Collections: Nuclear Deterrence 101

Thanks to our ever helpful volunteer narrator, this post is now also available in audio format.

This week I wanted to expand on something I touched on only briefly in our ‘explainer’ on Putin’s War in Ukraine: the “delicate balance of terror” of nuclear deterrence. Of course this is a complex and much debated topic, so what I want to provide is an introductory overview of the concepts of the sort I’d provide for an introductory class on the topic and, as with last week, end with some implications for understanding some of the concerns around Putin’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine.

Nuclear deterrence can be an odd topic to discuss with people outside of the security studies (military history, political science, IR, etc) space. As we’ll see, there is a certain inescapable logic to many of the conclusions of deterrence theory, but the conclusions themselves viewed without considering that logic seem absurd (and occasionally are, even with the logic). Nevertheless, outside of those security studies fields at the college level, we generally don’t teach nuclear deterrence theory in school and so while this is actually one of the most studied and theorized concepts in the modern world (note that this doesn’t mean the theory is necessarily correct, but it does mean that a lot of very smart and well informed people have been grappling with these ideas for a while now), in my experience there is a tendency by the general public to assume that they are the first to notice this or that absurd-seeming conclusion. Everyone has an opinion about nuclear weapons, but the gap between having an opinion and having an informed opinion is both massive and rarely spanned.

Or to put it very briefly: Dr. Strangelove is a great movie, but if you only have your deterrence theory from Dr. Strangelove, you are dangerously under-informed (though while we’re here it seems worth noting that the Soviet automated-launch doomsday device of the film mostly actually exists, as a system called Dead Hand in the West and Perimeter in Russia and still in use by Russia. Presumably, since Russian nuclear forces are currently on high alert, Perimeter is active, which should be a chilling thought. I am going to say this several times because it is a fundamental truth about nuclear weapons: if you aren’t at least a bit worried, you aren’t paying attention).

Now to be clear about the scope of our discussion: I am mostly here going to focus on nuclear deterrence for my country, the United States and its major military alliance, NATO. But of course the current nuclear weapons states extend beyond this: the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel1 all have nuclear weapons. I know the logic and thinking behind the US nuclear position best, but not all nuclear powers have the same doctrine or assumptions. If there are any of my Global History of Warfare students lurking around thinking about paper ideas, researching some other county’s nuclear doctrine and its evolution often makes for really good second papers.

Via Wikipedia, a map of current nuclear weapon-states, sorted by stockpile size and range. The two darker shades of blue have arsenals with global capabilities, the lightest shade have only regional capabilities. Wikipedia also appears to be a no-strategic-ambiguity zone.

And once again before we get started, a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is not notional or theoretical but very real and is causing very real suffering, including displacing large numbers of Ukrainians as refugees, both within Ukraine and beyond its borders. If you want to help, consider donating to Ukrainian aid organizations like Razom for Ukraine or to the Ukrainian Red Cross. They may, unfortunately, require support for quite some time as the conflict continues.

The Cold War Context

Understanding the development of US nuclear doctrine and NATO requires understanding the western allies’ position after the end of WWII. In Britain, France and the United States, there was no political constituency, after the war was over, to remain at anything like full mobilization and so consequently the allies substantially demobilized following the war. By contrast, the USSR did not demobilize to anything like the same degree, leaving the USSR with substantial conventional military superiority in Eastern Europe (in part because, of course, Stalin and later Soviet leaders did not have to cater to public sentiment about defense spending). The USSR also ended the war having annexed several countries in whole or in part (including eastern Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, parts of Finland and bits of Romania) and creating non-democratic puppet governments over much of the rest of Eastern Europe. American fears that the USSR planned to attempt to further extend its control were effectively confirmed in 1948 by the Russian-backed coup in Czechoslovakia creating communist one-party rule there and by the June 1948 decision by Stalin to begin the Berlin Blockade in an effort to force the allies from Berlin as a prelude to bringing all of Germany, including the allied sectors which would become West Germany (that is the Federal Republic of Germany).

Via Wikipedia, a map of Europe during the Cold War with the Warsaw Pact (the USSR and subject states) in red.

It’s important, I think, for us to be clear-eyed here about what the USSR was during the Cold War – while the USSR made opportunistic use of anti-imperialist rhetoric against western powers (which were, it must be noted, also imperial powers), the Soviet Union was also very clearly an empire. Indeed, it was an empire of a very traditional kind, in which a core demographic (ethnic Russians were substantially over-represented in central leadership) led by an imperial elite (Communist party members) extracted resources, labor and manpower from a politically subordinated periphery (both the other Soviet Socialist Republics that composed the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries) for the benefit of the imperial elite and the core. While the USSR presented itself as notionally federal in nature, it was in fact extremely centralized and dominated by a relatively small elite.

Via Wikipedia, Soviet T-54 tanks in Budapest in 1956, crushing the Hungarian Uprising of that year and imposing the Stalinist government of Hungary by force.

So when Western planners planned based on fears that the highly militarized expansionist territorial empire openly committed to an expansionist ideology and actively trying to lever out opposing governments from central (not eastern) Europe might try to expand further, they weren’t simply imagining things. This is not to say everything they did in response was wise, moral or legal; much of it wasn’t. There is a certain sort of childish error which assumes that because the ‘West’ did some unsavory things during the Cold War, that means that the threat of the Soviet Union wasn’t real; we must put away such childish things. The fear had a very real basis.

Direct military action against the USSR with conventional forces was both politically unacceptable even before the USSR tested its first nuclear weapons – voters in Britain, France or the United States did not want another world war; two was quite enough – and also militarily impossible as Soviet forces in Europe substantially outnumbered their Western opponents. Soviet leaders, by contrast, were not nearly so constrained by public opinion (as shown by their strategic decision to limit demobilization, something the democracies simply couldn’t do).

This context – a west (soon to be NATO) that is working from the assumption that the USSR is expansionist (which it was) and that western forces would be weaker than Soviet forces in conventional warfare (which they were) – provides the foundation for how deterrence theory would develop.

The Absolute Weapon

In that context, the fact that it had been the United States which had been the first to successfully develop nuclear weapons (and use them in anger, a decision which remains hotly debated to this day) must have seemed like an act of divine providence, as it enabled the western allies to retain a form of military parity with the USSR (and thus deterrence) while still demobilizing. US airbases in Europe put much of the Soviet Union in range of American bombers which could carry nuclear weapons, which served to ‘balance’ the conventional disparity. It’s important to keep in mind also that nuclear weapons emerged in the context where ‘strategic’ urban bombing had been extensively normalized during the Second World War; the idea that the next major war would include the destruction of cities from the air wasn’t quite as shocking to them as it was to us – indeed, it was assumed. Consequently, planners in the US military went about planning how they would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield (and beyond it) should a war with a non-nuclear Soviet Union occur.

At the same time, US strategists (particularly associated with the RAND Corporation) were beginning to puzzle out the long term strategic implications of nuclear weapons. In 1946, Bernard Brodie published The Absolute Weapon which set out the basic outlines of deterrence theory; he did this, to be clear three years before the USSR successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 (far earlier than anyone expected because the USSR had spies in the Manhattan Project). Brodie is thus predicting what the strategic situation will be like when the USSR developed nuclear weapons; his predictions proved startlingly accurate, in the event.

Brodie’s argument proceeds as a series of propositions (paraphrased):

  1. The power of a nuclear bomb is such that any city can be destroyed by less than ten bombs.
  2. No adequate defense against the bomb exists and the possibilities of such are very unlikely.
  3. Nuclear weapons will motivate the development of newer, longer range and harder to stop delivery systems.
  4. Superiority in the air is not going to be enough to stop sufficient nuclear weapons getting through2
  5. Superiority in nuclear arms also cannot guarantee meaningful strategic superiority. It does not matter that you had more bombs if all of your cities are rubble.
  6. Within five to ten years (of 1946), other powers will have nuclear weapons. [Of course this happened in just three years.]

All of which, in the following years were shown to be true. Consequently, Brodie notes that while nuclear weapons are “the apotheosis of aggressive instruments,” any attacker who used them would fear retaliation with their enemy’s nuclear weapons which would in turn also be so destructive such that “no victory, even if guaranteed in advance – which it never is – would be worth the price.” Crucially, it is not the fact of retaliation, but the fear of it, which matters and “the threat of retaliation does not have to be 100 per cent certain; it is sufficient if there is a good chance of it, or if there is a belief that there is a good chance of it. The prediction is more important than the fact.” [emphasis mine]

This does not “make war impossible” by any means, but rather turns strategy towards focusing on making sure that nuclear weapons are not used, by making it clear to any potential aggressor that nuclear weapons would be used against them. And that leads to Brodie’s final, key conclusion:

Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.

To sum that up, because both the United States and its key enemies will have nuclear weapons and because their destructive power is effectively absolute (so high as to make any ‘victory’ meaningless) and because there is no effective defense against such weapons, consequently the only rational response is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and the only way to do that is to be able to credibly threaten to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of war (since if you cannot so retaliate, your opponent could use their nuclear weapons without fear).

That thinking actually took a while to take hold in actual American policy and instead during the 1940s and 1950s, the United States focused resources on bomber fleets with the assumption that they would match Soviet superiority in conventional arms in Europe with American nuclear superiority, striking military and industrial targets (“precision attacks with an area weapon,” a notion that is as preposterous as it feels) to immediately cripple the USSR in the event of war, or else aim to ‘win’ a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange.

The Missile Age

The advance of missile and rocket technology in the late 1950s started to change the strategic picture; the significant of Sputnik (launched in 1957) was always that if the USSR could orbit a small satellite around the Earth, they could do the same with a nuclear weapon. By 1959, both the USA and the USSR had mounted nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), fulfilling Brodie’s prophecy that nuclear weapons would accelerate the development of longer-range and harder to intercept platforms: now the platforms had effectively infinite range and were effectively impossible to intercept.

This also meant that a devastating nuclear ‘first strike’ could now be delivered before an opponent would know it was coming, or at least on extremely short notice. A nuclear power could no longer count on having enough warning to get its nuclear weapons off before the enemy’s nuclear strike had arrived. Bernard Brodie grappled with these problems in Strategy in the Missile Age (1959) but let’s focus on a different theorist, Albert Wohlstetter, also with the RAND Corporation, who wrote The Delicate Balance of Terror (1958) the year prior.

Wohlstetter argued that deterrence was not assured, but was in fact fragile: any development which allowed one party to break the other’s nuclear strike capability (e.g. the ability to deliver your strike so powerfully that the enemy’s retaliation was impossible) would encourage that power to strike in the window of vulnerability. Wohstetter, writing in the post-Sputnik shock, saw the likelihood that the USSR’s momentary advantage in missile technology would create such a moment of vulnerability for the United States.

Like Brodie, Wohlstetter concluded that the only way to avoid being the victim of a nuclear first strike (that having the enemy hit you with their nukes) was being able to credibly deliver a second strike. This is an important distinction that is often misunderstood; there is a tendency to read these theorists (Dr. Strangelove does this to a degree and influences public perception on this point) as planning for a ‘winnable’ nuclear war (and some did, just not these fellows here), but indeed the point is quite the opposite: they assume nuclear war is fundamentally unwinnable and to be avoided, but that the only way to avoid it successfully is through deterrence and deterrence can only be maintained if the second strike (that is, your retaliation after your opponent’s nuclear weapons have already gone off) can be assured. Consequently, planning for nuclear war is the only way to avoid nuclear war – a point we’ll come back to.

Wohlstetter identifies six hurdles that must be overcome in order to provide a durable, credible second strike system – and remember, it is the perception of the system, not its reality that matters (though reality may be the best way to create perception). Such systems need to be stable in peacetime (and Wohlstetter notes that stability is both in the sense of being able to work in the event after a period of peace, but also such that they do not cause unintended escalation; he thus warns against, for instance, just keeping lots of nuclear-armed bombers in the air all of the time), they must be able to survive the enemy’s initial nuclear strikes, it must be possible to decide to retaliate and communicate that to the units with the nuclear weapons, then they must be able to reach enemy territory, then they have to penetrate enemy defenses, and finally they have to be powerful enough to guarantee that whatever fraction do penetrate those defenses are powerful enough to inflict irrecoverable damage.

You can think of these hurdles as a series of filters. You start a conflict with a certain number of systems and then each hurdle filters some of them out. Some may not work in the event, some may be destroyed by the enemy attack, some may be out of communication, some may be intercepted by enemy defenses. You need enough at the end to do so much damage that it would never be worth it to sustain such damage.

This is the logic behind the otherwise preposterously large nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation (inherited from the USSR). In order to sustain your nuclear deterrent, you need more weapons than you would need in the event because you are planning for scenarios in which some large number of weapons are lost in the enemy’s first strike. At the same time, as you overbuild nuclear weapons to counter this, you both look more like you are planning a first strike and your opponent has to estimate that a larger portion of their nuclear arsenal may be destroyed in that (theoretical) first strike, which means they too need more missiles.

What I want to note about this logic is that it neatly explains why nuclear disarmament is so hard: nuclear weapons are, in a deterrence scenario, both necessary and useless. Necessary, because your nuclear arsenal is the only thing which can deter an enemy with nuclear weapons, but that very deterrence renders the weapons useless in the sense that you are trying to avoid any scenario in which you use them. If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful – if only one side has them, well, they are the “absolute” weapon, able to make up for essentially any deficiency in conventional strength – and once useful, they would be used. Humanity has never once developed a useful weapon they would not use in extremis; and war is the land of in extremis.

Thus the absurd-sounding conclusion to fairly solid chain of logic: to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, you have to build so many nuclear weapons that it is impossible for a nuclear-armed opponent to destroy them all in a first strike, ensuring your second-strike lands. You build extra missiles for the purpose of not having to fire them.

(I should note here that these concerns were not the only things driving the US and USSR’s buildup of nuclear weapons. Often politics and a lack of clear information contributed as well. In the 1960s, US fears of a ‘missile gap’ – which were unfounded and which many of the politicians pushing them knew were unfounded – were used to push for more investment in the US’s nuclear arsenal despite the United States already having at that time a stronger position in terms of nuclear weapons. In the 1970s and 1980s, the push for the development of precision guidance systems – partly driven by inter-agency rivalry in the USA and not designed to make a first strike possible – played a role in the massive Soviet nuclear buildup in that period; the USSR feared that precision systems might be designed for a ‘counter-force’ first strike (that is a first strike targeting Soviet nuclear weapons themselves) and so built up to try to have enough missiles to ensure survivable second strike capability. This buildup, driven by concerns beyond even deterrence did lead to absurdities: when the SIOP (‘Single Integrated Operational Plan’) for a nuclear war was assessed by General George Lee Butler in 1991, he declared it, “the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” Having more warheads than targets had lead to the assignment of absurd amounts of nuclear firepower on increasingly trivial targets.)

Via Wikipedia, the tremendous buildup of warheads in the USA and the USSR during the Cold War, driven in part by the need to have a secure second strike capability, and also by other factors (discussed above).

All of this theory eventually filtered into American policy making in the form of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (initially phrased as ‘assured destruction’ by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1964). The idea here was, as we have laid out, that US nuclear forces would be designed to withstand a first nuclear strike still able to launch a retaliatory second strike of such scale that the attacker would be utterly destroyed; by doing so it was hoped that one would avoid nuclear war in general. Because different kinds of systems would have different survivability capabilities, it also led to procurement focused on a nuclear ‘triad’ with nuclear systems split between land-based ICBMs in hardened silos, forward-deployed long-range bombers operating from bases in Europe and nuclear-armed missiles launched from submarines which could lurk off an enemy coast undetected. The idea here is that with a triad it would be impossible for an enemy to assure themselves that they could neutralize all of these systems, which assures the second strike, which assures the destruction, which deters the nuclear war you don’t want to have in the first place.

It is worth noting that while the United States and the USSR both developed such a nuclear triad, other nuclear powers have often seen this sort of secure, absolute second-strike capability as not being essential to create deterrence. The People’s Republic of China, for instance, has generally focused their resources on a fewer number of systems, confident that even with a smaller number of bombs, the risk of any of them striking an enemy city (typically an American city) would be enough to deter an enemy. As I’ve heard it phrased informally by one western observer, a strategy of, “one bomb and we’ll be sure to get it to L.A.” though of course that requires more than one bomb and one doubts the PRC phrases their doctrine so glibly (note that China is, in theory committed to developing a triad, they just haven’t bothered to actually really do so).

No First Use?

Now, you might ask at this point: why not defuse some of this tension with a “no first use” policy – openly declare that you won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons even in a non-nuclear conflict?

For the United States during the Cold War, the problem with declaring a ‘no first use’ policy was the worry that it would essentially serve as a ‘green light’ for conventional Soviet military action in Europe. Recall, after all, that the Soviet military was stronger in conventional forces in Europe during the Cold War and that episodes like the Berlin Blockade (and resultant Berlin Airlift) seemed to confirm Soviet interest in expanding their control over central Europe. At the same time, the Soviet use of military force to crush the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968) continued to reaffirm that the USSR had no intention of letting Central or Eastern Europe choose their own fates – this was an empire that ruled by dominate and intended to expand if it could.

The solution to blocking that expansion was NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Not because NATO collectively could defeat the USSR in a conventional war – the general assumption was that they probably couldn’t – but because NATO’s article 5 clause pledging mutual defense essentially meant that the nuclear powers of NATO (Britain, the United States and France) pledged to defend the territory of all NATO members3 with nuclear weapons. But just like deterrence, mutual defense alliances are based on the perception that all members will defend each other. Declaring that the United States wouldn’t use nuclear weapons first would essentially be telling the Germans, “we’ll fight for you, but we won’t use our most powerful weapons for you” in the event of a conventional war; it would be creating a giant unacceptable asterisk next to that mutual defense clause.

So the United States had to be committed to at least the possibility that it would respond to a conventional military assault on West Germany with nuclear retaliation (often envisaged as a ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons – that is, using smaller nuclear weapons against enemy military formations. That said, even in the 1950s, Bernard Brodie was already warning that restraining the escalation to general use of nuclear weapons once a tactical nuclear weapon was used would be practically impossible). But why then didn’t the USSR commit to ‘no first use’ either?

War Under the Umbrella

To look at that, we need to talk about why the logic of nuclear deterrence discussed above didn’t end war in general. After all, by Brodie’s logic, all nuclear powers would be in the same position: having to try to avoid war rather than win wars. But that isn’t quite so universally true.

There are a lot of ways to think about this question but the one I find myself leaning on the most is the framework set out by French strategist and general André Beaufre. He describes (in An Introduction to Strategy (1965)) what he terms ‘indirect strategy.’ In essence, this sort of strategy is the answer to how two nuclear powers can still compete with each other without triggering a nuclear war. It is, “the art of making the best use of the limited area of freedom of action left us by the deterrent effect of the existence of nuclear weapons.”

When I explain this to my students, I explain it in a spatial metaphor. Imagine two countries (let’s use the USA and the USSR for simplicity), both with nuclear weapons. They each have ‘red lines’ where they would use nuclear weapons. Neither country wants a nuclear exchange, so they have to avoid crossing their opponent’s red lines which would trigger that. But below that threshold, you have a window of ‘freedom of action’ – a sort of ‘space’ (really a set of options) – where either power can engage in all sorts of activity, including military activity (typically against third parties, as directly attacking a nuclear power is almost always over the red line). Beaufre’s term for the things you do inside the window of freedom of action to gain direct advantages is ‘interior maneuvers.’ For instance supplying weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin in order to degrade Soviet control of Afghanistan – that’s an interior maneuver. Intervening militarily to topple a government that is aligned with your competitor but who they have no formal obligation to protect – that’s also an interior maneuver.

But those two powers can also engage in activity designed to alter the window itself, to give themselves more freedom of action or their opponents less. Remember that deterrence is all about perception, not hard and fast rules. If you can convince the world (and your opponent) that a third-country regime isn’t worth defending (because it is evil or a pariah state, etc.), you can potentially do more or more extensive interior maneuvers against it without nearing that red line. Alternately – especially in a democracy – if you can convince your own people that a third-country regime is noble and just, you can generate the political will to harden your red line, thus closing down some of the freedom of action of your opponent. This sort of thing is what Beaufre terms the ‘exterior maneuver’ – efforts made not to manipulate the direct theater of competition, but the freedom of action each side has to act in that theater. A broad range of activities fit here, as Beaufre notes – appeals to international law, propaganda with moral and humanitarian bent, threatened indirect intervention, economic retaliation (sanctions), and of course ultimately the threat of direct intervention.

But why can’t you just threaten everything all of the time? Intentionally advance your red line maximally forward to deny your opponent any options at all? Because again, this is a system based on perception and no one will perceive that new red line as credible. The United States might defend Germany with nuclear weapons, but it most assuredly will not defend Egypt or Pakistan with nuclear weapons. After all, each state in this system knows all of the other states are trying to avoid a nuclear confrontation, indeed they are counting on it. Indeed, Beaufre argues that a nuclear power’s maneuvers, both interior and exterior, have to form a “logical thesis” to be effective – they have to be consistent with a line of policy and ideology which lends them credibility. Breaking from that thesis is what Beaufre terms a ‘false note’ and this has negative consequences, it both erodes the narrative that a power is advancing (reducing the effectiveness of its exterior maneuvers) but it also makes them seem less predictable – and again, because deterrence is about perception, predictability (or ‘credibility’) is a key resource. Note of course that each power has its own ‘logical thesis’ – an autocratic USSR can get away with things (like suppressing democratic movements in the countries it rules) that the democratic USA cannot and vice versa. The ‘false note’ isn’t about being humane or ‘good,’ it is about being predictable and consistent.

All of which means that nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers; indirect strategy exposes a gap in Brodie’s dictum that the only useful purpose a nuclear military can have is to avert wars.

One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ – including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.

Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli – accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast moving armored, mechanized and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.

Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).

But it is also why nuclear powers struggle to commit to a no first use position: doing so essentially shifts their own red line backwards. Instead, in indirect strategy, maintaining ‘ambiguity’ about where exactly the red line is serves to limit an opposing power’s freedom of action – they cannot risk miscalculating and crossing your red lines. This is true, by the way, with conventional deterrence too, and you can see it at play with, for instance, the intentionally ambiguous stance the United States takes in regards to the defense of Taiwan; that ‘zone of ambiguity’ has been sufficient to deter military action by China without actually committing the United States to act in the event (something it might or might not want to do, depending on the circumstances). Consequently, even with substantial conventional superiority, adopting a No First Use posture removes your ability to threaten, openly or implicitly, nuclear retaliation as part of your exterior maneuvers and most nuclear powers are unwilling to self-impose that sort of limitation.

Fear and Crisis

So far all of this has assumed that all of our actors are rational, that they have good (but not perfect) information and a lot of time to make careful, rational calculations about the decision to use nuclear weapons. But of course in the event, those decisions will actually be made by emotional humans, within the fog of war, in rushed, high tension circumstances.

We have already had several such close calls. The most well known is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When the United States discovered Soviet efforts to base nuclear missiles in Cuba (as a response to NATO missiles based in Turkey), President Kennedy responded with a blockade (and planned an invasion if a diplomatic solution proved impossible, which would have been disastrous in the event because, unbeknownst to Kennedy, Soviet forces in Cuba already had the warheads for their missiles; faced with death by invasion they may well have launched to defend themselves). On October 27, a Soviet submarine, B-59 passed under the blockade line and US Navy ships responded by dropping a series of small ‘signalling’ depth charges (practice charges that were very small, but of course in the moment does the target know they aren’t a real threat?). But B-59 was armed with nuclear torpedoes and had orders to use them if damaged by depth charges (and was, to boot, to deep to receive radio signals); the captain of the vessel assumed the war had already started and wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo but was stopped by the vice admiral who commanded the flotilla who was, happily, aboard. With the Soviet forces in Cuba already having their warheads ready, it is not hard to see how a Soviet submarine nuking an American fleet would lead fairly directly to escalation and a nuclear exchange, had just one Soviet submarine officer held a different opinion.

1983 also saw a pair of close-calls. In September of that year, the Soviet early-warning radar system produced a false alarm incorrectly showing the launch of initially one and then five missiles from US bases towards the USSR. The officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, figured such a small attack was unlikely and suspected a false alarm and so didn’t relay the information up the chain of command, potentially preventing a Soviet ‘retaliatory’ strike. Later that year, NATO exercises (essentially practice) provoked tension: to the Soviets, the exercises – Able Archer 83 – were basically indistinguishable from preparation for a first strike or other attack. Using ‘exercises’ this way (but for conventional, rather than nuclear, operations) had long been part of the Soviet playbook, after all, and remains part of the Russian playbook, as we saw in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine…last month.4 As the Able Archer exercise proceeded, Soviet leaders grew more and more alarmed (since the exercise was meant to simulate a ramp up in tensions leading to a nuclear war) and puts its nuclear forces on a hair-trigger alert – something the United States only really learned after the exercise had concluded.

The point of going through this is to note that the decisions about nuclear weapons in these contexts weren’t made in some emotionless, rational void but in charged, tense settings and with wildly imperfect information. Added to that, modern ICBMs also raise response time questions. Once launched, ICBMs can be at their target (pretty much anywhere) in about half an hour. That means a nuclear power worried that it might receive a nuclear first strike has to be on a hair-trigger – failure to launch before the enemy’s strike arrived would mean having much of your own nuclear arsenal potentially destroyed on the ground (a problem made much worse by modern precision guidance systems, but that’s a story for another time). Consequently, both the USSR and the USA adopted a ‘launch on warning’ posture where the full retaliation would be launched while enemy missiles were still in the air – so the decision has to be made within minutes.

The nature of uncertainty and confusion in these scenarios has meant that while occasionally there has been theorizing about the possibility of limited conventional war between nuclear powers directly (e.g. Herman Kahn’s escalation ladders in On Escalation (1965)), in practice nuclear powers have generally accepted that any direct military conflict between them poses unacceptable escalation risks – the chance for a miscalculation or a false alarm to produce catastrophe is simply too high. This risk is substantially increased by the tendency of doctrine in the modern system to prioritize striking command and control in an effort to disorient and confuse enemy forces. As Caitlin Talmadge notes, in many cases, efforts to strike conventional command and control would be indistinguishable from attempts to disable nuclear command and control, the latter of course being exactly what you would want to do if you intended to launch a nuclear first strike without suffering retaliation (because, recall, you’ve disabled the ability of the system to get over Wohlstetter’s third hurdle), presenting the opposing power with a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.

For my own part, I think this assumption – that any direct conflict between nuclear powers presents unacceptable escalation risks – is correct. History is littered with endless ‘small’ wars that did not stay small, but escalated beyond all original intentions and in some cases beyond the control of the initiating parties. As Clausewitz observes (drink!) escalation – what he terms the three reciprocal actions and their resultant extremes – escalatory pressure is an inherent part of war, a part of its fundamental nature (mitigated by other factors, but never removed). Assuming that escalation can be controlled this time is the epitaph written on the graves of countless kings and empires; the world needs not one more such tombstone with the added feature that it glows in the dark.

As a result, nuclear powers tend to give each other a wide berth. Now you might think this makes things more stable, and in a way it does: it reduces the chance for a catastrophic miscalculation leading to nuclear war. But it also means that nuclear powers are loath to intervene directly into other nuclear power’s ‘interior maneuvers’ (to use Beaufre’s term). The result is what is called the stability-instability paradox. The idea being that on the one hand, nuclear deterrence makes it less likely that two nuclear powers will wage a big war (or any war) with each other, but on the other hand, that nuclear deterrence means that both powers can be fairly confident their ‘small’ wars – proxy wars, foreign interventions into weaker, non-nuclear third countries, etc. – won’t be allowed to escalate into major, state-threatening wars because the other (nuclear) great powers won’t intervene.

Consequently, while big wars get less likely, the stability-instability paradox means that nuclear deterrence makes smaller conflicts more likely because great (nuclear) powers need no longer fear that any small conflict they start will draw in an opposing great (nuclear) power. Moreover, the possession of nuclear weapons essentially ‘backstops’ the possible failure scenarios for the great power: if by surprise its attack is defeated, that is likely to be the end of the matter, since any conventional assault on its homeland would trigger a nuclear response (on the non-nuclear minor power target). In short, nuclear weapons make wars by nuclear powers against non-nuclear powers ‘safe’ and by lowering their risk and cost, also makes them more likely.

Implications for Ukraine

What does all of this mean for Ukraine?

To begin with, it seems fairly clear that Putin’s War in Ukraine is a fairly clear example of the stability-instability paradox. In a pre-nuclear world, an intervention like this would have risked a direct, conventional response from NATO; at least at the moment it seems clear that the political will for such an intervention exists and is only really restrained by escalation concerns. Consequently, while in a pre-nuclear world invading Ukraine would pose the real risk of sparking an unwinnable conventional war with NATO, in a nuclear world, the Russian Federation can remain relatively sure that the war in Ukraine will remain ‘cabined’ to Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons and Ukraine does not means that in the event that Ukraine wins, their ability to exploit that victory would be extremely limited; they could not, for instance, push deeply into Russian territory without triggering a potentially nuclear Russian response. The invasion thus seemed ‘safe.’

More broadly, I think Beaufre’s thinking is actually quite applicable here. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a classic interior maneuver and the Russian plan of operations follows Beaufre’s thinking closely: rapid advances with airborne, armor and mechanized forces to try to produce a coup de main that would topple the government and present its replacement as a fait accompli before the rest of the world could react. Clearly that’s not the only thing motivating the Russian operational concept – there seems to have been quite a lot of self-delusion and wishful thinking about how welcoming the Ukrainians would be. That said, it seems fairly clear that the Russian operational plan was designed to try to produce that fait accompli in just a few days, but of course the problem with such lightning advances is that should something go wrong, it is likely to go very wrong, with units spread out and often deep into enemy territory with fewer forces holding rear areas. By contrast, for instance, the United States, far more confident in its exterior maneuvers creating the window of freedom of action to intervene, was able to adopt a fairly methodical approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Which goes to the next point: Russian exterior maneuvers prior to the invasion were also fairly obvious. The Russian Federation, while building up claimed it had no plans to invade and used ‘exercises’ as a pretense in an effort, one assumes, to maximize confusion in the event and thus make unified action by the rest of the world more difficult. At the same time, Russia attempted to orchestrate a number of false-flag attacks and other fake ‘provocations’ in order to justify their intervention. What is also fairly obvious is that those exterior maneuvers failed, in particular because they lacked any kind of credibility. The smokescreen only works if a meaningful proportion of people believe it. The strategy NATO intelligence agencies took, of ‘calling’ Russia’s shots in advance robbed the strategy of much of its power. Again, the exterior maneuver is all about perception: Russia needed to create a ‘grey-zone’ of acceptability for what it was doing and largely failed.

Instead, the Russian invasion served as a ‘false note’ in Beaufre’s terminology: uncovered by an effective exterior maneuver to generate the freedom of action, the invasion appeared to break with the ‘logical thesis’ of Russian policy. After all, Putin has long claimed to stand for state sovereignty (against notions like the ‘Responsibility to Protect‘). Instead, the Ukrainians, in whose interest he claimed to be invading, have taken up arms to fight him and his subsequent conduct – indiscriminate shelling of urban areas – undermined his supposed concern with people of ‘our common Motherland.’ Consequently, Putin’s invasion shattered assumptions of predictability – that Putin would do ‘bad things’ but only in smaller ways or in ‘acceptable’ regions of the world – to be clear, I am not pardoning this, but remember deterrence is about perception and unfortunately when it comes to public opinion in powerful countries, some people’s suffering triggers a more intense reaction than others. Is that just? No. Is it true? Yes. Strategy deals with the true, alas, and not with the just. In that context, Putin’s war ‘is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.’

The logic of deterrence – in particular the fact that it is both very high stakes and also based entirely on perceptionexplains why NATO and especially the United States took any direct military action off of the table quite loudly well before the conflict began. Saying that ‘all options are on the table’ – as the United States routinely does with Taiwan – would have been a fairly obvious bluff. When Putin called that obvious bluff, it would have damaged the credibility and thus the deterrence value of that same statement when applied to NATO members or Taiwan, weakening the effect of US deterrence, and thus potentially encouraging another state (like China) to try to call an American bluff elsewhere (essentially inviting a piecemeal maneuver). And of course the danger to that is two-fold: on the one hand if the United States and NATO folds, it calls into question even more of its security arrangements, but if it doesn’t fold, the result is likely to be a major war which in turn could (and frankly probably would) lead to an escalatory spiral ending in the use of nuclear weapons.

Remember: deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people.5 This is why no one is eager to gamble here. If you aren’t at least a little bit worried, you aren’t paying attention. And yet, as we’ve discussed, there is no way out of the deterrence trap: once one state has nuclear weapons, it can only be deterred from using them by other states having nuclear weapons.

At the same time basically everything that NATO is doing in Ukraine can be understood as having a dual purpose: both attempting to degrade Russian military capabilities (by sinking the Russian economy and arming Ukraine) but also as an exterior maneuver designed to alter the freedom of action of other players in the system. Unable to directly act against Russia due to the concerns of deterrence and escalation, NATO is seeking to close the window of freedom of action tight enough that wars of conquest sit outside of it. It is doing this by rallying world opinion to the imposition of massive economic costs, in an effort to signal that wars of conquest will have such tremendous negative repercussions (even if they don’t trigger direct intervention) as to never be worth the cost. The obvious audience for this flurry of exterior maneuvers is China; only time will tell if the performance was a success – though given that the scale of the response has shocked not only Russia but also NATO itself, one assumes it is likely to have surprised leaders in the People’s Republic of China as well.

At the same time, understanding deterrence explains why many of the proposed responses to Putin’s War in Ukraine impose unacceptable escalation risks. The logic of deterrence essentially demands avoiding direct confrontations between nuclear powers that could escalate uncontrollably (and escalation in war is always uncontrollable by either party): NATO still operates in the Beaufre framework where the window of freedom of action is finite. Russia putting its nuclear forces on alert very publicly can thus be seen as an effort to signal that the red line still very much exists and that NATO should think very hard before approaching it (which is also an exterior maneuver, but one designed to close down opposing freedom of action, rather than open your own).

Thus – despite journalists who apparently do not know their deterrence theory very well continue to insist on talking about it – the chances of something like a ‘no fly zone’ are effectively zero. Enforcing a no fly zone would require engaging Russian air targets and also suppressing Russian air defenses (by bombing them), including targets in Russia; the escalation risk is wildly too high.

Related concerns make using US air bases to transfer aircraft to the Ukraine difficult as well, as that draws dangerously close to NATO engaging in direct belligerent action (basing Ukrainian planes on their sovereign territory). There is a lot of frustration in some quarters that NATO and the United States won’t take more direct action, but again when you are gambling with the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people, you do not take risky bets.6 Of course part of the limitation here is that because the conflict is happening on NATO’s doorstep, any escalation risks triggering Article 5’s mutual defense provisions; consequently the non-nuclear NATO powers cannot really act independently of the effects to nuclear deterrence of the nuclear NATO powers (USA, France, Britain).

As a result, the nature of deterrence puts both hard limits (no direct intervention) and soft limits (avoid escalatory scenarios) on the ability of NATO to intervene to stop Putin’s War in Ukraine. NATO’s response has been to utilize indirect intervention methods that has been well established by previous usage (usage which might now be seen as decades of exterior maneuvers preparing for this moment) do not cross nuclear red lines: supplying arms (mostly small arms and light weapons) and economic sanctions, but doing so on a frankly extreme scale. There’s a clear logic to that strategy: safer to do a very low risk thing a lot than to do a very high risk thing a little. This is especially true in the midst of a ‘hot’ war where fear and confusion are high, increasing the odds of a miscalculation or error.

It is worth noting here though how Ukrainian interests here diverge from NATO interests. Ukraine is already in an effectively total war (from their perspective; Russia is not totally mobilized) with Russia. Russian forces are already targeting Ukrainian civilian centers with the apparent aim of inflicting civilian casualties and making the refugee situation worse. The Ukrainian state already faces the potential threat of extinction. As a result, Ukraine has very little to lose if the war escalates further (especially since from the Ukrainian perspective, nearly all of the escalatory potential is on NATO’s side; note this is not true from NATO’s perspective) and so it may be in Ukrainian interests to push for high-risk NATO strategies that it is in turn not in NATO’s interest – or the world’s interest – for NATO to adopt.

At the same time all of this means that observers, especially in NATO countries, need to calibrate their expectations for what the United States, NATO and the global community can do here, because the limits deterrence sets are real, if ambiguous (that is, we cannot know exactly where Putin’s nuclear red line is, but it does exist and crossing it would have disastrous consequences). Those limits are not arbitrary: they exist for very real reasons and while I do not always agree with the assessments of those limits made by the folks in charge, in the end, I’d rather they err on the side of caution.

Because if you aren’t worried, you haven’t been paying attention.

Next week, world events permitting, we’ll take a break from the modern and dive into the ‘runner up’ question in the last vote of the ACOUP Senate: ‘How did the Roman dictatorship work? And did it work at all?’

  1. Sorry Israelis, this blog is a no-strategic-ambiguity zone. You have them, we all know you have them.
  2. Brodie is writing before ICBMs, but he’s accurately perceiving that an iron-clad air defense just isn’t going to work. Germany, after all, couldn’t stop US strategic bombing where it took many thousands of bombs to level a city – who is going to stop an airfleet of the same size that maybe only needs 5 or 10 hits? ICBMs make this problem infinitely worse and their development is effectively predicted by the third point.
  3. During the Cold War, that was Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, Turkey, Spain and (West) Germany. The assumption in most planning was that the state being defended would almost certainly be West Germany.
  4. Reader from the future! I am writing this is March, 2022. In February of 2022, the Russian Federation used ‘exercises’ as an excuse to stage roughly 200,000 soldiers on the borders of Ukraine, falsely claiming they had no intent to invade, before launching a long-planned invasion on February 24.
  5. As you might imagine, there has been quite a bit of ink spilled over the years attempting to estimate the likely casualties of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR/Russia. In practice there are a lot of unknowns, particularly in terms of long term ecological effects. It’s not clear, for instance, if such an exchange would in fact cause a ‘nuclear winter’ and if so how severe it would be. Different studies have come up with different projections. What is certain is that the scale of the death and destruction would be intolerable, which is what matters.
  6. There are other major issues with the idea of transferring more complex weapon-systems – fixed-wing aircraft and larger ground-based SAM systems (like Patriot) – in terms of training and maintenance that don’t relate to deterrence. The Armed Forces of Ukraine for the most part are trained on legacy Soviet equipment which at this point few NATO states use. The systems that have been retained have, in many cases, been upgraded and heavily modernized. It takes a fair bit of training to use these larger, more complex systems, making these systems far less useful in the near-term.

540 thoughts on “Collections: Nuclear Deterrence 101

  1. Concerning the transfer of assets to Ukraine: Is it just one of those weird, possibly irrational things about deterrence that moving planes from a U.S. army base to Ukraine is considered different from moving planes from a Polish army base to Ukraine? Becuase I’ve heard newspeople talk about the unacceptable risk of transferring those Mig-29s that Poland offered to Germany and then to Ukraine, but left silent about the direct transfer. On one hand, Poland is a NATO country. On the other, they’re not a direct nuclear power themselves and don’t have quite the same threat profile as the U.S. does. Or is it just that the newspeople don’t understand deterrence at all and even transferring from Poland directly would be viewed as unacceptably escalatory?

    1. I think it’s just that it would be escalatory and no one wants to be the one making the move.

    2. This whole article is excellent, but I raise an eyebrow at “ an autocratic USSR can get away with things (like suppressing democratic movements in the countries it rules) *that the democratic USA cannot*”. To quote the godfather “now who is being naive Kay?”

      1. Yeah, that definitely merits a qualifier.

        On the other hand, notice that when the US moved to suppress a democratic movement during the Cold War, it generally did so in very specific ways. The typical method was to back a coup, using the CIA. This then created the convenient fiction that the army colonel who just shot his way into the chambers of the legislature and dissolved the elected government was entirely a native strongman who just happens to understand the dangers of communism properly, not a US proxy, no sirree,

        This is a bit different from the Soviet strategy, which was rather more overt. The Soviets would drive literal tanks into the capital of the ruled satellite nation and going “hey, loser, the Red Army is overthrowing your government now, whatcha gonna do?”

        So in a way, the US’s methods of acting against unfriendly democratic governments did take a shape specifically designed to give them plausible deniability among their own citizens and allow them to at least keep up the pretense of being consistently pro-democracy. A pretense the Soviets lost very, [i]very[/i] quickly after World War Two, because Stalin never tried to make that pretense credible.

      2. If the comparison is meant to be between members of NATO and members of the Warsaw Pact, it holds. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia to suppress uprisings; the United States never did anything comparable with West Germany or Denmark.

        1. I’m not sure they are neccessarily comparable in their scope, but I do note that the US *did* invade Grenada in pretty similar circumstances.

        2. It did not need to. US action was in places like Guatemala, Chile, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba (that one did not quite work), Grenada, Panama, Iran, the Congo….The USSR was primarily concerned to keep a bulwark of satellites between itself and NATO, to avoid a repeat of 1914, 1919 and 1941 (total deaths around 40 million).

    3. I believe the reason that direct transfer from poland -> Ukraine isnt being talked about is not to do with broader escalation differences and more that Poland itself has indicated it is uncertain with taking such a step [i]without concrete back-up from other NATO states[/i]. There’s always been some uncertainty to how much a NATO member could effectively “void” their Article 5 protection from limited retaliation by being a lone unsanctioned aggressor, and I believe russia has said that it will treat “basing ukranian air forces in your own territory” as a hostile action that could result in counterattacks.

    4. The difference is in who hands off the planes. If it’s Poland, then Poland might fear that the US might not stand behind Article 5 in the case of some sort of “limited” Russian retaliatory strike. No such fear can exist if the retaliatory target is a US base.

      The fact that the US balked at taking delivery suggests that Poland’s fears were not crazy, which could have negative effects on the credibility of Article 5. European rearmament helps mitigate that, by not putting all the onus on the US to enforce Article 5.

    5. I think the risks are similar but the US expressed disapproval but was unwilling to tell Poland what they could do with their own fighters. But I think they were deliberately unhelpful on the possibility of transferring F-16s to replace them to discourage Poland.

    6. Supplying arms to your war enemies is a well established CB, but both blocks can pretend not to notice where they go through because it suits them in other scenarios. It would be hard to maintain the same idea about big and noticeable items, and keep the red lines appeased. IMO.

  2. Continuing on the topic of British media and nuclear deterrence, there was an excellent BBC radio drama a few years ago called The Letter of Last Resort. (I would link it here but I don’t know if I’m allowed.

  3. There are a lot of parallels (particularly in the realm of fervent domestic support within France, the UK , and the US) between the current Ukrainian war and the Winter War of 1939. One of the interesting caveats is that the French actually moved forward on supplying combat aircraft to the Finns in 1939. The apparent red line in the present conflict of NATO supply of combat aircraft is a definite case of nuclear deterrence influencing the non-direct intervention pathways opposing powers may take in a local conflict. Also, I’m generally fascinated by the surface level similarities between the 1939 conflict and the war today, as I wrote a term paper on the Winter War in undergrad. I’m curious as to what other parallels you’ve seen so far, even just on the diplomatic front.

  4. Half an hour? Lucky. In the UK the concept was popularised as the “Four Minute Warning”.

    1. Probably because missiles from the Soviet Union to Britain would not have been ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) but rather IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles). The range is a lot shorter.

        1. Our host didn’t really get into submarine-launched nukes.

          The idea, of course, is/was that these subs are immune to a first-strike; so they don’t have to fire on warning. If your adversary has a first-strike-proof deterrent, that renders decapitating your enemy inadvisable. If you’re going to attack an enemy that has submearine nukes, you will at least try to leave some of them around to negotiate – a fleet of submarine commanders with no commander-in-chief seems a pretty frightening prospect.

  5. I have to admit, seeing the nuances and potential for mistakes (with *horrible* consequences) at play here makes me feel *very* glad the 2020 election went the way it did.

      1. Well, with Trump at the helm the US would have probably sabotaged Ukraine instead. Paradoxically the short term risks for the world could have been less.

        1. Maybe. Or maybe Trump would’ve done something totally bonkers instead. As a reminder, this is the man who ordered an airstrike on Iran then canceled it after it was airborne.
          Trump famously didn’t know what the nuclear triad was in 2016, so my confidence in him as a steely rational actor in nuclear standoffs is not high.

          1. Oh, absolutely. My point was more that being a pro-Russian shill was if anything one of the few things that were truly consistent about him. Let’s not forget how and why he got his FIRST impeachment.

          2. He was so fascinated by the thought of being the *President who used Nuclear Weapons* that he once asked in an official briefing if there was any way to use a nuke to abate a hurricane. He was, is, utterly craven with regard to Putin, but I agree that we could not trust him not to escalate.

        2. Ah yes, the pro-Russia shill with a higher Russian body count than any of the other 21st-century POTUSes.

          Seriously, this meme needs to die.

          1. 1. That body count was the result of deployments to Syria he inherited and then scaled down.

            2. His first impeachment was over holding up the delivery of Javelins to Ukraine, the very weapon famously inflicting a heavy toll on Russian armored forces.

          2. Dude was literally impeached over trying to blackmail current war hero president Zelenskyy by withholding military aid in exchange for dirt on his political opponents. Knowing full well that Russia was the one power that threatened Ukrainian security.

            Dude also commented on the recent invasion that “it’s genius” and that “we should do the same on our southern border”. Which I suppose you could construe as just the admiration of an authoritarian for his fellow authoritarian despite them being on opposite sides of the fence but I’m not sure if that’s the case. And if you want to see whose side mostly gets fed Russian propaganda, look at who is defending the invasion the most now. Q Anon and hard Trumpers are first in line. Again, none of this directly implicates Trump – he COULD in theory be supported without his awareness or consent simply as an agent of chaos and destabilisation – but come on. Either he’s a very special kind of useful idiot or he’s at least somewhat in it.

          3. Go back, read your first paragraph again, and ask why you think that means “Trump is a pro-Russian shill” rather than “Trump is a massive jerk who personalizes everything.”

            Seriously. Diehard pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers have this weird determination to think that he’s smarter and more devious than he actually is, and I don’t get why.

          4. Honestly I don’t think Trump directly works for Russia and has a strong loyalty to them as compared to how he’d relate to other powers, though he seems to actually like Putin, but I think Trump’s attitudes and policies are highly useful to Russia. So I doubt Putin had a guy call Trump and suggest he hold up the Javelin sales, but his willingness to hold them up for personal ends served Putin’s interest and makes it look pretty unlikely he’d intervene militarily or unleash massive sanctions, and his relationship with NATO undermined the alliance. He was mercurial and aggressive and if he did side with Ukraine he’d likely do something drastic but I doubt he’d have done anything.

            And I don’t put much stock in the body count under the circumstances. The US and Russia got involved on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict under Obama, so conflicts between American air power and Russian mercenaries were fairly predictable. Trump didn’t escalate the situation in Syria and reduced US presence there.

      1. He seems to be doing a pretty good job so far on the Ukraine situation, though his messaging could be better (for instance on high gas prices: “Nothing we can do.” Really, Joe?)

      2. Both are pretty weak leaders (Trump and Biden) but Biden seems to be okay to just be the mouthpiece of the system. Meanwhile Trump wanted to prove himself. I expect the defence apparatus of the US to be competent enough to strongly caution against escalation, with the Biden administration, and Biden himself, heeding their words. Their line seems pretty obvious.
        1) We will uphold NATO (marking the red line clearly, so Russia wont do anything to NATO countries)
        2) we will not intervene in Ukraine
        3) we will sanction Russia and make them submit via economic restrictions
        I dont expect Biden to go rogue and decide to make a powerplay that ends up escalating the conflict.

        1. I wouldn’t mistake caution for weakness, and I’d say Biden has a weak political position but is not a weak person. He’s made the calculated decision not to get directly involved in Ukraine because of nuclear deterrance, but he’s pursued his chosen course of sanctions and armament with great vigour and I’m shocked by how successful he was in getting other nations to support it.

          Overall I think Biden is one to work with political realties and not pursue laudable goals he can’t accomplish or take big, dangerous gambles. Sometimes that’s a mistake because the political reality isn’t quite real or the gamble would pay off, but it’s the attitude I prefer when it comes to nuclear weapons.

        2. Foreign policy seems to be the one place where Biden is willing and able to act as the leader of the system as opposed to a cog in it.

          If he were just a mouthpiece, we’d be in Afghanistan still. The established foreign policy and military interests in Washington would never have left. They would have stayed in that war until the heat death of the universe. That the establishment is behind him now because he is being belligerent (in the way it can be) isn’t him being a mouthpiece, but the FP establishment being shockingly bloodthirsty and supporting conflict and so lining up behind Biden’s lead in this.

      3. Anyone can f*** things up. But it takes a special talent to do it as regularly, thoroughly or creatively as Donald Trump.

  6. Israel is a different kind of nuclear power than the others. As far as I can tell, their posture is that they usually don’t have any nuclear weapons ready, they just have some parts sitting in very secure storage that could quickly become nuclear weapons if necessary.

    Israel’s likely enemies also do not currently have nukes. Nevertheless, they have waged war against Israel multiple times and no nukes were used. Hamas in particular seems to have more freedom of action for not having a nuclear threat, as their rocket strikes on urban centers would be unacceptably risky if nuclear deterrence were in effect.

    I believe Israel’s expressed red line is not about deterring the use of nuclear weapons, but about deterring their construction. If one of their likely enemies starts to build a nuke, they can have theirs ready first at which point they threaten a one-sided nuclear war exploiting a moment of vulnerability.

    Israel deserves the asterisk in the list of nuclear powers, but it’s not about ambiguity, it’s about the much larger escalation window.

    1. Now you’ve made me wonder at how nuclear deterrence theory works if and when non-state actors can get their hands on atomic weapons. It’s a chilling thought.

      1. If they’re in a specific known location, probably similarly and we’d better hope they know the theory. If there’s not an obvious point to target, it works very badly.

        Fortunately nukes are hard to actually produce; the principles are on the internet but making it work requires very high precision in manufacturing and design and the blueprints are kept secret. It’s also hard to get weapons grade uranium at the present time; reactor uranium is insufficent and processing facilities are hard to conceal from orbital observation

        1. My understanding was that the weapons grade raw materials is indeed the difficult part, and while the actual engineering bit is tricky, it was done in the 1940’s after all.

          More complicated to get a fusion bomb of course, and trickier still to construct a bomb in secret.

          1. The weapons grade uranium is the harder and more detectable part, but if you manage to steal some somehow making the nuke isn’t something you’re doing in your garage, and even for state actors it’s gonna take months to design and build.

          2. “Months” seems like a short time ?


            USA, 1964
            3 man-years worth from 3 brand new physicists working with 1964-public information
            success in figuring out an implosion design
            (more challenging, but requiring less enriched uranium)

            We now of course have the example of North Korea figuring it out, but even though they’re a state actor, I doubt that they have any good conditions for teaching and the work of physicists !

    2. The idea that a country that won a war in a matter of day or hours would put its nuclear capabilities in some sort of unassembled state… is ridiculous.

      There are a few bombs that are ready to go at all times.

      Israel can’t credibly threaten a one sided nuclear war as a way to dissuade other countries from developing their own.

      There are enough other nuclear powers in the world that there is no way Israel would get away with preemptively nuking Iran or nuking Syria or nuking anyone else.

      Israel’s nukes are there so that, even if XXX enemy tanks destroy the IDF and make it to Jerusalem it won’t matter because Israel would launch nukes if it finds itself losing a large conventional war.

      1. >The idea that a country that won a war in a
        >matter of day or hours would put its nuclear
        >capabilities in some sort of unassembled
        >state… is ridiculous. There are a few bombs
        >that are ready to go at all times.

        Any prudent decision-maker in the surrounding Muslim nations would say the same. Which is rather the point. It hardly even matters whether Israel keeps nuclear devices assembled at all times, or is “only” ready to assemble and launch them on 72 hours’ notice. The fact that they obviously could have nuclear bombs on standby for launch at any time is a very good deterrent against any non-nuclear power; the Bomb is that much of an absolute weapon.

        >Israel can’t credibly threaten a one sided nuclear
        >war as a way to dissuade other countries from
        >developing their own. There are enough other
        >nuclear powers in the world that there is no
        >way Israel would get away with preemptively
        >nuking Iran or nuking Syria or nuking anyone

        Are you sure? If you were ruler of a Muslim state in the Middle East, would you bet your life on it? Are you sure that if Iran started building nuclear weapons and Israel threatened to nuke them to make them stop, the US and the Russians wouldn’t simply stand aside and let it happen? Would they really nuke Jerusalem in retaliation for the destruction of Tehran, Damascus, or Cairo as part of an Israeli move to stop Iran, Syria, or Egypt from getting nuclear weapons? Because they have made no such guarantees- precisely because they don’t want to be committed to fighting a nuclear war over those populations.

        Again, this is about deterrence, and a threat that cannot be confidently dismissed except by an improbably reckless and arrogant individual.

        1. The deterrence to nuclear use against a non-nuclear state is the world reaction afterwards. The deterrence against a nuclear state is, of course, as the post outlines.

    3. The way you describe it, Israel is not a unique nuclear power. Comparables include Japan, Germany and Taiwan, which could likely assemble a working nuke (maybe thermonuclear!) in a few weeks, if politics so compelled. Short- and medium-range delivery vehicles are at hand. The secret nuclear sauce is not really a secret, and the technological level of these countries is way ahead of the US level in 1945, or even 1954. (I wonder about Ukraine.) South Africa may well have Israeli blueprints in their files.

      1. Taiwan and Ukraine are not immediate nuclear threats and I’m not sure about Germany and Japan. Reactors run on 3-5% U-235 and weapons take 90% U-235. Reactors produce plutonium but power generating designs don’t make it in high concentrations either. Taiwan and Ukraine don’t have enrichment or reprocessing facilities. Japan and Germany do, so they could produce it, but if they haven’t been doing so it’d take a lot of cycles to get some.

        1. This was actually the subject of a talk I attended in college; basically most uranium isn’t fissile and you need a certain concentration of the fissile isotope to sustain a reaction. To increase the percentage of fissile uranium, you bind it with fluorine and put it in a centrifuge to break it up by atomic mass somewhat. To raise the concentration further you put the enriched part* of the output back in the centrifuge and repeat as needed.

          Good news: you need a lot of centrifuges to make a meaningful amount. We’re talking thousands. These consume a lot of power, produce a lot of heat, and can explode if there’s a manufacturing error or it got infected by Stuxnet. They’re highly detectable by infrared satellites.

          Bad news: since enriching it further just takes repeating the process, there is no difference between civilian and military enrichment facilities, and the process gets faster in later stages. 20% is 90% of the way to 90%. Also, people are working on laser centrifuges that take much less power and generate much less heat.

          *The other part goes in your antitank shells.

          1. There’s a club of “almost nuclear” powers, Japan as mentioned, Germany. Even Sweden had a nuclear programme that was fairly advanced, and South Africa actually had a couple of weapons assembled.

          2. Yeah, anyone with an enrichment facility is a year or two from the uranium to build a bomb. The nuclear powers try to keep a lid on it by exporting low-enrichment uranium for reactors rather than having everyone who wants nuclear power make their own.

        2. Japanese reactors are primarily of the Breeder B variety, which they claim is more energy efficient. That style of reactor was developed at the US Plutonium production facility in Hanford, WA. The Japanese, at least, have enough fissibile material for many bombs on short notice.


      > In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab forces were overwhelming Israeli forces and Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized a nuclear alert and ordered 13 atomic bombs be readied for use by missiles and aircraft. The Israeli Ambassador warned President Nixon of “very serious conclusions” if the United States did not airlift supplies. Nixon complied. This is seen by some commentators on the subject as the first threat of the use of the Samson Option.

      > Rosenbaum writes in his 2012 book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III that, in his opinion, in the “aftermath of a second Holocaust”, Israel could “bring down the pillars of the world (attack Moscow and European capitals for instance)” as well as the “holy places of Islam.

    5. Israel is deliberately vague about its nuclear capabilities and is popularly assumed to have some on standby.

      Israel’s likely enemies also do not currently have nukes. Nevertheless, they have waged war against Israel multiple times and no nukes were used. Hamas in particular seems to have more freedom of action for not having a nuclear threat, as their rocket strikes on urban centers would be unacceptably risky if nuclear deterrence were in effect.

      There’s a concern that using nukes will lead to the nuclear powers becoming involved, and even if they don’t it’s risking a lot of international trouble. So that’s going to make states reluctant to fire them off and Israel’s red line is probably losing a war. Hamas’s rocket attacks aren’t an existential threat and Israel can drive tanks over to the launch sites basically at will, so they’re not a good use case.

    6. Israel’s red line is much more expansive than just nuclear weapons construction/use by opposing powers. As the 1973 example illustrates, they are also intended to defend against conventional threats to the state’s existence. i.e. they would absolutely have been used to keep Egyptian tanks from rolling through Ashdod or Rishon.

      This component of deterrence is less relevant now than when the weapons were developed in the ’60s and ’70s – we have a peace treaty with Egypt (including a mostly-demilitarized Sinai), and since 2011 Syria has ceased to exist as a conventional military threat. But the US also just went through a few decades when the threats its nuclear arsenal was meant to deter just weren’t there. Doesn’t change the reasoning behind the arsenal’s existence.

  7. This is probably the best single lesson on nuclear theory that I’ve ever seen. Very well done.

    1. Yes, this is another delightful essay. I find it very reassuring that it aligns completely with my strictly amateur understanding of the issue (always nice to learn that you actually do know what you think you know).

  8. This is an excellent explainer. It jives very well with what I learned in my Nuclear Arms Control class in college, lo these twenty-five years ago. (Where we watched Dr. Strangelove in class one day, because while it’s played for laughs there are some valuable strategic points to be learned from it.)

  9. I understand deterrence theory and the limits it imposes on direct action. That being said, I believe that the deterrence policy should be extended to include overt acts of unambiguous genocide against other countries, even if we don’t have a treaty obligation with them.

    1. That’s a case you need to make to regular voters in the nuclear power democracies, but it’s going to be a tough sell – most Americans, Brits and French folks don’t want to intervene conventionally to stop genocides in many places, much less escalate to nuclear use.

      Also, using nuclear weapons to stop genocide is a lot like trying to put out a fire in your house by bulldozing it. You might ‘succeed’ but you’d end up destroying the thing you wanted to protect.

    2. That would be an obvious bluff – it’s a strong consensus that countries will *not* risk major casualties to their own people just to stop an overseas genocide. I mean, every single genocide of the 20th century is a relevant example, Holocaust included; countries have intervened when other major factors motivated them (and used a genocide as a bonus rallying cause) and refused to intervene when it was just a genocide and intervention required serious risk of their own.

      Perhaps from a moral perspective the public perception should require risking your people to prevent genocides, but at the moment it definitely does not, and changing that perception would be a very, very large ‘exterior maneuver’ in Beuffre’s terms as described by Brett above, one that would take lots of effort and time (decades?) to establish. Before that maneuver is accomplished, declaring that as your red line would a poor bluff, one that would not get believed and would just weaken your credibility for every other “red line” assertion.

  10. As always, a great read.

    Nuclear deterrence is usually mentioned as a major application of game theory, so I was a bit surprised that Thomas Schelling and game theory haven’t come up in the discussion. Does tthis mean that game theory was not actually used much to think about nuclear deterrence?

    Typo: I think there is a “under Soviet control” missing after “including the allied sectors which would become West Germany (that is the Federal Republic of Germany)”

  11. “NATO’s article 5 clause pledging mutual defense essentially meant that the nuclear powers of NATO (Britain, the United States and France) pledged to defend the territory of all NATO members with nuclear weapons”
    Note that this is, as far as I know, only true for territory within Europe and North America. The USA, understandably, did not want to pledge defending European colonial empires

    1. Hence why Britain was on its own in the Falklands. The only time Article 5 has ever been activated was after 9/11.

      1. At the time the treaties were drafted, the case in mind was French Algeria – regardless of the French legal fiction that Algeria was just as integral a part of the Republic as Brittany or Paris, the United States did not want to get dragged into that mess.

  12. Perimeter is not nearly the same as the Doomsday Device from Kubrick: Perimeter is very similar to the Looking Glass/TACAMO/ERCS systems that the US operated for three decades continuously- military officers who are delegated the ability to initiate nuclear war under certain circumstances, and have the comms systems to bypass the chains of commands and speak directly to the launch units. Because of cultural differences, instead of a airplane with a flag officer, the Soviets/Russians use an underground bunker with a much lower ranking officer, but it is not a fully automated system- that officer, a human being, still has to actually push a button to end the world, it isn’t a computer that does that.

  13. If we accept the declaration by the US that it knew about the plans for invasion in advance, then this implies that the US:

    1) knew in advance that the Russians considered NATO expansion to Ukraine to be a national security red line
    2) knew that the Russians were not bluffing
    3) were presented with a diplomatic option that would avoid war (namely, a firm commitment to halt NATO expansion)
    4) dismissed any serious negotiation with Russia over its concerns
    5) knew full well that Ukraine would end up suffering for this refusal to negotiate, but did it anyway
    6) presumably decided in advance that NATO would not enter the war on Ukraine’s side

    This suggests that the US is primarily interested in sparking and prolonging a war in Ukraine as a proxy conflict to injure Russia. It seems that the lives of the poor Ukrainians themselves didn’t figure anywhere into the US strategic calculations.

    1. This logic only applies if you assume *a priori* that Ukraine is not a sovereign state that may make its own choices, and that the United States dictates NATO policy. Russia may believe both, but I don’t accept either. Nor, for that matter, has the U.S. accepted the former or declared the latter as a matters of public policy. However, NATO also didn’t bring Ukraine in as a member, although this may occur in the future given current events.

      However, even given its own logic, this doesn’t make sense. NATO, by design, is a defensive alliance only. It only matters in a scenario where Russia is the aggressor. Of course, the reason why a brutal Russian tyrant might want to invade Ukraine is obvious, but there’s no sanity to declaring that this is somehow American’s fault for *not giving them the thumbs-up beforehand*.

    2. You assume that Wahrén the russians say is true, and that it is the real reason, not a pretext.

      1. Should have been “what the Russians say”. Autocorrect when writing whit a device set an another language then English creates weird results”

    3. Your logic fails if the reason for the war wasn’t NATO, or the fear of NATO expansion. NATO has never accepted a member state without internationally accepted borders. So, either Russia really believed that NATO was going to abandon that history OR the war didn’t have anything to do with NATO.

      Given the long history of statements by Putin saying that Ukraine isn’t a real state, the fact it was a general invasion, thinkers in and around United Russia expressing greater Russia ideology relating to the Russophone world/near abroad, Putin’s statement on the first day of invasion regarding ‘denazification’/validity of the Ukrainian State visa via the Soviet Union and that the triggering incitement to the 2014 invasion wasn’t an application to the EU but the popular rejection of Russian centered and controlled economic union:

      It does not seem to me that cause of the conflict was NATO action but rather Ukrainian popular will not to be in a Russian Empire/Putin and United Russia’s desire to enforce an imperial system on Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’.

    4. Note to random anonymous commenters: if I don’t respond to you, it is most likely because you didn’t bring any new arguments to the table which I haven’t already addressed in a previous comment (see earlier blog posts). I won’t waste my time repeating them to each person on the internet.

      1. That’s rich since your entire previous post was nothing but a rehash of your earlier Putin apologetics.

      2. Note to anonymous Russian supporter trying to explain why it is absolutely everybody else’s fault why Russia is bombing and shelling another country: if I don’t respond to you, it’s because there’s an old proverb “the ignorant can be enlightened, stupidity is incurable” and your repeated posts are proving it.

        Apologies to Bret for this uncharitable interpretation, I’m letting obvious trolling affect me. Feel free to delete this post.

    5. Point 3 leaves out an important detail, specifically that Russia demanded that not only would NATO perpetually bar countries such as Ukraine or Georgia from entering NATO, but that NATO troops and weapons be removed from countries that joined NATO after 1997. Doing that would cause a massive deterioration in relations between the US and countries like Poland and the Baltic states, and would fatally undermine NATO.

      Putin’s demands to NATO were very plainly and obviously to ensure that Russia could in the future launch invasions of other neighbouring countries the way it did with Georgia in 2008 and with Ukraine in the present. NATO countries have done a great many questionable things, but pinning the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the US and NATO is, if you’ll pardon my bluntness here, a laughably absurd assertion to make.

      1. The initial Russian demand is a classical diplomatic tactic known as the “opening bid”. You might have seen this move before if, for instance, you’ve ever tried to buy a car.

        It also serves as an important face-saving device. The Russians are well aware that it would much be more difficult politically for Biden to give the concessions they want most if they demanded only those upfront. To Biden’s domestic audience, this would look like Russia made an ultimatum and then Biden simply folded like a deck of cards. American leaders have in the past refused to make strategically sensible decisions just to protect themselves from domestic political harm.

        Thus, issuing larger initial demands actually makes it EASIER for the US to come to the table and engage in serious negotiations over the most important issues. If Biden actually did this and agreed to halt NATO, then the result looks more like a compromise than a one-sided surrender. This is more politically palatable for an American president.

        But the US decided to reject out of hand any serious negotiation. And, according to Biden, he knew the Russians were deadly serious about this. So in effect he chose not to bloodlessly prevent the outcome which Ukraine is now experiencing.

        1. >The initial Russian demand is a classical
          >diplomatic tactic known as the “opening bid”.
          >You might have seen this move before if,
          >for instance, you’ve ever tried to buy a car.

          This opening bid (“withdraw all NATO forces from Poland et al.”) was so ridiculously high that even opening negotiations based on it

          Imagine that a woman goes to buy a car. The car salesman’s opening offer is “sell your husband into slavery for this car.” The woman would not sit down and begin negotiations, she would leave. Because even sitting down at the table to negotiate with the salesman would be a terrible insult to one’s spouse. It signals her willingness to negotiate selling her husband into slavery, which is totally unacceptable to the husband!

          If a car salesman made such an outrageous opening bid, we could only conclude that they never really intended to sell the car after all. The action could only be explained as part of some other strategy, one based on the assumption that the ‘negotiations’ would collapse.

          By extension, we can only conclude that when he made such an outrageous opening bid, Putin knew full well that NATO could not even sit down at the table to discuss such terms without undermining any ability to give security guarantees to nations like Poland and Romania. And that therefore they would not do so.

          Which makes perfect sense, if Putin’s plan was to invade Ukraine no matter what NATO did or did not do. And if Putin’s plan was just to create enough of a pretense that he was ‘trying’ to negotiate. Enough that people like you would try to defend his actions when the negotiations inevitably didn’t happen.

          >Thus, issuing larger initial demands actually
          >makes it EASIER for the US to come to the
          >table and engage in serious negotiations
          >over the most important issues.

          Only if you want the US to openly declare that its obligation to defend other NATO member is on the table and theoretically subject to negotiation.

          The only person who benefits from such a declaration on the US’s part if Vladimir Putin.

          >But the US decided to reject out of hand
          >any serious negotiation. And, according
          >to Biden, he knew the Russians were
          >deadly serious about this. So in effect he
          >chose not to bloodlessly prevent the outcome
          >which Ukraine is now experiencing.


          Biden knew the Russians were deadly serious. He knew the Russian demands could not possibly be serious. Therefore, he knew the Russian demands were ‘theater,’ that they were only in place to create the fiction that the Russians had attempted diplomacy, even as Russia mobilized and prepared for invasion- which they started to do over a month before invading.

          His only choices were to allow Ukraine to be invaded while maintaining NATO’s forward posture, or to allow Ukraine to be invaded after retreating from several NATO member states right on the eve of war.

        2. On the other hand, if my opening bid for that used car is *one million dollars*, no one faults you for walking straight out the door and finding another dealership.

        3. The problem here is that Putin never offered anything serious, and short of nuclear escalation (which for a variety of reasons did not seem credible) simply did not have the muscle to force his demands. If his opening bid was a meant to be just that, then after the immediate dismissal the logical thing would be to *lower the bid*. He did not.

          And the problem is that there was really nothing Putin could offer. War against all of NATO was not a credible threat for the reasons outlined (and even less so after the poor performance in Ukraine) So Putin’s demands for getting a free hand in Ukraine would be… Getting a free hand in Ukraine?

        4. Simon_Jester has already explained why your understanding of negotiations is critically flawed, but I’d like to underline how badly you misunderstand the concept of ‘opening bids’. An opening bid must be within the realms of the acceptable to signal interest in working though the process. If it is not then the other side loses just by engaging.

          If Putin thought that demanding the end of NATO was an acceptable part of an opening bid then he is a terrible negotiator and we should fear for his sanity.

    6. “3) were presented with a diplomatic option that would avoid war (namely, a firm commitment to halt NATO expansion)”

      And also the military evacuation of the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and every other country that joined after 1999. That’s insane and ludicrous, and is sufficient to prove that this “diplomatic option” was never serious.

      “This suggests that the US is primarily interested in sparking and prolonging a war in Ukraine as a proxy conflict to injure Russia. It seems that the lives of the poor Ukrainians themselves didn’t figure anywhere into the US strategic calculations.”

      Sure. It probably is. What of it? Since the US didn’t actually spark a war in Ukraine – that was completely Putin’s fault alone – then why should we think badly of the US? Did it pay 500 ducats to buy the “Defender of the Faith” of Liberal Democracy title, and now loses diplomatic trust for refusing a Call to Arms, or something?

    7. Point of fact: Russia did not (twice) attack Ukraine for trying to join NATO. It attacked (twice) Ukraine for trying to join the EU.

      Ukraine has not made meaningful progress in joining NATO. Yanukovych did not scuttle efforts to join NATO. He scuttled efforts to joint he EU.

      The Ukrainians then elected successive governments openly committed to joining the EU – again, not nearly so committed to joining NATO.

      The United States does not have any say in what countries want to join the EU, or can join the EU.

      1. Also too… Ukraine very clearly has pressing need to join NATO?

        Like I keep seeing people squawk “NATO NATO NATO!” and it’s like… yes, NATO. The alliance that exists to stop Russia from kicking around countries that cannot resist said kicking. Ukraine keeps… getting kicked around by Russia. This suggests it has a legitimate interest in joining NATO, and that this legitimate interest does not threaten Russia in any way that justifies Russia’s responses, as Russia is the one doing the kicking, not the one being kicked.

        1. > The alliance that exists to stop Russia from kicking around countries that cannot resist said kicking.

          NATO exists for the mutual defense of US + a set of nations in Europe that have decided it’s in their mutual interest. It’s not a generic anti-Russian-bullying club – that’s actually Putin’s framing, in fact.

      2. Point of fact: Russia’s actions in Ukraine are about countering attempts to move Ukraine into a hostile sphere of influence.

        You say “The Ukrainians then elected successive governments openly committed to joining the EU…” …without mentioning the fact that the US backed protestors in 2014 who overthrew the lawfully-elected Yanukovych government.

        So clearly the US did have a say in what was going on. Moreover, the US goal was laid out in a leaked phone call between Nuland and Pyatt: to establish a friendly pro-West government. This IS meaningful progress in joining NATO.

        And THIS is what moved Russia to act. So stop trying to recast it as being a “benign EU thing” when you know the core issue is deeper.

        1. Let’s assume Ukraine did join NATO, so NATO has member nations along much of Russia’s western frontier. Probably they deploy maybe twenty thousand troops tops as a tripwire and zero nukes, in accord with their standard practice.

          So with their mighty division of troops and Ukraine’s army, they do… what exactly? Invade a nuclear power that may have proven to have poor offensive logistics and morale but would be much stronger on both those fronts defensively? That doesn’t seem really likely, and troops in Ukraine don’t really change that. NATO expansion limits Putin’s ability to employ military force against nearby countries but it doesn’t change NATO’s inability to use military force against Russia.

        2. Even if all of this was true, it would justify nothing about the Russian invasion.

          Russia can reasonably be upset at nations on its periphery becoming hostile to them. (Whether or not Russia’s actions are deserving of hostility is of course separate from that.) But “oh noes, our neighbors are hostile” is not a justification for “lets conquer them!”

        3. “This IS meaningful progress in joining NATO.”

          No it is not. There is a whole list of “western-friendly” governmetns that are not NATO members. There is a whole list of EU members who are not NATO members.

        4. It’s *ridiculous* to point to potential USA pressure and propaganda, when on the other hand you have the whole war starting from a hundred students being massacred by pro-Russian special forces’ snipers, and Russia invading Crimea !

      3. I don’t buy that EU on its own is a serious threat to Russia. It’s only a threat under the conditions of too much USA tutelage.

        Of course you can hardly fault Poland and the Baltic countries for wanting to join NATO. And Russia’s demands that they leave it are ridddicculous !

        But it would really be better if in the long term NATO was replaced by a NATO-like alliance keeping USA and England out of continental Europe –
        (because with allies like these… (even though the Russians are trying their worst, for instance the two Iraq wars and embargo are probably *still* going to be worse than Ukraine !))
        – Wales and England willingly getting out of the EU is a great opportunity here.

        Of course this is going to take decades, and will require something like Germany, Poland and Ukraine to get nuclear deterrence capabilities too (back, in the case of Ukraine).

        Eventually, waaay down the line, Russia might join a EU freed from USA’s tutelage too – though this is growing to be decades farther out by the day, first with the re-glorification of Stalin, now with Putin’s worsening war crimes in Ukraine…

        1. Ah, it’s all the fault of those outside agitators! Our people were perfectly content until they whipped up trouble!

        2. > Eventually, waaay down the line, Russia might join a EU freed from USA’s tutelage too

          I believe the prospect of Russia joining the EU is pretty far-fetched. As an economic union, it’s important that member states are transparent and not corrupt; widespread corruption, in particular, would poison the economy.

          The EU embraced several corrupt countries in the last wave of additions. As it has turned out, they were not just economically toxic, but politically toxic too. I think the EU would expect to see transparency, and levels of corruption well below those of e.g. Romania and Hungary, for a decade or two, before agreeing to Russia joining.

          1. Yes, waaaaaay down the line. My main point is that Russia (*if* it learns to behave – and what happens to Putin and how they make amends for Ukraine is going to be pretty crucial here), makes more sense as a closer EU ally than a USA on the other side of an ocean… especially when USA’s power, global ambitions, and the willingness to play “World Cop” is likely to wane in this century.

        3. > But it would really be better if in the long term NATO was replaced by a NATO-like alliance keeping USA and England out of continental Europe

          As someone living in Poland, NOPE.

          If Trump won the last election, he would likely take US out of NATO. He was going to do that according to John Bolton. This explains why Putin didn’t interfere with Trump’s actions, and didn’t attack Ukraine during his presidency.

          The next steps would be Baltic states(Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) because “No one goes to a nuclear war over a tactical nuke in a tiny country”(Look up “de-escalation strikes” in Russian military doctrine. Then there would be Russian troops and missile batteries at Polish borders, including the Kaliningrad Exclave and Belarus. US likely wouldn’t want to commit much troops and attention to defending Poland, so it could instead go for some kind of arrangement with Russia so it could focus on China.

          The end result would be either Poland sold into Russian sphere of influence, or a hot war in Poland, and Western Europe expressing concern.

          1. I don’t understand why in that scenario Poland (at least, if not the other “EU-NATO” countries) would not immediately nuke Russia ?

            The USA getting cold feet about committing to this to defend a country so far away would be one of the main reasons for this change.

          2. Well, at present only the US, France and Britain actually have nukes. If the US and Britain withdraw that’s liable to change, of course.

            Still, I don’t see why it’s a positive to lose the most powerful military on Earth and one of the top ten, even if they can’t be entirely relied upon. If there’s doubts about their commitment the European countries can build up their own militaries without kicking the US out.

          3. @Peak Singularity

            Is this a trick question? Nuke with what? Poland doesn’t have nukes. We’re considering a scenario where UK is out of NATO as well, so that leaves… France. The country with a romantic vision of Russia. Remember, Macron kept talking to Putin until the very last days before the invasion, thinking he knows Russia better than its neighbors. He just made himself look like a ‘useful idiot’. Germany really dragged its feet with military aid or sanctions, and it also opposes letting Poland build nuclear power plants. And don’t forget the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact v2, also known as the Merkel-Putin Pipeline or Nord Stream 2.

            I’ll be the first to admit Poland conducts stupid diplomacy, but at this point you can no longer call Poland rusophobic.

          4. Ah, you seem to have missed how I mentioned the pre-requisite of Poland, Ukraine, maybe Germany becoming nuclear nations. And also how I therefore was necessarily talking about a future several decades away, with Putin gone ?

            Closer to our current issues, whatever mistakes Macron and Merkel might have made, they will hopefully recognize them as such now ? Calling Nord Stream 2 as R-M Pact v2 seems a bit unfair, as while I guess you could compare Anschluss to Crimean invasion, Germany has no plans to invade Ukraine (unlike USSR did with Poland). And I sure hope that Nord Stream 2 is now dead and buried, and any buying of Russian methane across the EU is going to go way down, until at least Putin is gone ?

        4. I am not an American, but I am a Westerner who believes in the West.

          The United States is critically flawed, but for all its many weaknesses the West is significantly stronger with it in our alliance. I’d much rather see a world where the West becomes a federal state, one which includes Japan, South Korea, the United States, the EU, Australia, etc, then one where Europe fights alone.

          This won’t happen for many decades and centuries. It will not happen in my lifetime, or the lifetime of my great grandchildren. But I do hope it one day happens.

          1. I see the appeal. But the USA would need to severely tone down their imperialism too before that happens. And something as tied as a “federal state” is probably a pipe dream too, considering that even for the much more ethnically closer EU this doesn’t seem to be workable or even desirable. Forgetting even the language barriers (could maaaybe be dealt with with a common English-based “globish” – which would be bad in itself), can you *imagine* the quite xenophobic Japanese agreeing to something close to this ? Forget about trying to make any common laws across cultures as different !

            No, and considering the power disbalance, this would just end up with a USA-centered empire, which is even more likely considering their systemic racism and ideology of multiculturalism. Basically the current situation, but even worse – at least currently the USA has some plausible deniability in deflecting accusations of imperialism, since Native American territories are a negligible quantity (sorry), other NATO countries can be mostly considered to be independent, and the USA is now gone from Afghanistan.

          2. I am a huge fan of multiculturalism and Integrationalism. Indeed, I see it as the part of the West most worth defending. If you do not think so, then we have little to discuss. Your West is not my West, and I believe that we must beat down the forces of ethnocentrism and nationalism. This might take centuries, but I hope it is one day done.

            I also look forward to the day when we all speak a common language. I speak several, but I cannot comprehend why some people are so ideologically attached to there not being a global tongue. Languages are for communication. It will be a wonderful thing when we all can communicate with each other. I don’t care if that global language is English, French, Chinese, or bloody Esperanto.

            I am an unironic proponent of an eventual One World Government. We are not ready for it yet, but I would like it to one day come about.

          3. I’m not sure what you mean by “integrationalism”. These issues are of course ones where the West is particularly split on. Keeping the forces of nationalism and ethnocentrism in check is necessary, but you want to be careful about putting too much pressure onto them, since they’re also what makes nation-states work (those aren’t natural constructs !)

            Other entities that find worthwhile trying to sabotage nations are the transnational corporations, and here we get into even higher stakes, since those entities don’t have any mechanisms built in to keep them reasonably sized or even to keep them from destroying the biosphere.

            A global language is fine, that’s what commercial languages tend to become anyway, the issue is an official *imperial* language. (Though, has one ever existed without being the other ?)
            For instance Russian slowly smothering other languages in the USSR.
            (American is kind of a problem currently, but I’d say mostly because of Hollywood currently lacking competitors.)

            I’m not sure what would *be* a One World Government, and how it would be different from the current UN. Or would “your West” just conquer the whole world ? What would the right of peoples to self-determination become in such a world, left without an exit option in the form of independent nations ? Where would be the freedom to experiment with new values, radically different from the values of the Government ? How would this NOT repeat the issues that we had in the colonial era ?

            In what is probably *the* most problematic current example, consider the ever more popular strain of political Islam. The principle of Sharia is fundamentally incompatible with the principle of the separation of “church” and state. Now maybe eventually Islam will get completely liberalized, just like it happened with Christianity (though even here, not completely), and *I* would consider this a good thing… but I’m kind of reticent to try to impose this on everyone worldwide.

            (Again, smells too much of our colonial past, what gives us the right to impose our values on others ? It’s not like we can even pretend to have the moral high ground any more, is there even a Western nation left that had a non-token military and that didn’t abuse it since the USSR collapsed ?)

        5. This thread is now getting comically convoluted, but I found some important new information.

          > Closer to our current issues, whatever mistakes Macron and Merkel might have made, they will hopefully recognize them as such now ?

          According to Disclose investigative journalists, after 2015 France gave 76 licenses for export of military hardware to Russia. This was one year after Crimea, and they were breaking the embargo. They included night vision and navigation systems installed in tanks, planes and helicopters. They were 2 companies: Thales and Safran, and French government has a majority share in both.

          There’s a photo from 11 March 2022, Mariupol, showing a T-72 tank which has an infrared system developed by Thales.

          If you want to dig into this, one of the authors of the report is Ariane Lavrilleux.

          1. Thank you for the information !


            Ugh, sadly, I’m not even shocked by this – this hypocrisy in using an embargo loophole to sell targeting systems is small beans compared to how the West kept selling chemical weapons to Iraq for years, even after the official condemnation of their use by US diplomats in 1984 :
            Three weeks later Donald Rumsfeld was reassuring Iraqis (in order to sell a pipeline project) that this was just political posturing – the very same day that the UN was confirming extensive use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein !
            4 years later, when Saddam did the chemical genocide of Kurds, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell opposed sanctions.
            Did *any* Western country stop selling chemical weapons (and their precursors) before the USA decided that Iran had been weakened enough, and it was time to backstab Iraq ?

          2. Also, the targeting equipment contract is still evil, but at least the order of magnitude larger contract about France selling helicarriers to Russia was eventually cancelled after 2014.

        6. There are currently 4 presidential candidates in France: Macron, Marine Le Pen who wants to reduce sanctions against Russia, and two candidates who want France to exit NATO.

    8. > were presented with a diplomatic option that would avoid war (namely, a firm commitment to halt NATO expansion)

      1) you are describing only tiny part of insane demands
      2) anyone trusting Russia to honor any promises is an idiot. Lavrov still claims that Russia has not attacked Ukraine.

    9. This suggests that the US is primarily interested in sparking and prolonging a war in Ukraine as a proxy conflict to injure Russia.

      Except that the US did not do anything to spark this war.

      What your chain of logic basically boils down to is this: Russia demanded that it retain the right to kick the shit out of Ukraine any time it wanted to do so, and that no nation would ever make an alliance with it that might make this harder. Russia has a proven track record of kicking the shit out of Ukraine, having done so in 2014 and having maintained an occupation of its sovereign territory and funding an insurgency in its east since then. The US understood that this was not a bluff.

      Both Ukraine AND the US rejected this demand out of hand. This is key; Ukraine has agency here and refused to capitulate. We backed their play. Russia decided to follow through and conquer Ukraine.

      The moral and ethical onus here is entirely on Russia, period. Your contention that the US’s actions suggest it is primarily interested in sparking a war is risible, given that they did not want Russia to invade and that they did nothing, at all, that justifies a Russian invasion.

      You know what? I’m gonna let Lincoln cover this one:

      A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

      Russia held a gun to Ukraine’s head, after previously having shot it in the leg, and demanded it stand and deliver. Ukraine appealed to the west to assist it in telling Russia to go pound sand and make it stick. And we are supposed to read into this causal chain that Biden and other nation-states WANTED this to happen?

      Your reasoning is weak and only makes sense if you assume a priori that Russia whipping the tar out of Ukraine is a reasonable response to Ukraine seeking defensive alliances and other nations indicating they might, at some point in the future, be open to them. It is not. It has not been provoked into this in any reasonable way.

      And as far as your contention that the US and Ukraine (you keep denying Ukrainian agency here; your unspoken contention here seems to be that they’re already a US puppet and that if the US told them not to capitulate because the US wants a war, they’d do so) failed to seriously consider Russia’s demands, that is because those demands are not worth considering seriously.

      1. I was wondering – doing this or NATO directly giving “self-propelled weapons” (tanks, planes) to Ukraine risks WW3 too much… but what about transferring the weapons through non-NATO countries sympathetic to Ukraine ?

        (Would probably have to do that quickly, once Russia takes Odessa, there would probably be no potential routes left ?)

    10. …and now we have direct confirmation from Zelensky himself that the West never had any intention to admit Ukraine into NATO at all. Yet they insisted on maintaining the public facade of considering it:

      Biden even chose to maintain this facade with the full awareness that Russia was not bluffing and it would cost the lives of countless Ukrainians. Wow. I guess Ukrainians aren’t even worth a simple acknowledgement of the (de-escalatory!) truth.

      Well, there aren’t very many plausible motivations left to explain the US actions at this point. The intent to exploit Ukraine as a proxy conflict is becoming more apparent by the day.

      1. Was that ever in doubt? NATO does not admit countries without stable borders. What NATO refused to do was pre-emptively take a position that it would never admit Ukraine…which of course it won’t?

        First, that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything for Ukraine as no one would believe it to be true if the situation changes. Well, I guess it would somewhat undermine NATO’s credibility as again, no one would believe that to be true long term.

        Second, it would create a massive incentive to expand the ‘list of unallowed nations’ via threatening to invade unless they’re added, which would be bad.

  14. At the risk of being tedious by posting too many comments, I would be curious if Our Illustrious Host might comment on the limitations of Russian diplomacy. Given recent events, but also decades of Soviet & Russian history, I got reminded of the limitations of Greek diplomacy which I believe was noted under the Sparta series.

    Despite the problems of the Soviet Union (and wow that is condensing a lot of very ugly history) Russia realistically should have a very good chance of achieving a favorable result with its neighbors. And yet, their activities and behavior seem almost calculated to make enemies of nearly every state. Only a few particularly-ugly tyrants seem to be able to get along, which doesn’t really raise the international standing of Russia. Leaving aside the immediate war in Ukraine, Russia apparently can’t even pretend to civil conversation and has gone out of its way to antagonize. Sure, its activities in Syria made people fear it to some degree; but they also created *disgust*. Committing to fight with the most dishonorable of means, which include biological or chemical weapons in Syria and potentially in the near future in Ukraine, might win one conflict but at the cost of making the future much more difficult.

    Or to simplify, I suppose that if you turn all conflicts into zero-sum contests of sheer will, sooner of later people will start to believe you. And you may find that you’ve damaged your long-term interest beyond repair.

    One can, of course, criticize Democracies/Republics for often being short-sighted, sometimes quick to start trouble where not required and/or too quick to appease and forget.

    1. Part of the problem is simply the problem of imperial breakdown: What do do with imperial populations stuck on the wrong side of the borders? (the newly independent post-soviet states largely using the soviet internal borders, who were often drawn for a variety of internal political reasons and weren’t intended to be independent states, despite the rhetoric) some kind of resoltuion could probably be made (african states have had remarkably stable borders despite having fairly similar problems) but for various reasons both russia nad the newly independent states missed the opportunity to settle it and instead let these issues fester.

      The european empires largely settled for ethnic cleansing after WWII, mind, so it’s not like that’s neccessarily a better option.

      1. Based on recent speeches at the UN, the African solution was to collectively agree that yes, the borders are stupid, but there is no way at this time to redraw them so that they aren’t stupid, so it’s better for all involved not to live with them and figure it out from here.

        1. The problem is a bit more complicated because of the status of imperial populations and the obvious problems that comes with it. At the time of independence there were significant minorities of colonists that by and large (though not entirely) are no longer there. Sometimes they left voluntarily, sometimes less so.

          Which is why the problem gets so knifey.Having to live, or even give special consideration to your former oppressor isn’t really something you should have to do, but on the other hand, ethnic cleansing, or even the softer methods of exclusion like language tests aren’t exactly great either.

      2. What makes the Ukrainian war so dramatic, is that the Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities are *extremely* close – especially (I’d expect) for the Central and Eastern Ukrainians with an Orthodox rather than Catholic background (majority is still probably atheist/agnostic though).

        You have really symptomatic cities like Dnipro, which is like 90% Russian-speaking, but (after 8 years of war) has a *very* anti-Russian sentiment…

  15. So, why didn’t USA exploit the window of opportunity when they were the only nuclear power? Were they not evil enough? Not rational enough?

    1. Political considerations. War plans for ‘Operation Unthinkable’ – fighting the USSR as a continuation of WWII – were drawn up.

      But the especially Britain and France were basically bankrupted and ruined by the war. The United States had to rebuild them and Americans wanted to demobilize. The political constituency for more war didn’t exist.

      Which was good – it probably allowed for the establishment of the nuclear use taboo, which is valuable.

      1. There were also practical considerations, namely that there weren’t enough nukes and American strategic air power post-demobilization were not in the condition to deliver them. I already submitted a more extensive reply on this issue below.

      2. Well, that and the United States didn’t really *want* to drop nuclear weapons on Russians, either. Destroying two Japanese cities after a string of urban assaults in the middle of the greatest and most terrible war was one thing after years of escalating brutality by Fascist Germany and, well, however one identifies Japan of that era. Launching an deliberate anti-civilian first-strike campaign against what was still an ally, even if a very suspect one, is quite another. Americans can certainly do immoral things, and our leaders make their fair share of stupid or evil decisions.

        However, I think such a strike would have required a severe alteration in our national self-conception even to be seriously considered, let alone to actually be adopted as a plan of action. Although it’s probably a good thing that nobody ever handed Patton control over a nuclear weapon.

        1. I think this is somewhat important. While it was remarkably quick, it took a while (and some quite overtly hostile, or at least aggressive Soviet actions) to get most people turned around from “Our allies to soviets” to “the godless commies” again.

          And of course, US nuclear hegemony was *brief*

      3. There were lots of good reasons to avoid Operation Unthinkable. BUT – that the idea was floated, with serious support among British and US elites, was well known to the Soviets. In their minds it was a continuation of the attitudes that drove intervention in 1919, sympathy with Hitler and Mussolini in the 30s, refusal to engage in Soviet proposals aimed at deterring Hitler in 1939 and so on. It fuelled their suspicions and reinforced their determination to construct a ring of satellites to their west.

        1. @Peter T: In 1919 the russians (the Soviet Union was not yet formally established) tried to invade and conquer Poland and the Baltic states, which failed, and Ukraine, which succeeded. Why don’t you mention that when you talk about foreign interference in Russia in 1919

        2. I don’t agree with this, given that in 1939 the USSR signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Act. Far from deeply opposing Fascism, the Soviets pushed Communist factions within Germany to adopt a “First Brown, then Red” policy believing they could take over from within. Furthermore, they cooperated to destroy civil government believing it would hasten the Revolution.

          That failed, but while at a basic ideological level Communists and Fascists ostensibly differed, in reality they tacitly recognized that not much differed: both ended up trying to build totalitarian empires from a base of mass popular support created and enforced by thought control over their societies.

          Hitler simultaneously meant his anti-Soviet rhetoric, and deployed it as a pure smokescreen. While screaming his open hatred of Communism he was also cheerfully signing opportunistic treaties with them. Indeed, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact occurred, not because the British and French waffled, but because the Soviets & Stalin thought that Hitler’s secret overtures offered them much better terms. This was true, if short-sighted.

          There’s more to it, and it’s not as though every single point shows the USSR to be treacherous or anything. But they were making unrealistic demands of the Anglo-British, and in the end decided that instead of doing the tough work of figuring out a joint policy, they could live with Nazism if it gained them half of Poland. It turns out that was a great idea for them… until it wasn’t.

          1. Micael – the Russo-Polish war of 1919-20 was over competing claims to large slices of Lithuania, Belorussia and Ukraine – much not ethnically Polish (Poland had irredentist claims on Slovakia as well). It was part of the fallout from the collapse of the German and Russian states. Ukraine was a horrible mish-mash (the town my in-laws come from was contested by two Ukrainian factions, Whites, Reds and Anarchists – the first two of which cheerfully murdered Jews).
            Civile – the diplomatic record is clear – it was Britain and France that dragged the chain on Soviet proposals for a guarantee on existing borders, meant to deter Hitler. Soviet talks with Germany were low key until it became clear that they would not play. The Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov and moved things into higher gear.

  16. To be fair, aren’t you being a bit too harsh on Dr. Strangelove? Sure, General Turgidson insists on the chances of “winning” a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. But General Turgidson is also very blatantly portrayed as a complete idiot.

    1. I was going to say the same thing. Turgidson was a satire of military planners who thought nuclear war could be winnable—who unfortunately were all too real and the time the movie was released. In contrast, the titular Dr. Strangelove seems to have a much better grasp of deterrence theory. He’s interested in trying to plan for *humanity*, as a species, to survive a nuclear war, but seems to be under no illusions about the possibility of a US “victory”. The satirical aspects of the character come mainly from the fact that deterrence theory seems absurd *in spite* of the strong logic behind it.

      The movie isn’t a *complete* guide to nuclear strategy; it leaves out how proxy wars and such fit into the picture. But the issues it does address are handled fairly well.

    2. I don’t think the article’s reference to Dr. Strangelove is meant to be an attack on that movie in particular, so much as a reminder that popular culture in general is a poor substitute for academic study (a recurring theme on this blog). Works of satire, in particular, don’t purport to be accurate depictions of reality- satire is by definition involves taking real ideas and stretching them to the point of absurdity- so we have no reason to assume a level of realism that the film doesn’t claim for itself.

      In the film, everyone who is a subject-matter expert on nuclear war is some sort of monster. The title character is a Nazi who is visibly excited about the prospect of a universal genocide that only the fittest humans will survive. In reality, as the OP notes, most academic and military thinking about nuclear war is devoted to the idea that it must be prevented at all costs, even if the policy results seem absurd.

      1. Ah, but the satire there cuts at a deeper truth. If we didn’t know that there ARE complete monsters out there, deterrence theory wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. After all, even without deterrent, what kind of monster nukes another country into an irradiated wasteland?

        Of course the movie concentrates all the worst types – the paranoid nutjob, the warmongering moron, the sociopathic rationalist – into a single story, leading them to snowball into catastrophe. But the insanity of nuclear deterrence is in the end the insanity of our own species. We must construct these precarious edifices of terror because we KNOW terror is the only thing that can rein in some of us, we know there are monsters, and we know we don’t prevent them from getting into positions of power (in fact, they are somewhat preferred for the job); thus, deterrence is the only hope of not living in a perpetual state of nuclear war. All of those forms of insanity exist. The movie merely puts them all on display close to each other.

        1. I think there’s a lot of people who, if the threat of retaliation didn’t exist, might employ a few nukes on strategic military targets in a war even if that target is Norfolk Naval Base and has an adjacent city. Maybe even justify it to themselves by saying a quick victory saves more lives on both sides from a protracted war.

          What drives the absurd loop of building weapons to never use them in such quantities is the niggling fear, “no one would go to war if they’d face a hundred nuclear bombs in retaliation. But what if they could destroy them on the ground with a thousand nuclear bombs? What if they even think they can? And of course, maybe they might be afraid we’d use them offensively. Then wouldn’t it make sense to strike first to stop us? We wouldn’t fire first, but are they sure about that?”

          1. Sure. The problem of that rational calculation (“oh actually using it is HUMANITARIAN essentially, I’m ending the war earlier, doing them a favour really”) is that it’s affected by all the standard flaws of our thinking: optimism bias (overstate the case when things go according to plan, understate the many ways in which they might not) and motivated reasoning (the whole thing is built on the premise that the priority is you WINNING this war, you don’t even consider that perhaps you’d minimize losses by not fighting it at all, and you underestimate the desire for retaliation you’d be inspiring).

            Because our reasoning is constantly tainted by such biases, when handed absolute weapons we end up in unstable games that only have two possible equilibria: the unstable one “no one uses them” and the stable one “everyone dies”. The sociopathy on display in Dr. Strangelove is essentially concentrating a series of types who have all those cognitive and emotional flaws in one place to see them speedrunning through what would usually take a few months and a lot more people (due to the influence of the utterly insane ones being somewhat diluted by more reasonable, if not perfect, types) in a matter of hours instead.

  17. How does the apparent poor maintenance condition of Russian conventional forces in the war in Ukraine affect the deterrence logic here? If one assumes that their nuclear forces may be similarly degraded, does that make Russia feel that it needs to respond faster to an ambiguous situation which might be a first-strike attack against it?

    1. A nuclear strike from Russia where 99.9% of strategic weapons fail for any number of reasons, is a strike where 5-7 strategic weapons successfully strike their targets killing 20-50 million people in the initial blast.

      1. Out of extremely morbid curiosity, I went onto Nukemap and had it run simulated strikes of 2.4 MT bombs on the 7 largest cities in NATO by population. According to this ,that is in order, Istanbul, Paris, London, New York City, Madrid, Toronto, and Barcelona. I let the simulation run for airbursts and I let it just pick a spot in the city, I don’t know where the “optimal” place to strike in each of those would be. Got an initial blast death of 12,059,660.

        1. If the failures were unpredictable that would be more like 7 random target sites. New York could be spared and some nuclear silo in Nevada hit. But yeah, let’s not count on Russia’s disrepair being THAT bad (though it would be morbidly funny to find out their own military has been embezzling and reselling uranium too…).

          1. Or, more plausibly, that their enlisted men have been neglecting the most basic routine maintenance, while the officers drink in the officers’ club, so that, for example, the doors to the missile silos won’t open because they haven’t been lubricated for 20 years.

          2. But on the other hand, if the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was THAT bad and Russia knew it (and they didn’t fool themselves by consuming their own propaganda), then they would presumably switch to a strategy of concentrated attacks to make sure the most important targets were hit, rather than try to knock out NATO’s nuclear capabilities altogether or hit a multitude of secondary targets

          3. > (and they didn’t fool themselves by consuming their own propaganda)

            Looking at the Ukrainian situation suggests that assumption is very likely false.

          4. It’s a lot easier to fool yourself about how ready your opponents are to fight than to fool yourself about yours. I suspect the Russian military and Putin knew good and well they weren’t ready to go up against a cohesive, determined opponent, but they thought that Ukraine wouldn’t be cohesive or determined, so that wouldn’t matter.

    2. Most of their truck, tanks and planes runs. I would not expect degradation greater than 50%, so we are fucked anyway.

      1. Though it must be said that nuclear warheads are somewhat more delicate and sophisticated stuff than a truck. Trucks don’t have components that literally spontaneously transmute into different metals over time.

    3. It means their effective arsenal is smaller but that changes relatively little. If we assume they’ve only got five hundred missiles in working order that’s still far too many. If we knew which five hundred we could theoretically destroy them all on the ground if they aren’t on launch-on-warning but they probably are.

    4. The Russians have converted several dozen of their Cold-War surplus ICBMs and SLBMs into satellite launch vehicles, which have achieved an 89% success rate in operation. This is comparable to the 91% success rate of US Cold-War surplus ICBMs used as space launch vehicles. The success rate in combat operations will of course be somewhat less, but not hugely less (for both sides)

      And for that matter, the Russians have successfully launched hundreds of tactical ballistic missiles in the current conflict.

      Any plan based on the assumption or hope that Russia’s ICBMs are all rusted-out junk operated by drunken conscripts and therefore won’t work, is *really dangerously foolish*. Buck Turgidson level foolish. Even a corrupt kleptocracy can find some good people to keep the really important stuff working tolerably well, and strategic nuclear missiles are about the most important thing Russia has. They’ll mostly work, if it matters.

  18. Is Ukraine truly indifferent to the risk of further escalation, though? The current worst-case scenario they face, as you note, is the destruction of the Ukrainian state. That’s awful; but a Russia-NATO war raises the specter of a destroyed Ukrainian state, *and* a Ukrainian population that must endure the aftermath of a nuclear war. Why wouldn’t that deter even a desperate Ukrainian government from risking a NATO-Russia war?

    1. Ukraine was subjected to genocide by starvation under Stalin and Putin’s refusal to acknowledge them as a real ethnicity is not reassuring. Also, the Ukranian leadership, a good chunk of their military, and likely their families are literally on a list of people Putin wants dead, so for the people making the decisions the gap between losing and a nuclear war is small for them personally, so gambling on winning the war with a risk of a nuclear war looks more appealing.

    2. I don’t think the Ukrainian leadership would ever consciously go “Let’s start a nuclear war”, but their particular risks *does* mean they are probably more likely to take risks in that regard than the US (partially because the risks of them losing the conventional war falls almost entirely on them)

  19. Obviously the real inventor of nuclear deterrence theory was Nimzowitch, 15 years before nuclear bombs were launched for the first time, with his famous quote “a threat is stronger than its execution”.
    It was when his opponent, having laid a cigar next to the chessboard, certified he did not plan to light it.

  20. I’m not worried, mainly because in the event of a nuclear exchange I’d be wiped out in the first strike to hit the US, possibly too soon to even get scared about what’s about to happen…

    In all seriousness, though, thanks for this piece; I definitely feel like I came away with a much better idea of how nuclear deterrence actually works.

    1. I believe there are many generals in both the USA and Russia who consider a nuclear attack to be a pratical warfighting tactic. Certainly, it was NATO’s plan during the Cold War to attack Soviet tank divisions in the rear with nukes; and I believwe Russia still has tactical nukes in it’s playbooks.

      Missiles have become massively more accurate these days; you can drop a missile on a specific building on the opposite side of the planet. A nuclear war might not involve the deliberate flattening of cities.

      Suppose Russia popped a 10Kt nuke in Ukraine, aimed at a force concentration. I can’t see any NATO nuclear power responding with a city-flattener; that would more-or-less guarantee another city-flattener in response. In fact the only use for city-flatteners is to deter city-flatteners.

      I don’t think world/public opinion would deter the Russian leadership from using a tactical nuke, if they thought it would save them from defeat. But I can’t see what tactical goal that would achieve in Ukraine.

      1. Except that this isn’t a war against a “sworn enemy”, like USA/USSR would have been, but against a “brother nation” where many Russian soldiers have family members in the Ukrainian population (and defending forces, with the ongoing draft) : depending how close to a population center this nuke would be dropped, this kind of order carries the risk of mutiny, propagating to the rest of the armed forces. (And that’s not counting the officers scared this *still* risks to start WW3.)

  21. I found this super fascinating and shared it with friends but can we stop talking about world events next week? ;-; it’s fun but I get enough news from the news.

    Your blog tho, I understand that perhaps you just want to write about what’s on your mind.

    1. The valuable thing Dr. Devereaux offers that most of the news does not is education. Under present circumstances, I think that’s very, very valuable.

  22. Question about the nuclear triad: Is the strategic bomber ‘leg’ necessary?

    Land based ICBMs provide first strike capability. And if you have enough of them, and with mobile or hidden units, second strike capability as well. Nuclear subs provide second strike capability, though from what I understand, the missiles they launch hare accurate enough for first strike as well.

    So what’s the point of the bombers?

    1. They’re still pretty effective in a nuclear war – most of them won’t be shot down, you can call them back unlike ICBMs, etc. They have dual use, too, since you can use B-52s in conventional bombing operations as well as nuclear ones. That’s the goal with the next generation of bombers as well, with the B-21 being able to drop both regular and nuclear bombs.

        1. The bombers are used against opponents without nuclear attack capabilities.

          Which is another reason that conventional wars between nuclear powers becomes fraught.

          1. Yes, but other nuclear powers might get twitchy if these kind of bombers get anywhere close to their borders, thus heavily restricting their potential uses ?

          2. The U.S.has used bombers in most places it wanted such as Iraq and Afghanistan without fear of nuclear retaliation.

            The contested areas on the border of a nuclear power such as the Ukraine look like no go for all U.S, military forces not just bombers.

          3. Well, obviously in this case, since it would involve a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.

            A better example would probably be the previous Syrian war ? (Remember how Turkey shot down a Russian plane ?)

    2. In addition to Brett’s answers (both correct):

      -Nuclear bombers, unlike ICBMs and SLBMs, can in theory be flexibly retargeted while in the air. You can in theory use them to hit targets that were not destroyed in the initial mass ICBM barrages, targets that you would still prefer to see destroyed.

      -Certain types of nuclear bombers, during certain periods of Cold War history, can fly under enemy radar or bypass it with stealth technology and launch totally unanticipated surprise attacks.

      -Nuclear bombers are in general much more flexible in how much threat they present. With ballistic missiles, either you launch them (in which case your world is about to end, along with the target’s), or you don’t (in which case nothing happens). Nuclear bombers can be kept on airborne alert, can be stationed closer or farther from the enemy, can arrive at an airbase on short notice or leave it on short notice. Missiles in silos are harder to shift around and there is very little you can do to increase the threat they present short of actually pushing the button.

    3. Redundant second strike capability. ICBMs are large enough they’re generally fixed, and a missile sub may have an undetected attack sub tailing it with torpedos hot at any moment. The bombers are in the air where they’re hard to hit with a nuke and you can see incoming fighters.

  23. Very nice essay. A couple of nitpicks: the diplomatic archives are fairly clear that the Soviet Union did not have aggressive designs on western Europe (although the Western powers could not reasonably know this). What it did have was an iron determination to ensure that Europe would not launch another war against them. Hungary and Roumania had been German allies, not innocent bystanders. Soviet obfuscation of the real costs of World War II probably played a part here, but the horror of the Great Patriotic War was ground into Soviet perceptions, which were also coloured by the not-so-subtle encouragement of Hitler to go east by small but vocal sections of the British and French elites (and General Patton).

    A second nitpick is that the Soviet Empire was fairly rare in that most of the subject groups were heavily subsidised by the centre. Money flowed to Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, the Caucasus (this was also the case for the remnant British imperial possessions after 1950 – which is why Britain was so keen to decolonise). The national minorities were over-represented in the Soviet elite (which is not to say that Russia did not dominate). A stress on “Russification’ was a Brezhnev-era policy, and marked a turn away from the founding direction.

    1. To some extent it even applied to the satellite states in eastern europe, IIRC (with some exceptions) where the Soviet metropole was largely subsidizing the satellites (with a few exceptions) to assert political/ideological/military control (rather than the classic imperial example of leveraging military control into resource extraction)

      There was, as usual, a little bit of both,

      1. > the Soviet metropole was largely subsidizing the satellites

        Though that was not even close to balancing economical damage done by occupation.

        1. Czechoslovakia was a big example of that. It was as rich as anywhere in western Europe before World War 2, and after the Communists took over it just fell further and further behind.

          1. Poland vs Portugal/Greece is also sometimes given as an example

          2. But that happens due to socialism anywhere. Venezuela is much poorer than it used to be, but not because wealth has been extracted and sent to Moscow, or used to subsidize foreign troops.

          3. @ey81 I would not use “socialism” as it is too badly defined.

            And yes, USSR and its satellites is not only such case in the history.

            It does not change fact that in addition to other misery millions were much poorer then they could be with economy that is not so badly handled.

            (and all of that is small compared to Holodomor and Mao who managed to kill millions of pwn people, by accident – due to his dictatorship, mismanagement, terror and hubris)

          4. Though I do note there are other examples: Poland used to be on roughly the same economic development level as some south american countries (IIRC, Brazil and Argentina in the early 20th century) while they are now much richer.

            And of course, there’s Albania who was always poor and still is (though their situation was… complicated)

          5. Poland’s interesting because IIRC, they didn’t fully collectivize the economy. There was a major land reform, but agriculture mostly stayed as the domain of small farmers. That was a big deal in a country that was still close to 50% rural as late as the 1970s.

    2. > he diplomatic archives are fairly clear that the Soviet Union did not have aggressive designs on western Europe

      Due to nuclear threat, without this they would happily invade.

      1. Not really, the Soviets were terribly wounded by WWII (and the aftermath, remember they were fighting guerilla wars into the 50’s) so they genuinely don’t seem to have any real plans for much in the way of offensive action beyond the standard contingency planning, which doesen’t mean they wouldn’t be willing to take opportunities if weaknesses presented themselves, but they genuinely seem to have been more concerned about preserving their empire than expanding it. (which isn’t to say they couldn’t have been pulled in anyway, eg. by local communist groups)

        Remember, they couldn’t/didn’t even manage to keep Tito in the fold, and he was outside of any US protective umbrella.

        1. They put enormous resources into armies, greater than needed to deter NATO.

          That does not match at all with “we are totally peaceful”

          1. Oh, they weren’t. But there is a difference between “We are totally peaceful” and “We are planning on invading western europe within the foreseeable future”. There’s *quite a lot* of room between these two.

          2. 27 million dead and much of your country wrecked does tend to leave you a bit paranoid.

          3. Paranoia does not make you peaceful. And you can expect your neighbors to worry more about the second part.

    3. Well, the persecution of Ukrainians, then Poles, then Jews, have also had been Stalin’s policies (though, unlike for Hitler, for purely cold tactical political reasons).

    4. I don’t doubt that the Russians ‘didn’t plan to invade’ or take aggressive actions except in response to attacks from the West. The West was entirely unaware of how badly WWII had damaged the Soviet Union.

      However, what the Soviets saw as ‘aggressive’ or ‘destablizing’ wasn’t just aggressive actions by the West, but in many cases the simple existence of common borders. The flow of people out of the Soviet Block before the full implimentation of the Iron Curtain was very destablizing. Hence the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin Wall. And, what finally collapsed the Soviet Block was the simple lifting of controls on population movement.

      Also, the Ukrainians would definetly take exception to the idea that the Metripol didn’t take resources from the imperial periphery. The Holodomor was a famine in Ukraine where the USSR collectivized farmland and continued to export farm products out of Ukraine even as the Ukrainians themselves starved.

      1. Yeah, the capital of an empire not taking resources from the periphery is a contradiction in terms. Not that the arrangement cannot sometimes be at least somewhat mutually beneficial : peace, stability, efficiency…
        I doubt it was for Ukraine, considering the extremely high price it paid early on.

        1. The Soviet Union did not conceptualise itself as an empire, and more than the US does. Russians were the majority, set the cultural tone and took their values as the default. But the state consciously tried to bring the regions up to a higher economic level, and – at least until the mid-Brezhnev years, paid service to ethnic autonomy. So while Russia paid in more than it received, the reverse was true for Central Asia and the remoter regions. Same pattern as in the US – the poorer (mostly Red) states are net recipients. To some extent this was true for the satellites, which were maintained for security rather then economic purposes. They were less rich than they would have been if left alone, but policy was not extractive.

          1. Of course it did not, since “imperialist” was an adjective exclusively going with “capitalist”.

            I was going to retort that diversity and especially ethnic autonomy (as long as they pay tax/tribute) are on the contrary symptomatic of empires (unlike for nation-states), and the economic discussion seems to dismiss the whole Stalin era (but do you have any sources ?)…
            and then I “remembered”* one most important aspect : most of the USSR population was NOT subject to the Soviets, they were ALL Soviets, at least on paper all having the exact same rights !


            (Well, there were massacres of Whites, and then at some point party members got to be “more equal” than other comrades, but I’m not sure those are relevant enough here ?)

            (Still, Stalinist purges – some ethnicities suffered disproportionately… if only from Stalin’s death up until mid-Brezhnev that leaves only barely 2 decades out of 7 with *effective* ethnic equality ? Plus maybe the first decade of the USSR ?)

            USSR satellites remind me of how IIRC Britain was overall a net loss to the Romans ?
            Though the difference is that at that point Romans were not trying to bring about a “worldwide roman revolution” in the context of competition with another empire that could be an existential threat, where denial, even at loss, would have been a viable strategy.

          2. And out host disagrees about the USSR not being an empire :


            Shame on me, I should have remembered about the Iron Curtain (in my defense, I was too young to remember living inside it), and realized that regardless of how equal your rights might be inside it, the mere fact that you have no right of exit *still* makes you a subject, I even make a similar argument elsewhere in these comments about a potential “World Government” !

  24. What scares me is the silo based MM3 missiles. They are launch on warning devices. They are a target for the first strike. They can’t be held in reserve for a second strike. I know they can survive a ground burst at the craters edge. The problem is how to fly them through the debris field. I think we have worked out the method to get the debris off the silo lid. Back in the day I did some analysis of the shelter based MM systems. That system require moving real and dummy missiles from shelter to shelter. It is defeated by just adding more missiles to the first strike as the shelters don’t move.
    I think we should get rid of the MM’s. Make a first strike try to destroy our subs and aircraft carriers. Then the missiles don’t hit our cities. Just DC and and the places where our command and control centers are. May Bismarck’s comment about America be true.

    1. Destroying all the Minuteman silos would require tasking a very large number of nuclear weapons that would then be free to destroy any other US targets they like. Remember that to succeed with a nuclear first strike, you must cripple the enemy badly enough that their surviving forces cannot launch nuclear attacks against you. There is no “clean” way to do that, because civilian infrastructure (and the cities co-located with it) is very important to a war mobilization… and if you don’t wreck that infrastructure, it becomes relevant in the nuclear war.

      So arguably, putting a bunch of hardened bunkers that the enemy “must” destroy with saturation patterns of thermonuclear ground bursts, which are conveniently located hundreds of miles from any major metropolitan area, is a very effective way to minimize the amount of nuclear firepower that lands on your cities in the event of nuclear war.

    2. ICBMs are somewhat inaccurate*, so several have to be dedicated to ensuring a minuteman silo is destroyed. Since no one has several times more ICBMs than we do, they can’t take out our minutemen with a first strike.

      Unfortunately, a lot of key military targets have urban centers within the possible error+blast radius of an ICBM. Train junctions are military targets, ports are in cities.

      *Apparently the latest round of US modernization reduces this significantly, but for Russia’s arsenal we’re talking kilometers

  25. > In that context, the fact that it had been the United States which had been the first to successfully develop nuclear weapons (and use them in anger, a decision which remains hotly debated to this day) must have seemed like an act of divine providence, as it enabled the western allies to retain a form of military parity with the USSR (and thus deterrence) while still demobilizing. US airbases in Europe put much of the Soviet Union in range of American bombers which could carry nuclear weapons, which served to ‘balance’ the conventional disparity. It’s important to keep in mind also that nuclear weapons emerged in the context where ‘strategic’ urban bombing had been extensively normalized during the Second World War; the idea that the next major war would include the destruction of cities from the air wasn’t quite as shocking to them as it was to us – indeed, it was assumed. Consequently, planners in the US military went about planning how they would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield (and beyond it) should a war with a non-nuclear Soviet Union occur.

    It’s a minor nitpick that digs far more into the weeds than you are attempting to do so here, but I want to note that for approximately the first ~5-7 years this wasn’t quite as true as it would later become. It turns out demobilization hit the US atomic forces hard and for an astonishingly long time, American nuclear forces were in fact more bluff than reality. Not only were there an inadequate number of bombs, but Strategic Air Command was crippled by bad training, inadequate numbers of nuclear-capable aircraft, poor maintenance for said aircraft, awful intelligence, unprepared forward bases in Europe and the MidEast, and a slew of other issues.

    The fortunate news is that these were all short-term problems that could be expected to be fixed given time and American geographic isolation in from the USSR ensured that in a prolonged conflict it would always have that time, so the American nuclear deterrence still work as a deterrent function to the Soviet Union despite it’s relative hollowness prior to the USSR acquiring nuclear capacity. The Korean Arms build-up demonstrates this: by 1952, a mere two years later, SAC had basically resolved all of it’s problems and had become a real nuclear juggernaut.

    For more reading on this issue, I’d recommend “Bigger Bombs for a Better Tomorrow: The Strategic Air Command and American War Plans at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 1945-1950” by John Curatola and “A Hollow Threat: Strategic Air Power and Containment Before Korea” by Harry Borowski.

  26. Germany, after all, couldn’t stop US strategic bombing where it took many thousands of bombs to level a city – who is going to stop an airfleet of the same size that maybe only needs 5 or 10 hits?

    This was the basis for an argument I read for keeping the bomber fleet instead of developing tons of ICBMs. Casualty levels that would be wildly unacceptable for a conventional bombing run (20-40% of your planes) would be perfectly fine for nuclear bombers who only have to do the one run, and Soviet anti-air defense was never good enough to shoot down more than a fraction of the US bomber fleet in a conflict.

    Moreover, the bomber fleet is far less likely to lead to an accidental conflict based on misunderstanding than the ICBMs. You can call back the bombers (unlike ICBMs), and their slower flight times means you have more time to determine whether a launch was a mistake or not. The US is also far enough from Russia that 20-30 minutes would be enough to get much of the bomber fleet on the ground into the air to join the ones already rotating in patrol up there.

    In practice there are a lot of unknowns, particularly in terms of long term ecological effects. It’s not clear, for instance, if such an exchange would in fact cause a ‘nuclear winter’ and if so how severe it would be.

    Honestly, the Wikipedia article on Nuclear Winter is pretty good about pointing out some skeptical takes on the nuclear winter concept. It’s based heavily on the idea that nuclear strikes will start huge fires that will persist for weeks and dump a massive amount of smoke into the stratosphere (where it will then stay for a long time), causing global cooling.

    But that doesn’t seem to have happened with existing massive fires, like the Kuwait oil fires (where folks like Carl Sagan and Alan Robock were predicting a Year Without A Summer), or the huge Indonesian forest fires in 1997, nor the wildfires out west in California in 2020. The areas under the direct smoke could see temperature drops, but there was not really a global impact.

      1. That’s a good comment. He has a good follow-up, too, where he points out that we burned a lot of cities during World War 2 and didn’t see a cooling impact from that either.

        Incorrect information on this isn’t harmless, either. The US slacked off on stuff in the Cold War that would have saved tens of millions of lives in a nuclear exchange in part because of it, things like civil defense drills and bomb shelters, stockpiled food/water/iodine, and so forth.

        I sort of semi-jokingly say that if a nuclear war had happened in the Cold War, the Swiss would have inherited the Earth. They had a superb civil defense and stockpile regime.

    1. Of course, while the firestorms from a nuclear war might not be truly global, they’d extend over much larger stretches of the Earth than just Indonesia, California, or Kuwait.

  27. …the “delicate balance of terror” of nuclear deterrence. Of course this is a complex and much debated topic…

    Combine these two half-sentences and the ridiculous stakes involved in a potential nuclear war, and it should be obvious why NATO gets gun-shy around nuclear powers. (And Russia, for that matter. My dad likes to argue that Russia would have invaded Ukraine years earlier if the President wasn’t as…Trump as Trump was.)

    There is a certain sort of childish error which assumes that because the ‘West’ did some unsavory things during the Cold War, that means that the threat of the Soviet Union wasn’t real; we must put away such childish things.

    As well as the other side of the coin—that because the USSR was a real threat, everything the West did during the Cold War was justified. Admittedly, that’s a moral question with questionable relevance to this post’s strategic calculations, but I wanted to point it out.

    …striking military and industrial targets (“precision attacks with an area weapon,” a notion that is as preposterous as it feels)…

    …assuming that the military leaders are interested in avoiding civilian casualties. Historically, proponents of strategic bombing have been at best apathetic to collateral damage (which feels like a tautology), and at worst find ways to say that wrecking the city is a nice bonus without saying civilian casualties are good. (E.g, trying to define the civilian casualties as being part of the enemy’s industrial capacity, since they work at the factories being targeted.)

    I think little of warmongers, but proponents of strategic bombing rank low even by those standards. Arms dealers and the like at least have a bit of plausible deniability in whether they care about civilians. “These guns are only supposed to be used on enemy soldiers, yeah? Then we’re cool.”

    But of course in the event, [nuclear] decisions will actually be made by emotional humans, within the fog of war, in rushed, high tension circumstances. We have already had several such close calls.

    As an aside, some people look at the sheer number of such close calls and conclude that we must be extremely lucky to have survived the Cold War. That’s certainly a possibility, but to me that speaks more to the resilience of the systems meant to account for the radioactive fog of war. How many “just one [X] making a different decision” are there between perceived nuclear threat and accidentally starting the apocalypse*, and how likely is it that they would have made a different choice?

    *Take the Cuban Missile Crisis’s “just one man”. The vice admiral deciding not to intervene and stop the nuke launches wouldn’t matter if the captain didn’t decide the nukes needed to be fired, or if the crew tasked with actually shooting the nukes refused. Very rarely can one dude just decide to push the big red button and immediately launch the missiles. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe we happened to roll natural 20’s every time, for decades. But to me, that seems less likely than the die not being a regulation d20.

    Which isn’t a reason to be careless with the metaphorical big red button. The fog-of-war accounting relies on us being careful, and even if it didn’t, we know there’s a 1 somewhere on the die.

    1. “because the USSR was a real threat, everything the West did during the Cold War was justified”–I venture that in academic setting, Brett almost never encounters that side of the argument, anymore than he encounters a flag decal in the faculty parking lot, though of course both would be common on a factory floor or in the parking lot.

      1. I do think there is a tendency to, essentially, take soviet rhetoric at face value and not look at the internal and political issues that drove the decisonmaking of the soviet ruling caste. (which had it’s own share of idiosyncracies and strange results) the Soviet union was certainly a threat, but usually not in the way the US military/political establishment thought. (The big thing is that the US seems to have vastly underestimated both of bad the Soviet economy was, and how devastating WWII had been, and how these concerns made the Soviet generally act less aggressively than the US thought they were, though they were still willing to make opportunistic plays if they thought they could get away wtih it)

        1. Do you remember any of the academic work of the Soviet era? Paul Kennedy, John Kenneth Galbraith, etc.? They all thought the Soviet Union was a powerful and successful economy. And you’re right, unfortunately, US policymakers were often guided by the academic consensus. Only Ronald Reagan glimpsed the truth. I can’t think of a single academic whose descriptions or predictions rivaled his for accuracy. The moral is, you should never believe a word that any university professor writes.

          1. Well, obviously, I’m not trying to insult or quarrel with our host. But you should subject his work to critical analysis and discount it appropriately based on that analysis, especially when it tends to ratify the academic consensus on current political issues. I would be surprised if Prof. Devereux even disagreed with that statement. He might even agree that the academic consensus on the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s was mostly wrong, as long as he didn’t have to say that Reagan was right.

  28. Back in 1973 I was assigned to the Military Airlift Command Indications and Warning Center at Scott AFB. Our job was to keep an eye on everything that went on around the world, if there was the possibility it could require some sort of MAC involvement: war in the Middle East, non-combatant evacuation from Congo, airlift of relief supplies to Bangladesh. Support the rest of the US military when fighting a nuclear war.

    Shortly after I arrived, we had a visit from the newly-assigned USAF Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Major General George Keegan. He was traveling to every I&W Center in the AF, and he had one message, that he was delivering personally:

    Your primary mission is to prevent a nuclear war.

    He knew, and we knew, and anyone who has been associated with the things knew, that a nuclear war would be an unmitigated disaster, and that we needed to expend all our efforts, 24/7, to making sure that such a war didn’t occur.

  29. “the significant of Sputnuk (launched in 1957)” – I think “Sputnuk” is one of the most phoenetically satisfying typos I’ve seen in a while.

  30. Very interesting. Clears up a few questions, but raises a big one:

    Under this logic, is it generally better or worse the more countries become nuclear powers?

    Essentially, to re-use your metaphors, the more nuclear players there are, the more of the map is encapsulated in the Red Lines of various powers, but also the more likely that some critical mistake makes the whole house of cards come tumbling down.

    A lot of B and C list powers (Iran comes to mind) want nukes not because they want to use them, but because even a few is an insurance policy against invasion. So this question is actually very important.

      1. I would say it’s better until it’s much worse. Every new nuclear power adds another state to the list of those that can’t really be invaded, and thus creates one less potential target for war. (For example, if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons when the USSR broke up, it’s pretty unlikely Putin would be doing this.) Except that there’s still a non-zero chance that someone gets reckless or screws up in some other way, and then you end up with a war anyway, but a much more destructive one than if there were no nuclear weapons involved. (In 2014, Putin gambles he can take Crimea without Ukraine launching its hypothetical nuclear weapons, he’s wrong, Moscow is destroyed, followed by Kyiv, etc.)

        1. We have all heard about “Ukraine’s nukes” a million times lately, but Ukraine never had any ability to use them, because modern nuclear weapons contain security systems to ensure only authorized parties can use them. Unless Russia was going to give Ukraine the “codes” and hardware necessary to arm them (no), Ukraine would have needed to…spin up its own nuclear weapon program.

        2. Yeah, I’ve been saying for the last 8 years that giving up the nukes had been a mistake. Since international treaties only seem to be worth the paper they’re written on.
          I’m also surprised that when the war started in 2014, Ukraine didn’t pursue nuclear deterrence – was it a worry about losing support of USA & EU, or about risking an earlier Russian invasion ? Of course, it looks like a mistake now, but that might just be “hindsight is 25/20”, as they say…

          1. Apparently Ukraine didn’t have the arming codes or the ability to change them, so the nukes were actually very radioactive paperweights.

          2. No, they wouldn’t have had nuclear weapons immediately. But if they decided they wanted them, having real nukes to take apart and reverse engineer would help with development, and scavenging weapons grade fissionable material gets you past what generally seems to be a big problem for most aspiring nuclear states.

          3. I mean, “reverse” engineering is a weird way to put it, considering the importance of Kharkiv’s nuclear research center for the process of building the USSR nukes and Dnipro(petrovsk) Yuzhmash for the ICBMs…

      2. Speaking of more nuclear powers, the war in Ukraine seems to have given a push for North Korea to finally get threatening nuclear capabilities.

        North Korean spies have already had been caught in Dnipro’s (former) ICBM factory before, but they formerly seem to have failed. After the war started in 2014, NK suddenly seems to have made a breakthrough – involving pieces extremely similar to USSR ICBM design !

        A likely explanation would be the worsening security around the factory (less money due to the worsening economic conditions because of the war for security guards, more incentives for corruption…).

        (An even worse, but IMHO less likely possibility is that it’s the Russians that *directly* gave North Korea those engine plans/pieces.)

    1. From the perspective of the existing nuclear powers, worse; it limits their freedom of action and if there’s fifty systems on launch on warning the odds of a miscalculation are much higher. From the perspective of the new powers mostly better because they get to set red lines.

      So the nuclear powers cut deals and use sanctions to try to convince potential nuclear powers not to become nuclear powers.

    2. Worse, because deterrence leading to stability is a chain of events with a lot of uncertainties and potential for failure. Especially as you get to smaller states with less resources and perhaps less capable administration, the chance of something going wrong goes up.

  31. No fly zones work in the worldview of people who believe that International Law is Just Like Regular Law, only International

  32. Dr Devereaux,

    A truly excellent summary of a complex topic. As a life-long history geek, I admire your ability to write clearly and deeply; plus, when you cover something I’m truly well-read on, I don’t find myself disagreeing with you, despite perhaps minor quibbles.

    On this topic, I am not just well-read, I’m well-lived. I was born in 1945. My father was scheduled to be in the November invasion of Kyushu. My 4 younger siblings may be a gift of the nuclear age. We have a conflicted family relation to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki debates.

    My father’s post-war Air Force career was in the air defense of North America, from the birth of Air Defense Command to the Cheyenne Mountain HQ of NORAD. He retired in 1965, about the time NORAD’s prime wartime function shifted from shooting down bombers to shouting “Say your prayers! Here they come!”

    I grew up with throw weights, counter-value/force discussions, fallout profiles, bomb shelter foolishness, MIRV warheads, all the arcana of MAD, the hideously expensive devices no one wanted to use. Explaining it to people outside the bubble I was raised in was futile. The best I could do was reassure friends that they, living in line-of-sight of the Alameda Naval Base (home to three [!!] nuclear carriers), would die in the first minutes.

    Sometime in 1990 or 1991, I read that the airborne command centers kept in the air 24/7 during the Cold War, had been shut down. I relaxed in places I didn’t know were tensed.

    20 years or so ago, I was riffing with a student of mine from East Oakland, a corner-boy wannabe, talking about what might have happened to the SF Bay Area any time from 1975 to 1989. Starting in San Jose (ignoring Monterey) and working my way north to the hunter-killer sub pens in Vallejo and east to Travis AFB and Livermore, I counted 20 plausible warhead explosions on specific targets. That probably kills 3,000,000 people in the first minutes, and another 3,000,000 over the day from fire and shock. A sheet of atomic glass 120 miles long by 40 miles wide.

    The kid looks at me and says: “2 kids get shot on a weekend and everyone goes crazy. That’s f*cked up!” I could only agree with him.

    Any significant use of nuclear weapons would be an unmitigated tragedy. But I can’t help thinking, unrighteously; “At least it wouldn’t be that bad.”

    Thanks again.

  33. well thank you for putting that all out in such a clear manner.
    interesting bit on the redlines but also the piece meal and the blitzkrieg movement and there is something there about the new concert of Nuclear Powers. wonder when we are going to have our new franz ferdinand moment.
    accidentally on purpose with preemptive retaliatory strikes. fun. also non state actors! hell.

    god the trip wire on American policy make so much sense with our legal fig leaf protection stuff, hell Trump moving our paper shield with Turkey and Kurds was horrible even if its very much a willingness of we no longer have the real political will for a fight like that anymore, So a bit of dont make bluffs that you arnt willing to back up. after iraq and afganistan were probably not going to have a direct will for a fight like that for decades if at all.
    and that is assuming that we dont have a couple more economic crisis before that.
    Hell I REALLY largely suspect were eventually going to be honest about Taiwan is a bluff not worth cutting our business with China for, Sanctions on Russia is one thing, but China alone…. especially cause all the OTHERS would not be nearly as willing.

    sheesh. but stilll! the reasons and logic on proxy wars and near impunity for the your sphere of influence small lightning strikes but dont escalate…

    the nuclear thoughts on say China with the La thing is interesting, from my understanding of an old Joke/quote Britian they had Moscow deterrence? if they strike at us were taking out Moscow with us type of thing.

    im curious about India and Pakistan though, cause realistically France and Brtain are all in response to Russia actions, only once realistically their nukes ever in question on use for….
    but India and Pakistan to my knowledge have each other as their first priorities and arnt as caught up with the Russia//U.S. debacle as much, at least of now. although China and the india sea and artificial islands and… well.

    ah well, maby Russia will have some political coup attempts with Putin, and China… I don’t know how their like of succession really works. I get most go with fig leaf presidency now, but realistically???

    is good and amusing that the old hand book of Russian plays of doing “exercises” as so easy called out, like get your head out of your as Putin, you Arnt the soviets anymore.

    1. Taiwan is the center of the world “computer chip” fabrication industry, which makes the notion of the PRC invading it basically economic warfare against the rest of the world, and itself, given how many of those chips are put in things assembled in the PRC… Also, the PRC has no amphibious invasion capability, though they could change that, but not overnight.

      1. They have been changing it for decades now. It’s probably not enough even absent US intervention *yet* but it’s been moving in that direction for a while. (the extent to which they actually expect to use it vs. how much it’s a big threatening stick/bargaining chip is a different matter of course)

  34. “Missile gap” is a term invented in the 1950s, not the 1960s, and popularized by John F. Kennedy, who achieved the presidency partly on the strength of that phantasm. Bret is showing a bit of partisan bias with his misdating, which might lead the reader to think that the claim was made by the Republicans when a Democrat was in power, the opposite of the truth.

    1. 1958, and while the term may have been popularized by Kennedy it was a sentiment shared by hawkish members of the US House and Senate. I sometimes think we forget just how crazy hawkish people were in the 50s and 60s across the political spectrum.

      As far as the missile gap goes, it may have been coined in 58 but it really became part of defense spending and doctrine in the early 60s. You can tell by the graph on the nuclear arsenal chart and, more importantly, but US R&D and procurement during that time period (the Minuteman I was 1962, Minuteman II was 1965.) That ramp up in US nuclear weapons produced, in turn, the Soviet response that lagged behind before overtaking the US in the early to mid 80s.

      Finally, I think you are over analyzing a bit. He’s talking more about the reasoning why the US went with a massive expansion in ICBM and warhead production in the 60s, not the debate that led up to it. The American Public believed it to be the case, and the US defense establishment used it as a reason to ramp up their own weapons production scheme.

      1. JimBean is correct on my intent. Yes, the term is mostly closely associated with JFK and it was certainly a bipartisan idea.

        I am continually amused by the fact that the comments here think they know my politics and then routinely display that they really don’t.

    2. Ah, the “missile gap.” I remember the 1960 campaign well. My father, who was in the Air Defense business (see above) commented to me in 1961 or 1962, that the intelligence estimates that started the concerns (probably starting in 1957) were based on actual Soviet intentions and plans. But “the mountain labored and brought forth a molehill,” so Air Defense Command, at least, wasn’t worried anymore. Perhaps the same thing is now happening to the Russian Army.

  35. …I realize this is kind of sticking the fool of Pop culture back where he doesn’t belong yet again, but listening to the general premise of deterrance theory and the logic underlying it all…
    It made me think of what I’m hearing in my head as Captain America’s line from the Avengers. “Even if we can’t save the world, you can be sure we’ll avenge it.” And with that premise being behind the Avengers, it struck me as tying back to the logic behind how deterrance is meant to work. You might not be impressed enough with the though of a dude with a shield to call off your alien invasion, but knowing that dude will be COMMITTED to your destruction…Well, if you have a big alien army you might still scoff, but the dudes in your army that have to deal with shieldman will be less enthused at you reacting like that.

    1. They may not be worried about shieldman, despite his commitment to their destruction. Shieldman is pretty conventional weapons. Fly away, he can’t chase you. He’s a problem, but he’s guerilla warfare.

      They will definitely be worried about that Hulk you have, though. Him being committed to your destruction is bad news. They’ll worry. And so will your own side. The Hulk, now, the Hulk is a nuke.

  36. It’s a rather glaring omission to mention salami-slicing without mentioning the most relevant example of this tactic: the gradual expansion of NATO towards Russia.

    1. …because it’s not really an example? Realistically you are looking at just the fourth and fifth NATO expansions. The fifth NATO expansion made no pretense at being subtle – the following countries all joined at the same time: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The sixth, seventh and eight expansions were all further away from Russia than the fifth.

      Moreover, NATO expansions weren’t done as instantaneous fait accompli – joining NATO is intentionally very slow. The countries of the fifth expansion – the Vilnius Group, announced their intentions in 1999. The countries of the 1999 expansion announced their intentions in 1991. Russia had ample time to oppose the move – what they didn’t have was the *ability* to oppose it or the will, in part because Russia was extremely weak and in part because back during the End of History, Russian elites did not see the move as nearly so threatening as they do now.

      1. Of course, I am referring to NATO expansion post-1989. You know this. Also, let’s not pretend that the admission of countries further from Russia somehow becomes less threatening just because the US admitted even closer countries in the previous round. Order of geography is not the issue here.

        The admission to NATO is indeed slow, but this only supports my point. Salami-slicing is slow and gradual by definition. The formal admissions to NATO are large steps accompanied by many smaller steps. The US has been working gradually to pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence for many years. The 2008 Bucharest summit formally declared US intentions for Georgia and Ukraine (against the opposition of France and Germany). American involvement in Ukraine 2014 pushed the envelope (much) further.

        Concerning Russian “will” to resist: this is an interesting point which deserves further elaboration. There was a brief window in the 90s where Russians were ready to believe in moving past the antagonisms of the Cold War and embracing the vision of a unified US-European order. It was the US who refused to bury the hatchet, and its actions quickly shot down this Russian idealism. Yeltsin at this time asked for Russia to be admitted to NATO. This was ruled out by the US. GHWBush’s refusal to forgive Russia’s debt contributed to its economic problems and ran counter to the public claim that the US was trying to “help” Russia. The final nail in the coffin was probably Clinton’s decision to go ahead with formal NATO expansion of Russia’s neighbors. Once this honeymoon period ended, Russia made its opposition to NATO expansion very clear. This opposition has remained constant up to the present day.

        It is true that Russia didn’t have the same power to resist in the 90s as it does now. But this is also not relevant to the question of whether NATO expansion itself constitutes salami-slicing. Your mention of this earlier weakness is strangely out of place in this discussion. It seems that your implicit thesis here is “The US is strong, Russia is weak, so the US can do whatever it likes and Russia will just have to swallow it”. Leaving questions of morality aside, this is a foolish strategic view. Forecasts about the End of History were, as we found out, very premature.

        1. “Also, let’s not pretend that the admission of countries further from Russia somehow becomes less threatening just because the US admitted even closer countries in the previous round. Order of geography is not the issue here.”

          Why not? I don’t see how the admission of Montenegro or North Macedonia threatens Russia’s geopolitical security interests? Seems like your reasoning is based on some hidden, if not flat-out unfounded, assumptions – I’d like to know what premises draws you to such a conclusion.

          “The admission to NATO is indeed slow, but this only supports my point. Salami-slicing is slow and gradual by definition.”

          Our host uses Beaufre’s definition of “Salami tactics” and “Fait accompli”, which, when supported by this article: , seems to suggest a mostly military form of the idea. It can be a gradual process, like China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea – but it can also be a sudden blitz, like Russia’s military occupation of Crimea in 2014. Am I wrong here? Did Beaufre not mean such military actions? Did his definition include “slow and gradual” as fundamenal aspects of Salami tactics?

          “Leaving questions of morality aside, this is a foolish strategic view. Forecasts about the End of History were, as we found out, very premature.”

          We will have to decide this after the Russo-Ukrainian war concludes. If the Russian military turns out to be a paper bear that can’t even beat its weaker neighbour, then diplomatic expansion of NATO eastwards would have turned out to be exactly the right thing to do for the US with regards to its geopolitical objectives. As a native Lithuanian, I have to say, it’s definitely the right move for us as well – I shudder at the thought that my country could have been in the same situation as Belarus or Ukraine. Really dodged a bullet there.

    2. Hmmm, I wonder why countries that from 1946 through 1989 were ruled from Moscow as puppet states might have all wanted to join NATO after the Soviet Union broke up?

      They seem to have been worried that Russia would attack and attempt to re-annex them or something…

      Which is prophetic, given what happened to the Eastern European countries that didn’t join NATO- Belarus, which is now a firmly entrapped Russian puppet state, and Ukraine, which is currently being invaded and bombarded by the Russian military.

      DanGer, your description of NATO expansion as salami-slicing directed against Russia strongly implies a rather strange assumption. To me, it seems to be based on the idea that Russia has a right to impose its will on all those countries (e.g. Poland, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, and so on) as a necessary part of its own security. And that any attempt by those countries to secure independence from Russia is a threat to Russian security.

      But these countries don’t want to exist as Russian buffer states, and Russia has not offered them anything positive to persuade them to change their mind. How is Russia justified in treating these countries’ decision to join NATO, and NATO’s acceptance, as an aggressive move? Clearly, Russia would be happier if NATO hadn’t admitted Poland or Hungary or Romania… But based on what is now happening to Ukraine, it seems as though the main reason for Russia to desire this is that it would make it easier for Russia to reconquer all that land after it regains its strength. And “make it easier for me to reconquer half of Europe” isn’t a reasonable red line for a state to draw regarding its own security.

      1. Charitably, he fell victim to the confusion commonly resulting from the first exposure to realist international politics. Something similar is present even in Thucudides, quoted in the post introducing the topic: the ambassador’s speech going “we are doing what is normal international policy, you would do the same thing in our place, you shouldn’t be morally outraged by it, therefore you shouldn’t declare war on us”. This is a confusion of levels (which may be deliberate, since otherwise the ambassador wouldn’t have an argument).

        One possible answer (which in Thududides’ presentation the Spartans give) is to be deliberately stupid, dismiss the argument and be morally outraged anyway. Personally I prefer the answer: “oh, we aren’t morally outraged, you are correct that in your place we would have done the same thing — and so you will understand, that in our place, you would have declared war in reposonse, too. Nothing personal.” Which is to say, “morality is how game theory feels from the inside”, they are two synonymous descriptions of the same thing, that cannot be mixed with each other. IR theory replaces morality, rather than being inside it.

        In the particular case, it is entirely reasonable to say that Russia desires to reconquer the states of Eastern Europe, and is consequently …disappointed, to use a non-moral word, at events that make this more difficult or effectively impossible. That this is “natural” and “in their place, we would have the same desire”. The mistake is solely in casting this in moral terms. The Russian state having desires and “feelings” is not evaluable as right or wrong or justified or legitimate or anything; it is simply the case. The same goes for other states, naturally. Western states can either say “we are outraged at attempted Russian expansion” or they can say “attempted Russian expansion threatens our interests”, perhaps they can even say “attempted Russian expansion threatens our interests, in other words, we are outraged at it”, but to say “this threatens our interests _therefore_ we are outraged” is a type error.

    3. There is a wide gulf between countries voluntarily joining an alliance, and countries being invaded and bombed flat to get them to join a (supposed) alliance.

  37. “The idea here was, as we have laid out, that US nuclear forces would be designed to withstand a first nuclear strike still able to launch a retaliatory second strike of such scale that the attacker would be utterly destroyed; by doing so it was hoped that one would avoid nuclear war in general.”

    And the big problem with that was the one of communications. The Australian/West German pair of movies known as Silo 15 – which I saw at a Canberra high sc hool in the late seventies – made that the focus. What happens when you have international tensions rising, and a distant earthquake destroys the communications link, and someone assumes that it proves a nuclear attack has succeeded? (I would like it if both the German and the Australian film preservation folks who release versions to the likes of Youtube and The films make a point that is too easily missed.)

    Then of course an argument against both anti-satellite weapons and anti-ballistic missile weapons was that they destabilized the nuclear deterrent. If satellites are destroyed, bang! there goes a major part of the communications and reconnaissance function previously relied upon to maintain this deterrence. If there is enough of an anti-ballistic missile “shield” in place, then one party to this “deterrence confederation” has gained a first strike capability/capacity and the other has lost its second strike capability/capacity.

  38. Something that has fascinated me in recent events is that it’s probably true that an extension of NATO guarantees to Ukraine before February 2022 is probably precisely as described – a false note of dubious credibility, but the invasion itself as generated the sort of sentiments in the West that if they could be transported back in time a few months would have made a NATO red line quite credible in Ukraine.

    Which suggests, in so far as the Kremlin knows this, that they face a ‘use it or lose it’ situation in Ukraine, where failure to either secure control of the country or commit truly binding guarantees of neutrality into the Ukrainian constitution leave them forever unable to wield military coercion against the country.

  39. It seems you posted on Twitter:

    “Given that the liberal democracies triumphed in both world wars and the cold war and currently hold the upper hand now, it seems to me at least that the constraints they work under are at least not a crippling disadvantage. end/”

    This is the kind of astonishingly uninformed comment which gives attentive readers good reason to be skeptical of your analyses or your objectivity. I expected better from you.

    Here are some historical facts:

    The Tsardom of Russia was an active participant of WWI. Its mere presence forced Germany to fight a two-front war. And there are credible arguments that the early Russian disasters at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes might have indirectly spared Paris from being conquered by the Germans, since it required the diversion of several German divisions to the East when they were sorely needed in the West.

    As for WWII, not only was Soviet Russia a participant, in fact it did 90% of the work in winning the European war, if you measure by German (or Allied) casualties. Without the USSR, there is no credible scenario in which the UK alone, or even the UK + US, would have been in any position to retake the European continent from Germany (without nuclear weapons, anyway. But this factor becomes too speculative to predict).

    To brush all of this under a pithy statement such as “liberal democracies triumphed in both world wars” is not just bad scholarship. It is deceptive advertising, since the simplistic motto it pushes doesn’t even come close to approximating the reality.

    1. Oh give it a rest, DanGer. Yes, obviously Russia made an enormous contribution to Allied victory in WW2, and a lesser but still non-negligible one to Entente victory in WW1. None of this alters the fact that the liberal democracies were on the winning side in both conflicts and the Cold War, which proves the actual point that Bret is making i.e. not that democracy single-handedly wins every war, but that clearly it’s not incompatible with being militarily successful.
      Also, whilst I don’t personally agree with Bret on every issue and think it’s useful to inject some nuance into discussion, your insistence on relentlessly seeking out any pretext to attack him and push a pro-Russia line is rapidly undermining your own credibility. I earlier referred to some of your arguments as ‘persuasively presented’ but they’re becoming less so with each new broadside; preaching ‘objectivity’ whilst incessantly making one-sided attacks based on the most torturously uncharitable readings of someone’s positions is a highly counterproductive rhetorical strategy. For the sake of your own cause, take a break and learn to at least convincingly simulate balance, then maybe next time people will take you more seriously.

    2. > in fact it did 90% of the work in winning the European war, if you measure by German (or Allied) casualties

      That is due to incompetence and disregard to lives of own soldiers. is just an example.

      Heavy costs do not directly correspond to useful work. And USSR was master at wasting lives and work to produce nothing useful.

      1. Order 227 has parallels in western armies – eg Montgomery issued something similar when he took over 8th Army. The Red Army fought under enormous disadvantages for the first 2-3 years of the war: caught in the middle of a re-organisation, lost much of its experienced junior officer corps in 41, limited shell capacity and low-grade explosives until 43, learning while bleeding. Some commanders – eg Zhukov – were careless with lives; many (Rokossovsky, Chuikov) were not. In 41 and 42 it had no choice but to attack where it could, just to tie down the Germans and mess up their logistics.

    3. It is not enough to heep up dead bodies. You must do so effectively.

      Grant wasn’t any better at killing the Army of the Potomac than his predecessors. He’s the one who defeated Lee.

      1. I feel a good example is presented in this blog’s article around Cadorno. He expended a truly staggering number of lives trying to achieve something of no strategic importance to winning the war. I’m not saying the Soviet example is as extreme as this, but it does demonstrate the principle that those lives need to have been traded for something valuable rather than thrown away.

    4. Nothing about his statement suggests the liberal democracies triumphed alone. They did, however, triumph, despite the predictions of countless individuals who believed that the liberal democratic order produces people too weak to ‘do what needs to be done’.

    5. I notice how you very conveniently left out the USSR signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which is what essentially gave Hitler the go-ahead to start the war in the first place and take over the continent.

  40. It should be noted that these people were to some extent anticipated by e.g. Douhet during the interwar period, the “the bomber will always get through” school.

    > the significant of Sputnik (launched in 1957) was always that if the USSR could orbit a small satellite around the Earth, they could do the same with a nuclear weapon.

    Pedantry: the ability to put a small payload into full orbit corresponds to being able to put a (at the time, significantly heavier) nuke onto a suborbital trajectory that nonetheless carries it a good part of the way around the Earth.

    > Consequently, planning for nuclear war is the only way to avoid nuclear war

    Ceterum censeo, si vis pacem, para bellum.

    > Necessary, because your nuclear arsenal is the only thing which can deter an enemy with nuclear weapons, but that very deterrence renders the weapons useless in the sense that you are trying to avoid any scenario in which you use them.

    You already went over this sort of logic in the two Middle-Earth operations series. Detail a strong enough force to X where it will predictably not see combat, but if it were not there or were too weak, the enemy could move via X to (…).

  41. One worrying issue has been the growing disbalance between USA and Russian nuclear capabilities in the last decades :
    – On one hand USA nuclear weapon effectiveness has been greatly enhanced with ever more precise submunitions.
    – On the other hand, Russia is still relying on land radars rather than also satellites, which means a decision time to launch nukes of only about a quarter of an hour compared to about half an hour for the USA.
    This can probably partially explain the attempts by Russia to develop not only hypersonic missiles, but also that doomsday nuclear-powered missile – which the USA stopped developing in the 1960’s as its mere development has been deemed to be too aggravating for the USSR !

    1. I do see this as a somewhat concerning side-effect of economic sanctions against Russia: a widening of the capabilities of the Russian nuclear programme and a risky shift in the balance of MAD.

      Of course, this could have been avoided if Russia simply hadn’t invaded Ukraine, so I’m not pinning the blame for this on the Western world, but it’s a risk that will need mitigating I expect.

      1. It’s been an ongoing concern and I don’t think the war is changing it much.

        To some extent I think it’s propoganda for internal consumption, but to the extent that it’s impacted by US policy the main driver is missile defense; the US is working on and starting to deploy anti-missile capabilites. They’re of uncertain mechanical reliability but the basic principle appears to work, so Russia wants missiles that move too fast to be intercepted.

  42. > Presumably, since Russian nuclear forces are currently on high alert, Perimeter is active, which should be a chilling thought.

    I keep reading this is actually an intimidation statement and little else – because nuclear forces are *always* on high alert. My latest source is a podcast with a former Polish spymaster, and a former Chargé d’affaires from a Minsk embassy.

    1. There’s degrees of alert. For instance, Perimeter doesn’t, or at least didn’t in the Soviet era, always have the arming codes. The leadership would put them in when a nuclear attack was anticipated or reported by radar.

    2. Thermonuclear bombs require tritium, which has a short half-life. You have to insert tritium into the bomb not too long before you set it off. Tritium is expensive; it’s not practical to keep lots of bombs all ready to pop, all the time.

      Substantially all nuclear weapons nowadays are thermonuclear.

      So I presume the Russian president’s utterance means that he’s ordered (some part of) his nuclear force primed with tritium.

  43. Much has already been said: I’ll just contribute a couple of points from my own professional experience, especially during the Cold War.
    The kind of theory sketched out here is accepted to be very US-centric, and not necessarily generally applicable. To a large degree, it is a theory trying to rationalise a practice (the holding of nuclear weapons) which had already developed. As others have noted, there was no military threat to Western Europe in the late 1940s: the western military were well aware of the weakness of the Soviet economy and the poor quality of the Soviet occupation troops. The Washington Treaty was a political document only, designed to associate the US with European security, and, in the minds of its originators, strengthen the resolve of electorates in countries like France and Italy not to vote for the Communist Party. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons were being developed for some future conflict, but were seen, in government, as just being big bombs. The theories of people like Brodie don’t seem to have had much practical impact, and it was assumed that the weapons would be used as a matter of course in a future war. It was, of course, the Korean War which set off a war scare in the West, and brought about the militarisation of NATO, and ultimately the rearmament of West Germany, something that the Russians were not entirely happy with. As it became clear that an actual nuclear war would be immensely destructive, convoluted rationales, as you describe, were developed in western think tanks to justify them. But of course this misses the big point: the actual reasons why states develop and maintain nuclear weapons have very little to do with war and deterrence, even if they are seldom acknowledged. It’s not an accident that the P5 are all nuclear powers, and that countries like Britain cling to this status as a way of retaining influence and political profile in the world. Indeed, official documents show that Britain continued its nuclear programme in the late 1940s, in part because they didn’t trust the US with a monopoly of western nuclear weapons; Even now, the primary motive for UK nuclear forces is great power status and influence with the US (as well, of course, as memories of 1940).

    Secondly, the originators of such theories were games theorists and economists (Schelling has been mentioned) and they were obliged to assume that their theories were universally true. None of them were experts on the Soviet Union. yet it was clear even at the time (from the doctrine manuals translated and published in the 1970s) that the Soviet concept was very different. It’s not clear that they saw “deterrence” in the same way, nor that they accepted the famous “MAD” concept. In part this was their ideology: it was assumed that the worldwide triumph of Communism would be preceded by another general war launched by the West, which would inevitably be nuclear. Soviet forces were designed to win that war, so they were trained and equipped to fight in nuclear conditions. It seems to have been accepted that the war would be terribly destructive, but that, after perhaps ten or twenty years of reconstruction, the Soviet Union would be declared the winner. It’s fairly clear that the Soviets never considered themselves “deterred” by anyone. All this, together with the ever-present neurotic fear of a sudden NATO surprise attack, was confirmed when the Soviet archives were opened and studied in the 1990s. Of course, the Soviets didn’t welcome a war, and they thought that it could be postponed, or even theoretically avoided, if they retained forces that were so large and powerful, and on such a high state of readiness, that they could never be surprised again. And of course this time they planned to fight the war on somebody else’s territory. It’s impossible to overstate the influence of 1941 here, and the obsession with making any sacrifice in order to avoid a repetition. Of course, the Soviets were not going to war lightly, and there were actually rules, if not of deterrence, then of prudence. After a flurry of activity in the 1950s, NATO left eastern Europe alone, and in turn the Soviet Union didn’t interfere in the Americas. It wasn’t worth provoking a war in either case. People were wiser in those days. At the end of the Cold War, the limitations of purely theoretical strategies became apparent: games theory is essentially zero-sum, and so in Washington it seemed logical to take advantage of Soviet, and later Russian, weakness, to improve the western position. “They’re down” people said in the Pentagon. “It’s the time to kick them.” Colleagues of mine returning from Washington around 1990 were all shaking their heads and saying “this will end in tears.”

    Since you asked, I’ll say a little bit about the French attitude, since I had a lot to do with the French professionally. Nuclear weapons are still absolutely central to French policy-making, and they continue to get absolute priority. Partly, this is great power and P5 status; to which the French are fundamentally attached. But mainly it’s to have a national fallback option in the case (which they consider highly likely) of abandonment by the US in a crisis. An independent nuclear force is an existential device for keeping France safe, as well as assuring autonomy of decision-making in a crisis. The French concept of “dissuasion” is not really the same as “deterrence”: the weapons are described as “weapons of non-use”: they do their job just by existing. But they are also intended, very practically, to be used if necessary, and here the trauma of 1940 is still evident, with the belief that somehow technology could have prevented the defeat. As one French officer said to me thirty years ago “we have nuclear weapons today because we did not have them in 1940.”

    1. Communist ideology seems to have had interesting ramifications for soviet strategy, but often in a weird way. Rather than bolstering soviet aggression it seems to often have acted as a kind of cooler “Well, history is on our side anyway, the capitalist systems will collapse on their own, so no need to actually go to war” (and the soviet aggressions that happened were often precipitated by local communists doing something that require the USSR to sweep in and “save” them)

      And the great irony is of course that it was the USSR that collapsed from internal stress, not the western democracies.

    2. > The kind of theory sketched out here is accepted to be very US-centric, and not necessarily generally applicable.

      In particular, Russian doctrine has the concept of “de-escalation strikes”. They feel entitled to a first nuclear strike against a NATO country if they feel they’re losing a conventional war. They call them de-escalation because they would use a small, tactical warhead against a minor country such as Estonia or Latvia. They assume other NATO states would be intimidated and wouldn’t risk getting into a nuclear war over a small country.

    3. > the actual reasons why states develop and maintain nuclear weapons have very little to do with war and deterrence

      Seriously? What is the supposed reason you claim?

      You even later describe “But they are also intended, very practically, to be used if necessary”

    4. ““It’s the time to kick them.”

      As in, letting countries like Estonia to join the West and get the Western security guarantees for their national independence so that they won’t become yet another shrinking Uralic language speaking ethnic minority group in the Russian empire?

  44. It seems that your misunderstandings are shared by a number of other people unfamiliar with academia, so I will spell it out here for those new to this business:

    Bret is a public intellectual. He has purposefully chosen to represent his subject (and to some degree academic scholarship in general) in the public eye. In doing this he has gathered something of a following, people who trust his word and use it to base their own judgments. He has a talent for producing accessible and entertaining surveys.

    But there are deeper things than just catchy exposition. This public role comes with important responsibilities. The most important one is: when drawing on facts to support arguments, one should try to say correct things, or at least not obviously wrong things. And when you do say wrong things (everyone makes mistakes), you own up to it and re-examine the facts. Also, if you spot someone else saying wrong things, you should point it out. You are doing that person a favor. This is part of the job of being a scholar.

    No one is obliged to stop this process just because you are tired of seeing it. Don’t want to read any more of it? Then go away and don’t read it. I don’t have a “cause” and I didn’t write any of this to persuade you. Frankly, most people reading this have no audience anyway, so I’m not worried about them misleading anybody. If you see facts you don’t like and choose to ignore them, then go right on ahead. Good luck with that. My goal is to set relevant facts into the record. I care more if Bret gets something wrong and others start accepting it uncritically.

    Political analyses are subjective and can’t be authoritatively labeled “right” or “wrong”; they are different interpretations of the (sometimes differing) data. Much of my commentary has been of this nature. I think Bret is either ignoring or unaware of large swathes of evidence which suggest that his interpretations are incorrect. Well, people can argue back and forth about that. I write to present my interpretation clearly. Whether some netizens decide to adopt it for themselves is unimportant.

    But the particular tweet I’m highlighting here is completely wrong, and objectively so. Bret is constructing some narrative that “liberal democracies” may be better than (specifically) Russia in this or that way, such as winning wars. You can’t support this narrative by citing wars in which (the non-“liberal democratic”) Russia actually did part or most of the winning. That’s not how reasoning works.

    This kind of mistake suggests that the narrative was preconceived in advance, with some (relevant or not) facts being squeezed in afterwards to give it the appearance of substance. This is an unhealthy way to construct narratives. But it explains a lot of the interpretations I’m seeing around here.

  45. Whoops. Looks like I’ve posted this in the wrong place. Bret, please delete. I’ve reposted it again in the right thread (I hope).

Leave a Reply