Nuclear Signaling, the Need for New Guard Rails
Member Activities

Nuclear Signaling, the Need for New Guard Rails


APLN member Rakesh Sood writes for The Hindu on nuclear signaling. He argues that the lessons from the Cold War no longer seem effective in today’s changed political environment, as both the US and Russia operate in a grey zone, probing each other’s red lines and engaging in escalatory rhetoric, necessitating the establishment of new guardrails to preserve the nuclear taboo. Read the original article here.

Published in the Hindu on August 4, 2023

The conflict in Ukraine and the recourse to nuclear rhetoric have revived concerns about nuclear escalation management between the major nuclear powers. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States-Russia nuclear rivalry had taken a backseat. Instead, North Korea, Iran and India-Pakistan got attention with many analysts getting nostalgic about ‘nuclear stability’ during the Cold War. But as is becoming clear now, in today’s changed political environment, the escalation management lessons of the Cold War no longer seem to work for the U.S. and Russia.

Deterrence failure

In June 2021, U.S. and Russian Presidents, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met in Geneva. Nuclear arms control was a high priority item on the agenda but no progress proved possible. As concerns grew about Russian troop presence in Belarus on the Ukrainian border, Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns flew to Moscow in November to spell out the consequences of aggression. In January 2022, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva to reiterate the message. On February 24, Russia began its “special military operation” in Ukraine. U.S. attempts to deter Russian aggression had failed.

Even as North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders met to decide their response, Mr. Biden made it clear that the U.S. was determined to avoid a Third World War or allowing the conflict to escalate into a NATO-Russia conflict. After freezing of Russian reserves and a slew of financial, energy-related and political sanctions, other elements of military assistance, lethal and non-lethal began to take shape. Intelligence sharing and restoring Internet connectivity was the first step. The second was the supply of ammunition and some weapon systems with which the Ukrainian forces were familiar. NATO deepened its military involvement by providing gradually more and more sophisticated weapon systems, beginning with Javelin and Stinger missiles, and moving on to Patriot missile defence batteries, long range Himars, Storm Shadow and Scalp long range missiles and now F-16s. Russian attempts to deter NATO involvement had failed.

On February 7, 2022, Mr. Putin warned that “if Ukraine attempts to take back Crimea, European countries will be in conflict with Russia, which is a leading nuclear power superior to many NATO countries in terms of nuclear force.” Annual nuclear exercises, normally scheduled for autumn were announced for February 17, with Mr. Putin personally witnessing them. Announcing the launch of “special military operations”, his words of caution were, “whoever tries to hinder Russia will face consequences never seen in history.” To drive home the threat, on February 27, Russian nuclear forces were placed on a “special combat readiness” with leave for all personnel cancelled.

Even as the U.S. issued blunt warnings to Russia against using tactical nuclear weapons, in the first week of March, NATO decided against a no-fly-zone and Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria announced that they would not be sending MiG aircraft to Ukraine on account of Russian threats against their airfields from where these aircraft were to take off.

Russian officials tried to downplay the nuclear threat by pointing out that Russia would resort to nuclear use only if faced with an existential threat while U.S. officials tried to convey reassurance to their European allies that while Mr. Putin’s threats be taken seriously, there were no indications of unusual activity at nuclear sites.

President Biden declared on April 24, “We are neither encouraging nor enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders’, and adding that the “U.S. was not seeking regime change in Russia.” In short, the U.S. objectives were to support Ukraine, bolster NATO unity and avoid any direct conflict with Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member and so does not have the security of the nuclear umbrella provided by U.S. policy of ‘extended deterrence.’

Russia’s resort to nuclear rhetoric failed to deter NATO involvement though it influenced its pace and timing. Therefore, both Russia and the U.S. are operating in a grey zone, taking turns at escalatory rhetoric even as they probe each other’s red lines. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union engaged in multiple proxy wars, Vietnam in the 1960s and Afghanistan in the 1980s, but these were in distant theatres.

Cold War lessons

Deterrence is fundamentally based on the assumption that both adversaries are rational enough to judge when costs outweigh the benefits of the act. Nuclear deterrence adds a conundrum. With their huge arsenals that provided for assured second strike capability, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had an incentive to try a surprise first strike. This realization was crucial in shaping nuclear deterrence theory.

Thomas Schelling, whose writings during the 1960s and 1970s shaped nuclear deterrence thinking (he won the Economics Nobel in 2005) concluded that nuclear weapons were not usable but had political utility in terms of preventing a war with another nuclear power. Clearly, Schelling was looking at the situation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which had no territorial dispute.

Schelling also concluded that even though any use was “irrational,” the nuclear threat had to be “credible” in order to deter. This introduced a degree of uncertainty into the equation. Using his economics training, Schelling interpreted the uncertainty as risk that could be analysed in terms of probabilities. Risk was intended to induce rationality in the adversaries. Realizing the conundrum, Schelling concluded that the key to making nuclear deterrence credible is through escalation and raising the risk, that in the final analysis, “leaves something to chance.”

This, along with the lessons of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis kept the U.S. and Soviet rhetoric in check during the Cold War even as they engaged in proxy wars outside Europe, and away from NATO and Warsaw pact territories. Today, there is no Warsaw Pact and NATO has expanded to include a number of former Warsaw Pact members. The Ukraine conflict has persuaded Sweden and Finland to give up their long-standing neutrality and seek security under NATO’s nuclear umbrella.

Probing for red lines

Russia’s nuclear doctrine issued on June 2, 2020 specifies two conditions under which Russia would use nuclear weapons – “…in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it/or its allies” and “in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat.” Mr. Putin has declared more than once that Ukrainians and Russians are one people with a shared history; Russia therefore doesn’t see Ukraine as entirely ‘sovereign’.

Second, there is the oft-cited escalate-to-deescalate approach that implies using tactical nuclear weapons to overcome a stalemate on the battlefield, thus forcing a termination of hostilities on favourable terms. In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the U.S. rejected this by declaring that first use would not lead to de-escalation on Russian terms “but alter the nature of conflict creating potential for uncontrolled escalation.”

U.S. caution is reflected in calibrating supply of more sophisticated weapons by continuously probing Russian red lines even though Ukrainian demands continue to grow. Meanwhile, it suits Russia to increase ambiguity. It is also likely that since Russia failed to achieve its military objectives, its thresholds are evolving.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s path breaking studies in economics showed that humans often tend to double down on bad bets because of ‘loss aversion.’ The Cold War escalation management lessons applied to a different world; today, the U.S. and Russia no longer enjoy parity and Russia’s red lines are fuzzy.

Nuclear signaling today is taking place in uncharted political territory. New guard rails are necessary if the nuclear taboo has to be preserved.

Related Articles
  • China-US Nuclear Arms Control Talks: A Much-Needed First Step

    China-US Nuclear Arms Control Talks: A Much-Needed First Step

    13 Nov 2023 | Rajeswari Pillai RAJAGOPALAN

    THE DIPLOMAT - APLN member Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan wrote on the US-China Nuclear Arms Control talks.

  • Russian Nuclear Roulette

    Russian Nuclear Roulette

    6 Mar 2023 | KIM Won-soo

    THE KOREA TIMES - APLN member Kim Won-soo writes on Russia's decision to suspend New START and argues that collective pressure is the only way to make reason prevail within the Russian leadership.

  • A Cautious and Conservative US Nuclear Posture Review

    A Cautious and Conservative US Nuclear Posture Review

    10 Jan 2023 | Manpreet SETHI

    IPCS - APLN member Manpreet Sethi examines the 2022 NPR across three verticals: US threat perceptions, the role of nuclear weapons, and arms control.