23.11.2022
Strategic Prudence: Is Nuclear Deterrence Still in Place?
Valdai Papers
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Muhammad Athar Javed

Director General of Pakistan House — International Think Tank.

Valdai Discussion Club

It is the responsibility of the US, NATO and Russia to use strategic prudence and avert “nuclear Armageddon”, which in turn will protect the next generations from poverty, instability and perpetual conflict between Russia and the West.

 

Strategic Prudence VS. Offensive Military Strategy

US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”: to avoid nuclear war and return to negotiations to resolve all issues peacefully. The latter assertion also depends on the quality of communication between Moscow and Washington. The Russian-Ukrainian crisis, coupled with energy issues and price inflation in Europe, has created a “new crisis”. The scope of this has produced a military stalemate, and nuclear deterrence in the post-Cuban-missile crisis sense is withering away. The risk of a nuclear showdown is real if Russia’s national security and territorial integrity are threatened.

To prevent any further misconception about what the consequences would be if Russian territory is attacked, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked “this is not a bluff” that Russia will use all the weapons systems it has available to defend Russia and its territorial integrity. US President Joe Biden has invoked the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. Given the gravity of the current crisis, it is crucial that both Russia and the US reconfigure the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and structure discussions around the lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis, because that helped avert catastrophe.

 

History of Nuclear Deterrence

The thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16-28, 1962) shaped the international security system. The Soviet Union and the United States had a political and military stand-off over the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Soviet move was in response to missile deployment by the US in Turkey, which was perceived as a threat to the USSR’s security. After sighting Soviet missiles, President John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade and threatened to use military force. Conversely, Soviet leader Khrushchev warned that the USSR will launch nuclear weapons if the United States goes to war. The Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. However, both countries agreed to remove the strategic weapons from the territory of their respective allies. One of the most important lessons which should be learned from the history of nuclear deterrence is that only negotiation and restraint can bring global peace and stability. Coercive diplomacy had and would cause the expansion of conflict in every other part of the world. It is this context which one needs to view the current political and military strategy of the US, NATO, and Russia.

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Russia-Ukraine Crisis: The Basis of a “Nuclear Armageddon”?

Moscow argues that Ukraine’s territory is being used for the expansion of NATO’s military plans, the aim of which is to surround Russia. Therefore, Russia considers it a direct threat to its territorial integrity. Since Russia’s special operations started in Ukraine, the US and its NATO allies have been supporting Ukraine with weapons and material support. For Russia, Ukraine joining NATO is a red line, and that’s where all stakeholders should converge in preventing the further risks of a conflict between Russia, the US and NATO. It is argued that the Ukrainian leadership had been creating hysteria over a Russian military operation to make the situation worse and that Ukrainian President Zelensky had openly campaigned for imposing sanctions against Russia. If this doesn’t constitute a strategic threat, what would it take to undermine the Russian and European economies? Of course, the loss of precious lives during the conflict is regrettable.

The repercussions of the conflict are being felt globally in the form of price inflation in the oil, energy, and food markets. European citizens are feeling the heat; they are especially affected and the winter looks much darker due to the suspension of the Russian gas supply. It is assessed that Europe’s own sanctions against Russia have brought misery to their citizens, therefore the onus lies with the Ukrainian, US and NATO leadership. In September and October 2022, new sanctions were implied. Russia is reacting to these sanctions by banning exports, limiting food chains, suspending gas flows, and now completely cutting its gas supply to Europe, which has created an unprecedented energy crisis in Europe, as the largest gas pipeline i.e., Nord Stream has been closed by Russia. These cause and effect phenomena have been significantly affecting the way European citizens are now looking at their respective governments’ policies. How would the NATO member states response to their own citizen’s demands to avert any further conflict remains to be seen.

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Assessment: Geo-Political and Strategic Redesigning

The discourse about the conflict has yielded to a more offensive rhetoric, the mobilization of heavy equipment and war gamming; even talk of “nuclear Armageddon”. It is then time to re-assess what is needed for both parties to deescalate. Despite the historical understanding about “no expansion eastward”, NATO continues to establish channels of engagement to play a significant role in global security in countries like Ukraine. By all accounts, it is being perceived as an expression of renewed geopolitical rivalry against Russia, hence a potential replay of the “Cuban Missile Crisis”. It may be much more dangerous due to the possession of advanced weapons and delivery systems by all parties in question. Threats, perception, and reality interconnect with strategic design; especially the way world opinion has been mobilized against Russia.

Ostensibly, in recent history, the world has never been more in danger of a nuclear threat than under the current global security regime.

There is always a possibility to negotiate a peaceful settlement of a conflict.

However, the sanctions, demonization of Russia and fuelling of new patterns of socio-political polarisation in Europe has hinted at a “new system of hate syndrome” which may be irreversible. An East vs. West conflict and the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, the US and in other parts of the world would destabilize multiple regions beyond imagination. The precursors of a larger conflict coupled with economic depression, a continuation of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the enhanced role of Non-State Actors (NSAs) is a recipe for a global security breakdown.

To conclude, it is then the responsibility of the US, NATO and Russia to use strategic prudence and avert “nuclear Armageddon”, which in turn will protect the next generations from poverty, instability and perpetual conflict between Russia and the West. 

The article was prepared especially for the 19th Annual conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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