Back to Balance. New Weapons As Effective Deterrence
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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Many bad things have been said about nuclear weapons in the decades since they first came into existence. Indeed, in the middle of the 20th century the human race developed a means of confrontation with the potential to destroy the entire world were it used on a large scale. What this means in practice is debatable. Convinced pacifists are scaring the world with the lethal consequences of using the atom for non-peaceful purposes. Realists, on the other hand, argue that these weapons are a deterrent and help prevent war precisely because of their lethality.

The debate will never end, but neither will technological progress. Everything that is based on physical laws is discovered or invented sooner or later, and just as surely, everything that has been created since the invention of the stone axe and wheel inevitably becomes an instrument of war. Such is human nature, and there is only one way to curb it – to make it clear that retribution is inevitable and necessary to prevent anyone from exploiting a technological advantage in some field.

On July 16, 1945, a day before the opening of the Potsdam Conference at which the heads of the victorious powers decided the fate of post-war Europe and the world, the United States conducted the first test of atomic weapons in New Mexico. On July 24, US President Harry Truman casually mentioned to Joseph Stalin that the United States had a bomb of extraordinary destructive force. Stalin did not react to the news, and Winston Churchill who was also present at the conversation even suggested that the Generalissimo did not grasp what he had been told.

But Stalin knew all about the existence of the Manhattan Project and understood why his US counterpart was informing him of its success. President Truman was upping the stakes in the fierce bargaining over the post-war international order. Upon returning from the meeting Stalin instructed his subordinates to speed up the Soviet project to develop a similar device. Truman’s secret was revealed two weeks later when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Since that moment, the history of nuclear weapons has been a race for balance, for parity as an essential condition of maintaining strategic stability. The term “strategic stability” is relatively new. It appeared in the 1987 Treaty between the USSR and the US on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles and the 1991 START I Treaty. On June 1, 1990, the leaders of the two countries signed a special joint statement on future talks on nuclear and space weapons and efforts to further consolidate strategic stability.

However, the concept was only recorded in an official document 30 years ago; the development of this approach began much earlier in the work of American theoreticians of the 1950s and later on during Soviet-US dialogue on limiting nuclear arms. This was a long and uphill road with moments of escalation and crisis, the most dangerous of which was the 1962 confrontation over Cuba. At that time the two superpowers skirted the line beyond which lay the real risk of a nuclear exchange. The military and political leaders of the two countries had enough common sense and instinct for self-preservation to understand the need to develop rules of conduct in this area, guaranteeing the risk of confrontation would fall to an acceptable level. The point was not to end the rivalry or prove that someone is right but to guarantee the survival of the opponents and the rest of the human race.

Reflections on the best ways to ensure peace led to a number of serious conclusions, including the idea that offensive and defensive systems were interrelated, as well as the importance of mutual vulnerability as a guarantee of non-use of force. The ominous principle of mutually assured destruction emerged as an effective principle in terms of military containment.

Fifty years ago Andrei Sakharov, the remarkable Soviet physicist and public activist who made a major contribution to developing and upgrading nuclear weapons, wrote an article “Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom” in which he highlighted the danger of “great technical and economic difference in the potentials of two enemies.”

“In such a case, the stronger side, creating an anti-missile defense system with a multiple reserve, would face the temptation of ending the dangerous and unstable balance once and for all by embarking on a pre-emptive adventure, expending part of its attack potential on the destruction of most of the enemy’s launching pads and counting on impunity for the last stage of escalation, i.e., the destruction of the cities and industry of the enemy.”

Sakharov continued: “Fortunately for the stability of the world, the difference between the technical and economic potentials of the Soviet Union and the United States is not so great that one of the sides could undertake “preventive aggression” without an almost inevitable risk of a destructive retaliatory blow. This situation would not be changed by a broadening of the arms race through the development of anti-missile defenses. In the opinion of many people, an opinion shared by the author, a diplomatic formulation of this mutually comprehended situation, for example, in the form of a moratorium on the construction of anti-missile systems, would be a beneficial demonstration of a desire of the Soviet Union and the United States to preserve the status quo and not to escalate the arms race for senselessly expensive anti-missile systems. It would be a demonstration of a desire to cooperate, not to fight.”

Sakharov had major disagreements with the Soviet power on how the state and society should be organized. The article mentioned above was first circulated in typewritten copies (samizdat) abroad. However, on missile defense systems his views coincided with those of the country’s military and political leadership. In the early 1970s (1972 and 1974) the Soviet Union and the United States reached agreements on the limitation of strategic missile defense (ABM) capabilities, which meant defenses against nuclear missile strikes. The two superpowers agreed on common approaches to the promotion of a strategic military balance. During the next fifteen years and right up to the end of the Cold War Soviet-US relations had their ups and downs, including moments of extreme tension together with a senseless accumulation of monstrous nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, there was still an understanding of the need to abide by the fundamental principles of strategic stability, which did not reduce the level of confrontation or make it less dangerous, while preventing it from sliding into a catastrophe. Alexei Arbatov, the prominent Russian researcher on international security, came up with a concise definition of strategic stability during the Cold War: “A stable strategic nuclear balance that remains in place for extended periods of time despite destabilizing factors.”

The end of the Cold War was a source of joy. The world no longer faced the threat of nuclear annihilation, or so it seemed. However, this jubilation turned out to be premature. It may not be necessary to go over the recent past and lay out a chronicle of how two former rivals failed to formalize their relations, still not sorted out in full, in legally binding documents, which led to growing discontent, suspicion as well as the loss of mutual trust. What matters is that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and witnessing the turmoil that engulfed Russia in the period that followed, the US and the West thought that there was no need to maintain the balance anymore, considering that the rules of behavior and reciprocal limitations developed in the 1960s-1980s were no longer needed. This worldview led to a number of unilateral steps, but the most significant one was the decision made by the United States in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the founding instrument of the strategic stability architecture.

What guided US strategists when they took this step does not matter, whether they aspired to global military dominance, wished to simplify the situation in order to get rid of “checks and balances” and have a free hand, just in case, or made the decision as a concession to the defense industry eager to undertake new large-scale projects. All this does not matter anymore. There were subsequent arguments whereby the system was targeting Iran and DPRK, not Russia, that the ABM system was imperfect and costly, making its prospects unclear or that the Russian nuclear arsenal would be able to overpower any US defenses for several decades to come. Regardless of their dubious nature, they were all irrelevant in terms of the main conceptual change, consisting of the rejection of the very principle of strategic stability and mutual vulnerability as the foundation of trust developed following the crises in the early stages of the Cold War. It was this principle that made the relations workable in the later stages of the Cold War.

Now, in the 21st century, the international system is descending into chaos. There are many reasons, both objective and subjective, but everything has been aggravated by the reckless irresponsibility of those who considered themselves the victors in the Cold War and thought it possible to act without regard not only for the interests of other important players, but, much worse, for the basic principles of international relations. The denial of balance as a vital necessity has eroded the entire global security system. Reinstating this postulate is an indispensable condition for creating a stable updated version of strategic stability.

The coming world of the 2020s will fundamentally differ from the world of the 1960s, and the meaning of strategic stability is changing now, just like then. For example, as technology advanced, the correlation between stability and equilibrium was transformed. While, prior to the 1970s, both concepts essentially referred to the same status quo of strategic forces between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the onset of the mass transition from unitary-warhead missiles to multiple warheads with independent targeting (MIRVs), these concepts began to diverge in meaning. Equilibrium came to refer to the quantitative parameters of the nuclear sphere, while stability implied the qualitative characteristics. Equilibrium can be stable or unstable, and so on.

Today, other factors are added to changing technology, in particular the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the improvement of China’s arsenals, and a significantly more complex overall picture. (Dr. Andrei Kokoshin, a prominent expert in security and full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has proposed developing five- or six-sided models of strategic stability in his works). However, Russia and the United States remain nuclear superpowers and retain a significant advantage over the rest. And it is their relationship that still determines what will happen in the nuclear missile sphere. Moscow and Washington need to consolidate balance and restore at least basic levels of trust. The very foundations of strategic trust and stability were seriously undermined in the late 20th and the early 21st century, when the lulling rhetoric of the common good and security hid the growing military and political imbalance in favor of the West.

A series of doctrinal documents issued by the US administration in December 2017 — February 2018 (the national security strategy, the national defense strategy, and the nuclear policy review) clearly and explicitly describe Russia as a strategic rival and deterrent. I try to avoid clichés, but what is that, if not a cold war? Well, since we are back to this state and no one is hiding it, those principles and the foundations of strategic stability that worked in the second half of the twentieth century need to be reaffirmed. According to Alexei Arbatov, the situation remains stable as long as, even in a crisis, each of the opposing parties lacks serious opportunities or incentives for launching the first nuclear strike. This implies the availability of technical capabilities that would nullify even the theoretical possibility of achieving superiority.

“A thermonuclear war cannot be considered a continuation of politics by military means (to employ Clausewitz’s formula). It would be a means of universal suicide,” Andrei Sakharov said in the aforementioned article. In a utopian world, where goodwill and reason reign, nuclear weapons would probably not have a place. But such a world exists only in the imagination of incorrigible idealists. In the real world, since the nuclear monopoly was eliminated and a balance was established in the middle of the last century, nuclear weapons perform the function of checking ambitions and curbing militaristic aspirations. For all the costs of confrontation, deterrence still worked during the Cold War.

Effective deterrence in no way suggests a headlong arms race, precisely the opposite. Famous American astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan said in the 1980s that the Soviet-US nuclear arms race was like “two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” The mindless accumulation of weapons only depleted the rivals’ resources. Internationally respected military analyst Vitaly Shlykov, who produced detailed analyses of the nuclear arms race, wrote: “Both Soviet and US intelligence produced inadequate explanations of the potential adversary’s views on a future war and misrepresented the reasons behind the opponent’s desire to increase its military might, which incited their respective countries to squander enormous resources on the arms race that reached the stage of ‘mobilization warfare’ in the first half of the 1980s and could subsequently develop into a global shooting war.”

As we know, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of that arms race. It appears that the lesson has not been lost on the Kremlin. It has so far avoided systemic militarization, which undermined the Soviet economy. Systemic militarization includes not just the official defense budget, which was many times larger than Russia’s current military spending, but also a mobilization element permanently built into the national economic system. Russia does not have anything of the kind.

The demonstration of new weapons in President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly on March 1 was not designed to incite an arms race. Rather, it was a demonstration of a goal achieved and a caution against any further inexpedient exercises in this sphere. Ultimately, it was designed to limit or even prevent a new arms race.

Sergei Karaganov said, recalling our recent negative experience, that in the late 20th century a “temporarily weakened Russia de facto abandoned the active policy of deterrence and balancing.” The immediate result of this was “a series of attacks against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.” Deterrence is vitally important now that the ongoing shift and redistribution on the global stage have reached a scale that would have most probably resulted in a big war in the pre-nuclear age. Today, nearly all potential parties to a global conflict have their own deterrence capabilities. In other words, nuclear weapons have become the guarantor of peace and strategic stability and will continue to play this role, unless someone yields to the temptation under the illusion of invincibility.

During times of change, there is increased danger but also fresh demand for new treaties because the old ones have become ineffective while the risks are growing. This is when they need to “sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization,” as President Putin said in his address. Peace is a system of self-imposed and mutual limitations. Ideally, this system should be coordinated amicably on the basis of a reasonable compromise. But in practice it is usually based on the awareness that war is, first, too dangerous, and second, does not produce the desired effect. The videos run by the Defense Ministry during Putin’s address were a way to spread and strengthen this awareness.

Originally published in Russian in the Kommersant newspaper.

Valdai International Discussion Club