Taking a New Look at Nuclear Peace
No. 2 2017 April/June
Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
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How to Enhance Deterrence and Preserve Peace

Key points at first. Nuclear weapons, if they are ever to be used, are unspeakable evil, but their existence saved the world during the Cold War and is saving it now as the previous two global systems—the bipolar one (which died, but there have been attempts to revive it) and the “unipolar moment” (which is fast winding down now)—are simultaneously falling apart. These two processes have coincided with breathtakingly rapid changes in the balance of power on the global economic and political scene, the crisis of international law and in the rules of decency in international relations, and chaos in the minds of elites in many countries. The situation is exacerbated by the start of arms race in BMD and by new conventional strategic arms. It is highly likely that we are moving towards a situation where cyber weapons start to play a role of weapons of mass destruction.

As a result, the world is living, and will keep living for a long time, in a prewar atmosphere. Creative and constructive reliance on nuclear deterrence in this situation may be a solution. But it should be enhanced by common efforts to strengthen all factors of international strategic stability.


I understand that I may be branded a new “Dr. Strangelove who learned to love the bomb” from Stanley Kubrick’s political satire black comedy from the 1960s. But I believe that not only Russia with economy still suffering from inept reforms, but also all other countries could benefit from reasonable and thoughtful reliance on nuclear deterrence.

At the beginning of my academic career in the 1970s and 1980s, I spent a lot of time and effort studying the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs, perused documents and took part in debates and even political struggle over this issue. Research and experience led me to conclusions that were vastly different from those that were shared by the majority of political scientists. But those conclusions remained largely inapplicable, although I vigorously opposed the idea, shared by the Soviet leadership in the late 1980s, of dramatic reductions in nuclear arsenals and of universal disarmament, or “global zero” in modern parlance. Then the Cold War seemed to be over and the nuclear factor kind of receded into the background, giving me the pleasure of working on other, more pressing, pleasurable and fruitful topics. 

In the last nine years, as new (and different from the previous ones) tensions kept erupting all over the world, nuclear weapons have reemerged from political oblivion onto the political scene. This sparked a new discussion on their role, and the latest political changes in the United States add more weight to it.

The current set of ideas concerning the role of nuclear weapons was laid down mainly by American and partly British theorists and practitioners in the 1950s and 1960s. It contained two intertwined aspects: the first one was universal and philosophical; the second one was related to the servicing of national interests and was even used to justify certain plans for the development of the armed forces and their nuclear component. Nuclear arms limitation and reduction (the Soviet term; Americans put it more straightforwardly—arms control) was intended to optimize and substantiate the creation or preservation of certain systems, curb excessive spending, and force disadvantageous directions of arms race upon the opponent. Naturally, one of the purposes of arms control, not always the main one, was a reduction of the danger of nuclear war, primarily by improving the political climate. So, it is very hard to say whether old arms control did more good or harm.

Prevailing views hold that the spread of nuclear weapons is an undeniable evil, but this partially runs counter to historical logic. The history of nuclear weapons includes, among other things, the history of their proliferation from the United States to the Soviet Union and beyond. If the Soviet Union and China had not developed nuclear weapons, it is highly unlikely that we would have had such a long period without a major war. But the idea of nonproliferation fully meets the interests of existing nuclear powers, including the Soviet Union in the past and Russia now. 

The political, technological, moral, and legal situation in the world has changed dramatically since the days when the original theory of nuclear deterrence and nuclear arms limitation was conceived. Apparently, the conception of the role of nuclear weapons in the modern world needs to be adjusted as well. A new theory is also necessitated by the ever-changing balance of economic, political and moral power in the world.  

The need to reevaluate the experience of the last quarter of a century, when the nuclear factor largely “receded into the shadows,” also prompts a new look at the role of nuclear weapons. Temporarily weakened Russia de-facto abandoned the active policy of deterrence and balancing. The United States has entered a new discussion on nuclear weapons. During the election campaign of 2016, Democrats simultaneously called for a drastic reduction (even for “nuclear zero”) and an increase in nuclear arsenals. Donald Trump voiced doubts about the need for nuclear weapons but then proposed a massive nuclear build-up; later he even proposed nuclear weapons reduction in exchange for concessions on Russia’s part.

The idea of radical nuclear weapons cuts has been supported simultaneously by idealists, hoping to save the world from a possible use of such arms and its terrible consequences, and also by super cynical realists. The latter wished to get a free hand in order to make the U.S. military, economic and thus conventional military preponderance politically usable; and also get a free hand in the field of missile defense, where the U.S. holds the lead. Diametrically opposite views on nuclear deterrence is a sign of general confusion—not only among U.S. strategists but also world elites. Another reason to think about a new role of nuclear weapons is the hubbub over Russia’s “nuclear threats,” which has become an important part of the political propaganda war that has been underway since the end of the last decade and has intensified after Russia had moved to halt the expansion of Western alliances in Crimea and eastern Ukraine first and then intervened in Syria to stop serial regime change initiated by the West.

The campaign to accuse Russia of having transgressed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was launched by the Obama administration. The purpose of these accusations was not only to put additional pressure on Moscow, but possibly to rationalize deployment of new nuclear and ABM systems around Russia. I have written already in this journal (see “Missiles in Europe: Back to the Future?”, No.3/2016) that the situation starts to farcically resemble the European missile crisis of the late 1970s-early 1980s. It was driven by the perceived need to strengthen the weakened Atlantic link by provoking a new round of tensions in Europe following the deployment of American Pershing and land-based cruise missiles, the production of which was nearing completion. The pretext was the deployment of medium-range SS-20 missiles (quite an unwise move by the Soviet side).

Russian publicists engaged in counterpropaganda often responded by nuclear brandishing sailing close to the wind. But they did not reflect the official line which was deftly kept half-disclosed. 

The main reason for the renewed discussion on the role of nuclear weapons and the need to sustain it and possibly take it to a higher political level is the extremely precarious international political situation that increases the risk of war. In many ways, it is more dangerous than it was in the last twenty-five years of the Cold War era, perhaps with the exception of the early 1980s when the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, missile crisis in Europe and Reagan’s Star Wars and “evil empire” talk brought tensions to a head. But even then the overall situation was structurally more stable than now.

The reason for this new dangerousness is the unprecedentedly fast redistribution of power in the world. It was caused not only by the rise of new forces but also by the rapid and unexpected decline of the West’s power and influence in the 2000s, which was especially painful after the “final victory” which seemed to have been won by that time. By the end of the 2000s, the United States had devalued its military supremacy by engaging in combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and suffering political defeats. The economic crisis that broke out in 2008-2009 undermined the attractiveness of liberal capitalism, seriously shaking the West’s moral authority. This was followed by the crisis of the U.S. political model, which culminated in the farce of presidential elections in 2016 and the present war of the American liberal establishment against the president.

At the same time the European Union has been sliding deeper into its overarching and, so far, irreparable, crisis. A considerable part of the European ruling elite apparently decided that it needed an “enemy” to organize itself against and to prevent further meltdown of the EU. While previously there seemed to be the need to “manage the rise of the new,” now it seems to be giving way to the need to manage “the decline of the old.”

These crises have coincided with the revisionist intentions of “the new powers”—voiced discreetly by China and India, and openly by Russia—to change the rules of the game that were imposed in the 1990s by the West after its seeming victory in the Cold War. The United States, acting together with some European countries, tried to take revenge for its defeats of the last decade and regain the balance of power it was beginning to lose. This has led to an extremely explosive clash between “revanchists” and “revisionists.”

These processes are unfolding against the background of global economic recession and increased competition it entails, as well as the fast-growing economic deglobalization. This will unavoidably spur protectionist policies to be led by Donald Trump’s America.

The military and political situation is slowly deteriorating, too. The arms race in the ABM field is taking off. Several countries are starting to deploy long-range high-precision conventional weapons, most of which are nuclear capable. We may be witnessing a clandestine, but in terms of strategic stability most dangerous of all arms races—one in cyberweaponry. Not much is known about these arms, but it is very likely that their destruction capabilities could equal them to weapons of mass destruction. And it is quite possible that in the foreseeable future terrorists can acquire such capabilities.

The situation seems to be even more dangerous because of the crisis in leadership and governance in many countries, not least those that until recently were considered models to be followed. An unstable, if not prewar, situation may continue indefinitely until (and unless) a new balance of power emerges and new rules of international relations are adopted or the old ones are restored.

From the Russian, purely pragmatic, point of view, the strategic situation has some positive aspects, though. The country has increased its capacity for strategic deterrence by demonstrating new types of weapons, including long-range cruise missiles in Syria. But the international strategic stability may again be shattered, specifically by an arms race in new fields.

In order to live through this indefinitely long period, humankind should turn to the main systemic stabilizer in international relations—nuclear deterrence—that saved it from new world wars by prudish default. The world counted on it but at the same time kept renouncing it, citing the need get rid of it. Perhaps it is time we said the truth: We will not survive without nuclear weapons, no matter how dangerous they may be; and in the coming search for a new world order we should focus our policies not on overcoming nuclear deterrence but on preserving and optimizing it by joint efforts.


An uncounted number of books have been written about nuclear deterrence, and it has dozens of definitions. I will offer my own interpretation which somewhat differs from the generally accepted ones. 

Strategic deterrence, or deterrence I is the ability to bring home to the potential enemy that it will unavoidably suffer “unacceptable damage” if it launches a nuclear strike against your country. “Unacceptable damage” is a subjective notion and depends on the country, its population, territory, and political system. Judging from declassified documents, even a single retaliatory strike was considered unacceptable in the United States since the early 1950s. 

In order to reinforce the main function of nuclear weapons, theorists and practitioners came up with the idea that any nuclear war would inevitably escalate to a global level, and developed the nuclear winter theory describing the cooling effect of a nuclear war on global climate, which will make Earth uninhabitable. This principal method of deterrence has proved quite effective so far.  

Deterrence II, or extended deterrence. Under this doctrine, the United States guaranteed a “nuclear umbrella” to its allies, pledging to strike back at the “aggressor” if NATO (Japan or South Korea) loses a conventional war. I can prove that this was nothing more than sheer bluffing. I am convinced that the United States would never have come to its allies’ rescue by putting its own territory at risk. Fortunately, no war happened in Europe, and “deterrence” allowed and continues to allow allies to cut their defense spending by paying for the American protection with their political and economic loyalty. 

It also worked in the minds of Soviet strategists. They believed that the United States could launch the first strike and tried to prepare the Soviet Armed Forces for operation during nuclear attacks. Naturally, NATO was the “aggressor.” This belief was one of the reasons why the Soviet Union built up its general-purpose forces so vigorously.   

Russia, according to official statements (made among others by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev), also assumes that nuclear weapons may be used if its allies come under attack. 

Deterrence III is the readiness of a country to use nuclear weapons if its territory is attacked by general purpose forces alone but their attack threatens, as Russia’s current doctrinal documents put it, “the very existence of the state.” The majority of other nuclear powers—Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—apparently have similar doctrines. This function is supported by the indescribable horror associated with the use of nuclear weapons. It has so far been instrumental in preventing war but it could be undermined by a single or limited use of nuclear weapons which will kill tens of thousands of people but will not lead to further regional escalation or global catastrophe. This is an extremely dangerous scenario, because it can destroy the entire mythology of nuclear deterrence and its usefulness as a method of preventing war. This scenario may be possible between India and Pakistan, in North Korea or, to a lesser degree, Israel.       

Nuclear weapons have yet another function which I would call deterrence IV. Both military strategists and societies at large firmly believe that any major armed conflict would be unacceptable if it can involve nuclear powers, especially the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, and consequently develop into a global catastrophe. This type of deterrence largely helped to preserve peace during the “mature” Cold War. The Soviet Union and China did not send their troops to Vietnam directly, fearing escalation. The United States and NATO stood aside when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact used force in Budapest and Prague, and provided only clandestine support to mujahideen in Afghanistan.

This type of deterrence stopped working for some time when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was very weak. Having sensed their impunity, NATO, a hitherto defensive alliance, and its member countries carried out a series of attacks against the remains of Yugoslavia in 1999, Iraq, and Libya. In Syria, where Russia showed its readiness and ability to defend its interests and international law, open armed intervention was barely considered. 

In order to understand how this type of deterrence works, one should try to imagine a NATO attack on Serbia today. It would be totally unthinkable. It would be equally hard to imagine the U.S. and NATO providing direct military support to the incumbent Ukrainian regime even though some politicians claimed otherwise. When hotheads in the United States called for supplying “deadly weapons” to Kiev, Europeans and the U.S. leadership firmly dismissed these demands as they understood too well that Russia, which had by that time restored its nuclear shield and regained the will to fight, would respond very harshly.   

This type of deterrence is one of the key factors that maintain relative international stability.

Deterrence V suggests that nuclear weapons are a means of curbing conventional arms race. Preserving and increasing nuclear capabilities is usually associated with an arms race. That’s largely how it was during the Cold War when Washington and Moscow frantically and recklessly built up their nuclear arsenals, ignoring normal logic and strategic calculations, and could have easily destroyed life on Earth five, ten or even twenty times over. But reliance on nuclear weapons allowed Western, and especially European, countries which are more rational and accountable to their citizens, to save budget funds that otherwise would have been invested in conventional weapons.

Now Russia can substantially make up for the military-economic supremacy of its neighbors by increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, including non-strategic ones. According to Nikolai Patrushev, “Russia reserves the possibility to deliver a preemptive (preventive) nuclear strike against an aggressor.”

The most useful function of this type of deterrence is that it makes any pursuit of superiority in other areas—general purpose forces, missile defense or precision-guided long-range non-nuclear weapon systems—senseless or unbearably costly. The United States’ latest experience is quite indicative in this respect. In the 1990s and the early 2000s the U.S. surged forward, spent trillions, and left almost all and everyone behind only to find out after a series of defeats that such supremacy gives virtually nothing in the modern world for several reasons, including the impossibility or lack of readiness to escalate a conflict to the nuclear level.

In Russian-Chinese relations, the nuclear factor wards off any theoretical decisions to achieve non-nuclear supremacy or, on the contrary, Russia’s concerns over such a possibility. Objectively, it is one of the factors that help maintain friendly relations between the two countries. 

Deterrence VI leads to democratization of international relations. If it were not for the deterring role of nuclear weapons, which limit massive use of force in general, “the new,” primarily China, would hardly have been allowed to rise so quickly, and Russia could have been “finished off” when it was still weak. Over the past several years, I have often heard my opponents regret that “Putin cannot be punished the way Milosevic was.”

But the nuclear factor has a deeper structural influence. It has deprived economically stronger states and their groups of the possibility to convert their economic supremacy into military power, thus facilitating (along with information and ideological changes) overall democratization of international politics. This not only led to the current rise of “the new” and gave all other countries more freedom of choice and maneuver, but made the very creation and further development of the Non-Aligned Movement possible.   

Deterrence VII is one of the most important, albeit barely studied, functions of nuclear deterrence, namely its civilizing effect. The presence of nuclear weapons and their inherent theoretical ability to destroy countries and continents, if not entire mankind, has been changing mentality, “civilizing” ruling elites in countries with nuclear weapons, making them more responsible. These elites rid themselves of people and political groups whose views could have led to a nuclear conflict or kept them away from spheres pertaining to national security. This can easily be seen in the evolution of the American ruling elite and its views.

The last relatively radical American politician who sought the presidency was Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater “The Bomber” (who called for the use of atomic bombs in Vietnam). The American elite simply knocked him down in the presidential election of 1964.

Similar changes occurred in the Soviet leadership too, but they are harder to trace. But reckless moves in the nuclear sphere (Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962) were a major factor behind Khrushchev’s dismissal.   

Deterrence as a civilizing factor goes along with Deterrence VIII, or self-deterrence. The understanding of risks associated with conflict escalation made and still makes the leaders of nuclear states exclude from scenarios they are considering or planning any action that can raise a conflict to the nuclear level. Objectively, all parties in the nuclear equation are indirectly “interested in being deterred.” I know that such arguments were used in discussions on the future of the nuclear factor to oppose, among other things, regular calls for nuclear abolitionism, and particularly against movement towards global zero proposed in the days of Reagan and Gorbachev.


Conceptually, it would be necessary to preserve and maintain nuclear deterrence for a long period of time until a new international system, new (old) rules of the game, international governance system and new arms control mechanisms are established. All nuclear powers should pool efforts in order to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons to keep them away from terrorists and accidental use.   

The instrument to do this is not traditional negotiations on the reduction (elimination) of nuclear weapons. They can produce some positive political effect, but they will also inevitably lead to re-militarization of relations between nuclear powers (Russia and the United States). Broader talks would be impossible at this point and essentially purposeless.

It is time we left behind the obsolete and largely senseless notion of numerical parity, both in strategic calculations and in arms control talks, if they are to be conducted at all. If for reliable deterrence on all reasonable levels you need 1,500 warheads and a certain number of delivery vehicles to overcome all thinkable defenses, it does not matter if the other side has one thousand or five thousand warheads. If they want to buy and spend more, let them do it.  

Instead, all nuclear powers (possibly even Israel and North Korea, integrating the latter rather than punishing it all the time, which is counterproductive) should start a dialogue on how to strengthen international strategic stability. Russia, the United States and probably China could co-chair this process. The purpose is to prevent global war and the use of nuclear weapons. It should aim to increase stability and predictability, inform each other of mutual concerns, and avert new destabilizing aspects of arms race, especially those that are based on the new principles of missile defense in dynamic combination with offensive weapons. Naturally, such dialogue should also cover non-nuclear but de-facto strategic arms, as well as cyberweapons.

The sides concerned acting within the framework of existing treaties or agreeing to amend them (which may happen to the obviously outdated INF Treaty) should have a right to modernize their nuclear arsenals or even change their configuration. But in doing so they should be guided by the philosophy of mutual stable deterrence rather than attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons (which will be impossible in the foreseeable future) or obtain first-strike disarming advantages.

Therefore, the purpose of the dialogue is not arms reduction as such but prevention of war through information exchange, clarification of positions including the reasons for deploying certain systems, doctrinal principles, confidence-building efforts or at least alleviation of suspicion.  At present, like in the worst years of the Cold War era, the sides exchange signals pertaining to strategic weapons through demonstrations, threatening launches, military exercises, and ambiguous leaks.

Over time, this dialogue, if it keeps the world from sliding into a new large-scale war and navigates it through the current “change-of-all” period, can become one of the underlying principles for creating a new world order. The Group of Twenty plays basically the same role in the economic sphere where it does not actually solve problems but helps better understand and take into account other actors’ views and global trends.

Starting to lead the way in strengthening strategic stability and preventing war, the “Big Troika” (the U.S., China and Russia) could extend its cooperation to other spheres of international relations to lay the foundation for a less chaotic and more secure world of tomorrow. This new Concert of Nations, if and when the leaders of the three countries reach the level of wisdom and responsibility it takes to create it, could be more stable than the previous one if it is based not only on moral principles and the balance of power, but also on mutual nuclear deterrence.