“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
This precisely worded phrase, one to which Western governments regularly appeal, did not come about by accident. During the early years of the Reagan administration when, following a Carter-era nuclear posture review, American war planners began to recognize that Soviet leadership viewed a nuclear exchange as a survivable event. “Should nuclear attack nonetheless occur,” the Nuclear Security Decision Directive 13 read, “the United States and its Allies must prevail.”
The administration, therefore, prepared tailored, scalable defense options should there be a protracted nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. This created a good deal of public anxiety, which was fueled by Moscow’s insistence that the new doctrine all but advertised Washington’s preparedness for a first-strike scenario.
So the Reagan administration retreated—rhetorically, at least. While the White House superficially deferred to the nostrum that maintained nuclear weapons had no instrumental utility, a doctrine of nuclear warfighting nevertheless replaced the prevailing assumption that a nuclear conflict was an unwinnable contest. If Moscow and Washington generally agreed that no party to such a conflict could “win,” one side could most certainly lose more than the other.
Unpalatable as it is, the world may be forced to dust off the old Cold War-era playbooks that kept everyone’s missiles peacefully interred in their silos. Indeed, it’s vital that Western decision-makers reacquaint themselves with the lessons of the past, and soon. The present conversation around deterring or responding to a Russian use of nonconventional weapons is downright terrifying.
Some believe that NATO nations should broadcast their potential response to Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon. Sagamore Institute senior fellow Jerry Hendrix advocates the establishment of a red line, the crossing of which would trigger a Western no-fly zone over Ukraine and NATO soldiers on the ground, the sinking of Russian naval assets in the Black and Baltic seas, and the neutralization of Russian military targets outside Russia’s borders. Lacking the capacity to respond conventionally, Moscow might be forced to respond unconventionally. “To be sure, this will result in the loss of lives and the destruction of great cities,” Hendrix writes. “This is immeasurably sorrowful and regrettable, but the responsibility will not be on the West.” True enough, but that’s cold comfort.
Sam Nunn, a former lawmaker and the co-author of a program that deactivated thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons, “favors some sort of horizontal escalation” to avoid a nuclear response to a Russian attack. For example, destroying the platform that delivers a nuclear weapon. The West could also mount non-kinetic responses, including crippling cyberattacks on Russian command and control and civilian infrastructure. And the Russians must be made aware that these consequences would inevitably follow the use of an unconventional weapon.
This asymmetrical retaliation, however, would not communicate the West’s resolve to neutralize the Russian threat. Just the opposite. It would likely convince Moscow to press its advantage and compel Western governments to pressure Kyiv into a ceasefire whose terms are favorable to the Kremlin.
As is always the problem with red lines, retailing a response to a provocation so as to deter it commits you to that course of action. If this approach proves an insufficient deterrent, you’re forced to execute your own self-set strategy. The refusal to do so invites more aggression and weakens alliances. Given that, it’s understandable that Western capitals would prefer to be vague about what their reaction to a nuclear provocation would be.
European affairs analyst Andreas Kluth observes that President Joe Biden’s response to such a provocation must be “muscular.” That could involve a demonstration of America’s nuclear capability over an unpopulated part of the world, but Moscow may believe its nuclear arsenal is at risk and respond disproportionately. The U.S. could conduct a conventional strike on Russian forces, though that doesn’t obviate the risk of an unconventional response from Russia. A third approach would be to “make plans for regime change” and “communicate that not vaguely but specifically,” albeit privately, to the Russian president.
Now we’re getting back to basics. More important, we’re getting back to deterring a Russian attack, which is the sole strategic value of nuclear weapons.
If nuclear deterrence fails, every kinetic option available to Western war planners is suboptimal. This leaves open the possibility that the West won’t respond at all. Indeed, Russia may be counting on its enemies to opt for what’s known as self-deterrence—whereby a nuclear nation becomes convinced that any retaliatory response to a nuclear provocation would fail to neutralize its adversary and render its own population centers vulnerable. The best way to avoid this scenario is to convince Russia’s leadership that it would not survive such a nuclear exchange and should, therefore, back down. We know what this looks like.
“It did become clear that at least the leadership was planning seriously to survive a nuclear war,” said Nuclear Targeting Policy Review Director Leon Sloss of the conditions that prevailed in the late-1970s. Reasonably assured that Soviet leadership valued their own lives, the Carter-era “countervailing strategy” sought to put a potential gun to the Politburo’s heads. This foreclosed on the possibility that a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers could have been limited, but it did seem to impose clarity on the Soviet leadership. The Reagan administration only picked up where Carter’s White House left off.
What does Vladimir Putin value? He does not value Russian lives. That’s clear enough, given his efforts to drag the Russian civilian population screaming into the Ukrainian meat grinder. He values the ideal of Russian greatness, but his definition of greatness is not material. Russia would still be great, in his estimation, even if it had been reduced to rubble so long as his enemies were in similar ruin. Like his Soviet predecessors, what the Russian leader appears to value is his own life and his control over the Russian people (the loss of which would also likely cost Putin either his life or freedom).
The West’s primary strategic objective in this delicate moment is to ensure that all of this remains confined to the realm of the hypothetical. The catastrophe that would follow the hostile detonation of a nuclear weapon must never occur. Regardless of how boxed in Putin feels now, Kremlin officials must understand that its predicament is downright pleasant compared to the oblivion that awaits them on the other side of such an event. Communicating with absolute assuredness that Vladimir Putin, whether it be by our hands or those of his associates, will not live to see the world he hopes to create may be the best way to avert disaster.