A third nuclear age may be dawning in Ukraine

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‘By using its nuclear weapons, Russia could save humanity from a global catastrophe,’ the influential political scientist Sergey Karaganov wrote in a 13 June article published by his think tank, the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy. In this terrifying piece, Karaganov, who is close to Putin, explained that to avoid a stalemate in the war and ‘break the West’s will to support the Kiev junta’, Moscow should resort to targeted nuclear strikes on European cities. ‘The most striking characteristic of the war in Ukraine is its nuclear backdrop,’ observed Olivier Zajec in April 2022. ‘Events are unfolding as if the world was hurriedly relearning the vocabulary and fundamentals of nuclear strategy, forgotten since the cold war.’

‘If we refuse to use them, why do we have them?’

The first nuclear age was marked by deterrence, the second by hopes that nuclear weapons might be eliminated. The war in Ukraine may herald a third nuclear age, much more dangerous and uncertain than what came before.

by Olivier Zajec 
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The skies over Moscow
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On 11 March, President Joe Biden sharply rejected politicians’ and experts’ calls for the United States to get more directly involved in the Ukraine war, ruling out direct conflict with Russia: ‘The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand … that’s called World War III’ (1). He nonetheless accepted war was possible if the Russian offensive spread to the territory of a NATO member state.

Thus a distinction was established between NATO’s territory (inviolable) and the territory of Ukraine, which falls into a unique geostrategic category: according to the US, maintaining this distinction will require an accurate understanding of the balance of power between the belligerents on the ground, strict control of the degree of operational involvement of Ukraine’s declared supporters (especially concerning the nature of arms transfers to Ukraine) and, above all, continual reassessment of the limits of Russia’s determination — all with a view to leaving room for a negotiated way out acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine. <exergue=the idea=”” that=”” we’re=”” going=”” to=”” send=”” in=”” offensive=”” equipment=”” and=”” have=”” planes=”” tanks=”” trains=”” with=”” american=”” pilots=”” crews=”” –=”” just=”” understand=”” …=”” that’s=”” called=”” world=”” war=”” iii|cite=”Joe” biden=””>Some trace the US’s caution back to a statement by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on 24 February: ‘No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.’ These words, and his order that Russia’s nuclear forces be placed on high alert (‘a special regime of combat duty’), amounted to attempted coercion, and could suggest that Biden’s reaction constituted backing down. In January, neoconservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens had called for the revival of the concept of the ‘free world’, and warned, ‘The bully’s success ultimately depends on his victim’s psychological surrender’ (2).</exergue=the>

One might argue that it is not for the bully to say how much aggression is ‘acceptable’ from countries that, with help from allies, seek to defend their own borders and their right to exist. Stephens’s warning could equally apply to past international crises, such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But the territory being invaded today is Ukraine, which is far bigger. And the aggressor — Russia — has strategic arguments entirely different from those of Saddam Hussein.

‘Scenarios for use of nuclear arms’

To help understand the issues at stake in US-Russian relations today, and Joe Biden’s irritation with the extreme positions of some of his fellow Americans and some allies, it’s worth recalling Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2018 statement that Russia’s nuclear doctrine ‘has unambiguously limited the threshold of use of nuclear weapons to two … hypothetical, entirely defensive scenarios. They are as follows: [first,] in response to an act of aggression against Russia and/or against our allies if nuclear or other types of mass destruction weapons are used and [second,] with use of conventional arms but only in case our state’s very existence would be in danger’ (3).

Nuclear doctrines are made to be interpreted, and Russia experts have long debated exactly how (4). In Foreign Affairs, Olga Oliker, director of International Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia programme, writes that ‘although it has not been used before, Putin’s phrase “a special regime of combat duty” does not appear to signal a serious change in Russia’s nuclear posture’ (5).

But, at least in terms of how the present crisis is perceived, we cannot ignore the implications of the second scenario in Lavrov’s 2018 statement — an existential threat to Russia. Do Russia’s leaders really see Ukraine’s strategic status, and therefore its potential NATO accession, as critical? If they do, that would explain why, contrary to all normal logic and political good sense, they have given NATO a reason to make a stand and irretrievably damaged Russia’s international standing by deciding it is rational to attack Ukraine unilaterally — and then opting for a blunt ‘nuclearisation’ of their crisis diplomacy, so as to keep other potential belligerents out of the conflict.

Is this just a cynical manoeuvre, banking on Western weakness and hesitation, to give Russia the greatest possible freedom to act? Former British prime minister Tony Blair asks on his thinktank’s website: ‘Is it sensible to tell [Putin] in advance that whatever he does militarily, we will rule out any form of military response? Maybe that is our position and maybe that is the right position, but continually signalling it, and removing doubt in his mind, is a strange tactic’ (6).

Who would take responsibility?

Yet although diplomatic manoeuvring is clearly going on, who — with responsibility for what comes next — would be able to say today precisely to what extent this Russian cynicism, which seeks to achieve its objectives through aggressive drawing of red lines, also stems from strategic conviction fuelled by frustrations that have come to a head? We should not underestimate the dangers of this mixture if the West were to test Russia’s siege mentality head on in Ukraine.

Others asked these questions, well before Biden. In the first days of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the US joint chiefs of staff were taking a hard line, President John F Kennedy expressed the key issues not in military terms, but in terms of perception. He told a meeting of ExComm (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council), ‘Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view … we ought to think of why the Russians did this.’

The declassified archives on this key moment in history reveal that Kennedy talked of a blockade, of the importance of giving Khrushchev a way out, and of avoiding escalation to nuclear weapons, all while preserving the US’s international credibility. General Curtis E LeMay, US Air Force chief of staff, replied, ‘This blockade and political action, I see leading into war … This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.’ The joint chiefs were unanimous in recommending immediate military action. Kennedy thanked them, dryly, and, in the days that followed, did the exact opposite.

‘And [the joint chiefs] were wrong,’ historian Martin J Sherwin concludes in a recent book on decision-making processes in nuclear crises. ‘Had the president not insisted on a blockade, had he accepted the chiefs’ recommendations (also favoured by the majority of his ExComm advisers), he unwittingly would have precipitated a nuclear war’ (7).

The central issue is indeed the significance of the nuclear signalling in which Russia has wrapped its premeditated conventional attack. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky doubts Putin will really use nuclear weapons: ‘I think that the threat of nuclear war is a bluff. It’s one thing to be a murderer. It’s another to commit suicide. Every use of nuclear weapons means the end for all sides, not just for the person using them’ (8).

At the risk of appearing spineless, Biden seems to have reserved judgment. For the moment he is restraining his most aggressive allies, such as Poland, and focusing on the coercive force of the economic sanctions, rather than any initiative that might give Putin an excuse for escalation — starting with the use of tactical nuclear weapons, of which Russia is thought to have around 2,000.

‘Putin is bluffing on nuclear’

Is Biden wrong? On 14 March General Rick J Hillier, former chief of Canada’s defence staff, told CBS that NATO should impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine because Putin was bluffing. John Feehery, former communications director to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, thought so too: ‘Biden’s weakness on Ukraine invited [the] Russian invasion … When Putin hinted that he was willing to use nuclear weapons to achieve his goals, Biden said that we weren’t going to use ours, which seems to me to defeat the purpose of having those weapons in the first place. If we refuse to use them, why do we have them?’ (9). Stanford historian Niall Ferguson agrees: ‘Putin is bluffing on nuclear, we shouldn’t have backed down.’ And is dismayed that ‘media coverage has become so sentimental and ignorant of military realities’ (10).

But what are these military ‘realities’? What is the nature of the problem? It’s the possibility that Russia will resort to first use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict that is already under way. Nina Tannenwald, whose book The Nuclear Taboo (Cambridge, 2007) has become a key text in international relations, believes the risk is too great, and supports the US’s wait-and-see strategy: ‘Despite scattered calls in the US for the creation of a “no-fly zone” over some or all of Ukraine, the Biden administration has widely resisted. In practice, this could mean shooting down Russian planes. It could lead to World War III’ (11).

The most striking characteristic of the war in Ukraine is its nuclear backdrop. Events are unfolding as if the world was hurriedly relearning the vocabulary and fundamentals of nuclear strategy, forgotten since the cold war. This is certainly true of Western media and governments, as they become conscious of the potentially destructive sequences of events that link the operational-tactical and politico-strategic dimensions of the present tragedy. The bellicose declarations of some experts in the early days of the war have given way to calmer analysis. In many ways, it’s high time; Kharkiv is not Kabul. Especially given the recent worrying developments in the nuclear debate.

Until relatively recently, the nuclear orthodoxy established after the cold war, as the two superpowers reduced their strategic arsenals, had placed some nuclear weapons in a kind of peripheral area of the doctrine: those known as ‘tactical’ because of their lesser power and range. From 1945 to the 1960s, they had been a key part of US war plans, especially for the European theatre. At the time, the aim was to counter the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority with overwhelming nuclear superiority, to deny the battlefield to the enemy. US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, author of the ‘massive retaliation’ doctrine, stated in 1955, ‘The United States in particular has sea and air forces now equipped with new and powerful weapons of precision which can utterly destroy military targets without endangering unrelated civilian centers’ (12). President Dwight D Eisenhower declared, ‘I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.’

However, from the 1960s, the prospect of ‘mutual assured destruction’ reduced the likelihood that tactical nuclear weapons would be used, because of the risk of escalation. The concept of a ‘limited nuclear strike’ gradually came to be seen as dangerous sophistry. Regardless of experts who were certain that a nuclear war could be ‘won’ by ‘graduating’ one’s nuclear response, and controlling the ‘ladders of escalation’ (the best known being Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute), even a nuclear weapon (arbitrarily) labelled as ‘tactical’ still had the potential to lead to total destruction. The works of Thomas Schelling, especially The Strategy of Conflict (1960) and Strategy and Arms Control (1961) contributed to this new awareness.

Options for US decision makers

The rejection of graduation became a distinguishing characteristic of France’s nuclear doctrine. While reserving the option of a ‘unique and non-renewable’ warning shot, President Emmanuel Macron said in February 2020 that France had always ‘refused to consider nuclear weapons as a weapon of battle.’ He also insisted that France would ‘never engage in a nuclear battle or any form of graduated response’ (13).

Prior to the 2010s, it seemed possible that other nuclear-weapon states could adopt such a doctrinal stance, coupled with the ‘minimum necessary’ nuclear arsenal (France had fewer than 300 warheads). And it was possible to believe that, with a few exceptions (such as Pakistan), tactical nuclear weapons had ‘faded into the background of military and political planning and rhetoric’ (14).

Despite scattered calls in the US for the creation of a ‘no-fly zone’ over some or all of Ukraine, the Biden administration has widely resisted. In practice, this could mean shooting down Russian planes. It could lead to World War IIINina Tannenwald

But over the last decade, the trend has reversed. In the world of strategic studies, there has been a return to ‘theories of [nuclear] victory’. Their proponents draw on the work of past scholars such as Henry Kissinger, who wondered in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy if extending the American deterrent to all of Europe at a time when the threat of total destruction hung over the US itself would actually work: ‘A reliance on all-out war as the chief deterrent saps our system of alliances in two ways: either our allies feel that any military effort on their part is unnecessary or they may be led to the conviction that peace is preferable to war even on terms almost akin to surrender … As the implication of all-out war with modern weapons become better understood … it is not reasonable to assume that the United Kingdom, and even more the United States, would be prepared to commit suicide in order to defend a particular area … whatever its importance, to an enemy’ (15).

One of the recommended solutions was to bring tactical nuclear weapons back into the dialectic of deterrence extended to allied territories, so as to give US decision makers a range of options between Armageddon and defeat without a war. Global deterrence was ‘restored’ by creating additional rungs on the ladder of escalation, which were supposed to enable a sub-apocalyptic deterrence dialogue — before one major adversary or the other felt its key interests were threatened and resorted to extreme measures. Many theorists in the 1970s took this logic further, in particular Colin Gray in a 1979 article, now back in fashion, titled ‘Nuclear Strategy: the case for a theory of victory’ (16).

Theoreticians of nuclear victory today reject the ‘paralysis’ that comes with an excessively rigid vision of deterrence. Their strategic beliefs were semi-officialised in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (17). What influence have these theories had on Russia? Has the Kremlin chosen to combine nuclear and conventional deterrents in an operational continuum? Whatever the case, authors who defend the idea of using tactical (‘low-yield’ or ‘ultra-low yield’) nuclear weapons emphasise the importance of countering adversaries who adopt hybrid strategies. Rogue states without a nuclear deterrent will increasingly be tempted to present a fait accompli, banking on nuclear-weapon states’ risk aversion, at least when the latter face a crisis that does not affect their own national territory.

Uncertainties of deterrence dialogue

This shows how Kissinger’s 1957 discussion of the intrinsic weaknesses of wider nuclear deterrence remains pertinent today. The benefits would be even greater for a state with a nuclear deterrent — a nuclear-weapon state behaving like a rogue state. This is exactly what Russia is doing in Ukraine. The West’s hesitation to adopt an over-vigorous response that could lead to nuclear escalation is amplified by its realisation of how history would view whichever party — aggressor or victim — became the first to break the nuclear taboo since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. International Crisis Group’s Olga Oliker admits that ‘such caution and concessions may not bring emotional satisfaction; there is certainly a visceral appeal to proposals that would have NATO forces directly help Ukraine. But these would dramatically heighten the risk that the war becomes a wider, potentially nuclear conflict. Western leaders should therefore reject them out of hand. Literally nothing else could be more dangerous.’

The ‘Third Nuclear Age’, heralded by various crises over the last decade, has dawned in Ukraine. In 2018 Admiral Pierre Vandier, now chief of staff of the French navy, offered a precise definition of this shift to the new strategic era, which has begun with Russia’s invasion: ‘A number of indicators suggest that we are entering a new era, a Third Nuclear Age, following the first, defined by mutual deterrence between the two superpowers, and the second, which raised hopes of a total and definitive elimination of nuclear weapons after the cold war’ (18).

This third age will bring new questions on the reliability — and relevance — of ‘logical rules … painfully learned, as during the Cuban [missile] crisis’ (19). There will be questions about the rationality of new actors using their nuclear deterrents. The worth of the nuclear taboo, which some today treat as absolute, will be reappraised.

‘Unleashed power of the atom’

Questions like ‘If we refuse to use them, why do we have them?’ suggest Albert Einstein’s warning from 1946 may still be pertinent: ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking.’ Yet Einstein was already wrong. Huge numbers of papers were hurriedly written to explain the balances and imbalances of the deterrence dialogue. The current usefulness of these historical, theoretical documents is highly variable, as their logic often reaches absurd conclusions. Yet they include some intelligent analyses that shed light on the Ukrainian nuclear crisis.

Columbia professor Robert Jervis (20), a pioneer of political psychology in international relations, sought to demonstrate that it was possible to overcome the security anxieties that cause each actor to see his own actions as defensive, and those of his competitor as ‘naturally’ offensive. Jervis maintained that breaking the insecurity cycle caused by this distortion meant developing exchanges of signals that would make it possible to differentiate between offensive and defensive weapons in the arsenals of one’s adversaries. And his adaptation of prospect theory to nuclear crises opens up possibilities of interpreting Russia’s behaviour differently, suggesting for example that the adoption of aggressive tactics is more often motivated by aversion to loss than by hopes of gain.

In a nuclear crisis, all strategies are sub-optimal. One, however, is worse than all the rest: claiming that the adversary’s leader is insane, while simultaneously treating the standoff as a game of chicken. This will lead either to mutual destruction or to defeat without a war. Over the past few weeks, some seem to have accepted that this worst of all possible choices is worthy of being called a strategy.

Olivier Zajec

Olivier Zajec is a lecturer in political science at Jean Moulin Lyon III University’s law faculty.
Translated by Charles Goulden

(1Steven Nelson, ‘That’s called World War III: Biden defends decision not to send jets to Ukraine’, New York Post, 11 March 2022.

(2Bret Stephens, ‘Bring back the free world’, The New York Times International Edition, 27 January 2022.

(4Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, ‘The myth of Russia’s lowered nuclear threshold’, War on the Rocks, 22 September 2017, warontherocks.com/.

(5Olga Oliker, ‘Putin’s nuclear bluff: How the West can make sure Russia’s threats stay hollow’, Foreign Affairs, 11 March 2022.

(6Nadeem Badshah, ‘Tony Blair: West has fortnight to help end war in Ukraine’, The Guardian, London, 15 March 2022.

(7Martin J Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Knopf Doubleday, New York, 2020.

(8Caroline Vakil, ‘Zelensky calls Putin nuclear threat a “bluff” ’, The Hill, 3 March 2022.

(9John Feehery, ‘Biden’s weakness on Ukraine invited Russian invasion’, The Hill, 8 March 2022.

(10Niall Ferguson, ‘Poutine bluffe sur le nucléaire, nous n’aurions pas dû reculer’ (Putin is bluffing on nuclear, we shouldn’t have backed down), L’Express, Paris, 12 March 2022.

(11Nina Tannenwald, ‘“Limited” tactical nuclear weapons would be catastrophic’, Scientific American, 10 March 2022.

(12Department of State Bulletin, US Department of State, 21 March 1955.

(13Speech on defence strategy and deterrence at the École de Guerre, Paris, 7 February 2020.

(14Hans M Kristensen and Matt Korda, ‘Tactical nuclear weapons 2019’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol 75, no 5, 2019.

(15Quoted in Lucien Poirier, Des stratégies nucléaires (On Nuclear Strategies), Paris, Hachette, 1977.

(16See Olga Oliker, op cit.

(17See Michael T Klare, ‘US resuscitates nuclear arms race’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2018.

(18Pierre Vandier, La dissuasion au Troisième âge nucléaire (Deterrence in the Third Nuclear Age), Paris, Le Rocher, 2018.


(20See Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations, Columbia University Press, 1969, and How Statesmen Think, Princeton University Press, 2017.




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