First – the main theses. Nuclear weapons – if it will be used – are a monstrous evil. But its existence saved the world during the Cold War, it saves now even in the period of the simultaneous decomposition of the two former world systems – the bipolar system (it is over, but it is being revived) and the “unipolar moment” (here the process of decomposition in the endgame). These two processes are superimposed on a dizzyingly rapid change in the balance of forces in the world economy and politics, the crisis of the system of international law and just decency in interstate affairs, chaos in the heads of the elites of many countries. The situation is aggravated by the beginning of the arms race in the field of missile defense, non-nuclear strategic systems. It is very likely that the world enters an era when cyber weapons can begin to acquire the character of weapons of mass destruction. The former regimes of arms limitation also fall apart.
As a result, the world is objectively living and will live for a long time in the pre-war state. In this situation, reliance on nuclear deterrence can be a salvation. But it must be supplemented by joint efforts to strengthen all factors that affect international strategic stability.
Geopolitical and intellectual background
I understand that I will be accused of being the second “Dr. Strangelove, who fell in love with a nuclear bomb” from the famous 1964 film of American director Stanley Kubrick. However, I believe that a reasonable reliance on nuclear deterrence is needed not only by Russians with our economy, still suffering from unsuccessful reforms, but also to the whole world.
At the beginning of his scientific career – in the 1970s and 1980s. – I spent a lot of time and effort in researching the role of nuclear weapons in international politics, studying documents, participating in debates and even the political struggle over nuclear weapons. Research and experience led me to conclusions different from those shared by most colleagues from the scientific and political community. But to apply these conclusions almost did not have to. Unless actively opposed to seriously considered, including the Soviet leadership in the late 1980’s, the idea of a sharp reduction in nuclear potential, even universal nuclear disarmament, “nuclear zero”, in a more modern language. Then the Cold War seemed to be over, the nuclear factor had gone to the background. And I gladly took up other more topical and fruitful topics.
In the past nine years, the situation in the world has become heated again, although in a different way than before, and nuclear weapons are increasingly coming out of political oblivion. A new discussion about his role broke out. Political changes in the US attach extra weight to this debate.
A modern set of ideas about the role of nuclear weapons was laid mostly by American theorists and practitioners in the 1950s and 1960s. He had two hypostases – firstly, universal, philosophical, and secondly, related to the servicing of national interests and even used to justify a direction of development of the armed forces that was considered to be beneficial. The limitation and reduction of nuclear weapons (the Soviet term, the Americans sound more frank – arms control) was designed to optimize and justify the creation or preservation of certain systems, to restrain unnecessary expenditure, to impose favorable views or even directions of the arms race on the other side. Of course, one of the goals of arms control – not always the main one – was to reduce the risk of a nuclear collision through primarily improving the political climate. The balance of utility and harmfulness of arms control is very difficult to sum up.
According to prevailing views so far, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is an absolute evil, which in part contradicts historical logic. The history of nuclear weapons is also the history of its proliferation. If the Soviet Union and China did not create nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that we would have passed past decades without a big war. But the idea of non-proliferation completely corresponds to the interests of the nuclear powers that have taken place, including the Soviet Union and Russia.
The political, technological, moral and legal situation has changed dramatically since the foundations of the theory of nuclear deterrence and the limitation of nuclear weapons. This, apparently, calls for a revision of the conceptual approaches to the role of nuclear weapons in the modern world. A new theory is also needed because of the growing change in the economic, political, moral balance of forces.
New thinking about the role of nuclear weapons is prompted by the need to comprehend the experience of the last quarter of the century, when the nuclear factor has largely gone into the shadows. Temporarily weakened Russia de facto renounced the policy of containment and balancing. And then they got the result – a series of aggressions: in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya. Now in the United States, a new discussion about nuclear weapons begins. Often from directly opposite positions. During the pre-election campaign, the Democrats put forward ideas as movements towards nuclear “zero”, as well as the next build-up of nuclear weapons. Trump wondered why nuclear weapons, and then promised a powerful build-up of its arsenals, or suggested limiting arms in exchange for concessions from Russia.
Behind the ideas of a sharp reduction are both idealists who seek to free the world from the monstrous evil, which is the use of nuclear weapons, and super-cynical realists.
The latter wanted to have the opportunity to transfer US military-economic superiority to politically applicable dominance in the field of general-purpose armed forces. And also to untie one’s hands in the field of missile defense systems, according to which the United States is also leading. The exactly opposite views of the strategic establishment are a sign of a general turmoil in the brains not only of the American, but also of other world elites.
Another reason to think again about the new role of nuclear weapons is a whistle over Russia’s “nuclear threats” that has become an important part of the political and propaganda war unleashed at the end of the past and the beginning of the current decade and sharply worsened after Russia first stopped through actions in Crimea and the east of Ukraine, the expansion of Western alliances, and then in Syria put the block series of regime changes carried out by the West.
Already during the presidency of Barack Obama, a game began with accusations of Russia violating the treaty on medium-range and shorter-range missiles. Behind it, apparently, were not only attempts to create another front of political pressure, but also to justify the possible plans for deploying new nuclear weapons systems and missile defense systems around Russia. Already had to write on the pages of this magazine (No. 4, 2016, “Rockets in Europe: memories of the future?”) That the situation resembles the missile crisis of the 1970s. Then, in order to justify the deployment of American Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe, the provocation of tension and the strengthening of the Atlantic ligament, a convenient pretext was used-the deployment (not entirely reasonable) of the Soviet Union of the SS-20 missiles.
Russian publicists, who worked in the counterpropagandist regime, allowed themselves statements on the verge of a foul. But they did not reflect the official point of view, which, moreover, was skillfully fully and not disclosed. The main reason for the intensification of the discussion around the role of nuclear weapons and, at the same time, the expediency to develop it and possibly to bring it to the highest political level is an extremely acute international political situation that objectively increases the likelihood of war. In many respects, the situation is more dangerous than in the last two and a half decades of the Cold War, not to mention the first decade after its end. Perhaps, with the exception of the early 1980s, when the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, Reagan’s “star wars” and the “evil empire” heated the situation to a dangerous limit. But even then the overall international situation was structurally more stable.
The main reason for this condition is the unprecedented rapid redistribution of forces in the world. It is caused not only by the “rise of new”, but also by the extremely rapid and unexpected drop in the 2000s. power and influence of the West, especially painful after the “final victory”, which seemed to have been reached by the beginning of the two thousandth. By the second half of this decade, the United States had devalued its military superiority by deploying armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and politically defeated. The economic crisis, which began in 2008-2009, undermined the attractiveness of the model of liberal capitalism, which struck the moral authority of the West. Then came the crisis of the US political model, culminating in the farce of presidential elections, and the current war of the American establishment against Trump.
Simultaneously with the mid-2000’s. The almost universal and still hopeless crisis of the European Union is aggravated. A significant part of the elite to slow down the sprawl needed an “enemy”, which made Russia. If earlier it was customary to talk about the need to manage the “rise of new”, now it seems that the need to manage the “decline of the old” appears to be on the agenda.
These crises are superimposed on the revisionist aspiration of “new” (implicitly China, India, others, openly – Russia) to change the rules of the game imposed by the West since the 1990s. after it seemed to be a victory in the Cold War. And at the same time, the United States, using part of the European countries, tried to take revenge for the defeat of the last decade, to reverse the balance of forces that is not in their favor. A doubly explosive clash between the “revanchists” and “revisionists” was formed.
These processes are taking place against the backdrop of a system slowdown in the global economy, aggravation of competition, as well as the rapidly developing process of deglobalization. The growth of protectionism is also imminent, the leader of which, it seems, will be Donald Trump’s America.
The situation in the military-political sphere is also alarming. The arms race in the field of missile defense began. Long-range and high-precision non-nuclear systems are deployed, which, incidentally, can carry nuclear warheads. Almost certainly begins a hidden, but perhaps the most dangerous from the point of view of maintaining strategic stability, the race of cyber weapons. Its parameters are unclear, but it is likely that the use of cyber weapons can be comparable in consequences with the action of weapons of mass destruction. And it is very likely that terrorists will be able to inflict such damage in the near future.
The situation seems even more dangerous due to the crisis of leadership and management in many countries of the world. Last but not least – in the states that were recently considered a model for the majority. Such an unstable, if not directly pre-war, situation can continue to be known as long as there is (if any) a new balance of forces is formed and new norms of the international hostel are developed or returned.
From a narrow Russian point of view, there are also positive sides. Russia, demonstrating, in particular, in Syria, new types of weapons, has strengthened the capacity for strategic deterrence. But international strategic stability may again be shaken, including because of new directions in the arms race.
In order to live this indefinitely long period, one should turn to the main system stabilizer of international relations that saved mankind from world wars-nuclear deterrence. Saving it for shamefaced default. They relied on him, but from him constantly denied, they declared about the need to refuse. It’s worth telling ourselves and the world the truth: we will not survive without nuclear weapons, no matter how dangerous it may be. And the goal of politics should not be to overcome nuclear deterrence, but its joint optimization in the forthcoming difficult period of the formation of a new world order.
About nuclear deterrence, libraries of books have been written, and he has dozens of definitions. I will give my own interpretations, in some ways different from the generally accepted ones.
Strategic deterrence, or deterrence, is the ability to impress a potential adversary that, in the event of a nuclear attack, a retaliatory strike with “unacceptable damage” is inevitable. His assessment is subjective, depends on the country, population, territory, political system. In the United States, unacceptable, judging by declassified documents, as early as the early 1950s. Even a single nuclear retaliation was considered.
To reinforce this main function of nuclear weapons, scientists and practitioners put forward the idea of the inevitability of escalating any nuclear war to a global level, the theory of “nuclear winter” – the cooling of the Earth as a result of the exchange of nuclear strikes, making it impossible for people’s lives. While this, the main type of deterrence worked.
Containment II, or extended deterrence. This is the name of the doctrine that the US guaranteed to the allies a “nuclear umbrella”, declaring its readiness to strike at the “aggressor” if NATO (Japan, South Korea) loses the war with the use of conventional armed forces. I’m ready to prove that the promise was pure bluff. I’m sure the Americans would never have come to the aid of the allies, substituting their territory for a retaliatory strike. But fortunately, the war in Europe did not happen, and this “containment” allowed and still allows the allies to save on defense budgets, paying for the American cover with political and economic loyalty.
In addition, it worked in the heads of Soviet strategists. They believed in the possibility of a first strike by the United States and tried to prepare the armed forces for conducting combat operations in the conditions of nuclear exchange. “The aggressor” was, of course, NATO. This belief was one of the reasons for the insane build-up of general-purpose forces by the Soviet Union.
Russia, according to the statements of officials (Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev), also assumes that nuclear weapons can be used in attacking allies.
Containment III is the willingness to use nuclear weapons in the event of an attack using only general-purpose forces threatening, as they say in modern Russian doctrinal documents, “the very existence of the state”. A similar line, apparently, is shared by most other nuclear states – Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea. This function is supported by the idea of the indescribable consequences of any nuclear attack. It is still working to prevent war, but it can be undermined if a single or limited use of nuclear weapons does happen, will kill dozens and hundreds of thousands of people, but will not lead to further regional escalation or global catastrophe. This is an extremely dangerous development of events, since it can nullify the entire mythology of nuclear deterrence and its usefulness as a tool for preventing war. Such a scenario seems possible now in relations between India and Pakistan and around North Korea, to a lesser extent – Israel.
The most useful function of nuclear weapons, which I would call deterrence IV. Both the military strategists and the ordinary mindset asserted the inadmissibility of any large-scale military conflict if it could involve nuclear powers, especially the USSR / Russia and the US and – through a step – could become a global catastrophe. This type of deterrence contributed to a considerable extent to the preservation of the relative peace in the years of the “mature” Cold War. The USSR and China did not send troops directly to Vietnam, fearing an escalation. The United States and NATO stood apart when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact pacified Budapest and Prague, but secretly supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
This ceased to work when the USSR collapsed, and Russia was extremely weak. Then, feeling impunity, the NATO countries, organizations, formerly a defensive alliance, carried out a series of attacks – against the remnants of Yugoslavia in 1999, against Iraq, Libya. In Syria, where Russia demonstrated its readiness and ability to defend its interests and international law, speech about the open force intervention almost did not go on.
To understand how this type of deterrence works, it is worth imagining, say, an alliance attack on Serbia today. It is unthinkable. It is difficult to imagine, despite the statements of some politicians, and direct military support for the United States and NATO, say, the current Ukrainian regime. When the hotheads in Washington demanded the supply of “lethal weapons” to Kiev, Europeans and the US leadership categorically rejected it, because they understood that Russia, covered up with nuclear weapons and having the will to fight, would respond extremely harshly.
This type of deterrence is one of the key factors in the relative international stability.
Deterrence V – nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the race of non-nuclear weapons. The preservation and growth of nuclear potentials is associated with the arms race. So it was in many respects during the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow increased nuclear arsenals, not conforming either to normal logic or to reasonable strategic calculations. But even then, reliance on nuclear weapons allowed the West, especially in Europe, to rationalize and be accountable to its citizens, save in conventional armaments.
Now, Russia largely compensates for the military and economic superiority of its neighbors by reliance on nuclear weapons, including non-strategic weapons. According to Patrushev, “Russia reserves the possibility of pre-empting (pre-emptive) nuclear strikes against the aggressor.”
The most useful function of this type of deterrence is that it basically makes a pointless pursuit of superiority in other areas – in the field of general-purpose armed forces, anti-missile defense forces, high-precision non-nuclear systems of large range. This is evidenced by the latest experience of the USA, which in the 1990s and early 2000s made a huge leap, squandered trillions, overtaken almost all the others combined, only to discover after a series of defeats that in the modern world such superiority gives almost nothing, in including because of the inability or unpreparedness to escalate to the nuclear level.
In the Russian-Chinese relations, the nuclear factor prevents any theoretical attempts to achieve non-nuclear superiority. It is objectively one of the factors of maintaining friendly relations between the two countries.
Containment VI. Ensuring the democratization of international relations. Without the deterrent role of nuclear weapons, which limits the massive use of military force in general, it is unlikely that the “new”, above all China, would rise, much less so quickly. Could “finish off” and Russia in the period of its weakness. In recent years, I have often come across regrets of opponents that “Putin can not be punished like Milosevic”.
This structural influence of the nuclear factor is deeper. It deprives the most powerful countries and groups of states of the possibility to transfer economic superiority to the military power they use, and thereby contributes (along with changes in the sphere of information and ideology) to a general democratization of international politics. Here, not only the current rise of the “new” and the emergence due to this of all other countries of greater freedom of choice and maneuver, but also one of the reasons for the very possibility of the emergence and development of the non-aligned movement in the past.
Deterrence VII is one of the most important, albeit almost unexplored, functions of nuclear deterrence – its civilizing influence. The presence of nuclear weapons with an inherent theoretical ability to destroy countries and continents, if not all of humanity, changed thinking, “civilized”, made the ruling elites of the nuclear powers more responsible. Of these elites, people and political groups whose views could lead to a nuclear clash were washed out or not allowed to enter areas related to national security. This can be traced quite clearly by the evolution of the American ruling elite. The last relatively radical American politician who claimed the presidency was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (“Bomber”). His American elite simply demolished the election in 1964. A similar evolution was observed, as far as is known, in the Soviet leadership. It is more difficult to track it. But elements of adventurism in the nuclear field (the Caribbean crisis of 1962) were one of the important reasons for the displacement of Nikita Khrushchev.
With the function of deterrence as a civilizing factor, the function of Deterrence VIII, or self-containment, is combined. Understanding the danger of escalation of conflicts made and forces the leaders of the nuclear states to exclude from the considered or even more planned options for actions those that can lead to the nuclear level. Objectively, all aspects of the nuclear equation are indirectly “interested in being held back.” I know that such arguments were used in discussions about the future of the nuclear factor, incl. To counteract the regularly rising waves of nuclear abolitionism. In particular, it is against the idea of ”nuclear zero”, proposed in the times of Gorbachev and Reagan.
What to do?
Conceptually – to maintain and maintain nuclear deterrence for the forthcoming period of elaborating a new international system, new (old) rules of international governance, and new arms limitation schemes. The joint efforts of all nuclear powers to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons, getting it into the hands of terrorists, to prevent its accidental use.
Tools are not traditional negotiations to reduce (eliminate) nuclear weapons. They may have some political effect, but they will inevitably lead to the remilitarization of relations between Russia and the United States, complicate relations between the two countries with China. Negotiations in a broader format are now impossible and, in fact, pointless.
It is high time both in the calculations and in the negotiations, if they still lead, to depart from the senseless principle of numerical parity. If, for example, one and a half thousand warheads and the appropriate carriers capable of overcoming any defense are sufficient to ensure reliable containment at any level, it does not matter how much the other party has – a thousand or five. If they want to lose more money – it’s their right.
Instead, it is worth starting a dialogue of all nuclear powers (including, perhaps, even Israel and North Korea, having the opportunity to integrate it, and not only punish, which is counterproductive) to strengthen international strategic stability. The co-chairmen of the dialogue can be Russia, the United States and China. The goal is to prevent a global war, the use of nuclear weapons. It should be aimed precisely at increasing stability, predictability, reporting to each other fears, preventing new destabilizing trends in the arms race. Especially based on the new principles of missile defense in a dynamic interaction with offensive weapons. Naturally, the dialogue should include discussion of non-nuclear, but de facto, strategic weapons. And also the means of cyberwar. It is probably necessary to develop new confidence-building measures aimed at preventing an accidental conflict, not only with the use of nuclear weapons, but also with new-generation non-nuclear weapons, as well as with cyber weapons.
Parties within the framework of existing arms limitation agreements or, by agreement, changing them (this may be the fate of the unconditionally obsolete Treaty on medium-range and shorter-range missiles – DMCM), modernize the configuration of their nuclear arsenals. But they are doing this within the framework of the philosophy of mutual strengthening of deterrence, and not the desire for an impossible elimination of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable period, or to obtain advantages for the first strike.
Thus, the goal of the dialogue is not the reduction of arsenals proper, but the prevention of war through the exchange of information, the explanation of positions, including the reasons for deploying certain systems, doctrines, confidence building or at least diminishing suspicions. Now again, as in the worst years of the Cold War, the parties exchange signals in the field of strategic weapons through demonstrations, threatening launches, exercises, ambiguous diversions.
After some time, this dialogue, if it helps the world not to fall into a new big war, survive the “change of milestones”, can become one of the foundations for the formation of a new world order. The same role in the economic sphere, in fact, is played by the “Big Twenty”, which does not solve problems, but allows to better understand and take into account the views of other players, world trends.
And, having begun to lead in the field of preventing war, strengthening international strategic stability, extending its cooperation to other spheres of international life, the Big Three will lay the foundation for a less chaotic and more secure world system of the future. This new “concert of nations”, if and when the leaders of the three countries have enough sense of responsibility to create it, may prove to be more stable than the previous one from the XIX century if it is by agreement to be based on mutual nuclear deterrence, and not only on moral principles or balance forces.