Russia's Nuclear Bluster: How Should America Respond?

"There are no winners in nuclear chess; each player ends up in checkmate."

As Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon put it in March, the United States “need not respond symmetrically to every Russian provocation. In particular, there is currently no need to expand the role for U.S. nuclear weapons, or to change our nuclear posture.”

·      Look for countervailing opportunities

It was a serious mistake to curtail NATO-Russian military contacts for political reasons at a time when such contacts are more important than ever to prevent unintended military incidents and avoid misunderstandings. Rather than severing links to signal political opposition to Russian aggression, such contacts should be fully exploited to keep a lid on the situation.

It was also a mistake not to fully utilize treaty compliance issue resolution mechanisms like the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Group. Rather than reflexively aping irresponsible and hostile nuclear gestures by Russia, the United States should energetically search for creative ways to enhance dialogue and stimulate productive exchanges.

As suggested in an April 2015 report of the U.S./German/Russian Deep Cuts Commission, NATO and Russia should reinitiate military-to-military discussions on practical measures to avoid dangerous incidents, particularly between nuclear-capable military forces. The report also suggested offering transparency measures regarding U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and Romania to address INF Treaty compliance concerns voiced by Russia. This would increase pressure on Moscow to offer the United States similar and reciprocal access to address Washington’s compliance concerns.

When Putin starts playing nuclear chess, start playing checkers

Even in the nuclear age, international affairs is more multidimensional than the chessboard model implies. Moving nuclear pieces on a nuclear chessboard is therefore not the best metaphor for devising responses to Putin’s nuclear maneuvering. There are no winners in nuclear chess; each player ends up in checkmate.

Numerical advantages in nuclear arsenals confer little to no advantage between nuclear weapons states. Even when one state has a nuclear monopoly over another, it cannot necessarily impose its will, as the United States discovered in Vietnam and the Soviet Union discovered in Afghanistan.

Today, the United States deploys some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads, of which about 900 could be delivered within minutes of a launch order by the U.S. commander-in-chief. The use of even a “limited” number by either side risks the total annihilation of Russia, the United States, and America’s NATO allies. As President Reagan once said: “A nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought.”

Despite these realities, nuclear weapons have lurked in the background of current crises with Russia, raising dangers without conferring additional power to the holders of the weapons. The military threat posed to Ukraine has been conventional, not nuclear. As Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 30, “the security situation in Europe is less stable, but it's not based on the nuclear piece….That’s not what worries me.”

For NATO’s easternmost members, the pressure exerted by Moscow has been more psychological and economical than military. The utility tools are not nuclear weapons, but economic clout, soft power, and tangible evidence of political commitment.

If the international community is to avoid the “drift toward unparalleled catastrophe” foreseen by Albert Einstein with respect to the possession and spread of nuclear weapons, the United States will need to continue seeking to deflect the nuclear bluster of Vladimir Putin rather than respond in kind.

Greg Thielmann, a former Foreign Service officer and Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, is now Senior Fellow of the Arms Control Association.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Schleiffert