Can the West Deter Russia’s Nuclear Threats?

Can the West Deter Russia’s Nuclear Threats?

That is what we are now facing in Ukraine, and may soon face with respect to Taiwan: a nuclear threat we are not now capable of fully deterring. 


The number of explicit Russian nuclear threats to NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now reached nearly three dozen. The threats have been both against the United States and the West in general, but in particular against certain states, especially Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Finland.

As a result, the existing nuclear balance between the United States and Russia has been highlighted. It is now under much discussion, by concerned officials, to an extent not seen since the height of the Cold War.


This nuclear balance has long been assumed to be stable because it was corralled by the 2010 Nuclear New START Treaty, now extended for five years, which mandated limits on the number of long-range deployed strategic nuclear forces between the United States and Russia.

Deterrence was also assumed to hold, as expert commentators explained each of the world’s two largest holders of nuclear weapons could annihilate each other in any nuclear exchange so nuclear threats could be dismissed as largely bluff.

So why the Russian emphasis on threatening nuclear war? Why now? And what should the U.S. response be?

Many arms control advocates, especially those seeking what is known as “Global Zero,” or the total abolition of nuclear weapons, have pushed for unilateral U.S. restraint to reassure the Russians we mean no harm, while also explaining that Russia’s threats were simply a bluff and did not need to be taken seriously.

Others, just to cover their bases, concluded that even if Russian president Vladimir Putin was serious, that required not U.S. nuclear modernization but more nuclear restraint and arms control, especially the adoption of such strategies as the “No-First Use” of nuclear force.

Absent however from much of the discussion engendered by the marked increase in explicit Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its European allies is what Russian nuclear forces might give Moscow an edge when possibly using nuclear force—even after multiple arms control treaties implemented since the initiation of the START process.

Here, the discussion has largely missed the boat. The Russian nuclear force structure is indeed markedly different than that of the United States, both with respect to forces under treaty limits and forces exempt from such restrictions.

It is true that under New START each of the two nuclear weapons states can deploy 700 strategic delivery vehicles—including the long-range bombers and missiles that carry nuclear warheads or gravity bombs.

But critical to understanding the contrast between those Russian and U.S. weapons is what purpose their respective force structures are designed to serve. And how they are structured to achieve such objectives.

For decades, the United States has emphasized putting large percentages of it strategic forces at sea, preserving its conventional bomber capability, and limiting its land-based missiles to single warheads. Russia has chosen a different path. Russia’s emphasis has been on very large multiple-warhead land-based missiles which are on alert nearly all the time

One must then reference the START II Treaty signed by President George H.W. Bush and President Boris Yeltsin in January 1993, nearly three decades ago. The treaty reduced countable strategic warheads from 6,000 to 3,500, a 40 percent reduction, a close companion to the 50 percent reduction achieved under the START I agreement of 1991.

But the START II Treaty proposed something else which was revolutionary. The agreement banned multiple warheads on land-based missiles, the very large missiles which were the mainstay of Russian strategic rocket forces.

The implications of the treaty were not lost on the Russians. President Mikhail Gorbachev himself wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 1996 saying that the START provision banning land-based, multiple-warhead missiles would disarm Russia—implying that the cost of building large numbers of single reentry vehicle missiles would be beyond Moscow’s financial means.

Today, such intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are on alert at nearly 100 percent of the time and, unlike older missiles, need not be refueled prior to launch. Such missiles can be on continuous alert every day, month, and year without having to change their status, refuel, or turn them.

The downside, however, is that these large numbers of such Russian missiles, carrying large numbers of warheads (such as a capability of carrying upwards of ten to twenty-four per missile), could be launched suddenly at the United States in an attempt to disarm it. By striking key U.S. key military assets, including all U.S. ICBM silos plus bomber and submarine bases, the United States would only be left with its remaining submarine force at sea, capable of only hitting relatively soft targets in Russia such as cities.

During the height of the Cold War, the fear was that Russia, with some 10,000 warheads, could use just a few thousand to destroy all U.S. ICBMs and bomber and submarine bases in a pre-emptive first strike, and then threaten further launch against American cities should the United States respond.

It was thought that this “window of vulnerability” could be closed permanently if all MIRVed (multiple independent reentry vehicle) land-based missiles could be banned under an agreement like START II. It was also believed that if arms limits also significantly reduced U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces, which they have; if modernization of U.S. forces proceeded, which they are but belatedly; and if a robust U.S. missile defense was built (which has not occurred), it would complicate any possible Russian first strike strategies. 

Given the limits under START II of the number of strategic delivery vehicles each nuclear power could keep, no country could match the warheads deployed on multiple-warhead land-based missiles with single-warhead ICBMs.

For the past two decades, it has been an article of faith that the Russian Duma formally turned down the START II Treaty because the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The charge was that U.S. missile defense advocates had killed arms control.

It was true that the Bush administration viewed the ABM Treaty as an anachronism which had banned the deployment of missile defenses protecting each nation’s territory, with the exception of an allowed 100 interceptors protecting each nation’s capital or an ICBM missile field.

Russia chose to protect Moscow. The United States originally chose to protect a missile field in North Dakota but that was eventually abandoned as the Russians were able to easily overwhelm the defenses with a small portion of its allowed 10,000 warheads under the 1972 SALT agreement.

The SALT agreement was spurred by Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev calling President-elect Richard Nixon in 1968 demanding that the United States and the Soviets ban all missile defenses. The Soviets warned that U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara’s 1967 missile defense proposal to deal with China was a clever ruse the United States was actually going to use to undermine Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.

Nixon did not turn down the proposed ban on missile defenses, he simply added a proposal to “regulate” the growth in offensive arms as well, with a proposed modest cap of 2,750 strategic delivery vehicles, a few hundred below the then-existing level. But it still allowed for a five-fold increase in Soviet strategic nuclear forces.

However, newly disclosed statements from a high-ranking Russian official dismantle the arms control article of faith that missile defense advocates inadvertently terminated the START II Treaty by scaring Russia about possible U.S. missile defense deployments.

According to this Russian official, he and others worked assiduously within the Duma between 1997-1999 (long before the ABM Treaty was jettisoned in 2002-2003) to stop the START II Treaty from ever being ratified in a form the U.S. Senate would also approve.

Thus, it was the Duma that added provisions to the Start II Treaty that “clarified” the 1972 ABM Treaty, provisions that put new limits and caps on U.S. missile defense deployments, including theater or regional missile defenses, for such areas as the Middle East and the western Pacific, missile defenses which were providing protection to U.S. forces and allies.

In short, Moscow was seeking a way to preserve a “free shot” using its theater nuclear capability, unimpeded by any U.S. missile defenses, as well as an uncomplicated strike capability against the United States with long-range strategic forces, albeit forces markedly smaller today than when the ABM Treaty was signed.

In this way, Russian pre-emptive strike plans could remain credible, even as Russia could simultaneously pretend to be in favor or deterrence and a reset of U.S.-Russian relations. 

Parallel to Russia’s multiple explicit nuclear threats against the United States following the Ukraine invasion has been the realization by U.S. military planners that long before Ukraine—at least as early as 1999—Moscow has embraced an “escalate to win” strategy where it would threaten to introduce the use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict with the objective of getting the United States to cease its fight and stand-down in the face of Russian aggression.

As retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten warned a decade ago, Russia was in the business of using nuclear coercion and blackmail not in the service of deterrence but in the service of naked aggression. 

That is what we are now facing in Ukraine, and may soon face with respect to Taiwan: a nuclear threat we are not now capable of fully deterring. 

To remedy things, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, added in the new defense bill $45 million for the development of a nuclear-armed Navy cruise missile, a technology the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review opposed but the military largely supports. Combined with the ongoing, planned U.S. strategic deterrent modernization, the United States could restore to a considerable degree the stability and deterrence it jettisoned after failing to secure ratification of the START II Treaty and its revolutionary ban on multiple-warhead land-based missiles.