JRL NEWSWATCH: “Keeping the ‘New Cold War’ Cold: Nuclear Deterrence With U.S. and Russian Nuclear Force Modernization [Excerpt]” – PONARS Eurasia/Keith Darden

File Photo of Stealth Bomber in Flight

(PONARS Eurasia – Keith Darden – May 2018)

Keith Darden is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

(PONARS Policy Memo) After two decades of dramatic reduction and deliberate neglect, the nuclear arsenals that were at the center of security relations between the Cold War superpowers are reaching the ends of their operational lives. Rather than allow age and obsolescence to erode their nuclear capabilities and carry us into a post-nuclear era, both Russia and the United States chose to modernize and redevelop their nuclear arsenals with new weapons systems, platforms, and strategy. For those raised during the Cold War, this can be a terrifying prospect.
Yet, both the fears and the advantages of the new weapons are overstated. The U.S. and Russian nuclear doctrines reflect a newly adversarial relationship, but the development of new weapons and doctrines for their use need not be destabilizing. Both doctrines are status quo oriented and primarily defensive. They are designed to deter potential aggressors-not to “roll back” rivals, overturn governments through military conquest, or to expand influence. Both are consistent with achieving a certain “strategic stability” or a stable mutual deterrence. At the same time, there is no technical military solution to the conflicts of interest and the ambiguity of resolve that characterized key U.S.-Russian interactions after the Ukraine crisis. Enhancing nuclear capability does not necessarily enhance deterrence, let alone security. If security is to be achieved it will have to address specific conflicts in relations between the two states. …

Relationship Management and Threat Reduction

Ultimately, the likelihood of great power conflict-or a war between U.S. and Russian forces-depends far more on avoiding or managing direct conflicts of interest. We can work on that directly, but it requires a degree of mutual awareness of political interests and motivations of potential rivals.
Here is where both U.S. and Russian strategic doctrines (and the policy communities that generated them) fall short. Stability is not a technical problem with a technical solution. Having an arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons does not signal “resolve” as the NPR seems to suggest. Capabilities are not resolve. The differences in resolve and the intensity of U.S. and Russian interests in Ukraine, for example, is what determines how each side is willing to escalate. And the willingness to use nuclear weapons in such a conflict would not depend on the yields. In conflicts where neither country has a vital interest, it is not clear what would indicate resolve or how far each side would be willing to go in a direct conflict-and that uncertainty is dangerous. Those dangers are not stabilized by a more “usable” non-strategic nuclear arsenal.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: The modernization of nuclear forces in the United States and Russia is a response to a more hostile security environment, but it does not address the conditions that generate that hostile security environment. It is good, of course, that both Russian and U.S. strategic documents are realistic about the existence of tensions. It is a not a world in which we can let nuclear weapons go away, and we should recognize that past U.S. policy, in particular, was predicated on assumptions about the declining tensions that have been proven to be false.
However, it is not good–indeed it is destabilizing–that neither side seems to acknowledge the role of their own actions in generating the tensions or the opportunities for defusing them. On the Russian side, the leadership appears to work from a Cold War caricature of the inherently messianic and expansionist nature of U.S. power. There is no acknowledgment that the annexation of a neighboring state’s territory and the commitment to defend those annexations with nuclear weapons could be seen as a threatening precedent. Nor does there appear to be any perception that cyber attacks, assassinations, or influence operations within the United States or Europe would be considered unacceptable new forms of aggression or intervention.
On the U.S. side, the NPR seems to have no awareness of what motivates Russian actions, nor that the challenging geostrategic environment and renewed great power competition is partially a product of U.S. actions and choices. The document presents a caricature of Russia’s “destabilizing” policy as a source of the changed threat environment, but Russia’s aggressive actions are not emerging from a vacuum. In Ukraine, Russia’s most populous and powerful neighbor to the West, Russia saw a freely-elected president overthrown only a year from a scheduled presidential election, and an anti-Russian, pro-NATO government put in his stead. All done with the apparent blessing of the United States. In Syria, the United States has never articulated a realistic vision of a post-Assad Syria consistent with U.S. interests, but we consistently advocated the overthrow of the Assad regime. The Russians see U.S. policies as destabilizing, and understandably so.
Ultimately, the drivers of conflict between Washington and Moscow need to be worked on directly. There is no technical fix to the problems in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and far more can be done to defuse conflict between the two countries rather than be placed in the position of having to rely on a nuclear deterrent, especially given the persistent uncertainty about the conditions under which each country would be willing to use nuclear weapons. A central element of minimizing the security dilemma and dangerous escalatory cycles is an awareness of how one’s own state’s actions will be perceived by adversaries. To the extent that policies do little to enhance one’s own security interests but pose a significant threat to rivals, they should be avoided. Transparency of actions, capabilities, and intentions-perhaps achieved through the type of bilateral and multilateral engagement that is increasingly being curtailed by both sides-could contribute to a lessening of tensions or at least a clarity of interests and ambitions that would make nuclear deterrence less necessary.

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