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. Speaking of “salami tactics”, not personally having followed the situation in the Ukrainian war too closely, on the 21st, I was like :
    “Welp, he finally did it (for Lugansk and Donetsk), so what’s likely going to be next now ? Ok, seems to be Mariupol, will they try to take it right away, or will they let things cool down first ? They seem in a hurry, and it’s an important strategic location, might be right away…”
    I did NOT expect for him to try to gobble the *whole* Ukrainian salami outright !

    Welp, now he’s going to choke on it – Putin’s done for, *especially* after (roughly) yesterday, even the *Russian* public isn’t going to let the massive shelling of Ukrainian cities slide (eventually, once the reality filters through the propaganda) – there’s just too many ties between the two populations !

    I’m now wondering about how much the various rumors about Putin’s declining health were true – it would make (a kind of) sense to try to “accelerate the slicing” if he felt that he wasn’t long for this world…

    And in other news, because this brazen “worse than a crime mistake”, other Eastern European countries are now understandably nervous that Putin would try to invade them later even *despite* promised NATO nuclear deterrence…

    1. Regarding Putin’s health, entirely possible — in multiplayer games, it is a well known phenomenon that there are many people who, if they can’t win, make the game unenjoyable to everyone else. The usual term is “griefer”.

    2. Also, seems like Finland and Sweden are reconsidering their former unwillingness to (fully) join NATO, even despite the risk of antagonizing the now seen as trigger-happy Russia !

      I was really surprised that Finland wasn’t in NATO yet, after all they used to regularly war with the bordering Russia/USSR, but I guess that was a long time ago, and that they were confident in their status as a “buffer country” and good relations with USSR/Russia since a treaty with Moscow in 1948 ?

      (It must have been hard for Finland to go with EU sanctions on Russia, considering the above and the importance of Russia for them as a trading partner ?)

  2. One note on the stupidly high number of warheads during the cold war – another calculation that went into it was that the missile technology for part of that time was not, shall we say, reliable. When you’re assuming that a significant portion of your launches will either not launch at all or have to be destroyed by a range safety officer because they’ve starting doing loop-de-loops above your silo… you need to make sure you have a few extras to put into the air.

  3. I’ve read this article twice, and I haven’t really understood the distinction between “interior manouvres” and “exterior manouvres”.

    I’m familiar with the idea of operating on interior/exterior lines; I suppose there must be some kind of analogy being drawn, but I haven’t understood it.

    1. Interior maneuvers are actions designed to achieve advantage within a given conflict or area.

      Exterior maneuvers are actions designed to allow a nuclear power to act more freely in a given conflict or area, without triggering an opposing nuclear poweer’s red lines.

      1. My rendering was as follows:
        You and your opponent have borders, and red lines. The red lines are outside your borders and denote your sphere of influence, which is safe from your opponent.

        The purpose of an interior maneuver is to shift your border outwards, making more effective use of your sphere of influence.

        The purpose of an exterior maneuver is to shift your red line outwards or your opponent’s red line inwards, expanding your sphere of influence or shrinking theirs, this allowing further interior maneuvers on your side, or fewer on the opponent’s side.

    2. My understanding would be interior to your nuclear umbrella, and exterior to your nuclear umbrella. So, US political meddaling in Western Europe is interior manuevers and US arming of Mujahadeen would be exterior manuevers.

      Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      1. Not quite, if I’ve understood it right. Interior manouvers would be US political meddling in Western Europe. Exterior manouvers would be Poland joining the EU, which expands where the perception of how far east ‘Western Europe’ reaches allowing the US to more effectively meddle there, and limiting Russia’s ability to do so (because the general perception is that it’s less acceptable for Russia to do this now that Poland is in the EU).

        Georgia applying for EU membership is another example, as is the foregrounding of Ukraine being a European nation and it being invaded is a return to ‘War in Europe’. It’s all about building a consensus around the legitimacy of a power acting in a given area, and leveraging the change in opinion to give yourself more areas you’re able to act in (or fewer your opponents can) either in terms of more countries people will tolerate you acting in them, or more methods of acting that are tolerated.

    3. My understanding is that, if you think of it as a football game, an interior maneuver would be doing anything that’s within the written rules of the game, whilst an exterior maneuver would be something like playing the referee or influencing the sports body to have the rules changed in your favour. The interior is about what you do on the playing field, the exterior is what you do to change the playing field.

  4. Incompetence doesn’t kill the enemy. The Soviets were far from incompetent. Operation Bagration was probably the most impressively executed modern combat operation and destroyed almost an entire German army group.

    That said, the 90% of casualties number seems way too high. The Western Allies proved they were capable of inflicting serious defeats on the Axis, from Tunisia to the Ruhr. The casualty count is also a pretty skewed way of looking at things, seeing as it was the Allies who occupied about 3/4 of Germany (obviously not counting the parts of Germany that ceased to be Germany in the post-war period). It was also the Allies who destroyed the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine, and delivered multiple crushing blows to German industry. Not to mention defeating Germany’s principal European ally.

    Too much is made of Order 227. The actual number of soldiers executed by the NKVD is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things (IIRC, it was around 10-12,000. Compared to 30,000 executed by the Germans for “defeatism).

    1. I appear to have done the stupid. This was a reply to Mateusz Konieczny above concerning casualties in WW2.

      As an aside, it’d be great if WordPress let me delete or edit comments for the next time I inevitably do this.

    2. From what I remember I have not claimed that they were incompetent, but that they had strong disregard to lives of soldiers, exemplified by 277 (which caused only smart part of losses but is a good example of approaching situation, similarly to treatment of own PoW).

    3. 90% might be believable, since Germany focused more on the Eastern front, plus the combat was more intense it sounds like (in terms of taking prisoners, armies being wiped out, I think willingness to retreat/give ground if not doing well, though orders not to retreat may argue against this.) Haven’t checked actual numbers to be sure. A war of western allies only vs. Germany obviously has more Western losses, may have resulted in less German losses.

      As for competence, it is weird to read about. Lots of praise for Soviet techniques in various maneuvers/deception/setting up their battles, but very high losses compared to what the operations seem like they should have, though these seem to get better as the war goes on. Might be that it took a long time to get new officers/experience, I also saw the explanation somewhere (“somewhere” is obviously a high quality source) that after such high losses earlier, the commanders realized they had to fight more efficiently.

      I have both read that soviets were generally tolerant of higher casualties, and some t34 descriptions I’ve seen recently all point to the tank being difficult to get out of/not well designed for the crew, so there may be some culture/government thing here that tolerates higher casualties and focuses on other things.

      1. AFAIK, there are no reliable “actual numbers” to be exactly sure. Some numbers do go almost to 90% casualties being in the East, while some don’t. I suppose the most precise statement we can make is that there were “quite a bit more” casualties on the Eastern European front than in the west.

        But frankly, this entire discussion smacks of fanboyism, on both sides. With due respect, Bret’s initial Twitter post had the quality of “longbows are the bestest medieval weapon ever because Crecy and Agincourt”. Even on the simplest level of analysis, taking the massive advantages of population and GDP of the Axis and Allies into account, the quality of the statement is about the same as comparing a heavyweight boxer with flu against a lightweight half his size, and then concluding that “flu doesn’t diminish your fighting capacity”.

        And on the other hand: as big as USSRs contributions in Europe were, you cannot look at the European war alone, without taking into consideration the North African theatre, or the fact that Japan did jack in the east against the USSR after Khalkin Gol because of the focus in the Indochina and the Pacific War…and then there was also the Lend-Lease.

  5. On a somewhat lighter note, last weekend I fell down a hole of watching various “subject matter expert reviews their area of expertise as its depicted in movies and tv” videos like the ones Dr. Konijnendijk did and I was wondering whose pet and/or small child we have to kidnap to get you on one of those?

  6. Anyone who is calling for a no-fly zone should read and understand this. Thanks (I think) for reminding me of stuff I haven’t thought about since poli sci almost forty years ago!

    1. Some of them understand it implicitly even if they don’t read or study this, and they still call for it because it is unfortunately in their self-interest. Examples in the media are mostly Ukrainians who are making the argument that they are already in a total war scenario, which Bret mentioned in the paragraph about where Ukrainian interests and NATO/World interests diverge. Or if not Ukrainian, people who are really emotionally sympathetic to their cause.

      You can easily imagine that a grieving human who just lost their family doesn’t give a fuck about whether the rest of the world burns in nuclear apocalypse. Thus it is “rational” for them to call for NATO to do more, without a care for nuclear war.

    2. I think the main reason a NFZ *specifically* is such a popular idea is that, in Bret’s analysis, a NFZ is an interior maneuver. Since the 1990s, the US and NATO have used NFZs as an escalatory measure short of war, one that is an acceptable move even in situations where conventional ground war would be unacceptable. The domestic political cost is smaller, but more relevantly to this conversation, it’s a smaller transgression of international norms.

      But underlying all of that is the fiction that an NFZ is not an act of aggression, that it’s a purely defensive and protective maneuver, and that it’s of a different nature from being militarily involved in a conflict.

      So now the US and NATO have to reconcile two irreconcilable ideas: the conceit of the NFZ as a defensive and protective mission short of open warfare, and the fact that an NFZ is an aggressive maneuver that is open (but limited) warfare. Pushing the latter idea too hard into the public consciousness will jeopardize their ability to use NFZs in the future in places like Venezuela or Yemen or Myanmar, because when people *really* understand that enforcing an NFZ over Myanmar is *going to war with Myanmar* and not just some pilots doing some friendly peaceful flights over Myanmar, it’ll be a much more unpopular policy. And we are currently seeing what happens from pushing the former idea too hard.

  7. All your posts on this war have been illuminating. Thank you.

    “Ukraine has very little to lose if the war escalates further… 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.”

    I found this part confusing. The Ukrainian population and state is made up of people. Those who remain in Ukraine have their hope of rebuilding to lose, as well as their lives. Ukrainian refugees have their hope of return, as well as the lives of their loved ones, to lose. The only Ukrainians with nearly nothing to lose at this point are a few high-level state actors who have committed their own lives to pursuing the defense, or those whose identification with the concept of a free Ukrainian state is so total that they’d equate imposition of a puppet state to the total destruction of all they do and would ever consider valuable.

    Even for totalist Ukrainian nationalists, it’s easy to see how escalation of the war in the short-term might boost their chance of a short-term victory by a small margin (if Russia backed down), while eroding their chances of victory in the long term by a larger margin (if Russia escalated and burned Ukraine to the ground).

    Therefore, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Zelenskyy is not willing to risk the total destruction of his country via an escalation spiral as the price for a small boost in his chances of a successful resistance to the Russian invasion right now. Then his calls for escalatory measures would require a different explanation.

    One possible explanation is that these calls have the effect of increasing NATO’s window of freedom to act as it is already doing. By emphazing NATO is not doing, he anchors perceptions of arms supplies and sanctions as relatively small interventions. He gives cover to US politicians, who now have something to say both to American isolationists and to those who’d want to intervene more aggressively. It also reinforces the perception of Ukrainian gallantry by pointing out the extent to which they are mounting this resistance on their own. Perhaps US citizens will be more accepting of higher gas prices if they look at the price at the pump and think, “This is Russia’s fault. It’s the least we can do to help those brave Ukrainian freedom fighters.” I know I have that thought.

    1. > Therefore, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Zelenskyy is not willing to risk the total destruction of his country via an escalation spiral as the price for a small boost in his chances of a successful resistance to the Russian invasion right now.

      I would not assume that.

      I would not be surprised that he would accept small risk of escalation to nuclear exchange if that would come with very likely termination of attacks.

    2. I expect you’re right about the calls for greater action solidifying the lower-level support (so long as overall Ukraine still appears to be reasonable in its requests and not damaging to NATO’s perception in comparison to its peers).

      I wouldn’t, however, be confident that only a minority of Ukrainians view this as a truly existential threat. There are people alive today who were born during the Holodomor. Genocide through state neglect (in the least malevolent reading of those events) within living memory does not contribute positively to the perception you or your people will be safe under the auspices of the Russian government.

      1. Well, without a nuclear war there’s still hope to leave or that the tyranny will end for someone, if not for you. With a nuclear war there’s… just no hope, most likely.

        But I get the point. Their risk calculus is very different from ours right now.

        1. In a nuclear war there’s the hope the nuclear powers shoot their arsenals mostly at eachother and Ukraine gets off with a million dead, which is better numbers than under Stalin.

          But the hope they’re probably banking on is the NATO militaries obliterate the Russian air force and missile positions, blast advancing armor columns into scrap, and start moving in while ostentatiously loading tactical nukes, and Putin… folds. Instead of following through on his threats, he calls Biden and says he’ll withdraw all forces from Ukraine’s borders as defined by Ukraine and let them join NATO and never invade them again.

          Could that happen? Sure, NATO having a conventional edge over Russia was a known fact even before this invasion showed Russia wasn’t as strong as we thought. However, Putin reacting by actually firing off a tactical nuke, NATO actually firing one back, and through a cycle of this or a mistaken detection of strategic attacks this turns into a full exchange could also happen. As could Putin firing off a nuke and then Biden calling Putin to say he can have Crimea and the Donbas as long as he gets out of Kyiv.

    3. I find the example of higher fuel prices for USA citizens a bit weird :
      since crude oil is very easy to ship worldwide, it’s very unlikely that a complete embargo over Russian oil is going to succeed, and therefore there isn’t going to be any significant, durable impact on oil prices.

      Russian methane is another matter – pipelines are way cheaper than cooling it down into liquid form, and last I checked the plans to build methane decompression terminals for USA gas had been mostly abandoned in Europe.

      I’m kind of afraid that this is going to change now – as bad as the Ukrainian war is, it’s small beans compared to the ongoing horror that is fracking in the USA (and the linked Canadian tar sands).
      And then Europe would be stuck with expensive infrastructure making it tempting to continue to import fracked methane from the USA long after this conflict is over.
      (Well, not *too* long, those tight oil & gas plays aren’t going to last for long, and the USA will obviously prioritize its internal consumption.)

      Anyway, this is mostly about the (non-Russian) Eastern European consumers willing (or not) to somehow drastically cut their consumption of Russian methane over the next winters.

      1. “as bad as the Ukrainian war is, it’s small beans compared to the ongoing horror that is fracking in the USA”

        Clearly the statement of a man who thinks that the life of a Ukrainian is, for all practical purposes, valueless.

        1. It migh be, depending on how increased global warming would play out.

          Right now it’s around 5,000-20,000 or so Ukrainians killed (depending on estimates, which are all over the place.) and a similar amount of Russians. Global warming being a worldwide thing, increased amounts of it could conceivably do damage of about that number.

          (Actual course of action of course is to both use less fossil fuels and get the war finished up as favorably as possible for Ukraine, in such a way that Russia and other countries don’t start a similar war in the future.)

          1. Don’t try and evade the issue. Peak Singularity didn’t say that fossil fuels were as bad as the Ukrainian war, he said specifically that fracking was as bad as the Ukrainian war. In fact, he wants Europe to keep using natural gas, but from Russia, not from the U.S.

          2. > Global warming being a worldwide thing, increased amounts of it could conceivably do damage of about that number.

            Even that is not rescuing claim that compared solely fracking in USA, that in any sane counting killed less than lower limit of dead in Ukraine.

            It sounds like someone pretending to be radical environmentalist to present them as idiots.

          3. “It sounds like someone pretending to be [a] radical environmentalist in order to present them as idiots.”–More likely, a Russian troll throwing up a nonsensical argument that he thinks might appeal to some Americans, in order to sow division.

          4. No, ideally neither Russian nor US gas.

            But of course this is wishful thinking.
            A more reasonable course of action is an immediate buildup of gas unloading facilities in EU (IIRC gas loading facilities in the US are already built up ?), and then an immediate shutdown once Putin is gone. The former is likely to happen now, the latter – won’t.

            Also, even though the winter is ending, it’s probably still not feasible for the Eastern EU countries to immediately stop taking Russian gas (the aforementioned buildup of terminals taking months if not years).

            I don’t know what the state of their gas reserves is, but considering the attitude of Poland and Baltic countries towards Russia, I’m confident that they’ll make the right decision, whatever that will be. (Germany might require a bit of pressuring.)

          5. IMO it doesn’t really make sense to pin that many GW related deaths specifically only on one method of extraction in one country when the problem is global and comes from all oil, gas and coal extraction and use (and it involves the CO2 produced across over a century!). Fracking specifically is generally frowned upon because of its potential local risks – polluting water, causing geological instabilities – which while bad are of course not comparable to a whole war.

      2. > as bad as the Ukrainian war is, it’s small beans compared to the ongoing horror that is fracking in the USA (and the linked Canadian tar sands).

        You probably should check estimates how many people died in Ukraine before making such claims.

        (or are you comparing all costs of all fracking ever done and which will be done in USA and the same for oil sands with two weeks of war?)

        In other words it is comparison that is both incompetent, insulting and trollish.

        1. No, sorry for the misunderstanding, if comparing overall fracking (oil + gas) + oil sands to the overall expected damage of this war (starting in 2014), assuming we don’t get WW3.
          I’m probably more pessimistic about this war than Dillon Saxe, thinking about hundreds of thousands of ruined lives.

          There are two aspects here :
          1) The global warming consequences, which are now expected to last for thousand(s) of years.

          2) The resource depletion – not doing the fracking was pretty much the *last* opportunity to radically change our hydrocarbon usage before we’re prevented from doing so by an Energy Trap (and costs from worsening climate change).

          (This symbolic aspect of “one step too far” IMHO makes it worse.)

          But, (ab)using an earlier quote, “Our way of life is not up for negotiations. Period. [And screw our (grand) children, who now will have to deal with our civilization imploding.]”

          And who’s not to say that after depleting the tight oil –
          (which it’s not even clear that it was purely economically sane to extract, considering how the tight oil industry hasn’t managed to collectively turn a profit for a single quarter of its existence)
          – the USA won’t find a way to extract the kerogen (aka “un(der)cooked oil”) that it has in abundance (that already Kessinger was talking about) ?

          That would likely be even *more* insane in terms of energy/pollution ratio, but I can already imagine the excuses in the vein of “we can’t function without personal cars and long-distance trucking, and it’s too late to re-think our infrastructure now”.

        2. this is the entire issue of fossil fuel use and climate change though- it isn’t quite immediate enough. Sure, we have categorically failed to make the 1.5 degree target (models that predicted this required world energy consumption to go down prior to 2020, which did not happen, and 2020 is now in the past), but we can maybe make the 2 degree target.
          But if I was a betting man, I’d wager heavily against making the 2 degree target either. There simply isn’t the will before we start seeing major consequences beyond a statistical increase in deaths from extreme weather events, which currently appears effectively random to anyone not actively studying it.
          The issue is there is a hard limit on when we can stop global warming (at ~4 degree warming total) where reaching that point, even with a plan to cool the planet later, triggers a run-away cycle, and most species larger than rats die (the current estimate for worst case is that it would mirror the P-T extinction, which is 81% of marine and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species, as that’s the extinction event most closely linked with a carbon-dioxide provoked global warming even. Don’t bet on humans being in the 30% who survive, the chances in practice greatly increased as bodymass decreased, and cats are much lighter than us).

          1. A quick reminder for those that might not know/remember all the details :

            We’re currently in an Ice Age (defined as all year round ice on the surface in at least some places), which is NOT a normal state for our planet.

            This latest Quaternary (aka Pleistocene) glaciation began 2.6 million years (My) ago. Exceptionally, Antarctica and Greenland have been (mostly) frozen since then.
            (Note also that this is roughly when the genus Homo emerged from an Australopithecus species in Africa, though it might not actually be related, considering the uncertainties involved.)

            *During* this Ice Age, homo sapiens emerged around 0.3 My ago, and so has experienced at least 3 (if not 4) relatively short (in the low tens of thousands of years) interglacial periods, during which, even more exceptionally, Earth had ice on its surface, *but* what is now Canada and the United Kingdom + Ireland were NOT covered in glaciers.
            Notably, our first migration out of Africa (around 0.12 My = 120 ky ago) might correspond with the previous interglacial.
            And of course we’re currently in one, called Holocene, started about 12ky ago. And the fist civilizations seem to pop up (relatively) shortly after that.
            (This raises the question – might there have been human civilizations during those previous 2-3 interglacials, and how hard would it be to find their traces after those hundreds of thousands of years ?)

            I actually *would* bet on humans surviving the end of the Ice Age, since we have fairly unique adaptation skills. But what is normal for the Earth might not allow for any human civilization. It’s not just about survival, I don’t want this kind of future for us.
            And most importantly, this is not just about the humans, what right do we have to wreck the whole biosphere like this ?! The rate of change is important here, various species are only so good at adapting to them, it’s way above many of the previous climatic transitions, and seems to approach the worst cataclysms that the Earth has known.
            I still don’t think that the end of the Ice Age is likely, but the risk is already unacceptable, and grows every year.

            I must remark that there’s the possibility here that climate change might help extending the current interglacial, the end of which might (or might not) be overdue, but I’m not comfortable taking *that* kind of risk – too many chances of overshooting our target, and we’ve already survived previous glaciations, and I’m much more confident in the possibility of human civilizations during them.
            Not to mention that we would get another interglacial eventually, while that won’t happen if we end our Ice Age.
            It would be of course a huge international diplomacy issue for the northern countries that would otherwise be wiped out by the next glaciation.

            Also, because Sun’s radiation has been slowly increasing (on the timeline of hundreds of millions of years), there’s also an even lower chance of us triggering a Venus-like runaway warming, forever exterminating all life on Earth.
            Something like this is supposed to happen *eventually*, and even before the Sun becomes a red giant and swallows the Earth, but it would *really* suck if we were to trigger that ~500 My too early !

            Here’s an example of climatologists pessimistic about these risks :
            (In any case, the lack of discussion about the contribution of the other sources of greenhouse gasses to climate change, especially methane, is certainly concerning.)

          2. As for what life after the end of the Ice Age would look like : I’m imagining the typical human being a hunter-gatherer surviving in Antarctic “jungles” and maybe around the Arctic sea – a particularly harsh kind of “jungle” with polar night and midnight sun both lasting for months.

  8. “Indeed, it was an empire of a very traditional kind, in which a core demographic (ethnic Russians were substantially over-represented in central leadership)”

    Are you sure about this? Out of 5 Soviet supreme leaders who rules for a significant time, one (Brezhnev) was born in the modern-day Ukraine and one (Stalin) in the modern-day Georgia. Brezhnev and Gorbachev were of mixed Russo-Ukrainian ancestry.

    1. I think askhistorians had a thread about it somewhere, but basically ethnic russians did tend to dominate bureaucracies, but it kinda dependend on exact positions and such. There was a tendency f.ex. to have the various republics and autonomous regions and such to be at least headed by a member of the “titular ethnicity”, (so eg. a georgian was usually head of the georgian soviet republic) but often assisted by a secretary or similar from Moscow who ended up wielded quite a bit of the actual power. (noted that for some of the smaller minorities it was practically difficult to source bureaucrats so often a relatively untrained minority leader ended up the titular head assisted by a cadre of russians)

      It was also noted that the “Moscow vs. Rest of the USSR” was a lot more prominent than “Ethnic russians vs. the rest of the USSR” though they were somewhat intertwined.

      1. The USSR also tried to Russify the non-Russian elites. The best schools in the SSRs, those that fed into the elite tracks in the party and the state, were taught in Russia and emphasized Russian culture, which caused resentment among other members of the non-Russian ethnic groups.

        1. At its most absurd, “Russian priority” — Vladamir Propp actually got into trouble for noting the Brothers Grimm started serious fairy tale collection. They were GERMAN

        2. That’s true, notwithstanding some efforts in the opposite direction in the 1920s. But that’s a different kind of empire than what Brett is describing.

          By the way, I’m also not sure about the resources flowing from the periphery to the center. While Moscow indeed had a fairly high standard of living, the rest of Russia was far behind. Anecdotally, the people who lived at that time usually said that Ukraine was somewhat more prosperous that Russia and the South Caucasian republics were even richer. Again, it would be good to read some research on this.

          1. There were Russian jokes about this. The Baltics and the Caucasus were wealthier than Russia, and Central Asia was heavily subsidised.

          2. My understanding is that part of it was actually because Ukraine and the balkans had been so devastated during the war: When stuff was rebuild they got the newer/better things.

      2. I have a similar impression with regards to the “peripheral” ethnicities, but when it comes to Ukrainians and Belarusians, who would be similar to Russians in terms of education level and culture, I would not expect them to be under-represented.

        It would be good to know whether someone has done research on this.

        Re Moscow vs. Rest of the USSR, it’s just that in such a centralised system everything of importance happened in Moscow and so ambitious people of all ethnicities flowed there. You won’t find many native Muscovites in the Soviet elite.

        1. The “when” is important. While Soviet ideology was initially at least theoretically one of fraternity between peoples, Stalin has screwed this up for base political reasons for (at least) Ukrainians, Poles and Jews, with (at least) anti-Jew sentiment then persisting in Russia up until even today !

          How much were Ukrainians rehabilitated once the USSR tried to clean up after Stalin ? Any high ranking officials that were Ukrainian with hardly any Russian “mix” ?

          (Also, I wonder how much Putin has managed to dreg up some of this anti-Ukrainian sentiment – from even before WW2 ?)

          Then in parallel, the realpolitik of “communist revolution in a single country” did its work too – dominated by the Russian SSR, so one ethnicity ended up “more equal” than others.

  9. Great post! I do think that your Cold War contextualizing is a bit Eurocentric: beyond the previous criticisms of the idea that the USA operated with anything less than a marginally less autocratic foreign policy than the USSR (which isn’t really true anywhere but Europe), I think it’s worth noting that third world states also operated with initiative under the nuclear umbrellas of the superpowers, and often tried to extend a superpower’s nuclear deterrence to their own territory (Cuba or the PRC in the 1950s comes to mind). Overall though good analysis, particularly as it pertains to Ukraine.

    1. So say that US foreign policy was only marginally less autocratic than the USSR’s outside of Europe seems to me to ignore the proliferation of democratic East Asian US allies/clients: Japan, Australia and New Zealand initially, South Korea and Taiwan subsequently. The Philippines from 1945-1965 and then post-1986.

      The number of democratic USSR satellites in any part of the world was, ::checks notes:: none. There were none. At all.

      So absolutely the USA’s record here is checkered, I wouldn’t argue that. But the USSR’s record isn’t checkered: it is all black spaces, without exception. That isn’t “marginally better” to be frank, it’s substantially better, even with all of the flaws.

      1. This comment is an excellent demonstration of how to carefully pick a measurement in order to push a particular conclusion, without even mentioning that this choice is no better than other standards of measure which would produce different conclusions.

        How about we measure, not by the number of “democratic allies/clients”, but by the number of democratic governments which were overthrown by each superpower?

        It makes more sense to judge someone’s morality by counting, not how many nice friends they have, but rather the number of people they murder.

        Just off the top of my head, we have on the US list:

        1953 Iran
        1954 Gautemala
        1960 Congo
        1973 Chile

        Here is a more comprehensive list:

        Here is the Soviet list:

        As you can see, there is no basis for Bret’s conclusion that the US was “substantially better” by this measure. If anything, the US list looks longer and worse.

        1. Count again, chief.

          In the 1945-1991 window – we’ll be generous towards the USSR and not include examples that begin before 1945 but end after it – your wikipedia link lists 32 American ‘regime changes’ and 34 USSR ‘regime changes.’ If you only counted by the categories Wikipedia uses, the error is obvious: the USA’s Cold War category starts in 1945, whereas the USSR’s category is named “Rest of the Cold War” and starts in 1952. If you are extending beyond that window, all you’ve really demonstrated is that the United States still exists, whereas the Soviet Union doesn’t…which, yes. The United States continues to exist as a major world power whereas the Soviet Union dissolved under the weight of its own failures in less than 70 years. This is true but hardly reflects well on the USSR.

          And of course that doesn’t account for the fact that in some (but by no means all) cases the United States caused a change from a brutal, authoritarian regime to a free, democratic one, whereas the regimes created by the USSR were, without exception, repressive brutal authoritarian regimes.

          If, as you say, the right thing to do here is to count by the number of people they murder…well…excess deaths during the reign of Joseph Stalin alone, in the USSR alone, are estimated between 7 and 9.5 million. That doesn’t include Soviet death squads during WWII (e.g., it doesn’t include deaths from Soviet-supported states or the USSR’s ruthless crushing of dissent in satellite states and of course it doesn’t include deaths either before Stalin (Lenin was no cupcake, look up Decossackization and the Red Terror (1918-1922)) or after him (the USSR was kept prisoners in the camps of what was until 1960 the Gulag system until 1987).

          Whereas the United States regards – rightfully, to be clear – the unlawful incarceration (internment) of around 120,000 Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946 as a terrible stain on its record of human rights, the USSR incarcerated 28.7 million people in the Gulag (and related slave-labor and death-camp systems) from 1917 to 1986, of whom *no less than* 3.5 million died. Individual *years* of the Gulag’s operation incarcerated more political prisoners than all of the prisoner-years (that prisoners*years incarcerated) of Japanese-American Internment combined. (e.g. the official figures – almost certainly an undercount – for the Gulag in 1950 was 2,561,351 prisoners, plus something like 2.5m ‘special exiles’ forced to live in Siberia; a total of prisoner-years more than an order of magnitude larger – in just a single year).

          The moral calculus is absurdly and obviously lopsided. Did the United States do bad things? Of course. Does it still do bad things? Yes.

          But it takes either a special kind of stupidity or a deliberate blindness to argue that the USSR somehow comes off better here. Indeed, the USSR, in both its domestic and foreign policy was so grossly, manifestly terrible that the whole exercise just makes a useful filter by which to detect both kind of fools.

          1. It looks like you are now (perhaps unintentionally) demonstrating that, by moving the goal posts in addition to the measurements, one can again arrange the facts to support some target conclusion.

            First, let’s recall where the goal posts were:

            We were talking about comparing the Cold War foreign policies of the US and the USSR, outside of Europe. In particular, was one more “autocratic” than the other? Whatever that means (the existence of different criteria being the point of discussion).

            If we hold to these goal posts, then it turns out that, well, none of your new examples are even relevant. You mention WWII, Lenin, the Gulag, Japanese Americans, etc. All things which lie outside of the Cold War or foreign policy.

            Maybe you were misled into going off-topic by my metaphor, which you read too literally. By “someone” I actually meant superpower, “nice friends” meant allies/clients, and “murder” meant overthrow foreign governments. I was not, in fact, proposing to move the conversation to death counts. In retrospect, I should not have used an analogy which is so easily misunderstood.

            Returning to the topic, there is another misunderstanding I should clear up: the lists from wikipedia are not meant to taken as authoritative or complete. They are just compilations of stuff people wrote on the internet I grabbed out of convenience. I was not suggesting that we should do some precise bean count with them (such superficial measures are pointless anyway).

            But presumably the entries are not completely fabricated. Even as a rough approximation, they already show that the balance is not nearly so “lopsided” as you assert. Claiming the US was “much better” than the USSR about coups during the Cold War requires (to be generous) a very substantial and detailed argument to support. Not some pithy one-liner.

            Finally, in answer to your ad hominem attacks, I will say only this: questions of morality aside, launching personal attacks in the middle of a discussion about lack of nuance and/or self-serving choices of criteria is… not a very smart play.

          2. @DanGer your choice of goalposts to exclude actions in Europe is transparent in its attempt to favour the USSR in this comparison.

        2. Danger, your comparison between the Soviet Union and the USA regarding regime change is totally weird. The US list starts in the 19th century while the Soviet list starts after the Russian revolution, so already there is an unfair comparison.

          But even more unfair, the list counts not only coups as regime change, but also the introducing of democracy like west Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Do you really think that is the same thing as a coup that creates a dictatorship? And once more, regime change from the US was sometimes anti democratic, and sometimes democratic. From the Soviets, it was always anti democratic.

          1. It tends to get a bit complicated because of what a “satellite” state is: Kind of by definition a satellite state is one that does not have much in the way of volition, and thus can’t really be democratic in any meaningful sense. (since the overlord can always overrule the satellite)

            That said, the Soviets certainly *did* support regimes that turned out to be democratic; The ANC was to a large extent funded by Soviet money, for instance. It just tended to be movements that did not end with a satellite relationship.

          2. Comparing these things is a bit of a fool’s game – it depends very much on what’s included, and where you are. US black slavery – how does it compare to serfdom? Democracy in South Korea or Taiwan (good); genocidal death squads trained, equipped and politically backed by the US in Guatemala or El Salvador (not us); Hungary and Prague (bad); Iraq II (well-intentioned mistake?). Healthcare and education vs the camps vs the prison system. There’s enough misery and evil to go round.

      2. Didn’t most of East Asia become democratic in spite of the US, rather than because of American policy? South Korea was a dictatorship until ’79, Taiwan until ’87 and South Vietnam was also a hugely authoritarian state until it’s dissolution. That is all without mentioning Latin America or Africa, where the USA repeatedly sabotaged attempts at democratization or self-empowerment.
        Ignoring my gripes with the American understanding of Democracy, you can’t really call America a champion of it anymore than the USSR. There is to me no principal, fundamental difference between the USA and the USSR in terms of foreign policy.

        1. IIRC all the states in East Asia that became democratic did so under US protection, and none did so under USSR or PRC protection.

          That is not the pattern I would have expected if the US was the main impediment to democracy.

          Anyone who thinks that “There is to me no principal, fundamental difference between the USA and the USSR in terms of foreign policy” should be taken to Kyiv and left there.

          1. “Anyone who thinks that “There is to me no principal, fundamental difference between the USA and the USSR in terms of foreign policy” should be taken to Kyiv and left there.”

            And anyone who thinks that there is should be taken to Baghdad in 2003 (or, for that matter, any time thereafter really) and left there. I wonder if said person would notice a substantial difference to Kyiv.

        2. There is a certain mistake about the US. It’s generally either neutral with regards to government it supports by geography, resource, and geopolitical alignment.

          So the US supports Saudi Arabia a Whabbist Theocratic Absolutist Monarchy. But, woud the US stop supporting Saudi Arabia if they were a Democracy?

          Egypt has the Suez Canal… so the Americans cultivated support with the military dictatorship, the military dictatorship was overthrown, the Americans cultivated support with the elected governement, the elected government was overthrown, the Americans cultivate support with the new military dictatorship.

          Same with S. Korea as a block to first Russian then Chinese influence. The US is fundementally neutral regarding who actually governments as long as they have a generally anti-Chinese/N. Korea, pro-American foreign policy.

          There are some exceptions in South and Centeral America, but generally those governments were overthrowing pro American dictators with the help of anti American governments.

        3. Indeed. Not to mention that claiming New Zealand and Australia as US success at democratization, which is beyond ludicrous, seeing as these are, well, kind of a part of another superpower.

          While I wouldn’t say that there is no difference between the USA and the USSR – the latter’s record *is* more sketchy – the picture is a lot less black-and-white than Bret paints it. There are places where USSR influence arguably caused more democracy than US influence would have (Vietnam, Afghanistan, possibly a few places in Africa), and more than a few places where democracy arguably developed in spite of US influence and/or only after it waned (the aforementioned Taiwan and South Korea, which for the entire cold war were dictatorship just as brutal as their communist counterparts).

          Also, there’s this one thing that democratic ideologues like Bret always seem to forget: for a lot of people out there (including myself), democracy is means to an end, but not necessarily the end itself. The end goal, if there is any, is the lessening of human suffering and furthering of human prosperity. And while democracy as a system has the best track record on this, there were places where it failed horribly and produced MORE suffering. So saying that “USSR is bad because it never produced a democracy” is a bit of a non sequitur anyway.

          1. Seriously Draugdur, you cannot claim that Taiwan and South Korea was as bad as their communist counterparts during the Cold War. If you believe that, it means you have no idea how bad Maos China and North Korea was. It is like claiming that Putin is as bad as Stalin. Taiwan and South Korea was run the mill brutal and repressive dictatorships, while their communist counterparts make Orwells 1984 look tame.

            Also, American (and western influence in general) is probably a reason why they democratized, since they not only had to please the western military and security people, but also public opinion in the west. People like Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, where sometimes jailed for their activities I’m South Korea, but they were not disappeared or sent to camps (and both later became presidents), and Student protests in the mid 80s led to democratic presidential elections in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall fell. ( South Korea also had democratic elections in the 50s, before the military coup in the early 60s).

            There was also religious freedom in both Taiwan and South Korea. You might not care about that but to religious believers it matters a lot. Being sent to labour camps for your religious beliefs, even if you are not in political opposition is not very pleasant (and I have personally spoken to Chinese Christian’s who suffered under the cultural revolution, so it is not only book knowledge for me).

          2. @Micael Gustavsson

            Frankly, I don’t see much difference between a “run of the mill brutal and repressive dictatorship” and what the communist versions thereof were – although it is quite possible that I know too little of PRC and NK. Still, it seems to me like a difference of being executed once and being executed multiple times – difference in theory, but practically, not so much.

            That said, I was referring mainly to political situation, seeing that was the discussion. I will agree that economically (and thus in total), PRC was much more of a mess than either SK or ROC, which led to comparatively more human misery (thinking about the Great Leap Forward here).

          3. @Draugdur

            I think that was the point, that regular dictatorships are “just” repressive, but states like communist China and North Korea also went the extra mile to completely devastate their own economy and producing misery on industrial scale due to stubbornly ideologically driven policies – which ended up killing and causing suffering more than any brutal secret police working 24/24 could (not that they didn’t ALSO have the brutal secret police anyway).

          4. Also, regular dictatorships allowed you to worship various gods to your own liking, to read poetry or fiction as you liked as long as it wasn’t obviously political, didn’t demand that you loved the regime with all your heart (more than spouses and children). In other words, a regularly dictatorship was a political regime, while the totalitarian states was more like a cult. Remember the ending of Orwells 1984. It was important for the regime that they didn’t kill Winston Smith while he still hated Big Brother. He had to love him. A normal dictatorship would have settled with political compliance.

          5. Yeah, Chun Doo-hwan, the 80’s South Korean usurper & dictator should maybe be commended for willingly stepping down after the 1987 Democratic Uprising ?
            OtoH, that time he had another option than resorting to violence – his favorite Roh Tae-woo won the subsequent free and democratic elections.

            I know, pardoning dictators responsible for bloody massacres doesn’t seem to be any fair –
            (Chun Doo-hwan *was* pardoned, even though responsible for thousand(s) of dead civilians in the 1980’s Gwangju Uprising)
            – but what *other* option do we have to incentivize dictators to peacefully step down ?

            This brings us to Putin – where outside intervention to get rid of him is not even an option due to nuclear deterrence (and would probably be worse long term).

            Sadly I believe that he went too far this time, also the current atrocities will still be too fresh at the end of his current term in 2024 for any kind of “graceful” step down…

            He would have to find a successor that would have to operate a 180° change in the approach to Ukraine, and considering Putin’s own stubbornness, approach to Ukraine, and how the current most likely candidate would seem to be Aleksey Dyumin, who leads the Russian military’s Special Operations Forces, and oversaw the annexation of Crimea in 2014… that doesn’t bode well.
            Meanwhile, a winning opposition would be rightfully out for blood, so there’s hardly any chance for fair elections.

            So looks like we’re going to have to deal with Putin until he’s violently overthrown –
            (with the associated risks of a man having nothing to lose being in control of civilization-ending weapons)
            – or until he just dies of natural causes.

      3. Australia and NZ sit oddly here. Both were and are more democratic by most measures than the US and hardly needed US tutelage.

        1. I wonder what strange moral blindness led these ultra-democratic countries to ally with the US rather than with Imperial Japan, the USSR, or the PRC.

          1. While I generally agree with Bret’s (and I suspect your) position, speaking as a historian of Australia and New Zealand it has to be noted that right from the nineteenth century much of the attraction of an American alliance was not that the USA was democratic- so was Japan in 1902 when the Anglo-Japanese alliance was signed.

            It was because the USA was white; from radical Australian democrats in the 1880s suspicious of capitalists who were believed to be intent on flooding Australasia with cheap non-white labour, through to the fear that Britain was abandoning the dominions to Japan, to the out and out yellow peril thinking after Mao’s victory in the civil war (and domino theory), there has always been a real strand in Australian and NZ thinking that an American alliance was the best way to preserve white, english-speaking democracies.

            This is in no way the only reason for those alliances, of course, but if the discussion is about Cold War morality it should be mentioned.

            Though yes, if I were being parochial and tongue-in-cheek I could argue that ANZUS was a case of two nations with strong democracies allying with a more authoritarian, illiberal power in the name of security!

            (That’s a joke, Don’t at me about the many problems in Australian and New Zealand politics and society!)

        2. It is extremely common, but absolutely mad, to see countries with so little democracy that they generally do not even know when their next election will be described as “more democratic” than a country with an uninterrupted string of regular elections over 200 years long.

          It is absurd to describe countries where so little is actually voted on by the populace that the ballots rarely have two or more items, as “more democratic” than a country where so much is voted on by the populace that ballots are frequently two or more pages.

          1. After the last American presidential election, the Presidents supporters stormed the Capitol shouting that they wanted to hang the vice-President and require the election officials to ignore votes from areas that had voted for the Presidents opponent.

            Many people feel this incident damages the US claim to be an especially stable democracy.

          2. Yes, the 6 January riot are a pretty dark moment in the democratic history of the USA. That said, they still are nothing compared to the kind of problems that literally most other countries have faced. The UK is perhaps the only state I can think of right away that has had a stable and continuous government (although not a fully democratic one) for longer than the USA. Elsewhere, coups, revolutions, dictatorships are in everyone’s histories – even many mature democracies today have had at least one period of autocracy in the last 100 years.

          3. I’d also note that Australia did not give indigenous australians voting rights until the 1960’s. 40 years after the US.

          4. higgsbosoff, Endymionologist seemed to calling it absurd to call Australia and NZ more democratic that the US. This struck me as a strange complaint, in view of January 6.

            I will happily call many countries less reliably democratic than the US, but not Australia and NZ.

          5. Ah yes, the terrible threat to democracy posed by 600 idiots who lost more people to natural causes than hostile action and are currently being appropriately prosecuted.

          6. So basically you’re saying that parliamentary systems and systems that lack the masses of referenda that, say, California has don’t count as democracies?

            Setting aside that my federal ballot is pretty simple usually, it’s the state and local ballots that get complicated, I don’t think your definition of a democracy is shared by many. I suspect you’re just angry about Covid restrictions that Australia and New Zealand have put in place.

      4. Two or three examples I think counts as “Mariginally”. Especially since Korea really only became democratic in the very end of the 1980’s, and the Philippines only slightly earlier. (at the point where the Soviets were only a few years away from giving up their own satellites)

        1. I should also note the one Weird Exception on the “Soviet satellites were all nondemocratic” angle; Finland. Clearly signiifcantly restrained both formally and informally by the soviets, yet kept a democratic government (jokes about Kekkoslovakia aside)

      5. Taiwan was a corrupt, brutal dictatorship until the 1980s, and were heavily supported by the US as a corrupt, brutal dictatorship. It was under also martial law from 1949 until 1987. Calling them a “democratic ally/client state” in the context of the Cold War is extremely questionable.

        Also, to be honest, the Cold War was not a struggle between equals and there’s a lot of reasons why the USSR’s client states were who and what they were beyond “USSR bad” (even though, in lots of ways, it was bad).

  10. How do CBR and tactical N fit into the nuclear umbrella? I worry that nerve agents will be deployed and then NATO will be forced to strike a balance between avoiding uncontrollable escalation and not rendering the Chemical Weapons Convention a scrap of paper.

    1. Have you considered Brett’s earlier writing at which essentially makes an argument that they are not particularly relevant for modern armies? On the other hand, IIRC technically USA nuclear policy explicitly permits nuclear retaliation for non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and have done so for quite a long time so that would be an established red line that puts CBR under the nuclear umbrella.

      1. But then Bret’s own latest Twitter thread says “Russia’s military is increasingly showing itself – whatever its expensive systems – to be what I call a ‘static system’ military. And in the static system – which tries to win through attrition because it can’t do maneuver – unfortunately, chemical weapons can make sense.” So Lambert is not alone in being worried.

        1. I think there is a larger issue: wars between static system militaries tend to devolve into stalemates, e.g., Iran/Iraq or WWI. So that seems the most likely outcome in Ukraine. What is the endgame then? Ukraine might have the upper hand, in having rich friends, but the cost on both sides (in lives and money) will be immense. Nonetheless, both sides may prefer it to compromise.

      2. Brett’s earlier writing makes a possible exception for urban war: I suppose because explosives are relatively less effective.

        1. Explosives are less destructive and chemicals are just more effective (they don’t disperse as much in confined spaces as in the open field) so gas becomes more viable.

          “Smoking out” buildings/cave complexes is one of the areas where gas retained a military purpose into WW2, f.ex.

          1. Although thermobaric (“fuel-air”) weapons have closed some of the gap on this.

        2. Manoeuvre fails in urban warfare where the defender is at all determined. The solutions are either starvation or destruction. This is as true for the US military (or any other) as for the Russian – see eg Fallujah or Mosul.

    2. Given that NATO/western powers seem happy to hand Ukraine firearms and Stinger missiles, I assume in the face of/fact of Russian chemical weapons use we’d give them (fairly cheap and extremely effective) chemical weapons defenses. Thereby rendering these weapons next to useless.

        1. Ask Britain, they did it during the Blitz. And the question isn’t “how cheap is it,” the question is “is it cheaper to do this than it is for Russia to deploy chemical weapons and by how much?” If all we do is force Russia to use more costly methods of waging war, that’s an operational victory.

  11. The poor performance by the Russian military so far seems to be a own goal in the exterior maneuver space. It would reduce their credibility to threaten, I would think. Similarly, the rapid flow of arms to Ukraine would seem to firm up the perception that US and NATO should be respected.

  12. One nuclear close call the author did not mention: the ‘launch on computer crash” for Y2K. My husband came up with this theory independently and mentioned to my brother, who was then in the Navy. My brother turned a color not seen since The Night of the Singapore Slings, and muttered “It’s being taken care of’. Six months later, there were a few news squibs about ‘Y2K assistance being rendered to Russia”.

  13. During the 1930’s (Before nuclear weapons) British theorizing by Stanley Baldwin was that “The Bomber Will Always Get Through”. Basically bomber aircraft in the 1930’s were uninterceptable and future war was going to be about bombing vast numbers of enemy civilians faster than the enemy could bomb your own people.
    While actual manned bombers are sitting ducks to modern fighters and air defense. ICBMs have proven to be harder to shoot down.

    1. Radar changed all pre-war theories about aerial conflict, which had been based on the presumption that attacks would be complete surprises until they were within visual range.

    2. That sounds like more of the cult of strategic bombing, frankly. Nuclear weapons make it possible to wipe whole cities off the map, yes, but that’s only useful in the context of a war of conquest if you’re willing to conquer irradiated wastelands.

      1. “Irradiated wastelands” or “glow in the dark” are not only hyperbole but create unrealistic assumptions about nuclear war. Radiation from fallout intense enough to cause acute radiation sickness would be minimal after 30 days and non-existent after a year. After that point you’re talking about chronic exposure from consuming food and water with isotopes of strontium and cesium. Things like elevated risks of cancer and birth defects but not lethality. Chernobyl has become a de facto wildlife refuge since the evacuation of humans from the area.

        1. AFAIK Chernobyl with its burning graphite is way worse in terms of contamination than even dozens of nuclear bomb explosion. Especially these days, with thermonuclear bombs using way less fissile material for much higher explosive power.

          However, there are also nuclear-engine missiles (logically carrying a nuclear payload), which contaminate the ground they fly over (and can stay in flight for months), and were recently started to be developed again – by Russia. No idea how those compare to Chernobyl.

  14. I think this is yet another argument against the long term feasibility of running human civilization on the institution of competing nation-states. Nuclear weapons are a strategic “valley” where the only equilibrium that allows the possibility of survival is for the competing states to maintain nuclear weapons. As this article reminds us, nuclear de-escalation has a floor because even if you genuinely wanted to get rid of your own nukes it would be inviting an attack by the opponent. They can’t leave the valley unless someone gets nuked.

    Some people despair at this, and I do think it is scary (as Bret said you should be worried if you’ve been paying attention), but I think there is a light at the very far end of the tunnel. We have an example: actors within a nation-state do not feel it is necessary to pursue nuclear deterrence. Even if the USA fought a civil war today I feel like no sane general (using the word ‘sane’ literally here) would intentionally nuke the opposing American side. Or is that just me being an idealist?

    By the same logic, if we somehow over the course of centuries foster a feeling of humanistic identity (I fear it would take at least a few centuries if not millennia), I think we can actually get rid of the Nuke of Damocles over our collective heads. This is not a pipe dream! We do not even need to get people to fraternize to the point of ending all wars! We merely need to get to a point where using nukes is unthinkable, as in the hypothetical American 2nd Civil war.

    1. It is about 75 years since the world gained its first nuclear power. I suppose now there are 8 or 9. So by the end of this century we might expect 80 or 90. Most of them will be “the Upper Volta, with nuclear missiles”.

      We don’t have centuries.

      I note that no one fears nuclear war among the US/UK/France. But most countries are not very like those three.

      1. Yeah, US UK & France is a good example too.

        My point is that we might want to use this as an example of a specific goal towards “world peace” that is often dismissed as vague and idealistic.

        I think if we frame the project of world peace as “making all foreign relations similar to that between UK US & France” then it’s a tangible goal that people can actually take steps towards. It is still immensely difficult, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, or else we all die anyway.

        1. But it’s kind of a tautology – “if everybody was friends with everybody, nobody would ever fight”.

          But especially, I’m surprised that you would think this, considering what is going on in Ukraine – the relations between Ukraine and Russia between 1991 and ~2014 were perhaps even better than between France and USA/UK !

          And look where we are at now…

          Sadly, it’s in the human nature to *eventually* “covet our neighbor’s house”, as stupid as this might be (see Putin’s last actions). At which point some form of deterrence becomes required.

          And they are friends now, but remember how many wars France and UK had against each other over their history – how many centuries more do you think the current peace would hold if conventional warfare was still an option ?

          1. I think it is not so much that US/UK/France are friends, as that democracies find it hard to credible threaten nuclear war, especially with each other.

            The number of democracies has been falling for the last decade or so. Indeed, Putins war is intended to bloodily extinguish one.

      2. Between 1945 and 1979 the number of nuclear power rose from 1 to 8, or about 1 new nuclear power every 5 years. In the 43 years since 1979 the list has made a net gain of 1. Nuclear proliferation has slowed considerably or even reversed (the peak was in 1991).

        1. Well, the proliferation rate was higher during the Cold War, and lower now. So I thought it reasonable to take an average. I would not be at all surprised in Cold War II triggers a new round of proliferation, for example.

  15. How is the situation changed by anti-missle defence systems? They make the nuclear weapon possible to defend from, aren’t they? If NATO has an effective anti-ballistic defence, then the Ryssian thret is diminished, right? I don’t know how effective NATO system is and how much groud it covers.

    1. Given the scale of US and Russian nuclear arsenals, effective missile defense against them isn’t currently feasible. Hit-rates for missile defense systems are not 100%, so you need more systems than incoming missiles and the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are huge for the reasons discussed above.

      Missile defense systems are more meaningful for dealing with deterrence threats from smaller nuclear powers which smaller arsenals (mostly the power in question here is North Korea).

    2. If they exist in quantities and reliability sufficent to actually stop a strike deterrance falls apart because there’s no actual strike capability.

      The current defenses are far too unreliable and exist in far too small a quantity to accomplish this against Russia but there’s coverage against North Korea. The USSR and Russia rightly considered the possibility of developing missile defenses to the point that they could stop a strike* a serious existential threat and they’ve been a reoccuring topic in arms control talks. And Putin’s hypersonic missile development is intended to make missiles too fast to intercept.

      *which would be pretty hard; you’d need at least as many 100% accurate interceptors in position to cover a point as the enemy has missiles that could fire on that point for every point you care to defend so we’re talking probably hundreds of thousands even before accounting for the incredibly spotty test record.

      1. Which, of course is hugely destabilizing, so unless you can build up your effective missile defence in secret (VERY unlikely) it is going to heavily incentivize the other party to nuke you before you can get your defence system up and running.

      2. “ And Putin’s hypersonic missile development is intended to make missiles too fast to intercept”

        This is a common misconception. “Hypersonic” missiles are not faster than ICBMs (or rather, ICBMs have always been “hypersonic”). In this context “hypersonic” missile typically means maneuverable hypersonic glide warheads or hypersonic air breathing cruise missiles (with e.g. scramjet propulsion).

        These are indeed harder to intercept than traditional ballistic missiles (not literally impossible, but harder) but it’s due to the maneuverability and flatter trajectory, not anything to do with speed.

  16. There are a whole lot of blurry assumptions hidden behind all of this talk of precision.

    For instance a no-fly zone is equated with bombing targets in Russia. That’s one hell of a blurred line. The Ukrainians aren’t bombing targets in Russia yet are capable of operating their air force. The F-35 is well known to be far, far harder to spot then the Mig-29. Yet if we were to operate the F-35 we would have no choice but to bomb targets in Russia?

    This would in fact present a perfect example of an exterior movement as you have laid it out. The Russians previously thought that it would be off the table for American air support to be provided to counter a Russian conventional military force because American air support would require bombing targets in Russia. Now we learn that American detection is sufficiently superior that the American air support doesn’t require bombing targets in Russia to operate. So the US has a massive opportunity to heavily restrict Russian freedom of movement. We can operate an air force without bombing targets in Russia which means we can defend Russian neighbors against air power which means that Russia can no longer invade it’s neighbors without substantial fear of a defeat which severely degrades their air force and humiliates them. All concerns about the welfare of the Ukrainian people aside, this would offer the chance to decimate the Russian scope of conventional action and according to the doctrine you’ve laid out we would be leaping at the possibility of doing so

    Yet this is not what you see. The new framework is up for debate but the old framework has empirically failed. You come across as a bit of a ponce in the tweat to say that people haven’t “noticed” your fallacy of the false premise when it’s empirically no longer true.

    1. Ukraine’s air force is operating in a limited capacity but its deployments are starkly limited by Russian air defenses. To actually deny Russia the ability to operate its air forces in the areas it currently can (which are equally limited by Ukranian air defenses) NATO would need to put its fighters in areas Ukraine’s fighters cannot enter. It’s true that the F-35 is much stealthier, but it’s not wholly invisible, especially while engaged in combat. To operate in Lybia, the US fired over a hundred cruise missiles to take out Lybian air defenses, and Russia possesses the same technology plus a limited selection of more advanced air defense radars designed specifically to spot NATO stealth.

      That’s not to say stealth is totally useless, but it’s part of an overall system designed to locate and destroy air defenses before they can locate and destroy the F-35 to attain air superiority, not to operate unhindered over operational SAMs.

      1. A no fly zone as the public understands it doesn’t mean 0% chance of a Russian aircraft ever operating, it means that we are shooting down the Russian aircraft over Ukraine. And that we very obviously have the ability to do. If the Ukrainians can fly freaking drones and shoot down Russian aircraft with Migs, it would be borderline suicidal for Russian pilots to try to contest airspace with F35s operating. Spme of them would occassionally slip through no doubt but Ukraine would have favorable skies.

        1. If we don’t strike at Russian air bases and air defenses (land-based SAM sites, primarily, but also radar sites) in Russia — if we merely shoot down Russian planes over Ukraine — then it is a guarantee that at some point an American plane will be downed over Ukraine and an American pilot will die. The whole point of having US troops deployed on the border of Poland is so that in the event of a Russian invasion American troops would die and thus guarantee a response from the US. If a USAF pilot dies defending Ukraine and we do nothing, that brings into question whether or not we’d defend Poland even if X number of soldiers die. Remember, that mutual defense clause must remain a credible threat which means we cannot do anything that would make people think it’s not credible.

          US/NATO forces coming into conflict with Russian forces is always going to lead to escalation. It makes sense for Ukraine to gamble with this because they don’t have a lot more to lose; it doesn’t make sense for the US/NATO to gamble like this.

          1. Are you under the impression that if a single American soldier died defending Poland from a Russian invasion we would nuke Russia? Or that back in the 80s the same would have been true for Germany? That’s not how the tripwire works. The tripwire says that we refuse to sit back, that any escalation against Poland now or Germany back then is also an escalation against the nuclear powers of NATO.

            American soldiers died in “brush war” conflicts at many different points during the Cold War. Nobody for a moment thought that meant nuclear war.

            “US/NATO forces coming into conflict with Russian forces is always going to lead to escalation”

            That exact circumstance happened in Korea and Vietnam. It didn’t lead to escalation.

            When you confidentally assert a fact and that fact turns out to be factually incorrect you are supposed to re-evaluate your theory. It’s based on an absolute assumption which turns out not to hold water.

          2. AiryW, aren’t those all examples of indirect conflicts, where one side or the other could and would pretend to ignore what was actually happening ?

            While in the current situation we have Putin that directly claims being aggravated by NATO, and regularly threatens nuclear strikes…

          3. Actually, you’re right in that the Russia-opposing countries, even NATO ones, *could* try to use Putin’s own Donbass playbook and send soldiers that would change into Ukrainian insignia. This would I assume violate a bunch international rules about how you’re supposed to do war, but considering what is currently happening to Ukrainian civilians…

        2. A no fly zone as actually implemented in the real world means we are bombing surface-to-air missile sites in Russia. This is something we *always* do when we implement “no-fly zones”. It’s baked into the doctrine, and necessarily so.

          Unlike the limited operations the UAF has been conducting, enforcing a “no-fly zone” requires NATO fighter conducting 24/7 air patrols over Ukraine. Maybe it would be “borderline suicidal” for Russian *pilots* to engage them, but if we’re very pedantically literally only fighting in the air, then it’s perfectly safe for Russian antiaircraft gunners to shoot them. Track them, monitor them, take their shots when and where they feel the time is right, review the results, and adjust their tactics until they get it right. Some of them will eventually get it right.

          And Russian surface-to-air missiles have a long enough range that they’ll be able to do this from sites outside of Ukraine. So either we start losing pilots in a futile effort, or we start bombing Russians in Russia. And our doctrine has always been that we don’t wait to start losing pilots, we bomb the SAM sites on day one.

          What happens when NATO starts bombing Russians in Russia, is left as an exercise for the student.

          1. “and necessarily so.”

            Explain this. The Ukrainians have successfully used drones to attack freaking Russian AA vehicles. Why would F-35s not be able to operate in a threat environment that drones can operate?

            Do you think that everything we’ve been hearing about the F-35 for years is false? Is it lies that F-35s are capable of relying on AWACS for targeting at extreme ranges? Is it lies that F-35s are extremely hard to detect?

            Everything you write this assumption is a waste of digital ink. You are simply handwaving away a difficult problem.

          2. Because the drones are able to operate at lower altitudes than the F-35, present smaller targets, and are generally an entirely different type of beast.

          3. -60guilders
            “Because the drones are able to operate at lower altitudes than the F-35”

            The firing range of the F-35 air to air missiles is equal to the entire operating range of the TB-2 drones that ukraine is operating successfully. You are saying that it’s easier to detect an F-35 below the horizon at a range of 60 kilometers then to detect a TB-2 drone within line of sight of the target.

            It’s all classified information but I’m pretty sure that’s extremely wrong.

        3. Ukraine is willing to risk their planes (whose every weakness is already intimately known to the Russians on account of Russia having built them), and the lives of their pilots to defend their own country. That does not mean that the US would be equally willing to let Russia shoot down a very expensive plane whose remains would probably render valuable insight into its capabilities and limitations to a rival, just to help defend a country which they are in no way contractually obligated to defend.

          1. Also Ukraine is having to be very careful about where it flies its planes to find holes in the air defense network, which is very different from obtaining air superiority across the whole country.

          2. The point of the F-35 is to fire munitions at extremely long ranges. Even if the Russians were capable of shooting down the F-35 (something which seems very questionable at this point) any F-35 shot down in this fashion would be shot down 100 kilometers or more away from the Russian forces. The Russians ain’t gonna be inspecting any crash sites even if they were capable of shooting down the planes which is not looking too likely. If they can’t shoot down drones and can’t hit stationary targets like runways it’s questionable that they could be a danger to a stealth fighter.

          3. AiryW, up till now the Russians have accepted that western countries can ship supplies to Ukraine and the Russians won’t directly try to interfere. For example, Russian artillery has the range to bombard roads leading into Ukraine, but they don’t. There is an informal agreement, as in previous limited conflicts, “you don’t shoot at us, we won’t shoot at you.” Regardless of whether you personally think supplying weapons is morally equivalent to to operating them.

            A “no-fly” zone does not mean that the enemy won’t shoot back. If F-35s not in Ukrainian airspace fire long range missiles at Russian aircraft, Russian aircraft will fire long range missiles back. Into Polish, Romanian, or whoever’s airspace. Even if those Russian missiles are fooled by F-35 stealth, they might hit something else, such as a civilian jet.

            And the militaries on both sides have also been taught, and done so in previous wars, that enemy aircraft are much easier to destroy on the ground. If the Russians can’t see F-35s because of stealth, they sure can see the airports on the map. And launch missiles at them.

          4. Once we start shooting at Russian aircraft (or bombing Russian SAM batteries), we are at war with Russia. What makes you so confident that Russia will agree to fight the war on the exact terms most favorable to us, as opposed to escalating in an area where they feel they have the advantage? For example, by attacking the Baltic states.

            Also, what in your view is the difference between sending NATO planes into Ukraine to shoot at Russians, and sending NATO tanks? Do you also favor sending the tanks? Why one and not the other?

          5. -Humphrey_Appleby

            “as opposed to escalating”

            People here seem to be living in a world where Russia is capable of flying thousands of sorties a day instead of 20 and their logistics haven’t turned into a traffic jam. Russia has no ability to escalate save for relying on a nuclear threat which looks increasingly doubtful while the American response looks just as devastating as ever. The only escalation is to push the red button. You think they are going to commit elaborate suicide over air combat in the Ukraine? We aren’t talking “nuclear deterrence” at that point, we are grasping for straws to justify denying the facts on the ground about the Russian military. A bunch of cold war holdovers haven’t gotten the memo that the Russian military turns out to be a poorly maintained husk of it’s old self.

          6. scifihughf, however Russians have already bombed a base close to the Polish border which seems to have been used for weapons transit from NATO to Ukraine.

          7. AiryW, it might be different if the sanity of the current Russian leadership wasn’t currently in question – that instead of the abovementioned “salami slicing” they would have chosen to do *this* instead…
            (it’s *already* suicide for the current Russian regime, at least in the medium term !)
            Who’s to know they *won’t* just decide to use nukes if pushed ?

          8. Peak Singularity:

            “Actually, USA, UK and Russia *are* contractually obligated to defend Ukraine :


            This is simply false. I recommend you read the link you provided. The parties agreed to:

            “Respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders.

            Refrain from the threat or the use of force against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

            Refrain from using economic pressure on Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine to influence their politics.

            Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine if they “should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used”.

            Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

            Consult with one another if questions arise regarding those commitments.”

            Everyone promised to leave them alone and to take it to the security council if anyone else didn’t. No one promised to run in and defend them if that promise was broken.

          9. Hmm, I guess that it depends what *exactly* can be meant by “defend”…
            “in NO way contractually obligated to” seems to be wrong too :

            Ukrainians should have considered how this treaty had no expiry date, and, since they effectively gave up their status of a nuclear power (and potentially, veto power in the UN Security Council), should have been *much* more careful about the wording of this treaty. (Or you know, should just have kept some of the nukes instead.)

            In any case, IMHO USA and UK broke their _word_ : if not a military intervention (possibly through the UN), then a level of assistance similar to what Biden just signed should have been given in 2014 already, when Russia first invaded Ukraine.

          10. In fact we did significantly increase military aid after the 2014 conflict (see e.g. ).

            More generally, your link explicitly does not say that we are contractually obliged to do anything. Instead it concludes that we should, not must take various actions:

            “U.S. officials did assure their Ukrainian counterparts, however, that there would be a response. The United States should continue to provide reform and military assistance to Ukraine. It should continue sanctions on Russia. It should continue to demand that Moscow end its aggression against Ukraine. And it should continue to urge its European partners to assist Kyiv and keep the sanctions pressure on the Kremlin.

            Washington should do this, because it said it would act if Russia violated the Budapest Memorandum. That was part of the price it paid in return for a drastic reduction in the nuclear threat to America. The United States should keep its word.”

            Which…we did? So, I’m not sure how you think that article helps your position.

          11. ECD, you’re right that I should not have been so dismissive about the help that the USA provided to Ukraine (and against Russia) since 2014 (what about the United Kingdom ?)

            Still, to put things in perspective, roughly :

            United Kingdom military budget :
            $0 900 / UK citizen / year

            Russian military budget :
            $0 350 / Russian / year

            USA military budget :
            $2 200 / USA citizen / year

            Ukrainian military budget : (very roughly)
            $0 120 / Ukrainian / year

            Average military aid from USA to Ukraine 2014-2021 :
            $0 009 / Ukrainian / year,
            $0 001 / USA citizen/year

            Biden’s March bill for 2022 :
            $0 340 / Ukrainian,
            $0 041 / USA citizen

            The latter is way more significant than I expected before doing these calculations, (but then the situation is dire), but also the previous help looks even weaker in contrast, even compared to Ukrainian’s own budget !

            So I still think that the previous help should have been several times higher (if only because only 340 / 8 = 42.5, and so the 2022 one might have been much lower if the new invasion had been scared off in advance ?)

            But then you have to remember the political situation in the USA : looks like the help stopped ramping up after 2016… because Trump !


            (Also looks like that *at the very least* funds for *other* defense projects in Europe were ultimately diverted to help paying for Trump’s useless wall ?)

  17. Something I’d say in general is that the Yes Minister bit of

    Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they can’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would!

    Is a comedically confusing expression of the truth. Red lines can be a bluff but only work because they’re not definitely a bluff. I think Putin is bluffing to an extent but has an actual red line for NATO tanks that’s somewhere probably east of Kyiv and west of Moscow, complicated by the fact that if NATO tanks get east of Kyiv he may well think they won’t stop west of Moscow.

    What’s important here is that the threat of NATO unleashing nuclear armageddon only works if they’re willing to actually do it, so a proposal to do something under the cover of a threat of nuclear armageddon must be a proposal to conditionally unleash nuclear armageddon to have any effect. Putin threatening to fire off nukes aimed at NATO in response to NATO supplies would not be credible because he’s definitely not going to actually do it. Putin threatening to employ tactical nukes within Ukraine is credible because if he seriously thinks a military failure in Ukraine will persuade his assassins to arrange a change in management he might actually do it. Putin threatening to fire off nukes if the 3rd armored reaches Moscow city limits is very credible because his alternatives almost definitely involve being murdered or executed so he would definitely do it.

    So a plan must either be structured to definitely avoid creating conditions where Putin will believe it’s reached the conditions where his best response is a nuke or plan for him using a nuke. Now, let’s say he decides to try to get us to back off by launching a 15 kiloton tactical nuke at Kyiv and we’d actually back off if he did that. Well, 15kt is Little Boy, the Nagasaki nuke. They’re not precise weapons.

  18. Like I said before, nuclear deterrence only works one way. Putin feels free to threaten in the certainty that the west will back down. He can force us to sacrifice the Ukraine to ‘save’ the world. Who’s next? He has absolutely no reason to stop.

    1. Then why didn’t he sweep into Estonia and destroy the US forces there long ago? Why did the USSR never move into Western Europe? Why hasn’t Putin employed nuclear weapons? Why did the USSR withdraw warheads from Cuba?

    2. NATO is sworn to risk the destruction of the world in order to protect Estonia. There are British, French and American forces in Estonia precisely to make that a blood oath. Their deaths in battle would help activate the oath. It is NOT so sworn to protect Ukraine.

      So, from Putin’s point of view, an invasion of Estonia is a lot more likely to end the world than an invasion of Ukraine. We can only hope he does not want to end the world while he is still living in it.

      Fortunately, I believe he has a wife, mistress, and children.

      In the meantime, we must hope he wastes the next few weeks and months shelling hospitals and kindergartens. Widening the range of weapons given to the Ukrainians would also be a salami tactic, but such tactics take time, if you want to do anything important.

      We can only play to our strengths, as must our adversaries. Moscow’s strength, in the last Cold War and in this one, is that it is treacherous, murderous and, in a word, evil. The Wests strength is that it is not. Very few people are willing to fight and die for Putin, but it doesn’t take many people to press a button for him. The further this war can be kept from the nuclear threshold, the worse his chances.

    3. I feel like you are missing the point. Ukraine does not have a nuclear arsenal, nor does it have a guarantee of protection from a nuclear power. As is highlighted in the post, the defense of Ukraine with military force would close the window of maneuver for all nuclear powers to the point where they are no longer allowed to use their militaries to invade anyone, since another nuclear power can step in. Nobody wants this, or at least nobody making decisions.

      In addition, war is full of escalation. Without external factors mitigating this, such as the limits of public support in a proxy conflict. A war over Ukraine between NATO and CSTO (Russia) would be filled with escalatory pressure, with missiles, bombers, and naval formations going both ways. In this environment, any weapon could, potentially, be nuclear. And all it takes is one mistake. I pity the people of Ukraine, they have been handed a horrible lot.

      But there is no objective that is truly worth the end of the world.

    1. It could be really neat. An RTS or other type of strategy game where you play as a client state whose main resources are your domestic morale/material and patron morale, while trying to degrade the opposing client state’s morale/material and their patron state morale could be a real juggling act. Players would have to choose between pursuing your domestic objectives and keeping your patron happy, while throwing wrenches into the relationship between your opponents could be a nice twist on the genre. It would also provide an easy justification for building up armies as the battle progresses, as the side losing at a given moment escalates to try and turn the tables and then their victories push the other side to escalate, and so on, naturally building up to a climactic (nuclear?) finish.

    2. There is, or rather was. Balance of Power by Chris Crawford, released in the 1980s for Macs and PCs.

      I suspect the market for such games was never very big to begin with, as most gamers prefer directly blowing stuff up, and more or less vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

      Might be time for a re-release? Hmmm, maybe it’s on GOG…

      1. Balance of Power is also notable for the ending screen if you accidentally caused a nuclear war: “You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

    3. Best guesses now that you’ve asked the question:

      1. Just wasn’t thought of.
      2. “game about proxy wars’ implies you are supporting the proxies, this means you aren’t participating directly, which is what a lot of people enjoy.
      3. To set up such a game well, you need a good diplomacy system (that would be the core system in such a game*.) and those are hard to design.

      *Or a logistics simulator could be the core, where your main decision is what resources to send to help the proxy win.but that’s a bit different from what this post is talking about, finding what an opponent will or won’t tolerate/how they respond and using said information to your advantage.

      1. There are a few games of the type, IIRC, often boardgamey or highly abstract, and many of them old. (For some reason it seemed to be more interesting in the 1980’s… Hmmm, I wonder why? /sarcasm)

    4. There is, kind of. Tropico is a series of video games where the players takes control of a tropical island and develops/exploits it. Part of the gameplay is balancing the interest of Western and Soviet superpowers. Let either influence get too high and the other will show up and do a regime change (which is a game over).

    5. Twilight Struggle isn’t exactly about wars (military operations are abstracted away as gaining or losing influence in a country), but it does capture the idea of cold war brinksmanship pretty well. In particular, the DEFCON rules are basically the stability-instability paradox given form – it frequently sets up situations where you can do a coup and gain control of a country, and then the other player can’t coup you back because doing so would drop the Defcon to 1 and trigger nuclear war. It’s a game where you can and should be regime-changing countries around the globe… but you aren’t allowed to do it in regions that people *care* about because that would be crossing a line.

  19. “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) ”

    I sometimes wonder about that second assumption. A non-nuclear world war would probably last as long as the first two such wars, which would buy some time to remobilise. Most especially, the US and UK would surely have survived the first rush, in view of their naval superiority. And they should have won a long non-nuclear war, in view of their economic superiority.

    And, of course, the conventional military record of Soviet and Soviet-backed regimes against western-aligned states, even with great superiority of men, tanks, and guns, is distinctly questionable. Had it not been for nuclear weapons, I can’t help but suspect their would have been NATO tanks in Moscow long before 1989.

    1. There was some fear the UK and US would decide to accept the fall of continental Europe once it was accomplished and sit back behind their navies.

      1. That was Hitler’s plan. When the peace offer was rejected so quickly, on radio, they had to go on. (And the British authorities had to wrestle with the announcement. It was very useful, propaganda-wise, but it had NOT been authorized.)

    2. It varies over time.

      Some military planning was done for (IIRC) “broken-back war”, where initial nuclear strikes would demolish most available production capability and then militaries would have to carry on with what they could scrounge and scavenge. I suspect it was never taken too far because nobody really believed that post-apocalypse humanity would really care about whose flag was flying over which section of glowing rubble.

      The assumption in the 1950s and 1960s was that conventional Soviet armies would overrun NATO just as they’d done to the Germans in WW2 and that nukes would be the only way to stop them. In the 1970s and 1980s newer “precision guided munitions” and the “revolution in military affairs” that they brought about started Western military leaders thinking they could stop a Soviet invasion with conventional arms. The novels “Red Storm Rising” by Clancy and “The Third World War” by Sir John Hackett both date from that period.

      The Third World War book ends with the Soviets realising that they’re losing the conventional war and trying a single nuclear strike (Birmingham), NATO responds by nuking Minsk, and the Soviet Politburo is overthrown by a coup before they can escalate. Here in the real world we can’t count on such a relatively happy ending.

  20. > I sometimes wonder about that second assumption. A non-nuclear world war would probably last as long as the first two such wars, which would buy some time to remobilise. Most especially, the US and UK would surely have survived the first rush, in view of their naval superiority. And they should have won a long non-nuclear war, in view of their economic superiority.

    Generally the fear was that the Soviets would be able to effectively harness the resources of Europe and, possibly, the Middle East and/or Asia (depending on exactly how the war developed) to shift the economic as well as military balance of power in Asia well in their favor.

    > And, of course, the conventional military record of Soviet and Soviet-backed regimes against western-aligned states, even with great superiority of men, tanks, and guns, is distinctly questionable. Had it not been for nuclear weapons, I can’t help but suspect their would have been NATO tanks in Moscow long before 1989.

    It is? Soviet-backed North Korean forces handily smashed Western-backed South Korean forces prior to the US intervention (and in fact got the better of US forces in their first encounter). Soviet-backed North Vietnamese forces likewise usually got the better of Western-supported South Vietnamese forces absent the presence of direct American combat support, often despite a North Vietnamese inferiority in men and material. The performance of Soviet-backed Cuban expeditions in Africa during the 70s and 80s against Western-backed forces are more of a mixed bag, but they still performed quite well more often than not. Middle Eastern Soviet clients have performed uniformly poorly, but then the same is true for Western Middle Eastern clients (which sometimes were the same country, just at different periods of time), which suggests the problem rests more with those countries than with whose backing them.

    There are, frankly, several periods during the Cold War, such as the period between 1945 and the Korean Arms Build-Up or the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the Carter-Reagan reforms, where military historians have confidently noted that the Red Army possessed not only quantitative conventional superiority over western forces, but qualitative superiority as well. General consensus is that NATO only managed to get the overall conventional upperhand in the mid-to-late-80s.

    1. I should perhaps have said “European” rather than “western-aligned”. As I understand it, Moscows armies were not especially impressive in the Soviet-Polish War, or the Winter War, and from 1941-1945 they improved from “losing despite very favourable odds” to “winning with very favourable odds”. And then there were the Arab-Israeli Wars (treating Israel as a European country that happens to have been moved to the Middle East) and the present war.

      OTOH, as you say, South Vietnam and South Korea did not do so well. It seems to me that their leaders dubious claims to power meant that coup-proofing their own army was a much bigger issue for them than for Finland, Israel etc. But making it harder for your soldiers to coordinate against the ruling president or party probably also makes it harder for them to coordinate against another enemy. And all those political officers and informers rather suggest that Moscow has always had the same issue with its own armies.

      1. > I should perhaps have said “European” rather than “western-aligned”. As I understand it, Moscows armies were not especially impressive in the Soviet-Polish War

        Based on what? The Russians lost some battles in that war, yes. But they also won some battles in that war. The “Miracle on the Vistula” is called such because in their first meeting engagement during the the Polish Kiev Operation, the Soviets utterly smashed the Poles and drove them int into a retreat that threatened to become a rout.

        > or the Winter War,

        This is the one true instance, at least for the start of the war. However, one does need to categorize it: following the initial disasters in December, the Russians went over onto the defensive and reinforced, resupplied, and reorganized their forces before launching a new assault that duly overwhelmed the Finns and rather rapidly ended the war within their favor.

        > and from 1941-1945 they improved from “losing despite very favourable odds” to “winning with very favourable odds”.

        By that definition, American and British forces performance was very unimpressive too. They too only ever beat the Germans “with very favourable odds”.

        > And then there were the Arab-Israeli Wars (treating Israel as a European country that happens to have been moved to the Middle East) and the present war.

        The preponderance of the evidence indicates this is more an issue of them Soviet-style armies. I recommend Pollack’s “Armies of the Sand” for a detailed dissection of the issue. Notably, Pollack points out that Western-supported Arab armies have not just failed as frequently as Soviet-supported ones, but failed in the exact same ways.

        > and the present war.

        Which is interesting, as Ukrainian Army’s institutional heritage is exactly the same as that of the Russian Army’s (ie: both are split descendants of the Soviet Army).

        > OTOH, as you say, South Vietnam and South Korea did not do so well. It seems to me that their leaders dubious claims to power meant that coup-proofing their own army was a much bigger issue for them than for Finland, Israel etc.

        This fails to explain the North Koreans initially good performance against the initial American reinforcement (look up the fate of Task Force Smith).

        > But making it harder for your soldiers to coordinate against the ruling president or party probably also makes it harder for them to coordinate against another enemy. And all those political officers and informers rather suggest that Moscow has always had the same issue with its own armies.

        For the Soviets, this was only ever really an issue prior to WW2. Post-WW2, the common consensus is that the experience of the war left the Soviets with a rather well-balanced level, with commanders continuing to have absolute military authority while Political Officers could not interfere with coordination and merely monitored for political loyalty.

        1. > Which is interesting, as Ukrainian Army’s institutional heritage is exactly the same as that of the Russian Army’s (ie: both are split descendants of the Soviet Army).

          well, it appears that there substantial difference in quality (so far managing to even mostly balance quantity advantage!)

          and this improvement is related to abandoning Soviet heritrage

          1. > well, it appears that there substantial difference in quality (so far managing to even mostly balance quantity advantage!)

            and this improvement is related to abandoning Soviet heritrage

            The former assertion is obvious enough, but the latter is vastly more dubious false. After stagnating from 1991 to 2014, Ukrainian Military’s restructuring afterwards generally more resembles that which the Russians themselves underwent in the period between 1999 and 2012, only implemented far more effectively. Modern Ukrainian practice is an evolution of it’s Soviet heritage, not an abandonment of it.

          2. Gregory Tyler McKenna, supposedly US instructors trained the Ukrainian military quite a bit in the art of allowing the lowest officers to make their own tactical decisions based on local knowledge ?

            Or do you have something else in mind ?

          3. For some reason, I can’t reply to Peak Singularity’s message directly, so I have to do this.

            Yes, US instructors have done SOME training of SOME of Ukraine’s forces. But this occurred almost exclusively at the tactical level. At the strategic and operational levels, Ukrainian education and training are still predominantly Soviet, including the teaching of Soviet operational art. This was something that was in fact BEMOANED by some military publications* prior to the war, who also made the mistaken assumption that that “NATO-like” meant “good,” while “Soviet-like” meant “terrible.”

            That NATO has influenced the development of Ukraine’s military over the last decade does not mean that it’s heritage doesn’t remain historically Soviet.

            Another thing to note: having a Soviet heritage does not mean Ukraine’s wielding a copy of the Soviet Army. It means that there are very significant Soviet influences on the Ukrainian military which shouldn’t be ignored. We’re 30+ years from the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian society and the military attached to it kind of nearly completely collapsed in the 1990s, and Russia has had extensive military reforms and “reforms” since then, failed or otherwise. Russia isn’t wielding the Soviet Army either. Much to their chagrin.

            *A classic example of such publication:

  21. Many years ago in undergrad, I took a course on atomic bombings. It was understandably focused on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and wasn’t a military strategy course (Japanese literature department, in fact). Nonetheless, the upshot was that by the end of that semester, and my subsequent pilgrimage to Hiroshima and education by peace activists, I had seen into a great darkness, and I have never been able to forget it. The undercurrent of human life since 1945 has been the threat of total annihilation. I fervently pray that Nagasaki was the last time, and I deeply despair that it might not be.

  22. Thinking about this, it seems to me that nuclear crises are about, not the immediate results of the crisis, but the precedents they set, and the way those precedents affect how nuclear powers can act in future crises. In the current circumstances, I find this less than reassuring.

    In recent years the Russians have set the precedents that they can kill people with nerve agents in the middle of a NATO country, without any effective response. That they can kill people with radioactive agents in the middle of a NATO country, without any effective response. That they can sabotage arms depots in the middle of a NATO country, without any effective response. That they can use nerve agents to kill many people in Syria, and that the western response will be to bluff, and then fold.

    In recent weeks they have set the precedent that they can openly prepare to invade a country which is friendly to NATO, and in which there is a NATO military presence, and the NATO response will be to withdraw their troops and leave the locals to face the Russian Army alone. They may also have a precedent that NATO will refuse to provide that country with any weapon that can be used “offensively”.

    The West has not set a precedent by cutting the Russians off from the world economy, because that is a weapon you can only fire once.

    And now it seems the Russians are preparing within the next few days or weeks to set precedents that they can use nerve agents and dirty bombs in Ukraine. On the face of it, the precedents to set after that will involve the use nuclear weapons themselves in Ukraine. And what precedents will they want to set after that?

    I can’t help but think that we need to start taking a few salami slices ourselves.

    I’d really like a reassuring counter-argument.

    1. Also maybe killing most of the Polish government that was going to visit a memorial of a post-Soviet invasion of Poland massacre :

      Also maybe killing French oil company Total CEO after a meeting he had in the Kremlin.
      (Or maybe this was indeed just a freak accident, since “Big Moustache” was supposedly quite pro-Russian, opposing sanctions on Russia after the start of the current war with Ukraine in 2014… but the other abovementioned Russian actions weigh heavily on any accident in the direction of deliberate Russian action.)

      We *have* tried to take some military salami slices, between “small” arms delivery to Ukraine (weak, I know), the Polish attempt with those Migs, and now with Slovakia trying to give S-300 anti-air self propelled missile launchers to Ukraine :
      I’m somewhat hopeful about that, sadly, they seem to be able to be used against ground targets too, merely due to their size, which might be a step too far ?
      I guess we’ll hear soon enough if Putin threatens to nuke Bratislava in response or not…

      1. > Also maybe killing most of the Polish government that was going to visit a memorial of a post-Soviet invasion of Poland massacre

        note that while Russian government is not blameless and they sabotaged investigation, there is no real evidence of assassination and plausible explanation of what happened.

        (poor handling of investigation on a Polish side have not helped either…)

      2. There appears to be no real evidence that either of those were assassinations. The well-documented assassinations appear to be almost entirely Russian defectors/ex-pats. Which is illegal and immoral, but isn’t actually contrary to international custom which tends to view such targets as ‘fair game’.

        1. I know, but the problem is that those assassination attempts targeting defectors (and journalists and political opponents – are those fair game too ?) create suspicion about the other ones.

          See also : NSA, and how post-Snowden we now have to assume that computers running Windows and/or Intel processors (and maybe even Ryzen processors now) have backdoors – something that would have been seen as paranoid before !

          1. So, assassinating foreign reporters or politicians would probably not be ‘fair game’ if provable. Assassinating your own reporters and politicians is ‘fair game’. One is basically defensive, protecting his position from internal threats, even if the threat has fled the country. The other is basically offensive, and may force escalation.

            Now this seems to be in some flux, so the assassination of a defector in Europe got a lot of press and attempts to position that as totally unacceptable.

            Now, you’re right, the fact that these rules are very definitely unofficial and not written down does (as we see in the piece we’re commenting on) have a bunch of downsides which make escalation risky. After all, if the Brits viewed the Litvineko assassination as an attack on one of them, the response might have been significantly worse than it was (and it was still not entirely toothless).

      3. I’d argue admitting Poland, the Baltics, et al into NATO were extremely thick slices of Salami (at least from the Russian perspective). (And ones I approve of).

  23. “Yes, the 6 January riot are a pretty dark moment in the democratic history of the USA. That said, they still are nothing compared to the kind of problems that literally most other countries have faced. The UK is perhaps the only state I can think of right away that has had a stable and continuous government (although not a fully democratic one) for longer than the USA. Elsewhere, coups, revolutions, dictatorships are in everyone’s histories – even many mature democracies today have had at least one period of autocracy in the last 100 years.”

    Sweden had a fairly bloodless coup in 1809, and more or less continous on some level (though hardly democratic by modern standards until the early 20th century) since then.

    Same is true for Norway (since 1814) and Denmark (since 1848) though both were interrupted by the german occupation, the same can of course be said of the US civil war (and potential other incidents, at least on the state level)

    The US has an unusually long democratic history, but it’s hardly unique, there are plenty like it.

    1. Sure, not unique (though the US are slightly older than that). But we’re still talking a tiny number of countries. A lot of democracies considered all right today had a turbulent history in the recent past: Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece. And that’s just in Western Europe, because former Warsaw Pact countries and third world countries tend to have had it even worse. A single episode does not make the US suddenly a failed democracy, though for sure they’re having some serious issues.

    2. A government that is interrupted by foreign conquest is not really continuous, nor one that is the subject of a bloodless coup. Whereas one that puts down a rebellion without ever losing control of the bulk of its territory is. There are only four European governments that are strictly continuous since 1900 (UK, Sweden, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein), and only one (the UK) since 1800.

      BTW, the UK only meets this standard since 1689, so just a century longer than the US. I don’t think any country outside Europe and North America can make this claim, but I might be forgetting something.

      1. “I don’t think any country outside Europe and North America can make this claim, but I might be forgetting something.”

        Depends a bit on how you count the various under-british suzerainity asian states, I think, Brunei might count for instance.

  24. Another thing of note re: Cold war politics is that while there ar cases of obvious brute force by the great powers (like Hungary or Czechoslovakia) There’s also a lot of more complicated issues where local partisans drew in the great powers. The cuban regime was not created by the soviets, nor was the Pinochet regime created by the US (though in both cases they offered support) it’s easy to think of the superpowers as having *all* the agency, while in fact local conditions mattered quite a bit.

  25. What this post reminds me of the most is actually Victoria 2 and the sphere mechanics. Exterior maneuvers are trying to sphere a new nation or remove a nation from another Great Power’s sphere. Interior maneuvers are actions taken on nations within your own sphere.

    Not trying to reduce the human tragedy that’s happening Ukraine to a game, nor am I trying to downplay the threat of nuclear war. And of course reality isn’t so neat and tidy as a video game. Just thought this metaphor might help folks who are still struggling to understand the terms.

  26. News from Ukraine:
    Iskander-M ballistic missiles deploy electronic decoys when they sense they’re being targeted. Apparently they’re not flares but rather some smaller rockets that break away from the main missile. They also seem to perform some sort of jamming.

  27. Although the case for nuclear war prevention through MAD is very rational and logical (as you’ve wonderfully explained above), I think the scary thing here is that human beings often act irrationally and illogically…

  28. > if you aren’t at least a bit worried, you aren’t paying attention

    I generally find that worrying about things outside my control is self-defeating. At least when those things are so mind-numbingly hard to prepare for as nukes are.

    1. There’s a little we can do. Read blogs, be informed, vote, or at least take unnecessary pressure off of politicians to pursue untenable strategies. And, uh, vote for better journalism with our wallets/clicks. That’s a big one. A lot of us are kind of stuck in democracies, which means the world is counting on us a little.

  29. While not for months, Israel tried to protect their entire citizenry* from possible chemical weapon attacks from Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991.

    *But not the Palestinians, as I recall.

  30. A little off topic:

    This blog has talked quite a bit about the ‘fleet in being’ strategy. I bring this up because we may be seeing the ‘air force in being’ for Ukraine. I saw a western intel post, obviously could be propaganda, that Ukraine has 50+/- active air superiority air assets. But they are only running 5-10 sorties a day.

    Additionally, there is regular talk of the Russians not having air superiority, Ukraine being able to ‘contest the air space’, and finally Russian heavy bombers that can fly well above the elevation of MANPADs have primarily been launching cruise missiles from range.

    For the above stated reasons, I believe the Ukrainians may be useing a succesful ‘airforce in being’ strategy to deny Russian air units freedom of operation in theatre.

  31. “they assume nuclear war is fundamentally unwinnable”. Before that point your post seemed logical and solid. I was reading w/out fact-checking. But at that point you contradict the paragraph above “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.”. I see you want to reiterate in-winnability, but you have not provided any proof here for what Wohlstetter thought about the matter, even the opposite. Now I plan to wait for your reply, in the meantime I think I better fact-check every statement/conclusion you’ve made, which due my laziness makes me sad.

    1. So, the logic here follows: being able to deliver a second strike deters your opponent from the first strike, ensuring that the nuclear war does not happen. This is Wohlstetter’s goal – avoiding the nuclear war which in any event would be tremendously destructive and thus leave no ‘winner.’ Thus the unwinnability of nuclear war demands deterrence and deterrence demands a second strike capability. You build the nuclear weapons in order that you will never have to use them.

      “The Delicate Balance of Terror” (1958) is available to the public here:

      I am providing a fairly straight-forward summary of its main thesis – that effective deterrence requires second strike capability; I have left out for brevity the second part of his argument, which is that it also requires conventional combat ability which can deter lower-scale threats without the resort to tactical nuclear weapons (which he supposes impose unacceptable escalatory risks).

      If you are demanding a quote, consider, “Deterrence is not dispensable. If the picture of the world I have drawn is rather bleak, it could nonetheless be cataclysmically worse. Suppose both the United States and the Soviet union had the power to destroy each others’ retaliatory forces and society, given the opportunity to administer the opening blow. In this case, the situation would be something like the old-fashioned Western gun duel. It would be extraordinarily risky for one side not to attempt to destroy the other, or to delay doing so. Not only can it emerge unscathed by striking first; this is the only way it can have a reasonable hope of emerging at all. Such a situation is clearly extremely unstable. On the other hand, if it is clear that the aggressor too will suffer catastrophic damage in the event of his aggression, he then has strong reason not to attack, even though he can administer great damage. A protected retaliatory capability has a stabilizing influence not only in deterring rational attack, but also in offering every inducement to both powers to reduce the chance of accidental detonation of war. Our own interest in “fail-safe” responses for our retaliatory forces illustrates this. A protected power to strike back does not come automatically, but it can hardly be stressed too much that it is worth the effort.”

      Wohlstetter does not, as a rule, lend himself to nice brief quotes which is why I do not quote him in the blog post but merely summarize his arguments.

      Wohlstetter does raise the possibility that a Soviet first strike might be worth the risk to the USSR in the face of an insufficient NATO counter-attack – but of course his whole point is to assure a sufficient NATO counter-attack so that no Soviet first strike takes place and thus no nuclear war at all happens. He rejects the use of nuclear weapons to off-set conventional military capability, noting, “Nuclear limited war, simply because of the extreme swiftness and unpredictability of its moves, the necessity of delegating authority to local commanders, and the possibility of sharp and sudden desperate reversals of fortune, would put the greatest strain on the deterrent to all-out thermonuclear war.”

  32. Reading an article taking the Cold Warrior stance that the USSR was undoubtedly an expansionist Evil Empire bent on global domination as a historical fact beyond reasonable doubt in 2022 is… weird.

    1. Because it was. If you haven’t heard that point stressed recently, it is because it isn’t really disputed.

      After the Tsarist Empire collapsed, its component parts all declared independence. The Bolsheviks then spent years reconquering them all: Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc. Indigenous resistance to Soviet rule in Central Asia – the ‘Basmachi movement’ – would continue well into the 1920s.

      The one great Soviet failure here was the attempt to reconquer Poland. So of course in 1939 they did a deal with Hitler ( to both attack Poland and dismember the state between them. Then, of course, after WWII, the USSR installed communist regimes in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the newly recreated Poland. Of course when the Hungarians tried to have their own government in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968, the Soviet Union responded by sending in the tanks to crush the efforts at independence.

      So what you do call a political entity which maintains a number of subject peoples, incorporated and held by force, within its territory and a collection of ‘vassal’ states with non-democratic governments supported by its own arms? It’s an empire. It isn’t even really very close. And in this case it was an empire with the explicit, stated ideological goal of extending its system over the whole world.

      And that doesn’t get into the USSR’s policies of internal colonialism – like the deportation of the Crimean tatars, the brutal suppression of Poles who found themselves within the USSR in 1939, Brezhnev’s ‘Developed Socialism’ model which was essentially Tsarist ‘Russification’ with new branding, etc.

      1. I wrote a very long reply to your comment, but I respect the civil and polite tone of the comments of this blog so I won’t post it and I’m moving on with my life. Let’s just say that that summary left me quite baffled.

        1. Not everyone with a PhD is a scholar. Real scholars write careful, measured pieces with thorough arguments and ample evidence, with conclusions determined by the facts. Not the other way around.

          And then some people just go around spewing preconceived opinions masquerading as “analysis” on any media outlet they can find, hidden under a slapdash coating of cherry-picked facts. Nothing attracts an audience like black-and-white cartoons, after all

      1. Dude, I read your comments on “normal” dictatorships early in the comments. That, on itself, already invalidated any opinions you had on the subject.

        1. @ercredel: So, can you point to a single fact that was objectively wrong in what I wrote. Also, in case you misunderstood me, I do not think a normal, brutal repressive dictatorship to be something good. But places like the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, China under Mao and North Korea is in a special league.

          1. For starters, this:

            “Also, regular dictatorships allowed you to worship various gods to your own liking, to read poetry or fiction as you liked as long as it wasn’t obviously political, didn’t demand that you loved the regime with all your heart (more than spouses and children). “

          2. @ercadel; and Joe is that untrue? Especially regarding Taiwan and South Korea?

          3. Because I happen to be from a country that lived under one of those “normal”, non-totalitarian dictatorships until not so long ago, and what I know from that historical period, and from the neighbouring countries that suffered from similar fates, tells me that it is.

            I’m not too familiar with Taiwan and South Korea, but what little I have read doesn’t inspire much confidence in your statement either.

          4. @ercadel: I am sure you know more than me about the country you are from. However, I wonder if you really have a correct picture of either China during the Mao era or North Korea. When I called Taiwan and South Korea brutal repressive regimes, I meant brutal repressive regimes. As for freedom of religion, it is possible that you lived in some kind of theocracy or half-theocracy, and in that case freedom of religion don’t aply. A country like Saudi Arabia is far more repressive than South Korea or Taiwan ever was. The comment that started the discussion about this claimed Taiwan and South Korea was as oppressive as their communist counterparts, which was what I objected to. They were bad places to live, but did not come close to the horrors of their communist counterparts.

          5. We haven’t established yet which country I’m talking about and you had to write two paragraphs of caveats to your attempt of universally applicable statement already.

          6. @ercadel: I gave a description of what kind of regimes Taiwan and South Korea basically was as opposed to their counterparts, which is what or I was discussed. Of course, since reality is complicated, such an abstract model isn’t exactly applicable everywhere in the same way.

            Your statements about the Soviet Union and its evil however totally lacks moral clarity. It is like saying Hitler and Nazi Germany was good because British colonialism in India was bad. Churchill was wrong against Gandhi, but that doesn’t make him wrong againt Hitler. The opening of Soviet archives after the end of the Cold War showed that the Soviet Union at its worst often was more evel than the western cold warriors could imagine.

          7. As I said before, considering your previous comments on dictatorships and the kind of policies they implement your opinions on “moral clarity” are irrelevant. I’m not the one here who’s trying to minimize dictatorships around the world in order to score cheap political points.

          8. @ercredel: considering your your statements regarding the Soviet Union you are minimizing dictatorships. And I wonder, which part of brutal and repressive didn’t you understand. Saying that Ebola is a worse sickness than bubonic plague isn’t the same as minimizing bubonic plague. The good thing is is not to experience any of them, but one is deadlier than the other.

          9. You denied that policies that were, indeed, in effect in dictatorships of the type you mentioned were actually in effect. I have not done the same about the USSR. Try better.

          10. @ercadel: sorry what are you talking about? Wasn’t your initial post about denying the evil of the Soviet Union?
            And you did that in 2022, more than 30 years after the Soviet archives were opened to historians.

            And the dictatorships I specifically were talking about were Taiwan and South Korea. There are many others, Mobotu Sese Seko’s Zaire was and Putins Russia is broadly of that kind. Saudi Arabia is definitely not of that kind. If a specific dictatorship doesn’t fit the definition I gave, maybe I don’t consider it as being covered by that definition.

    2. Which part of “expansionist Evil Empire bent on global domination” you are disputing?

      1. Up to a certain point, everything? My point is not the captiousness of the exposition, though. Mr. Devereaux has described the situation at the end of WWII and the two implied sides in contrast, creating a simple tale of good guys vs. bad guys… when, as someone else mentioned in the thread, the behaviour between the two superpowers was more similar than most Americans are willing to admit. It’s arguable that the US was worse in several respects re: that description that the USSR too.

  33. So regarding the arguments about the US vs the USSR in terms of morality. I can agree that the US was morally better than the USSR overall. But from the perspective of a small poor country, I think this distinction is a bit like an Athenian citizen considering whether Hephaestus is morally superior to Poseidon. That’s not the point, the point is to avoid both gods’ wrath and to perhaps gain their favor. Both the US and USSR could thoroughly wreck a minor country in proxy conflict and we both unfortunately often did.

    In terms of regimes supported, the US supported some better regimes, but the logic of realpolitik led us to support regimes just as bad as the Soviets did – in some cases because we were supporting the regime after the Soviets had stopped doing so. We normalized relations with the PRC and worked with them against the Soviets while they were still doing the Cultural Revolution, we diplomatically supported the Khmer Rouge. Add to that the 1 million dead in Suharto’s takeover of Indonesia.

    1. I would say this: that both the USA and USSR pursued their self-interests cynically and amorally. But practically speaking, the USSR’s self-interest was far more pathological than the USA’s. For all it supported dictatorships abroad, the US leaders never decided that that meant democracy in the USA itself should be abolished. Whereas even though the USSR professed the loftiest of ideals, in practice the pursuit of raw power led in the end to not just brutal dictatorship but ideological fanaticism.

      The problem with Russia’s current behavior is that in typical Russian paranoid fashion it defines its “legitimate self-interest” in terms that are anathema to the rest of the world. “Security” means overwhelming Russian power and the complete absence of any potential resistance to that power; and “friendly relations” means complete deference to Russia’s interests. This is brutality combined with such a high level of cognitive dissonance that it genuinely doesn’t think of itself as brutal. The way Stalin’s NKVD officers could torture and murder the innocent and genuinely believe that they were defending the state against traitors and counter-revolutionaries.

      At some point you can no longer excuse sociopaths for doing “what they have to”, even when they become hurt and angry with you and see your refusing to go along with them as hostility.

      1. Yeah, I’m not defending the USSR and I’m definitely not defending the current Russian regime (and it’s pretty clear IMO that Putin identifies the current regime more strongly with Tsarist Russia than the USSR, despite his KGB roots). It’s clear to me that 1. Ukraine wasn’t going to join NATO anytime soon before Russia invaded and 2. the Russian war aims are much wider than getting Ukraine to declare neutrality.

        My point was more that from the perspective of a small Third World country in the Cold War, the Cold War looked less like a straightforward Good Vs. Evil struggle and more like a frightening time where they had to placate two frightening and capricious-seeming superpowers. This was the POV of the Non-Aligned movement, at least somewhat.

        1. In the past few weeks, there were some discussions on whether Japan should join US’s nuclear umbrella and gain protection from it against potential invasion from neighbouring countries which three of them are nuclear capable. Proponents argued that nuclear umbrella could deter invasion against Japan, while opponents argued that (although they claim “Such topic should never be discussed”) by being outside nuclear umbrella, Japan can be left outside counter strike target in case nuclear war do broke out and do need to mutual destruction, with some of those people also think American military should be removed from Japanese soil to avoid any military conflict involving the US affecting Japan.

          Indeed, a third world country outside nuclear umbrella would have much greater worry about conventional invasion, but at least they can be relieved that the invasion will be conventional in nature instead of a nuclear one?

          On the other hand, if in situations like China in 1960s when their relationship with USSR soured, and USSR have nukes while China still didn’t had them back then, China do fear nuclear invasion by the USSR quite a lot and made numerous attempts to try to make it possible for rhe country to fight broken back war against the Soviet, which efforts still continues after developing their own nukes and establishing diplomatic ties with the US, and only gradually wind down after reform and opening up and the collapse of Soviet Union.

          1. Japan, like the UK, has a particularly favorable defensive situation : they’re an island.

  34. What if Russian (or Chinese) elites are so centric to their own interest that they believe 99% world population dying can justify them triggering mutual assured destruction, as long as it can avert them losing a war and help them maintain control on remaining 1% population? What if Russian believes that their information warfare have been successfully to made it politically unacceptable for democratic nuclear power to launch a second strike to destroy Russia totally even after relatively minor use of nuclear weapons against America or other nuclear armed forces?

    1. What if Russian (or Chinese) elites are so centric to their own interest that they believe 99% world population dying can justify them triggering mutual assured destruction, as long as it can avert them losing a war and help them maintain control on remaining 1% population?

      The US’s nuclear arsenal would very likely kill them personally and certainly destroy the machinery of government they rely on to control the population, so that deters them even if they don’t care about raw numbers of deaths.

      What if Russian believes that their information warfare have been successfully to made it politically unacceptable for democratic nuclear power to launch a second strike to destroy Russia totally even after relatively minor use of nuclear weapons against America or other nuclear armed forces?

      Well then we’re all screwed. However, the structure of the launch-on-warning system is such that Biden wouldn’t have to go get anyone’s approval to launch a counterstrike*, so whether or not it’s politically acceptable to launch one Biden can totally do it. But if Putin believes the US would refuse to launch a second strike then as far as deterrence is concerned the arsenal might as well not exist.

      *or theoretically even a first strike, but the man physically holding the briefcase with the codes might mutiny

      1. To personally kill each of the ruling elites, you would need to know in real time where is their position and aim your missile accordingly within just few minutes of time span. They could be inside bucker of not just Russia but possibly in any ex USSR countries’ separatist territory, or even Pakistan/India/China which are other nuclear capable countries that second strike likely wouldn’t target, or even on civilian aircraft departing a few hours ago or inside some submarine in the Atlantic. And that’s not just Putin himself but all of the top men making decisions.

        As for governing structure, this war have shown that ordinary citizens can be fed with information to willingly support government action even though the destruction it cause. Hard to say it can’t occur again on larger scale. After mutually assured destruction in broken back war scenario, no one will have any infrastructure or capability to gather information from outside that can be deem as not war propaganda, nor the time to gather information and decide on what to do, nor for any belligerent to spread counter-propaganda. And given that, after such a disaster wiping out 99%+ a country’s population, the fastest possible way to restore the country is to re-establish the previously existed ruling structure, especially given that the countries will still be in a status of war, and if there’re any remaining weapons that can counter remaining enemy force, only former top of military or administration will know where they are, and only people in former administration would know the distribution and storage of remaining survival resources, or to conduct through radiological survey to find out where are less radiated to allow the remaining population to continue surviving. Hence former ruling classes will still likely be the ruling class of the post-nuclear-war country, even after all the hardware and most of the population have been wiped out.

        1. In general, spectacular catastrophes have much more often resulted in power fragmenting than in central governments consolidating power.

          Also, the Russian and Chinese leaderships seem to enjoy living in a system where they can put on grand displays of pomp and power, and enjoy some luxuries. Living in a bunker just isn’t the same.

          I’m (somewhat) worried about accidental nuclear war, but I really don’t think anyone in power in Russia or China is legitimately planning to start one on purpose. Way too much to lose.

  35. The essence of a NFZ is that it is a military attack that does not put your own troops appreciably at risk. Its real target is the home front, not the nominal enemy.

  36. A question of nuclear brinksmanship: what should the response be if a hostile power launches one (1) nuclear warhead that destroys a city or important military target. An insane risk to take, but let’s say it happened; and so far there are no signs of imminent follow-up. Do you escalate to a full counter-force war immediately; or a single tit-for-tat reprisal; or what?

    1. Assuming you’re sure about no imminent followup (which you probably aren’t) the response is tit for tat, because if you don’t and haven’t surrendered they’re going to use another nuke when they encounter another bad tactical situation. This can rapidly escalate, though.

  37. It is entirely accurate to call Putin’s attack on the Ukraine criminal and a grave strategic error. But insisting that it is “unprovoked” is manifestly ludicrous. For the last 30 years, ever since the collapse of the USSR, the US pointedly refused to acknowledge that Russia has security interests and that it is justified in viewing NATO and its ongoing enlargement as a mortal threat. Insisting on the brazen lie ( that Gorbachev has *not* been given clear promise that NATO will not enlarge to the East has not been helpful, either. At the time of the first round of NATO enlargement, the US essentially asked Russia, “So what you’re going to do about that?” Now the answer is, unfortunately, manifest.

    1. Please be more specific about what, exactly, is considered an appropriate casus belli in that description.

      1. That is a lot like interrogating the proverbial frog at what specific water temperature shall it dare to jump out of a pot.

          1. As soon as you hold your government officials for killing close to a million of Iraqis, you”ll have a standing to judge the answer.

          2. Russia was not invaded, neither is it coming the aid of an invaded country. The cases are not parallel.

          3. You got your Iraqi invasions confused. The first Gulf War where it could have been argued that the US is “coming to the aid of an invaded country”, the one partially justified by the fake testimony of the Iraqi army throwing premature babies out the incubators, happened in 1991, and was less bloody than the second Gulf War of 2003, the one supported by the fake allegations of nuclear and biological programs. Can’t blame you, the US bombs and invades so many countries that it’s hard to keep all those wars straight.

          4. On the contrary, there was one thing: that Iraq was permitted a respite on the condition that it proved it had no WMDs, and then failed, voided its respite.

          5. Weapons inspectors had been working in Iraq in 2003 and pulled out because of the American invasion.

          6. Let me connect the dots for you. Iraq complied with the UN resolutions demanding that it destroys its chemical weapons and submits to the UN inspections. Therefore the rationale for invasion that you offered is, to put it diplomatically, counterfactual.

          7. “Even a NYT”, – a.k.a. the faithful cheerleader for every American war ever?

            I fully expect that you’ll begin to regale me with the tales of yellowcake uranium, aluminum centrifuge tubes and Mohammed Atta’s meeting with Iraqis in Prague any minute now.

          8. Mikhail, you have still not answered me. So lets put the question like this: do Russias neighbors have legitimate security interests?

            I hope you realize that every expansion of NATO have been driven by countries that wanted in, not by the old NATO wanting to expand. The western leaders who verbally assured Gorbachev that they had no intention to expand NATO was probably sincere. Later leaders, who was not bound by those verbal assurances, gave in to countries like Poland and Estonia, when they clamored for admittance. The war in Ukraine has made support for applying for NATO membership to rise from between 10% and 20% to above 50% in my country (Sweden). In Finland it is even higher.

          9. Successive waves of Nato expansion have been driven not by the countries wishing to join, but by the power controlling it. In the absence of its political will, they could have been “clamoring” till blue in the face.

          10. @Mikhail: Of Course, the USA had to accept enlargement for it to happen; had they been dead set against it wouldn’t have happened. But that is not the same thing as being the driving force. The initiative did not come from the west, but from the Eastern European countries. Had they not pushed for admittance, there wouldn’t have been NATO enlargement. Remember, the US was unwilling at first, turning them down in 1994. Probably the US let them join because they believed it to be a cheap way (not foreseeing any conflict with Russia) to keep them happy and satisfied.

            But to go back to your original post; what point of the “boiling of the frog” is a legitimate casus belli for Russia.
            And do other countries close to Russia have legitimate security interests, or is it only big countries like Russia, the US, China and India that gets those.

          11. Or does bigness have anything to,do with it? Does any country but Russia have legitimate security interests?

          12. > The initiative did not come from the west, but from the Eastern European countries.

            I see that you insist on pushing American propaganda narratives, but honestly have no idea, why. Certainly you don’t expect anyone with a slightest capacity for critical thnking be perrsuaded, do you?

            The newly independent Baltic countries did not join NATO to enhance their security. To the contrary, placing themselves on the front line of the American crusade against Russia (with the attendant spot on the priority target list of the Russian nuclear forces) increases the security risks they face. Those contries relish every opportunity to provoke and antagonize Russia, this is incompatible with the alleged concern for own security.

          13. @Mikhail: Calling something American propaganda doesn’t make it less true. (Does the earth become flat if the US claims it is round?). Whether it was in the Baltic states interest to join nato or not, is a different fact than that it was they, not the US, who pushed for them to enter. Likewise with Poland. There was no American crusade against Russia in 1994; the west was skeptical about nato enlargement, but people like Estonian presLennart Märi was not.
            Considering the development in Ukraine he obviously was right.

            And as a citizen of another small country close to Russia (Sweden), I would very much like for you to explain what “provoke and antagonize” means in this context.

          14. Russia is like a gun nut with an arsenal in his house, who when he sees his neighbor put on a bulletproof vest screams “How dare you threaten me!”

          15. Wow, an American wagging a finger at some other country for having too much weaponry! This blog is better than “The Onion”.

          16. The choice to expand NATO into the former Soviet republic and to promise membership to the Ukraine in Georgia, that had been taken by the US in direct violation to the promises given to the Soviet leaders, greatly increased military threat faced by Russia. The war in Ukraine is a direct result of this policy of expansion and to claim that it justifies it is a logical error.

          17. @Mikhail: Once again, no direct promise was given by the US to the Soviet Union of not expanding NATO, it wasn’t even on the table.

            And the basic problem is that Russia and Russia shills like you refuses to accept the security interests of Russias neighbors. Russia did nothing to reassure the Baltic states, Poland and indeed the Ukraine.

            So Mikhail, I ask you directly, and don’t deflect this time: Do the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden etc have the same rights as Russia?

          18. > Once again, no direct promise was given by the US to the Soviet Union of not expanding NATO, it wasn’t even on the table.

            That is a direct and straightforward lie, handily disproven by the recently declassified US government’s documents.

            U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (

            The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.

          19. > Once again, no direct promise was given by the US to the Soviet Union of not expanding NATO, it wasn’t even on the table.

            As the recently declassified documents show, your statement is inaccurate.

            U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (

            The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.

          20. @Mikhail; verbal declaration of intent doesn’t bind future governments of a state, they only declare what that government intends to do. Nothing were set down in written treaties, and what was said is hearsay and open to dispute.

            Russia, however, did agree to Ukraines borders and independence (and that included the Crimea and Donbas as part of Ukraine) in a written treaty in 1994.

            Also, you are still deflecting and refusing to answer whether Ukraine has legitimate security interests which the same dignity as Russia. Or Estonia. Or Poland. Or Finland. Or Sweden.

          21. You attempted to palm off falsifications by Steven Pifer and other US officials that promises to expand NATO “never happened”, and after you had been disproven by the evidence, pretended that nothing happened, as befits an ideologue.

          22. @Mikhail: still no answer to the question I have posed regarding the legitimate interests of Ukraine, Estonia, Poland, Sweden and Finland.

            And it is obvious that the verbal declarations of intent of western countries were sincere; they had no intent at the time of enlarging NATO. What did change the situation was the strong push of the Eastern European nations to enter NATO. And since there were no written treaties against it (unlike the Budapest memorandum of 1994 where Russia in writing guaranteed that Crimea and the Donbas as parts of Ukraine) it was possible to do.

            You seem incapable to grasp the concept that smaller European states has agency, just as you cannot bring yourself to admit that smaller countries also have legitimate security interests of their own.

          23. I consider arguing with ideologues a waste of my time. Doubly so when they fail to display a trace of independent thinking.

          24. @Mikhail: so when I press you to answer the question that I have asked from the beginning and you have avoided and deflected I becomes an ideologue with which you cannot discuss things.

            If not for me then; answer for every other potential reader of this thread. Do any country close to Russia have the same right to respect, security and integrity as Russia?

          25. Considering that Russia invaded a country that is not in NATO and everyone knew was not soon going to be in NATO I think Eastern Europe’s concerns that they might be invaded by Russia if they don’t join NATO are pretty damn legitimate.

            Meanwhile, let’s say every country in Europe joins NATO and China has a popular uprising and also joins NATO and Russia is now surrounded by NATO. NATO proceeds to do… what exactly? Invade a country with six thousand nuclear warheads? NATO is a threat to Russia’s ability to control other nations by force or threat of force but it’s not going to invade Russia unless they feel like a nuclear war. And if Putin believed NATO did intend to invade and would not be deterred by his six thousand nuclear warheads, invading Ukraine would be pretty stupid because it’s got half his military simultaneously tied up in combat and in range of NATO airbases amd has mobilized NATO’s populace to support intervention and has persuaded other bordering countries with substantial militaries to join NATO. NATO is suddenly much better positioned to invade Russia than they were in January, and even if he’d taken Kyiv in days he’d still have made his security situation worse.

            But the thought of that didn’t concern Putin because he has six thousand nuclear warheads.

          26. > Considering that Russia invaded a country that is not in NATO and everyone knew was not soon going to be in NATO

            “Everyone” knows no such thing. On November 10, 2021, the US and the Ukraine signed a “Charter on Strategic Partnership”, where the Biden administration reaffirmed its support for “Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.”
            In the previous month, the Ukraine began to use NATO-supplied strike drones in Donbass in direct violation of the Minks agreements.

            > NATO proceeds to do… what exactly? Invade a country with six thousand nuclear warheads?

            The USA has spend over trillion dollars on the nuclear warheads’ fuses upgrade that increased their ability to destroy the underground missile silos. This is a preparation for the first strike against Russia.

          27. Saying that Ukraine is not allowed to make its own decisions is the best reason I can think of to join NATO.

          28. “So what you’re going to do about it, Russia?”

            A.k.a. the “basic bitсh” school of foreign policy thinking.

          29. Says the guy who is literally arguing from that position as long as the country is not Russia.

            You yourself are an argument for them to join Russia.

          30. No one since Hitler has wanted to invade Russia. If the USA was going to preemptively destroy Russia, it would have done so sometime between 1949 and 1953, when the USA had an overwhelming superiority in both nuclear weapons and the effective means to deliver them. The USA didn’t because, believe it or not, that simply isn’t the way the USA does things. The Western countries were even willing to overlook that Russia was a corrupt kleptocracy so long as that remained a strictly internal matter that didn’t affect other countries. Russia has now violated that. No one, absolutely no one other than propagandists, believes that Russia had any legal or moral right to invade Ukraine. To quote Ulysses S. Grant, he described the Mexican-American War “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”.

          31. Military planners are properly concerned with the capabilities. Pondering America’s and its NATO sidekicks’ High-Minded Moral Character and Unimpeachable Itentions isn’t a part of their job description. They leave the latter set of subjects to the scholars of religion.

    2. Naturally, this means that anything which would remove Russia’s nuclear stockpile or render it impotent (like missile defense) is a legitimate security concern and that’s why arms control talks stalled out.

  38. I have a problem with Brodie.

    He seems to assume that the only reason to have nuclear weapons is to avoid fighting a nuclear war. He assumes that the other side agrees, and if we could just settle on a set of rules, we could live in détente.

    That was the case between the US and the USSR. It’s the case for all thinking people. But it’s not always the case. There are people that demand their vision of the world, or they will burn everything down. Brodie doesn’t provide a framework of how to face that and not destroy the world.

    The only way seems to be to find a way to figure out how to fight a nuclear war, AND win. That is not something that can be done in the contexts of his starting assumptions, so something must be changed. It’s not enough to accept détente with a madman.

    1. The eternal paradox of nuclear weapons is that it would be a probably irredeemable cataclysm if they were ever used, and yet it has to be plausible that they could, as the absolute last of last resorts, actually be used. Which means that military planners have to at least try to work out rational plans for how they would be used.

  39. > 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

    That reminds me of a famous De Gaulle quote: “Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French”

  40. Why doesn’t this logic apply to the US and China? The US is willing to defend Taiwan knowing that this would involve a direct confrontation with China.

    1. Because Taiwan is an island, an invasion by the mainland would be entirely dependent on sea and air transport which the USA could interdict far more easily than NATO could counter a Soviet invasion of western Europe. The USA wouldn’t need nuclear weapons to for example target mainland staging areas, and for the PRC nuclear weapons wouldn’t be useful against Taiwanese targets. Not that a confrontation wouldn’t be a fraught and nerve-wracking experience but the ball would be in the PRC’s court: China would have to make the conscious decision to for example use tactical nuclear warheads against American ships and subs, or target US airbases in the region. Escalation would be up to the Chinese and on balance the calculation is that it simply wouldn’t be worth it.

  41. “unlawful invasion of Ukraine”- what even is a “lawful” invasion? An invasion is fundamentally an imposition of force beyond the realm of law. You seem like a rather intelligent man so I will assume you are doing this to stay in the good graces of your country’s hypocritical elite, but unfortunately intelligence and self-awareness do not necessarily co-incide. I find it hard to stomach such blatant acquiescence to any political narrative.

  42. 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.

    That’s what happens when you are “being clear-eyed” over a pile of texts from… well, the people either unable or unwilling to describe observable reality and pulling notions from somewhere else.
    Calling either USSR or New Deal USA “Empires” obscures much more than reveals, because both clearly did not function the same way as normal empires do.
    It’s more noticeable in USSR — probably because it had less grandfathered traditions and notions to superficially uphold, and enough of enforcement ability to need no caution in most matters of internal politics. For example, in USSR quality of life (for the common people, not elites) generally was the worst in Russia, second worst in Ukraine, etc. Which is the opposite of how empires tend to work. Likewise, empires as we know them would be obviously disinclined to throw their resources at “our African brothers”, or assorted bums and thugs all over the world, vast majority of whom were clearly unable to provide any services of adequate value in return, even if they really wanted to do so.
    On the other continent, in the words of Mr. Gaither: «we shall use our grant-making power so to alter life in the United States that it can be comfortably merged with the Soviet Union». Uh… Can you imagine a scene in which some high-ranked courtier receives from a Roman or Chinese Emperor directives, the substance of which can be expressed in a similar form, nods and goes to implement them, not seeing in this approach anything insane or even dubious? If no, maybe something is off here (aside of you not being high as a butterfly, but then, neither was Gaither)?
    The only sane model predicting such behaviour (known to me so far) is: both USSR (for most of its life — under Stalin it was twisted into something different, but that shape did not hold without him) and USA (after New Deal) were nothing like “Empires” in the same sense as Roman or Chinese states called so, but rather militant/administrative branches of their respective theocracies (see also: “Non-Governmental Organization”, “Unofficially Official”, etc).
    Both ruling sects are obviously of the same Protestant origin (as well as Robespierre was, whose drive to make France less like France may… occasionally remind both of us something much closer to home), subscribe to the variations of a theology that prescribes overrunning the entire world one way or another (i.e. small-“c” catholic), have semi-formal oligarchical organization and constantly cross-pollinating elites (before, during and after their official disagreements on a few mostly secular issues), so why would they not contemplate possibility of having relevant secondary structures «comfortably merged», indeed?

    Would you consider a view that Catholics are agents of the Papal State, and the latter is an “Empire” tied to a certain territory and its ethnic composition to adequately reflect reality? How calling one component of a theocratic oligarchy “Empire” (while dismissing the rest), and its preachers abroad agents of that state can be any less nonsensical?

  43. The issue is somewhat deeper and wider than this. Ultimately, views of the question necessarily boil down to one of two:
    A. Classical International Law: Sovereigns resort to war in case of an unresolvable conflict. Exercising their right to make war. In that there’s no one to decide for them, a “sovereign” by definition being the point where the buck must stop simply because he has nowhere to go further.
    Sovereigns can be bound by pre-existing agreements and obligations they made, and should they ignore those there is an ugly problem, but it’s breaking a contract as such, rather than the specific action that contradicted it.
    In this case, an explicit breach of agreement (attempted, or at least threatened) is indeed involved… At least if you are willing to kid yourself enough to count a post- Color Revolution state as “sovereign”. If not — that’s “no longer a state, and can no longer avail itself directly of the law of nations” as Vattel put it, so while there still is a can of worms to be opened, it’s not the same can, not even on the same shelf.
    B. Modern International Law: There is some supranational entity entitled to decide on which wars are unacceptable, which are acceptable, and which are indeed necessary.
    This blog’s constant theme being history, let’s take a look at this in historical perspective.

    As Schmitt observes, this unipolar design is not just in conflict with the classical law; it is actually a resurrection of the medieval law of nations, with its concept of “just war.” Naturally it was the Vatican which decided whether a war was just—and shifting this onus to the Truman Building only reflects Washington’s role as the Fourth Rome.
    Compare this resurrected, and hilariously self-serving, neo-medieval Anglo-American just-war theory, with the neutral and scientific Enlightenment perspective of Vattel. The 18th century sees right through the 20th:
    ― Gray Mirror #6.1: the nomos of the earth

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