Biden, biological weapons, chemical weapons, deterrence, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear war, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, red line, Russia, Ukraine, Ukraine invasion, Ukraine-Russia war, Vladimir Putin
The increasingly blustery way leading American politicians and chattering class members (mainly conservatives) have been talking about nuclear weapons and the Ukraine war is getting scary enough for me, and should be for you. (See, e.g., here.) Unless it’s OK that a major American city (or ten) may wind up looking like besieged and decimated Mariupol because playing chicken more boldly (but so far mainly verbally) with Moscow pushes above zero the odds of them getting hit by Russian warheads?
But something that worries me even more about these cataclysmic possibilities: For two main sets of reasons, the war could well create possibilities for nuclear weapons use that differ markedly from the scenarios that have dominated American planning for decades – and all the evidence indicates still dominates it today.
The first entails both Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine itself and the Russian dictator’s apparent decision to react to Ukraine’s stunning success to date in fighting back by raining maximum destruction on that country’s population. The second entails expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) membership right up to Russia’s borders after the Cold War ended and the old Soviet Union’s satellites became truly independent states and sought to join.
Simply put, the longstanding and existing scenarios have gone something like this: The Soviet Union (and now Russia) thinks about invading a NATO member (almost always the former West Germany) with its vastly superior conventional forces, but is deterred paradoxically by the very weakness of NATO’s conventional forces. The likelihood of these NATO forces getting overwhelmed and destroyed (along with all the NATO civilian personnel located nearby), would supposedly leave an American President no choice but to try to repel the attackers with nuclear weapons. The prospect that this escalation would turn into an all-out, world-destroying conflagration would be enough to prevent Moscow from attacking in the first place.
Today, however, the situation and possible nuclear scenarios are vastly different. After all, Putin has invaded not a NATO member – that is, a country whose security has been guaranteed by the alliance – but a country that hasn’t been permitted to join NATO. On the one hand, that’s comforting (except for the Ukrainians) because President Biden and other NATO leaders have ruled out the idea of direct military intervention in the conflict – precisely for fear that Russia could respond by attacking NATO units in Ukraine with nukes, or by attacking NATO forces and bases in members bordering Ukraine, or elsewhere in NATO-Europe, or even by striking the United States.
On the other hand, the very fact of heavy fighting in a country right next door to NATO members raises the possibility of the conflict spreading into those countries. This spillover could occur either by accident, or because Putin decides to attack the alliance’s extensive efforts to supply Ukraine. In turn, either such Russian operations could kill or wound NATO personnel who might be accompanying the weapons and other aid shipments as they travel through Ukraine, or Putin could decide to take out the facilities in Poland and other NATO countries from which these supplies are being sent into the war zone.
And don’t forget the spillover possibilities even from Russian attacks on Ukrainian forces inside Ukraine. Because Ukrainian resistance has been so effective (an outcome that so far was not only totally unexpected to the U.S. national security apparatus, but that contrasts strikingly with the longstanding assumption of Russian conventional military superiority that still underlies the alliance’s deterrence strategy), Moscow might need chemical or biological or nuclear weapons to regain the initiative. If these threshholds are crossed, the effects could, as noted here, easily blow beyond Ukraine’s borders and into NATO territory. And if NATO territory is affected, wouldn’t that qualify as an attack on a NATO member, or members, that would activate the alliance’s Article Five obligation that members view such a development as “an attack on all” – the core of the NATO treaty and the ultimate key to whatever deterrence power it’s assumed to have created?
Much more than the violations of international agreements that would result from these Russian moves, that’s why Mr. Biden and other NATO leaders have been warning Putin about “red lines” that he mustn’t cross by using these weapons of mass destruction. Yet the vague terms NATO has used to describe its promised responses so far make clear that alliance leaders haven’t yet decided how they actually would respond, and how to convey that message convincingly to Moscow. And yes, a Russian cyber-attack on a NATO member would trigger the same kinds of questions, uncertainties, and outright dangers.
As I’ve written repeatedly (notably here), the U.S. military doctrine that resulted and still prevails never deserved high marks for prudence, common sense, or even the basic test of a healthy sense of self-preservation. So it’s not like there’s a compelling case that Washington’s strategists today will come up with anything more sensible to handle these radically different challenges. And that’s all the more reason to try to put much more energy into stopping the fighting ASAP by cutting a deal that will surely fail to satisfy either Ukraine or Russia, but that ends, at least for the time being, the kind of reckless nuclear weapons talk that could all too easily lead to catastrophic nuclear weapons use – even if neither the United States nor its allies are actually attacked.