Originally published at Project-Syndicate | March 17, 2022
Russia has shown that it is ready to murder innocent Ukrainians, but it is not ready to commit suicide. And that holds the key to preventing further Russian aggression, and more unspeakable tragedies, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
BERKELEY/STOCKHOLM – Anyone who does not want war would do well to recall an enduring lesson from the Cold War: parties will be deterred from fighting if they know in advance that they will lose everything. With Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons if the West tries to intervene militarily in Ukraine, NATO must revive the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD).
The logic of MAD was dismal but not crazy. Both the Soviet Union and the United States (or any other NATO member) knew that if one attacked the other, it would be annihilated in response. The key to the MAD equilibrium was that the aggressor’s annihilation would be assured if it launched an attack.
This guarantee that the other side would retaliate with full force took a variety of forms, from the nuclear triad to the hardline stance of military commanders like former US Air Force General Curtis LeMay. The result was that neither superpower wanted to attack first, keeping the Cold War cold.
MAD may have seemed obsolete after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but Putin’s recent nuclear threats have raised troubling questions that the doctrine helps to address. For example, would the West retaliate if Russia used nuclear weapons against Ukraine and a radioactive cloud covered Europe? What if the Russian army blew up a nuclear power plant in Ukraine? Where does one draw the line?
The West’s common theme in such scenarios must be to assure Russia of inevitable consequences. This means committing to strike back and communicating to Russia that even a “small” nuclear attack or accident would trigger a devastating response. The potentially blurred boundaries of what constitutes an attack (a Russian missile might hit a NATO base or convoy, for example) broadens the range of triggers. In the 1950s, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles indicated that any attack – with conventional or nuclear forces – would lead to the aggressor’s annihilation.
Furthermore, the MAD logic dictates that one can achieve de-escalation through escalation. If Russia adopts an aggressive posture and puts its nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles on a high state of readiness, NATO must respond in kind to signal that it is ready to react. A failure to do so could be interpreted as a lack of commitment and thus invite more aggressive Russian behavior.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis involved a real-life application of the MAD strategy. By placing nuclear missiles on Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev intended to scare the US and thus extract concessions from President John F. Kennedy, whom Khrushchev perceived to be “soft.” Had the Kennedy administration caved in, Khrushchev’s nuclear blackmail would have terrorized the US for years.
Understanding the MAD logic, Kennedy responded by placing US strategic forces at DEFCON 2 (ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours). Facing the prospect of triggering a nuclear war (DEFCON 1) and ensuring mutual annihilation, Khrushchev backed down, the crisis was defused, and the Soviet Union never again risked a nuclear confrontation with NATO. The 1961 US-Soviet standoff at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin was a similar case of escalation resulting in long-term de-escalation: the Soviet bloc never again questioned West Berlin’s status.
Unfortunately, the world seems to have forgotten the importance of standing up to a bully with nuclear weapons. Remember that MAD was about the balance of terror: lose the balance and all that remains is terror. Today, NATO must balance Russian threats to use nukes with a commitment to retaliate in kind, and meet Putin’s escalation with escalation of its own. In a MAD world, caving in to nuclear intimidation is a sign of weakness that makes a war more likely.
Furthermore, in case of any aggression, the response must be total war. The paradox of Narva helps in understanding the calculus. Suppose that the Russian army captured Narva, a small Estonian city bordering Russia. If NATO did not respond to this attack on a member state, the Alliance would be dead, and all countries without nuclear weapons, lacking a credible deterrent against a nuclear strike, would be obvious targets of future aggression.
A limited NATO response would mean that the aggressor could keep pushing boundaries and raising its demands, just as Hitler raised his demands in the name of peace. One must therefore conclude that the answer is to go “all in,” no matter how small Russia’s aggression is. This also means that NATO must avoid describing what it will not do in response to aggression. Instead, the Alliance must credibly signal that all options are on the table.
The prospect of a nuclear war is terrifying. But it is equally if not more terrifying to think that a madman in the Kremlin with nuclear weapons can beat into submission whole countries or continents by threatening to launch his arsenal against anybody who meddles with his ambitions.
Today, when Ukraine is the target of Putin’s delusional ambitions, some US policymakers may ask why NATO should risk a nuclear confrontation over a country that is not a member. Putin may then threaten European Union members Finland or Sweden. But, again, the argument goes, they are not in NATO, so why risk Armageddon? The day after tomorrow, the target may be Poland or Germany – but at least they are not America.
World War II is a grim reminder that “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people about whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain infamously described the Sudeten crisis, can quickly escalate into a global conflagration. But such dangerous progressions are not inevitable.
If Ukraine has the courage to battle Russian aggression under the most difficult conditions, the West must find the nerve to stand up to Putin’s nuclear blackmail in order to preserve the wider peace. Russia has shown that it is ready to murder innocent Ukrainians, but it is not ready to commit suicide. And that holds the key to preventing more unspeakable tragedies.
Yuriy Gorodnichenko: Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Torbjörn Becker: Director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics at the Stockholm School of Economics.