The risk of nuclear escalation growing from the current Russian war in Ukraine has prompted considerable debate among experts and media commentators. Some dismiss the concern about a possible Russian first use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a surrender of NATO initiative to Russian President Vladamir Putin. According to this logic, instead of reacting to Putin’s veiled and explicit threats, the United States and NATO should remind Russia of American and NATO capabilities to respond with overwhelming force to any Russian nuclear first use in Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe.
Dismissing Putin’s nuclear saber rattling as a ploy to manipulate NATO and world opinion, however, would be a mistake. The likelihood of a deliberate or miscalculated escalation to nuclear first use is now as great, or greater, than it was during the fateful Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This is so for a number of reasons, explained below.
First, the initial five weeks of fighting left Russian military leadership short of their objective of taking Kiyv and toppling the Zelenskyy government. Instead, Russia faced Ukrainian counter-offensives on various axes, some mutinous behavior on the part of Russian ground forces, and an apparent inability to conduct effective large-scale maneuver warfare on the part of its generals. NATO member nation commentators and politicians began talking, not only about an emerging stalemate between Russia and Ukraine, but of a possible Ukrainian military victory. If Ukrainian military performance relative to Russia’s continues to improve, and Russia’s situation deteriorates even further, Moscow out of desperation might consider using chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.
Second, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s unsuccessful scheme to deploy Russian nuclear missiles to Cuba was eventually the source of his undoing two years later as leader of the USSR. Impetuous as he was, Khrushchev was still accountable to a collective communist party leadership (the Politburo) that eventually denounced him for “adventurism” and other faults. In contrast, Putin appears to be surrounded by sycophants and increasingly isolated from anyone who would question his authority to take a controversial decision, including for nuclear first use. The absence of any obviously restraining force on Putin within the Russian domestic policy-making process should be of great concern to NATO in its approach to the control of escalation.
A third aspect of the Ukraine crisis that makes it potentially more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis is the nature of communications technology and its influence on public and media opinion now compared to the situation in 1962. U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his top national security advisers were able to deliberate in secret and to consider a range of alternatives, until Kennedy finally made his decision for a naval quarantine and reported it to the nation. It would be inconceivable today, with the global cornucopia of news sources and social media platforms, for any looming nuclear crisis to be concealed from public view for days or weeks. Instead, the first detection of Russian nuclear weapons in or near Ukraine will set off unprecedented media uproar and government angst. Leaders will be hard pressed to explain the nuances of deterrence or nuclear crisis management amid the clamor of inevitable misinformation and confusion.
Fourth, the Cuban missile crisis took place in a world order dominated by two nuclear superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Although Cold War antagonists and competitors, the Americans and Soviets were both “status quo” instead of “revisionist” powers with respect to the existing international order. Of course, American politicians advocated for the end of communism and Soviet ideologies promised the demise of capitalism in their lifetimes. Apart from ideology, however, both Washington and Moscow had a shared interest in maintaining a bipolar international system that suppressed disruptive initiatives by other actors. In contrast, Putin objects fundamentally to the rules-based international order supported by the United States and NATO. Moreover, other rising powers such as China have the capacity to influence decisions about the outcome of the war in Ukraine, should they choose to do so. And speaking of China, this is another difference between the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the future. Future nuclear crises will take place within an international system of (at least) three nuclear superpowers, adding complexity and indeterminacy to an already delicate process of nuclear crisis management.
Fifth, history matters. Leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 came from the World War II generation. They understood personally and viscerally the costs of war and its devasting consequences for society. Some sixty-five million people died in World War II: perhaps twenty-seven million of them in the Soviet Union. Even for the victors, the war was a life-changing experience. Today’s leaders in NATO and Russia, in contrast to their counterparts from the World War II era, have grown up in much more favorable political and economic times. Even their armed forces partake of postmodern culture that is very far removed from the gritty generations that endured the Great Depression and World War II.
Sixth, nuclear deterrence depends upon a rational model of decision-making, but states in conflict may bring different rationalities to the table. Rationality emphasizes an abstract logical connection between means and ends, or between methods and purposes. But, for rational decision-making to work in historical and political context, it must be supplemented by sensible decision-making. Sensible decision-making takes into account the frailties of the human condition and the uncertainties of leaders’ behavior: including misperceptions of one another’s intentions; limitations on intelligence gathering and estimation; motivational biases of policy makers and commanders; and the reliance of bureaucratic organizations on standard operating procedures and routines. Two states that are “rational” within their own frames of reference may nevertheless find that their policies and strategies collide with unexpectedly disastrous results.
Seventh, nuclear weapons do not easily lend themselves to piecemeal or disaggregated use for messaging purposes. For example, the idea that Russia might use one, or several, short range or low yield nuclear weapons as part of a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” sounds more like a U.S. or NATO rendition of Russian thinking than an intrinsically Russian perspective. While not all Russian national security experts and military analysts agree on this point, Russian military doctrine suggests that “escalation to win” is a strategy that is more likely to be adopted once the decision to cross the nuclear threshold has been taken. Professors and pundits can conjure Russians who think about the actual use of nuclear weapons in combat, as opposed to their use for deterrence, as signaling devices or bargaining chips. But it would be dangerous for NATO to carry that assumption into a crisis management scenario with Russia.