The war in Ukraine shows that the theory of nuclear deterrence needs to be rethought

A letter from then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the leader of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, as the Soviet Union entered the final phase of decline and fall, carefully underlined London’s recognition that Moscow had as much right to feel safe as their Western counterparts.

Tony Brenton, the UK’s former ambassador to Moscow, quoted this missive last week as he considered the stakes of the war between Ukraine and Russia. The ambassador’s point of reference of a global balance of interests that has been brewing for decades was dramatically highlighted when fighting broke out around Ukraine’s nuclear facilities in Zaporizhzhia. As a fire raged around the facility, a 1980s-style alert went around the world about the possibility of a nuclear incident with far-reaching consequences.

A year after the Thatcher letter, the explosion of the Ukrainian factory in Chernobyl took place. More than 35 years later, Western leaders warned last week that the security of all of Europe was directly threatened by events at a nuclear facility there.

Under international law, civilian nuclear power plants and the peaceful development of nuclear technologies are separate pillars of the development of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, a war involving nuclear power raised the specter for many that the ultimate weapon would be used.

Escalations open the perils of miscalculations, misperceptions and misjudgments

TikTok is said to be inundated with videos on what to do if Armageddon pops up. To some, it’s as if the library of Cold War informational films on “the four-minute warning” needs to be given a modern twist. Mr. Brenton noted that there was a whole literature written during the Cold War on the treatment of an actor who did not make simple calculations. In the first case, nuclear weapons come into prominence earlier in the crisis than negotiators would assume.

Nuclear deterrence is based on, but not exclusively, the theory of mutual assured destruction. There were hot but localized moments of crisis during the Cold War when nuclear strategists were pushed into action. Short-range, low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons are an obvious concern in the war in Ukraine. A set of nuclear weapons have fallen outside arms control treaties since the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019.

Patricia Lewis of the London-based political institute Chatham House published a memo on the war in Ukraine which postulated that NATO would react if nuclear weapons were used in the country. She said it would be on the grounds that the impact of these weapons crosses borders. That’s to say nothing of the whole new set of thinking needed to contain and respond to threats of cyberattacks that unleash nuclear arsenals or create false flags.

The United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. AFP

Another academic expert, Ward Wilson, wrote for the London-based European Leadership Network on a comprehensive reexamination of nuclear deterrence theory.

There are no clear conclusions to be drawn from previous examples of deterrence. The most obvious example is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when US President John F Kennedy threatened to use military force in response to the Soviet Union’s installation of nuclear missiles on the communist island in less than 800 miles from Florida. There is still a split between historians who say Kennedy was a hawk pushing for retaliation and those who believe he preferred a blockade to retaliation.

Some even doubt that Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrendered to US-led Allied forces in 1945 following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The orders given to the Japanese army two days after its surrender cite the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan – not the dropping of the “cruelest bomb” on two of its cities.

There is very little direct experience of using the weapon in wartime. On the other hand, according to Wilson, we can see the results of using artillery and missiles in an effort to break the morale of a beleaguered population as there are many examples of this type of bombardment.

The effectiveness of nuclear weapons holds certain keys to constructing an adequate deterrence strategy. In the nuclear world, pretty much all there is to do is testing and, in a sense, scenarios played out in exercises. Russia has ended some of its exercises with a tactical nuclear weapon, but when it comes to deterrence, these examples can be interpreted in two ways. Ultimately, there are psychological and emotional assumptions that would underlie a nuclear standoff. Classical deterrence, however, is heavily focused on the role of human judgment.

What if the person is flooded with anger? What if that anger fades and rationality takes over? Can this balance hold or will the anger return to the surface? A threat to counter a potential attack may work one hour but not the next.

It is already known that escalations open the perils of miscalculations, misperceptions and erroneous judgments. There are no right or wrong answers, or at least it is not clear what the right and wrong answers are. There are more likely good and bad options.

For Mr Brenton the difference is that the ‘Vladimir Putin I knew’, who was the most dogged, knowledgeable and clear-headed politician on the scene, ‘wouldn’t have done this’.

The complexity of deterrence could therefore not be questioned more fiercely than at this moment in history.

Published: 07 Mar 2022, 04:00

Sharon D. Cole