership. The fact that they are talking about considering a nuclear option in local wars (would the conflict in Georgia be an example?) is also deeply unsettling.
In my view, not only this love of nuclear weapons is dangerous, it is also seriously wrong for Russia's security. I can see where this idea of reliance on nuclear weapons is coming from, but it is a delusion to think that they would be able to deal with the security problems that Russia has to deal with today.
* Here is the Russian original:
Что касается положений о возможности применения ядерного оружия, то этот раздел Военной доктрины сформулирован в духе сохранения за Российской Федерацией статуса ядерной державы, способной осуществить ядерное сдерживание потенциальных противников от развязывания агрессии против России и ее союзников. Это является в обозримой перспективе важнейшим приоритетом нашей страны.
Также скорректированы условия использования ядерного оружия при отражении агрессии с применением обычных средств поражения не только в крупномасштабной, но и в региональной и даже в локальной войне.
Кроме того, предусматривается вариантность возможности применения ядерного оружия в зависимости от условий обстановки и намерений вероятного противника. В критических для национальной безопасности ситуациях не исключается нанесение в том числе упреждающего (превентивного) ядерного удара по агрессору.