With the invasion of Ukraine now settling into an artillery-centric war of attrition, Russia has demonstrated the utility of possessing a nuclear arsenal and deterred a more robust American response. The global and longer-term significance of Russia’s aggression is to call into question the already frayed credibility of the American security guarantee to friends and allies and therefore create major adverse implications for the international non-proliferation regime. The United States needs to revive its Cold War era flexible response strategy, upgrade its nuclear posture, and forward deploy intermediate range nuclear delivery systems to Europe and Asia.
To state the obvious, it is better to dissuade aggressors from starting a war than to respond to an invasion once launched. In the present crisis and despite all evidence of past Russian aggressions, the United States and NATO delayed both significant arms aid and major economic sanctions until the beginning of the invasion essentially for two reasons: a failure of imagination to believe that major cross border aggression was still possible in Europe and fear that any robust actions would lead to escalation with a nuclear power possessing regional nuclear superiority. It was hoped that the threat of future economic sanctions, limited arms aid, and token force deployments to frontline NATO members would deter invasion. The actions taken in the runup to the invasion were mainly verbal and imposed no costs on Russia. It is hardly surprising that Putin underestimated the willingness of the United States and NATO to impose major sanctions and provide major arms aid given the flaccid response to his previous aggressions. Deterrence failed.
To understand the reasons for this failure it is useful to recall the history of American and NATO nuclear strategy. In the 1950s the Eisenhower administration adopted a strategy of massive retaliation: in the event of a Soviet attack on Western Europe, the full force of America’s strategic nuclear arsenal would be employed. This strategy had plausibility at a time when U.S. nuclear capabilities greatly outnumbered those of the Soviet Union. It also had the advantage of being much cheaper than any effort to match the Soviet’s numerical superiority in ground forces. As the Soviet nuclear arsenal grew to a rough parity with that of the United States, massive retaliation lost credibility. The Kennedy administration developed a strategy of flexible response which called for forward deployed conventional forces, shorter range nuclear strike options, and ultimately supported by the U.S. strategic nuclear triad. This triple threat doctrine came to be challenged in turn in the late 1970s by an emerging theater nuclear imbalance with the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles with nuclear warheads (INF) capable of striking Europe and U.S. forces deployed there.[i] On top of the Soviet’s massive superiority in conventional armored forces with 20 divisions in the former German Democratic Republic as the spearhead of 100 plus divisions of the Warsaw Pact, SS-20 deployments made problematic NATO’s strategy of flexible response.
Sharing of risk was the essence of “extended deterrence,” a concept which received much attention during Cold War I.[ii] The question was how to firmly establish the credibility of the American guarantee if NATO Allies were attacked by the Soviet Union. To sustain the flexible response strategy the Carter administration initiated and the Reagan administration executed the deployment of U.S. intermediate range nuclear missiles in response to the Soviet buildup of SS-20 missiles. The United States deployed 108 Pershing II ground-mobile ballistic missiles and 464 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) in five European NATO members.[iii] Both were capable of striking deep within the Soviet Union. There was a “dual key” arrangement required for launch thereby giving Allies a formal role in nuclear use decisions. President Reagan proposed a global “zero option” under which the U.S. would eliminate systems with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers if the Soviet Union destroyed all comparable systems, both in Europe and Asia.[iv] When in December 1987 the sides agreed to the zero option, two factors made this possible. First, the successful deployment of INF established American and NATO credibility in a way that mere words could not. Had the West succumbed to the peace demonstrators and the nuclear freeze movement, Russia would have had little reason to seek agreement. And absent a credible arms control offer, deployment would have been beyond European political tolerance. Second, the succession of Mikhail Gorbachev brought to power in the Soviet Union a leader intent on revitalizing the foundering Russian economy and willing to establish positive relations with the West.
NATO no longer possesses the force structure to support a flexible response strategy. In the mid 2000s, Russia began a major rearmament program including the deployment of cruise missiles with the prohibited range of 2500 kilometers known as the SSC-8.[v] Russia has responded to Finland and Sweden seeking NATO membership by threatening to deploy nuclear forces in the Baltic region which it in fact already does.[vi] Russia has an estimated 1912 nonstrategic nuclear warheads and a full range of ground and air launched ballistic and cruise missile delivery systems.[vii] There are currently an estimated 200 U.S. tactical nuclear warheads of which 100 are air deliverable weapons stored in five original members of NATO; none are in the front-line member states.[viii] This is a token force, appropriate for the peaceful interlude of the first fifteen years of the post-Cold War era. American distractions in the Middle East, European perceptions of an endless golden age of tranquility, and a general distaste for nuclear weapons, including by military leaders, combined to defer serious attention even as Russia violated the INF Treaty. The United States has slid into a minimum deterrence strategy in the European theater more by inattention than by design and it proved insufficient to deter Russian conventional aggression. The U.S. strategic triad failed to provide extended deterrence against a conventional invasion coupled with nuclear threats.
Russia meanwhile has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” declaratory policy which calls for use of nuclear weapons to avoid defeat in conventional conflict. In some respects, this mirrors NATOs flexible response strategy of Cold War I. Putin’s nuclear threats made at the time of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and since have served their purpose.[ix] Putin is close to establishing that he may deter NATO by waving the nuclear card for any Western military act of his choosing.[x] The U.S. intelligence community takes the threat seriously but there has been no discernible policy response, only a ritual expression of confidence in the U.S. strategic nuclear posture.[xi]
Since the signing in 2010 of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Russia has deployed over 2000 shorter range systems not limited by the Treaty.[xii] The current Administration extended New START for five years and abandoned efforts to cover these systems and to include China in limitations. In 2020, the United States announced a low-yield nuclear warhead (the W76-2) on submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) with the stated intent of being able to respond to Russian tactical warheads in kind as called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.[xiii] The Biden administration sought to cancel this system but Congress seems intent on continuing modest levels of funding.[xiv] While this does take advantage of the essential invulnerability of the platform, this strategy does not provide the same level of deterrence or reassurance to our Allies as would a ground deployment in forward countries with shared control. Additionally, any launch of a “tactical” SLBM would initially be indistinguishable from a strategic launch thereby risking escalation to a general exchange.
American statements and actions over the last four administrations going back to Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia in 2007 and of Ukraine in 2014 have fostered the failure of deterrence. The 2014 Russian seizure of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the annexation of Crimea resulted in modest sanctions, largely symbolic NATO deployments to Poland and the Baltics, energetic but ineffectual diplomacy by France and Germany, and no lethal military aid from the U.S. until inconsistently undertaken by the Trump administration. In the runup to the present war, White House officials put its limited arms aid on hold prior to last year’s Biden-Putin summit, vetoed an expanded training mission to Ukraine, withdrew warships from the Black Sea, and postponed then cancelled a long-planned Minuteman III ICBM test.[xv] The United States refused to supply Stingers until the start of the war, announced provision of Harpoon anti-ship missiles only in June (though previously supplied by the UK and Denmark). Only in the third month of the war did the U.S. finally begin to provide heavy armaments, notably critically needed artillery, and moved to a somewhat more aggressive declaratory policy. In the fourth month of the war, the administration sent mixed signals on provision of longer- range multiple rocket launchers (MLRS and HIMARS) before deciding to do so in very small numbers with a prohibition on hitting targets in Russia (which Ukraine has done on a few occasions with other systems). As of this writing, the United States remains unwilling to provide Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and more capable UAVs such as the MQ-9 Reaper.
Intelligence sharing did not cover Russian occupied areas of Ukraine until April and does not include Russian territory from which strikes are launched into Ukraine.[xvi] The Administration has agonized over the false distinction between offensive and defensive weapons and its statements frequently highlighted what the United States was not prepared to do. The unstated concern underlying the MIG-29 fiasco in March was the understandable Polish desire to have NATO with its American nuclear guarantee share the risk.[xvii] Nonetheless, Central and Eastern European countries – Poland, the Baltics, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – acted earlier and more courageously than did the U.S. or larger Allies with the exception of Great Britain. Moreover, Britain had earlier announced the expansion of its nuclear forces from 180 to as many as 260 warheads.[xviii]
The administration has failed to undertake the traditional American role of assuring freedom of access to the global commons. The United States and NATO were slow to formulate a strategy to address the emerging global food crisis occasioned by the Russian blockade of the Black Sea. The agreement brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July to permit monitored food exports from Odessa has allowed flows of grain to resume but remains subject to Russian intervention at any time.
Neither political leaders, military commanders, nor strategic analysts want to venture into the fraught thicket of “thinking about the unthinkable” to resurrect Herman Kahn’s memorable phrase.[xix] A gap has emerged between intention and capability. NATO can no longer afford this lethargy. What is called for now is immediate deployment of additional dual-capable strike aircraft together with their nuclear armaments to forward airfields in Poland, likely the staunchest of the Allies, possibly to Romania, and to some number of the Baltic states. Every effort should be made to get full NATO approval but not at the expense of delay. NATO consensus all too frequently is at some lowest common denominator. If necessary, a coalition of the willing should be constructed.
This deployment should be accompanied by a U.S. announcement of prompt development of mobile, ground-based nuclear missile and artillery systems with an explicit plan for forward deployment and announcement of a renewed flexible response strategy. The particulars of the systems are less important than the fact of a forward deployment of dual key systems in reassuring Allies and deterring Russia. These could initially be refurbished older systems, and later new hypersonic missiles. Consultations should also be held with France and Britain on limited forward deployment of their dual-capable aircraft and associated nuclear weapons. While American forces inevitably form the core of NATO’ s capabilities, French and British forces add a measure of deterrence, provide a hedge against a failure of U.S. leadership, and complicate Russian decision making on escalation. NATO deployments should be coupled with an offer to forego deployment or remove systems in the event of some acceptable peace agreement in Ukraine and removal of shorter- range nuclear forces by Putin or his successor.
There is no indication that NATO is prepared to move in this direction. At the NATO Summit in Madrid in June, modest steps were announced to expand conventional deployments in the frontline states but no changes in nuclear policy were announced. The Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid NATO Summit on June 28 does not address or respond to the threat posed by Russia’s vast superiority in shorter range nuclear delivery systems.[xx] It devotes a perfunctory two paragraphs to nuclear issues and implies satisfaction with current NATO nuclear force levels. There is nothing in the document to keep Putin up at night.
Whether Russia prevails in occupying some significant portion of Ukraine or not, it will emerge with a greatly weakened economy and a decimated conventional force. It will have few power levers other than its nuclear forces. Needless to say, increased Russian reliance on nuclear weapons is not a reassuring prospect. This circumstance increases the urgency of a NATO counter. The Administration has repeatedly stated its intention to defend every inch of NATO territory and NATO’s Article V guarantee has thus far deterred any Russian strike on NATO members. But will this hold in light of Russia’s theater nuclear superiority? As the rubble settles in Ukraine’s cities, the question will become more urgent. And do American security guarantees still reassure other allies who have foresworn nuclear weapons? If Russia emerges from the conflict with even a modest claim to success, it will have confirmed the utility of its nuclear capabilities and its strategy of nuclear threats.
There is likely to be renewed interest in procuring a nuclear arsenal in at least a half dozen states over the next decade. Prime candidates would include not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey in an increasingly unstable Middle East from which the United
States is withdrawing. Middle Eastern leaders will remember the fate of those who lacked nuclear weapons. Had Saddam waited a couple of years to invade Kuwait when he could well have possessed a crude nuclear device, the American response would have been more problematic. And in Libya, Gaddafi literally died in a ditch after permitting the U.S. to ship his early-stage nuclear program to Oak Ridge.[xxi] The initial failure of the United States to respond to Iranian sponsored attacks on Saudi and UAE oil facilities under different American administrations in 2019 and 2021 highlighted their security concerns. An International Atomic Energy Agency report states Iran now possesses enough highly enriched uranium for one weapon.[xxii] Iran is now weeks away from a nuclear capability after a decision is made.
The American nuclear umbrella shields Japan and South Korea by treaty and ambiguously shelters Taiwan. In the 1980s the United States turned off South Korea’s and Taiwan’s emerging nuclear programs with the threat of withdrawing the American security guarantee.[xxiii] The late Japanese Prime Minister Abe has suggested Japan should consider a nuclear-sharing arrangement with the U.S. This will not be a short-term possibility – current Prime Minister Kishida rejected the idea – but the issue is now joined.[xxiv] Newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has supported the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn in 1991.[xxv] All three countries must balance their perception of American credibility against their capability to move rapidly to a minimal nuclear arsenal. Forward deployment of U.S. nuclear capable systems to the Western Pacific is fully warranted by the major acceleration of China’s buildup of nuclear forces.
The substantial success of the global nonproliferation regime over the last 50 years has been perhaps the greatest success of American security policy on a par with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet agreement under which Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up the nuclear weapons on their territories seemed a great achievement at the time. That the number of nuclear weapons states is so few depends far more on the credibility of American strategic deterrence than it does on the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty. Particularly after the debacle of Afghanistan, American credibility is very much on the line in Ukraine. There is now the beginning of a re-evaluation of America’s nuclear posture. President Biden stepped back from a campaign vow echoing the old Soviet proposal of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, a feel-good declaratory policy of no real significance.[xxvi] Under pressure from Allies, he embraced the longstanding NATO strategy of using the threat of a nuclear response to deter nonnuclear dangers. And the recently completed but not released nuclear posture review apparently recommends only modest funding to modernize the triad and none for intermediate range systems. Nothing is more critical than that the United States re-establish extended deterrence and the credibility of its security guarantee. To do so it must begin the long-neglected modernization of its strategic nuclear forces and deployment of an enhanced theater nuclear force. Deterrence is a result of both capability and will. The United States has been tragically short of both.
[i] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Missile Defense Project, SS-20 Saber. https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/ss-20-saber-rsd-10/
[ii] Gordon Bare, An Old Nuclear Strategy for a New Threat, Real Clear Defense, March 9, 2022. https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2022/03/09/an_old_nuclear_strategy_for_a_new_threat_820774.html
[iii] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Missile Defense Project, Pershing II. https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/mgm-31b-pershing-2/ and Wikipedia, BGM-109G. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BGM-109G_Ground_Launched_Cruise_Missile
[iv] U.S. Department of State, Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Shorter and Intermediate Range Missiles (INF Treaty). https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102360.htm
[v] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Missile Defense Project, 9M-729 (SSC-8) https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/ssc-8-novator-9m729/
[vi] Russia Warns It Could Station Nuclear Forces in Europe if Finland, Sweden Join NATO, Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-warns-it-could-station-nuclear-forces-in-europe-if-finland-sweden-join-nato-11649958396?mod=itp_wsj&ru=yahoo
[vii] Hans M. Kristensen, Matt Korda, Nuclear Notebook: How Many Nuclear Weapons Does Russia Have in 2022, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, February 23, 2022. https://thebulletin.org/premium/2022-02/nuclear-notebook-how-many-nuclear-weapons-does-russia-have-in-2022/
[viii] Putin Stokes Nuclear Fears with Atomic Weapons Warnings, Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-stokes-nuclear-fears-with-atomic-weapons-warnings-11648381573?mod=itp_wsj&ru=yahoo
[ix] Joshua Ball, Escalate to De-escalate: Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy, Global Security Review, March 7,2022, https://globalsecurityreview.com/nuclear-de-escalation-russias-deterrence-strategy/
[x] Matthew Koenig, Mark J. Massa, and Alyxandra Marine, To Decipher Putin’s Nuclear Threats, Watch What He Does—Not What He Says, New Atlanticist, March 4, 2022. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/to-decipher-putins-nuclear-threats-watch-what-he-does-not-what-he-says/
[xi] CIA Chief Says Don’t Take Lightly Threat Putin Could Use Limited Nuclear Strike, Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/russia-ukraine-latest-news-2022-04-15/card/cia-chief-don-t-take-lightly-threat-putin-could-use-limited-nuclear-strike-tZsY2h4lOXfEUlynasYV?mod=article_inline
[xii] Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces and Modernization, Congressional Research Service, April 22, 2022. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/nuke/R45861.pdf
[xiii] House Authorizers Approve 45M to Keep Sea-launched Nuke on Life Support, Breaking Defense, June 22, 2022. https://breakingdefense.com/2022/06/house-authorizers-approve-45m-to-keep-sea-launched-nuke-on-life-support/?mc_cid=9882dfb0ce&mc_eid=1eea00a5ba
[xiv] Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, Washington, DC, February 2, 2018. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINALREPORT.PDF.
[xv] White House Freezes Ukraine Military Package that Includes Lethal Weapons, Politico, June 18, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/06/18/white-house-ukraine-military-lethal-weapons-495169. Pentagon Push to Send More Trainers to Ukraine was Scrapped in December amid White House Fears of Provoking Russia. Politico, March 13, 2022. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/13/briefing-white-house-nixed-december-plan-to-boost-special-ops-presence-in-ukraine-00016830
[xvi] Biden Administration to Provide Ukraine with More Intelligence, Heavier Weapons to Fight Russia, Wall Street Journal, April 13,2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-expands-flow-of-intelligence-to-ukraine-as-white-house-sends-more-arms-11649868029?mod=itp_wsj&ru=yahoo
[xvii] The Ukrainian Mig-29 Fiasco Gets Worse, Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-ukraine-mig-29-fiasco-gets-worse-joe-biden-vladimir-putin-poland-ukraine-russia-nato-11646953225?mod=Searchresults_pos1&page=1
[xviii] Integrated Review 2021, Increasing the Cap on the UK’s Nuclear Warheads, House of Commons Library, March 19, 2021. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9175/
[xix] Herman Kahn, "Thinking About the Unthinkable," Naval War College Review: Vol. 15: No. 8, Article 7, 1962. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol15/iss8/7/
[xx] NATO, 2022 Strategic Concept adopted by Heads of State and Government at the Madrid Summit 29 June 2022. https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2022/6/pdf/290622-strategic-concept.pdf
[xxi] Chronology of Libya's Disarmament and Relations with the United States, Arms Control Association, March, 2021. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/LibyaChronology
[xxii] Iran Hasn’t Provided Credible Explanations for Nuclear Material, UN Agency Says, Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-hasnt-provided-credible-explanations-for-nuclear-material-u-n-agency-says-11653923148
[xxiii] South Korea Special Weapons Global Security Organization and Taiwan, Global Security Organization. https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/rok/index.html https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/taiwan/nuke.html
[xxiv] A New Nuclear Debate in Japan, Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-new-nuclear-debate-in-japan-shinzo-abe-nato-us-russia-ukraine-vladimir-putin-china-xi-jinping-11646147202?mod=Searchresults_pos2&page=1
[xxv] Yoon says he will Request Redeployment of U.S. Tactical Nukes in Case of Emergency, Yonhap News Agency, June 23, 2022. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210922005300320
[xxvi] Biden Sticks with Longstanding U.S. Policy on Use of Nuclear Weapons Amid Pressure From Allies, Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-sticks-with-longstanding-u-s-policy-on-use-of-nuclear-weapons-amid-pressure-from-allies-11648176849?mod=itp_trending_now_article_pos1