Download PDF The deep strategic differences between the United States and Russia, and the origins of those differences, have never been properly understood by either side.

After more than two decades in obscurity, nuclear strategy and the threat of Armageddon have returned to the forefront of US–Russia and NATO–Russia relations, reviving old fears and mutual suspicions. In August 2014, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared:

Our partners, regardless of the situations in their countries or their foreign policies, should always keep in mind that Russia is not to be messed with. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the largest nuclear powers. This is reality, not just words; moreover, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrence forces.1

Many Russian military experts expounded on this statement, proposing to complement official military doctrine with ideas for ‘selective use’ of nuclear weapons as a ‘show of resolve’ or for the ‘de-escalation of conflict’.2 These views might have been dismissed as the fantasies of armchair strategists were it not for the fact they drew on past official documents.3 In 2003, such proposals had been largely ignored: a NATO–Russia war seemed unthinkable. But in the 2014–15 environment of escalating political and military confrontation they became chillingly realistic.

Russian declarations on nuclear weapons produced shock abroad and provoked a tough response. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter responded: ‘Nuclear weapons are not something that should be the subject of loose rhetoric.’ Carter said that there was ‘no need’ for Putin to have made the point, as Russia’s nuclear capabilities are well established.4 Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in the House of Representatives: ‘Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire … Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.’5 NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the concern: ‘Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.’6

There is a tradition of explaining Russian behaviour by projecting Western thinking onto Russian defence planners. This often leads to assertions of the aggressive character of Moscow’s nuclear posture. The core of the issue, however, is not simply that a benign US–NATO nuclear-deterrence posture faces a menacing Russian war-fighting stance. The real problem is that the Soviet and Russian strategic mentality has mostly been, and remains today, very different from that of the United States and its allies. This is a complex issue, relating to Moscow’s specific way of dealing with nuclear deterrence, which stems from Russia’s historic experience, geostrategic position and technological development – all of which are very different from those of the West.

Deterrence and war fighting

In the huge library of theoretical literature on nuclear strategy, deterrence and war fighting are often treated as separate concepts. In reality, however, the two are intricately intertwined. Due to the immense destructive and collateral effects of nuclear weapons, as well as uncertainty over their use, any nuclear posture is primarily designed to deter, rather than to actually defeat an opponent in war. At the same time, deterrence is impossible without functioning weapons, operational plans and target lists for their employment in combat, matched with convincing readiness to actually use them in certain circumstances.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that nuclear deterrence is sometimes also assigned the mission of preventing conventional aggression, either against the country itself (as in the case of Russia) or against its allies (as in the case of the United States). This strategy (called ‘enhanced deterrence’ by strategic theorists or ‘extended deterrence’ in the US case) implies a first nuclear strike by strategic forces, or a first use with sub-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, all nine nuclear-armed states, except one, have traditionally envisioned nuclear first use under certain circumstances, implying some degree of war fighting. And the single exception – China – has, since 2013, apparently been reconsidering its no-first-use stance.7

The difference between the two concepts is not binary, but rather a question of the relative emphasis put on planning for first or retaliatory use of nuclear weapons, their various technical characteristics and the command-and-control systems in use. These differences in emphasis are important – they impact arms control and in a crisis might affect the ultimate outcome: peace or nuclear war.

Notably, the latest version of Russia’s military doctrine, released in December 2014, kept the restrained wording of its predecessor on nuclear employment:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.8

Incidentally, the official Russian strategic concept has only two differences from US policy as outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.9 One is that America is apparently willing to defend its allies through the use of nuclear weapons, if they are attacked with overwhelming conventional force, whereas Russia does not provide such an assurance. The other is Russian readiness to use nuclear weapons if facing the prospect of defeat by large-scale conventional aggression, while the United States, for obvious reasons, does not envision such a contingency.

According to Russian doctrine, the main task for national strategic forces is ‘strategic (nuclear and non-nuclear) deterrence and the prevention of military conflicts’. This is to be achieved by

maintaining the composition, state of combat readiness and preparedness of strategic nuclear forces, and by forces and means supporting their functioning and employment, as well as by command systems at a level guaranteeing the infliction of unacceptable damage on an aggressor under any conditions of the situation.10

Although in the previous military doctrine, published in 2010, the term was ‘infliction of assigned level of damage’, this slight shift to a harsher wording does not significantly change the formulation, which remains as amorphous as before (and brings to mind the joke, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, upon being asked how long a man’s legs should be: ‘Long enough to reach the floor.’)

It should be acknowledged, however, that the differences in US and Russian strategic thinking are much deeper than may be construed from official documents. America’s contemporary nuclear posture is not much more specific than Russia’s – in contrast to the Cold War years, when American doctrines were presented in great detail and closely correlated with force levels and weapon programmes. This is the time from which the principal difference in Russian and American nuclear mentalities stems.

Historic roots

Nuclear deterrence was not born together with nuclear arms. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the United States treated atomic and later hydrogen bombs dropped from aircraft as ultimate weapons to destroy the enemy’s armed forces and urban–industrial assets, if the Soviet Union or China were to attack US allies in Europe or Asia. This was the strategy of ‘massive retaliation’, which in its final version, embodied in the first Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP-62), called for the immediate employment of all strategic forces against all listed targets, including the opponent’s cities.11 This strike was to use 1,850 long- and medium-range bombers to deliver, in a single sortie, approximately 4,700 nuclear bombs.12 Deterrence was a desirable political bonus before the war began, but not the main goal of US military posture and armed-forces development.

During those years, nuclear deterrence was primarily a theoretical subject, albeit a fascinating one, rather than a practical tool of foreign policy and military strategy. Strategic theory in the United States was developed, as a rule, not by generals, but by civilian specialists, including natural and social scientists. The works of theoreticians such as Bernard Brodie, George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter and others elaborated the idea that nuclear weapons should be used not for defeating an enemy in war, but for preventing such a war from happening in the first place – or, more accurately, for dissuading a potential enemy from undertaking actions that could culminate in a large-scale war.

Only at the end of the 1950s, following 15 years of nuclear-weapons stockpiling and strategic thinking, did the concept of deterrence come to the foreground of American military strategy. This change was the result of the Soviet Union developing intercontinental nuclear weapons capable of reaching US territory, demonstrated by the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 1957. After that, the political leadership in the United States grudgingly recognised that nuclear weapons were too dangerous for immediate military use as soon as a conflict began.

The chief theoretician and practitioner of the new nuclear thinking was secretary of defense Robert McNamara, appointed by the newly elected president John F. Kennedy in 1961. McNamara’s strategic revolution was facilitated by the intellectual contribution of his advisers, called the ‘whiz kids’, including Harold Brown, Alain Enthoven, Daniel Ellsberg, General Glenn Kent, Paul Nitze, Henry Rowen and Herbert York. They deeply revised SIOP-62 and elaborated a new plan which envisioned attacking Soviet strategic forces and other military sites before hitting urban–industrial centres or government bunkers. This new operational plan was formalised in SIOP-63 and the target list was extended to 6,000 sites.13

During the 1960s, after exploring a series of concepts, including ‘counterforce’ and ‘damage limitation’,14 US nuclear strategy firmly settled on the concept of ‘assured destruction’. It envisioned maintaining strategic forces capable of surviving an opponent’s nuclear strike in sufficient numbers to cause the enemy unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike (which was defined as the immediate destruction of up to 50% of the adversary’s industrial potential and 20–25% of its population).15 This was the ultimate in nuclear deterrence, although it coexisted with war planning not fully reflective of the official strategic doctrine, an issue addressed in more detail below.

In a famous 1967 speech in San Francisco, McNamara formulated the new philosophy of nuclear balance. In particular, he stated that deterrence of a ‘deliberate nuclear attack’ upon the United States or its allies was ensured by maintaining a highly reliable ability ‘to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any single aggressor or combination of aggressors, at any time during the course of a strategic nuclear exchange, even after absorbing a surprise first strike’. At the same time, McNamara acknowledged that ‘the blunt, inescapable fact remains that the Soviet Union could still – with its present forces – effectively destroy the United States, even after absorbing the full weight of an American first strike’.16 McNamara’s notion of strategic stability in part stemmed from his reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Soon after that episode, asked whether the USSR would build a retaliatory strike capability, he answered: ‘Indeed yes … When both sides have a secure second-strike capability, then you might have a more stable balance of terror.’17

This kind of mentality and its implications constituted a monumental strategic reformation. Such public statements would have been unthinkable on the part of any high Soviet official of the time – and, actually, remain unimaginable in today’s Russia, half a century later. Although the catastrophic reality of a probable nuclear war was tacitly recognised by at least a part of the Soviet leadership after the death of Stalin in 1953, impartial non-ideological assessment of the strategic relationship between the two nuclear superpowers, as demonstrated by McNamara, has always been, with very few exceptions, alien to Moscow’s strategic tradition and official nuclear posture. In the United States, for three decades from the late 1960s to the late 1990s (except for the mid-1980s, when the ‘star wars’ missile shield was being promoted, as discussed below), McNamara’s way of thinking remained the foundation of the ideology of mutual deterrence and strategic stability, war prevention, strategic sufficiency and strategic arms control.

The Soviet Union arrived at similar conclusions about nuclear war much later – even at the declaratory level, to say nothing of military planning or armament programmes. For the first quarter-century of the nuclear age, the fundamental assumption of Soviet military doctrine was that, if a global war was unleashed by the ‘imperialist West’, the Soviet Union would defeat the enemy and achieve victory, despite the enormous ensuing damage.18

As late as the 1990s, there were no Soviet or Russian analogues to official US nuclear doctrine. The reason was that the Soviet leadership did not need to justify military programmes and force levels before parliament to receive appropriations or to assure foreign allies of Soviet security guarantees. All such matters were resolved in closed sessions of the Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee Defence Department, in the Ministry of Defence and by the Military–Industrial Commission of the Council of Ministers. Actual Soviet nuclear strategy, in contrast to propaganda and rhetoric, was more or less reflective of the operational planning embodied in the US SIOP and target lists. However, in contrast to McNamara’s ‘counterforce’ or ‘damage limitation’ concepts and options, there was only one top-secret operational plan (Plan Udara, or strike plan), aimed at delivering maximum destructive power against the opponent in the course of either a first or a retaliatory strike upon receiving authorisation from the Soviet political–military leadership.19 This kind of planning was natural for a military–operational mentality deprived of any civilian input, and it was quite similar to the US strategy of ‘massive retaliation’, elaborated by Strategic Air Command in the 1950s.

The Soviet Union arrived at similar conclusions much later

Mostly following the lead of the United States in the development and deployment of major strategic weapon systems, new Soviet nuclear arms were simply added to the arsenal to enhance the basic strike plan vis-à-vis changing US attack capabilities and target infrastructure. A gradual extension of target coverage from cities to military sites was the result of increasing numbers of weapons and technical capabilities rather than elaborate strategic thinking.

Only during the 1970s did the USSR start to change its official declaratory position on the subject, and gradually accept the idea of the impossibility of victory in a nuclear war due to its unprecedented destructive consequences. This shift was initially born of the ideological split with China, whose leadership declared the prospect of achieving the victory of communism through all-out nuclear war. But the most important factor shaping this change was the beginning of strategic negotiations with the United States. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that in the Soviet Union – in contrast with American conceptual innovation – the ‘new thinking’ on nuclear war was first and foremost the product of arms control.

Strategic concepts in Moscow and Washington were fundamentally incompatible until the late 1960s. During the 1970s they edged closer together, through the recognition of strategic parity and the destabilising effect of anti-missile defences, reflected in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (SALT I), and SALT II in 1979. Those treaties could not be justified in the USSR without recognition of the impossibility of victory in a global war. This implied a revolution in Soviet declaratory military ideology, and met tough resistance from the top brass in the Ministry of Defence and Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Nonetheless, the leaders of the United States and the USSR concluded special agreements and joint statements on this basis. They postulated that the parties would ‘do everything possible to avoid military confrontations and prevent a nuclear war’, that ‘nuclear war would have devastating consequences for mankind’ and that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’.20 In 1982, Moscow even took the unprecedented step of a nuclear no-first-use pledge. It was a symbolic gesture which did not affect real strategic policy, but at the level of political doctrine it was a significant stride toward the philosophy of deterrence instead of the traditional dogma of winning a global war.21

In the first half of the 1980s, the two states again drifted far apart in their nuclear outlook, and in 1983 even came close to the brink of nuclear war. Political tensions were related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The strategic context was determined by the United States’ planned Strategic Defense Initiative (a package of missile-defence projects known colloquially as ‘star wars’), the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe and a long impasse in arms-limitation talks. But by the end of the decade, strategic mentalities on both sides again drew closer due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ and the conclusion of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction (START I) treaties. During the 1990s, US and Russian strategic mentalities continued to converge, as reflected in START II (1993) and the START III Framework Agreement (1997).

Thinking again started to diverge

After the mid-2000s, the countries’ thinking again started to diverge against the background of their failure to agree on the counting rules and verification regime of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Paradoxically, at that time, the concept of strategic stability as the military foundation of war prevention and arms control faded away because military conflict between Russia and NATO was politically unthinkable. New START was, happily, concluded in 2010, but it was praised for providing transparency and predictability, not for its contribution to strategic stability and war prevention, relying on mutual second-strike deterrence capability. Meanwhile, because of the 2002–09 stalemate in strategic arms control, the views of the parties on nuclear matters had again become quite different. The correlation between arms control and the evolution of Soviet and Russian strategic thinking is unmistakable.

Now, after a six-year hiatus, the two nations are as wide and dangerously apart as in the early 1980s regarding their understanding of the role of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. Moreover, a six-year pause in arms-control talks has removed an important channel of strategic communication between Russian and American national-command authorities. Behind the negotiating teams engaged in direct interaction in Geneva, there had always been the two countries’ large bureaucratic institutions responsible for nuclear planning and employment, conducting foreign policy, gathering intelligence and contracting their respective defence industries. In providing guidance to the diplomats and receiving feedback from them on hundreds of treaty-related issues, they accumulated a much better understanding of each other’s strategic thinking, operational concepts, arms programmes and deployment practices. A prolonged breakdown of regular military-to-military contacts, and the arrival of a new generation of commanders (who are more disrespectful and combative towards each other than their predecessors), may result in dangerous collisions when armed forces manoeuvre in close proximity. No one has explained the danger of this widening gap better than William Perry, the distinguished American statesman. In his new book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, he outlines something relating to the experience of the 1970s, but quite relevant today: a successful arms-control agreement could have put a brake on the arms race,

but even more important, it would have engaged us in a dialogue with our deadly foe, given both sides a degree of transparency, and, most critically, given us context – a better understanding of our opponent – to inform the awesome decisions we were expected to make in a heartbeat.22

Political–military interaction and input

The second US–Russian difference is fundamental, and related to the tradition of civil–military relations in the area of national defence – in particular, nuclear-employment decisions. Whereas one of the basic attributes of the US political system (and in general of democratic systems) is civilian control over the military, in the USSR and in Russia, political and military authorities have traditionally been merged.

In fact, in Russia (as before in the USSR) the commonly used term is ‘military–political leadership’, and the same term is usually applied to the US and NATO; it is never used in the United States itself, however, where the standard notion is ‘national command authority’. After the Cold War, there were cautious experiments with the introduction of some civilian elements at the top echelon of the Russian Ministry of Defence, but they had little effect on its functioning, and no Russian president has ever understood the problem. Soviet and Russian leaders have been careful to ensure the political loyalty of the military command, but this control does not extend to military operations planning or weapon programmes. In this area, the Kremlin, with very rare exceptions, has provided only formal approval (and sometimes mediation), while in fact deferring to the military command and defence industries on all decisions.

A vivid illustration of this difference can be found in each state’s arrangements related to nuclear-strike authorisation. At first glance, there are analogous systems in both countries, providing the state leadership with the exclusive technical capacity to sanction a nuclear strike (and at the same time guaranteeing against the unauthorised use of nuclear weapons) even when the head of state is outside the central command post. In the USSR, such a system was introduced in 1985 as an emulation of the US ‘nuclear football’ adopted in the early 1960s.23 Nonetheless, there is one important difference between the two systems, which has political roots.

The US president is the only holder of the ‘nuclear football’ (a backup device follows the vice-president), at the head of a long chain of legal successors in case of the president’s incapacitation.24 In this succession, the secretary of defense is low on the list. The Soviet and Russian analogue, Cheget, consists of three ‘briefcases’ belonging to the president (previously the general secretary of the Communist Party), the minister of defence and the head of the General Staff.25 Whether these three persons are technically able to transmit the authority to launch missiles only together, or as a pair, or alone in the event that the others are incapacitated, is a closely held secret. But in any case, in this model, two out of three decision-makers are top military officials, and constitutional presidential successors (such as the prime minister and the speakers of the chambers of parliament) are excluded from the chain of command. Despite the revolutionary change to the Russian political system in 1991, this nuclear-command model has remained intact, and neither of the three successive presidents nor parliament has ever questioned it.26

Having always been keen on preventing an unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, the Soviet and Russian authorities have considered the risk of a war through technical failure or political miscalculation as a much smaller danger than the risk of failing to respond to hypothetical aggression. This corresponds to the military way of thinking about war in general and nuclear war in particular. The military command in Russia, as well as in the United States, would not be held responsible for an inadvertent war (the prevention of which is the task of political leadership), but it would bear the blame for a lost war, whatever that might mean regarding a nuclear exchange. Such hedging is deeply rooted in a military mentality which in generic terms is oriented to the implementation of war plans, rather than taking precautions for war prevention. In contrast to the United States, Russian planning for nuclear forces’ operational deployment and employment has always been designed by the military. Hence, the USSR emphasised pre-emption at least until the mid-1960s,27 and thereafter a quick response; and gave priority to command, control, communications and intelligence systems with increasingly automatic technologies and procedures.

An important development came in the mid-1970s, with the commissioning of long-range missile-warning radars (of the Dnestr and Dnepr variants) and early-warning satellites (Kosmos), along with the introduction of automatic integrated command-and-control systems in addition to already-deployed silo-based ICBMs with short readiness times. As a result, the USSR adopted an operational concept, technologies and procedures, and started regular drills of launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack (vstrechnyi udar and otvetno-vstrechnyi udar, respectively). Aside from new technical possibilities, an incentive for these innovations was provided by the United States’ revived counterforce concept in secretary of defense James Schlesinger’s 1974 ‘retargeting’ doctrine and a subsequent growing emphasis on hard-target-kill capability.28

For its part, the United States has also incorporated launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack concepts and technical capability since the early 1960s, but this approach formed only one of the available options and evidently was not the primary choice, given the huge resources dedicated to the sea- and air-based legs of the strategic triad. The new Soviet concept and capability, by contrast, became the main criterion of force sufficiency and the highest priority of the strike plan – with all the implications this had for an accidental nuclear exchange caused by a false alarm. This started to change only by the mid-1980s, with the deployment of the US MX Peacekeeper and Trident II missiles with supreme hard-target-kill capabilities (and, in the case of Trident II and forward-deployed medium-range Pershing II systems, much shorter flight times), which created an incentive for Soviet development of more survivable ground-mobile and rail-mobile ICBMs (the SS-25 and SS-24). Still, a delayed second-strike option has been and remains a reserve Russian alternative ‘in case our leaders sleep over a surprise attack’, as one highly competent Strategic Rocket Forces general put it to me in the late 1980s in Moscow.

Delegating such decisions to computers would have been madness

A book by the American journalist David Hoffman provides valuable insights on Soviet command-and-control technologies. One such system, adopted in 1985, was the famous Perimeter – a survivable ballistic missile, which in case of attack was to be launched in order for it to transmit launch orders to the ICBM forces, if all command chains and communication lines had been destroyed. According to Hoffman, the decision to launch a Perimeter missile was to be made by officers on duty in super-hardened command capsules, to whom this authority would be delegated upon receiving an early-warning system’s signals of an incoming missile attack.29 Another example was the Dead Hand, after which Hoffman’s book is titled. Although thankfully never commissioned, it was a fully automatic system designed to launch missiles at the decision of computers upon receiving nuclear-attack data (such as early-warning signals, and blast, thermal and radiation effects).30 Delegating such decisions to computers would have been madness, but systems of this kind were discussed in theory as a tool of absolutely assured retaliation and deterrence (also known as a ‘doomsday machine’) – provided that the other side knew about them. Frighteningly and most amazingly, however, both Perimeter and Dead Hand were kept top secret, revealing much about Moscow’s peculiar views on the relationship between deterrence and war, by which, in line with traditional military thinking, successful implementation of a war plan (including taking the enemy by surprise) has been given priority over deterring aggression by keeping the opponent fully informed about the dire consequences of war.

Another example was provided by a 1995 accident, when the launch of a Norwegian geodesic rocket was taken for a Trident II missile, triggering a Russian early-warning alarm. The event was urgently reported to president Boris Yeltsin, the Cheget system was activated and Yeltsin, as he said later, had his finger for several minutes ‘on the nuclear button’, until the incident was clarified.31 The episode was likely talked up as a public-relations exercise to demonstrate Russian combat readiness at a time of profound degradation of its armed forces. Still, taking into account the environment of unprecedented relaxation of tensions and cooperative relations between Russia and the West, this was an example of scary and unreasonable, albeit traditional, procedures in matters of crucial importance. If the event had, in fact, been an unauthorised single launch of a US or British Trident II, or a French submarine-launched ballistic missile, would it have started a massive exchange of nuclear strikes? The accident of 1995 was related to a very specific Russian strategic mentality, dominated by military considerations and quite detached from political reality.

Strategic thinking in the West was enhanced by the deep involvement of an independent parliament, free discussion between political scientists and military experts, the broad availability of defence information and the regular movement of civilians and military personnel between government posts and the academic world. Civilian input was essential in recognising the monumental change in the dialectic of peace and war brought by the massive deployment of nuclear weapons on both sides. It provided for a less biased view of the intentions of the opposing party and was conducive to a political (rather than military) attitude towards the trade-off between the danger of inadvertent nuclear war and the operational advantages of a first strike.

In the USSR, with its different political system and historic traditions, neither social nor natural scientists, nor state officials or military personnel, could freely discuss such topics. There were watertight partitions between politics and military strategy, and between civilian and military specialists, and complete secrecy regarding defence matters. Free discussion of these issues became possible in public, and in the legislative and executive branches of power, only during the second half of the 1980s. With the demise of the Soviet Union, during the 1990s and early 2000s the situation in Russia changed further in favour of access to military information and open discussion. Nonetheless, actual nuclear strategy and operational planning remained the exclusive domain of the military (except for a short period in the late 1990s, to be addressed below).

Now that the two nations’ political systems are no longer as inherently antagonistic as during the Cold War, better mutual understanding of such matters would be beneficial to both parties. One issue in connection with the 1995 episode should be making the avoidance of nuclear war by miscalculation or provocation the top priority for the future. A growing number of nations will have sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles and hypersonic boost-glide weapons with variable trajectories, which will make accidents more likely and identifying an attacker less certain.

Deterrence and war

The third difference between the two states, closely connected to the second, lies in their attitude towards the fragile dialectic between deterrence and war. There is a widely accepted idea on the Russian side that deterrence works in peacetime, but, if deterrence fails, the task of the armed forces is to implement assigned missions as massively and effectively as possible. A hint of this way of thinking emerged from Putin’s speech at the Valdai forum in 2015, when he said: ‘I learned one rule on the streets of Leningrad fifty years ago – if a fight is inevitable, strike first.’32 This rule might perhaps be appropriate for some kinds of conventional conflicts, but between nuclear superpowers it would be absolutely suicidal, something that should be understood beyond doubt by Russian and US leaders.

The threshold between deterrence and war fighting has always been quite murky and the difference between Russian and American thinking may be better illustrated with reference to specific episodes. One is described by a dean of Soviet (and Russian) diplomacy: Oleg Grinevsky, the chief negotiator of the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). In 1983, while preparing the Stockholm Conference on confidence-building measures, he visited the head of the General Staff, marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, who said:

We will not wait until we are attacked, as we did in 1941 … We will start the offensive if we are obliged to do it, and as soon as we discover the first evidence of the beginning of nuclear attack by NATO … We will deliver dozens and, if need be, a hundred nuclear strikes to break through NATO’s deep defense echelon.33

Ogarkov and other top military officials were arguing that nuclear missiles are inherently offensive and make a defensive strategy ‘objectively’ self-defeating. Hence, at the ‘first evidence’ of war preparations by the enemy, the USSR and its allies would have to initiate massive strategic and theatre nuclear strikes, followed by large-scale deep offensive operations by ground and air forces.34

Most likely, consciously or not, the notion of ‘first evidence’ was merely a cover for a first-strike strategy at the level of military planning, in contrast to political declarations and the 1982 nuclear no-first-use pledge. The idea that it is precisely the first strike (or first use) that makes the failure of deterrence and beginning of nuclear war a fait accompli has been sacrificed to the operational advantages of the first strike: massiveness, coordination, maximum effectiveness of target coverage and so on.

Another example comes from my own experience. During one of my working visits to Russian ICBM bases, while deputy chair of the Duma’s defence committee, one officer responded to the missile-regiment commander’s praise of his service by saying: ‘We all do our best, since we understand what might happen if our missiles are not launched after receiving the order of our command.’ Later I asked him in private: ‘What in particular would happen if your missiles are not launched?’ He answered: ‘They would fail to destroy assigned targets.’ I persisted by saying: ‘Do you understand that the moment your missiles fly away means that you have failed to perform your principal mission – nuclear deterrence – and as a result both the United States and Russia would be totally devastated?’ The officer was quite confused, but found an answer: ‘Maybe so, but such problems are for the political leaders to address … Our task is to do what we are trained to do.’

In a sense, that officer was right, and a similar exchange could quite possibly happen at any US missile base. The difference, however, is that in Russia not only the professional military, but top commanders, most civilian state officials and politicians have the same attitude: deterrence gives way to war fighting as soon as a war starts. The corollary – that war initiation signifies the failure of deterrence, and that this step in a nuclear age is most probably irreversible and suicidal for both opponents – has never been fully realised or accepted in Russia. The military have traditionally relied on the political leadership to decide on the initiation of war, while politicians have delegated to the military full authority in planning combat operations once a war starts. The idea that some types of operational plans and force deployments might provoke an armed clash in a time of crisis has not been given serious attention. Political leaders have always had a very vague understanding of such plans and deployments, and even less understanding of their possible implications, prone to the risk of inadvertent nuclear war.

Leaders had a vague understanding of plans and deployments

In the United States, since the early 1960s, efforts have been made to design operational plans to avoid attacking command-and-control bunkers and urban–industrial centres as long as possible,35 even after the beginning of nuclear war, in order to preserve a chance of averting total mutual destruction. This strategy was related to US security commitments to allies in Europe and East Asia which, among other options, included then, as they do today, the concept of the first use of nuclear weapons at the theatre level. Even apart from allied security commitments, in view of the unpredictability of conflict scenarios, US nuclear strategy from the 1960s to the present has been trying to cope with the contingency of ‘deterrence failure’ through planning various selective and limited options, and ensuring a strategy of ‘damage limitation’.36

Since this strategy has never been matched with a nuclear no-first-use pledge, it theoretically brings its own dangers. It may make a nuclear war somewhat less unthinkable via the hope of preventing catastrophic consequences even after war begins. The likelihood of war would heavily depend on the political judgement of the national command authorities and their ability in a crisis to tightly control armed-forces operations in preparation for war. This capacity was severely tested during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and several times was on the verge of failure on both sides.

From the traditional Russian perspective (at least until the early 2000s), once ‘the war starts’, forces were to be employed massively against all available targets to inflict maximum damage on the enemy. Any arguments about the catastrophic consequences of US retaliation with surviving forces were rebutted by insisting that nuclear war is not a game played by rules, and that the blame for the consequences would fall on the other side. Russia’s generic world-war experience is that of the massive devastation of its territory, while the US has been able to preserve its territory virtually intact.

It is a matter of great uncertainty whether the American logic of nuclear first use and phased escalation, on the one hand, or the Russian idea of an all-out war once deterrence fails, on the other, makes catastrophe more probable. But the signs of Western alarm in 2014–15 at Russian attempts to emulate US concepts of selective nuclear use, for the purposes of de-escalation or demonstrating resolve,37 are instructive. Such attempts were perceived as lowering the nuclear threshold rather than preventing a massive nuclear exchange.

Incidentally, the US–NATO strategy of flexible nuclear options has always been interpreted in Moscow as a policy of providing US nuclear forces with more realistic war-fighting options, which were to be thwarted by a massive and unexpected Russian nuclear response. As the American political scientist Robert Legvold points out:

It would be foolish to assume that, if deterrence fails, the Russian side would act as the U.S. side assumes, and use sub-strategic nuclear weapons for nuclear ‘signaling’ or ‘blackmail’ and long-range standoff precision weapons to control escalation rather than as the best way to prosecute the war. In this case the discrepancy between U.S. and Russian plans, should deterrence fail, contains a high risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.38

A combination of several factors is currently producing a paradox in nuclear deterrence: the combination of much smaller numbers of nuclear weapons and a much greater probability of their use in conflict between Russia and NATO than was the case by the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. One factor is the deep reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the two major powers since 1991, which have turned mutually assured destruction from a horrendous reality into an abstract notion, which does not necessarily make nuclear war unthinkable or nuclear weapons practically unusable. On the contrary, such anti-nuclear assumptions are now considered idealistic and outdated. The current Russian and American leaders have never stated that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’, as their predecessors proclaimed in the early 1970s and late 1980s. Neither have the present leaders of the other seven nuclear-armed states reaffirmed this philosophy.

Another factor is the refinement of the accuracy, command-and-control flexibility and yield variability of the new vintage of nuclear arms. In addition, an inexperienced second post-Cold War generation of political leaders and military commanders, who did not live through the evolution of strategic thinking in the previous nuclear age, nor remember its frightening crises, might improvise with potentially dire consequences. And all this against a background of the new confrontation between Russia and the West, the worst since the last Cold War crisis of 1983.

There are reasons to suspect that in the Russian and, perhaps, the American strategic communities (especially under the new Republican administration) a concept is being elaborated that strategic nuclear forces may be selectively used even in the early stages of conventional conflicts without imminent escalation to a massive nuclear exchange. This concept has not yet been reflected in official nuclear-posture documents, but is leaking to the mass media through the writings of experts and from reports of panels affiliated with Russian and US governmental institutions.39 The currently deployed US ballistic-missile defence (BMD) and Russian air–space defence systems would be impotent against a massive nuclear strike, but could provide a capability to intercept a single or small-scale missile launch. This opens an endless sequence of offence–defence competition, and may prompt a first, limited strategic strike early in a conventional conflict. Planning for selective nuclear strikes may bring disaster in a crisis if such options are presented by the military to an impulsive leader. Such concepts should be discarded through direct military-to-military dialogue, which would clearly demonstrate that in place of any imagined nuclear duel, or fencing with missiles, there would be speedy escalation to a massive nuclear exchange. Such dialogue was conducted regularly between the US and Russian strategic commands during the 1990s, and was instructive for both sides.40

Crisis stability

The fourth issue on which Russia and the United States differ is the idea that specific force postures and types of military planning may make war more likely, and thus undercut nuclear deterrence. Because its most traumatic memory is of the catastrophic German attack of June 1941, a commonly accepted notion in Moscow is that political intentions, not force posture, determine the likelihood and means of war initiation. In the United States there is a common view that force deployments and operational planning affect the probability of war, in the spirit of A.J.P. Taylor’s famous notion that the First World War was caused by railway timetables that prompted Germany to start the war in August 1914, undercutting the last diplomatic attempts at a peaceful settlement.41 In the USSR the history and lessons of that war were never seriously studied due to the communist ideological dogma about its ‘imperialist’ nature, and because of the role of the Bolsheviks in facilitating the defeat of the Russian Empire with the goal of gaining power. Neither are those lessons properly understood in today’s Russia. In striving to avert nuclear war, the Russian leadership has never recognised – at least as far as its own forces are concerned – that some types of nuclear posture may make a crisis more likely to turn into a war.

In the United States, the theory of such a relationship was elaborated and refined during the 1970s and 1980s as the concept of ‘crisis stability’. In many cases, however, this was a subjective judgement. For instance, US initiative in the deployment of MIRVed missiles (that is, missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) in the 1970s provoked a Soviet response with MIRVed missiles of its own, which in its turn prompted US countermeasures. In 1973–74, secretary of defense James Schlesinger started to campaign on the alleged threat of a ‘counterforce gap’ with the USSR. In fact, it was only natural that within equal projected numerical levels of strategic forces, due to the asymmetries in force structures, the largest leg of the Soviet triad would be superior to the smallest leg of the American one (MIRVed, land-based ICBMs). Nonetheless, Soviet systems were deemed ‘destabilising’, although they were capable of threatening the survivability of a smaller overall part of the US strategic force (which had a larger proportion of warheads deployed on the sea- and air-based legs). The counterforce-gap campaign was effectively used to undermine SALT II, even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put paid to its ratification. At the same time, American MIRVed ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (Peacekeepers and Trident IIs) were never considered destabilising, despite their impressive hard-target-kill capability against the largest portion of the Soviet deterrent force, silo-based ICBMs. Likewise, long-range nuclear cruise missiles of various basing modes were never considered destabilising in the United States, due to their slow flight time. In the USSR they were perceived as surprise-attack counterforce weapons, since they flew below the beams of air-defence radars and possessed high accuracy for destroying underground hardened targets (such as missile silos and command bunkers).

The notion of ‘crisis stability’ virtually evaporated from assessments of strategic balance and arms control in both countries from the late 1990s onwards, because the probability of armed conflict between them seemed close to zero. Unfortunately, in the new political environment, such subjects have returned to the forefront of the international-security agenda. The new situation requires much deeper and unbiased professional discussion between the military and civilian experts of the two sides, in particular in view of their prospective mutual deployment of ballistic-missile defences and potentially counterforce-capable, highly accurate nuclear and conventional offensive systems.

In forging a better mutual understanding of the subject in future, it would be useful to keep in mind that even before the present crisis the two states had different views of the notion of strategic stability. The Russian understanding of stable nuclear deterrence does not necessarily fit under McNamara’s model of stability on the basis of mutually assured second-strike destruction capability. In a 1990 joint US–Soviet statement, ‘stability’ was defined as a state of a strategic relationship ‘removing incentives for a nuclear first strike’. This was to be achieved through a mutually acceptable ‘relationship between strategic offensive and defensive arms’, by ‘reducing the concentration of warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, and giving priority to highly survivable systems’.42 This concept later deeply affected the provisions of START I and START II.

Nonetheless, this logic was only superficially acknowledged at the top levels of Russian defence and diplomatic leadership, and was never consistently incorporated into military programmes. Factoring in a weapon system’s suitability for a first or second strike (considering survivability, flight time, hard-target-kill capability and so on) was never accepted in Soviet strategy and is not recognised today. When posted to START I negotiations in 1990, I raised this issue with a representative of the Ministry of Defence in connection with a US proposal to cut by 50% Soviet heavy MIRVed ICBMs, a classic first-strike weapon in view of their vulnerability in silos and counterforce capability. In response, he flatly denied the connection: ‘Nobody can forecast how a war may start. Give me a certain quantity and composition of strategic forces, and I will present to you plans for a first, launch-on-warning or delayed [for the Russian term ‘deep’] second strike.’

For the sake of objective analysis, it should be underlined that in contrast to McNamara’s declaratory doctrine of ‘assured destruction’ and the concept of strategic stability stemming from it, actual US war plans emphasised attacking Soviet strategic forces and other military sites before hitting urban–industrial centres, which implied a first, rather than second strike. Despite the evolution of the strategic doctrine towards assured destruction, the actual plans for using US nuclear forces changed very little: McNamara’s final SIOP, adopted in February 1967, included the same basic versions of nuclear attacks as SIOP-63, adopted in December 1961.43 The target list was expanded from 6,000 to 10,000 sites, adding newly constructed Soviet, Warsaw Pact and probably Chinese military and industrial sites.44 This expansion implied a much broader range of strike options than just second-strike assured destruction of principal urban–industrial centres.

During the 1970s and 1980s, counterforce and hard-target-kill planning and technical capability were an important, if variable, element of the US nuclear posture. It was justified as a counter to the Soviet counterforce capability, an instrument of damage limitation (if deterrence were to fail), an arms-control bargaining chip, and strategic assurance to NATO allies, which depended on US security guarantees implying nuclear first-use options in Europe. Still, the first-strike implications of a counterforce strategy were a touchy and controversial subject in US defence policy, often stirring heated debates in Congress and the strategic community, and affecting weapon-programme decisions in the Department of Defense during the two decades after McNamara’s strategic reformation.

Nothing of the kind took place in the USSR or Russia. The benefit of attacking the opponent’s strategic forces was never in doubt, and such a capability was to be enhanced within technological and budgetary limits. Counterforce weapon systems and their employment plans were not considered a distinct characteristic of a first-strike posture in the case of Soviet and Russian forces. Counterforce attacks were to be conducted in parallel with strikes against the opponent’s command-and-control sites and urban–industrial targets.

At the same time, when directed by politically motivated decisions by state authorities, the Russian military had to sacrifice counterforce capabilities for the sake of reaching arms-control agreements. This was the case with the INF Treaty and START I’s 50% reduction of heavy ICBMs, and even more so under START II, which provided for the elimination of all MIRVed land-based missiles, and which after seven years of debate was ratified by the Duma in 2000 under newly elected President Putin. This is another example of the unique role of arms control in Moscow’s strategic policy, unmatched in the United States. It is also one of the reasons why arms control and past treaties are so unpopular in present-day Russia, where they are commonly perceived as unilateral concessions designed to placate a series of US leaders since the time of Gorbachev.

Arms-race interaction

The fifth difference between the two sides is that Russia rejects the likelihood that its nuclear forces and programmes may be perceived as a threat by the other side and provoke an arms build-up in response. McNamara elaborated on this philosophy back in 1967:

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions – or even realistically possible actions – on either side relating to the buildup of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive forces, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side. It is precisely this action–reaction phenomenon that fuels the arms race.

To escape from this sinister closed circle, the secretary advanced the idea of negotiations between the great powers:

We do not want a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union – primarily because the action–reaction phenomenon makes it foolish and futile … Both of our nations would benefit from a properly safeguarded agreement: first to limit, and later to reduce, both our offensive and defensive strategic nuclear forces … We believe such an agreement is fully feasible, since it is clearly in both our nations’ interests.45

In Moscow, the argument that enlarging offensive potential could cast doubt upon ‘peaceful’ Soviet (or Russian) policy and impel the other side to undertake countermeasures was, and still would be, considered a heresy. Until the late 1960s, expressing such thoughts could cost individuals their freedom, and even through the early 1980s it could result in drastic career consequences.

As for practical defence policy, there were indeed some historic examples of deliberate US self-restraint in order to avoid creating too great a threat to Soviet strategic forces, thus provoking an excessive response in weapons-deployment programmes or employment strategy. In the mid-1970s, a decision was made to equip 300 rather than all 550 Minuteman III ICBMs with the enhanced, counterforce, improved-accuracy W-78/Mk-12A warheads. As a consequence, in 1980–83 this prompt counterforce capability consisted of 900 rather than 1,650 warheads, and provided a smaller hard-target-kill capability against Soviet land-based missiles than otherwise would have been the case. Another example is the 1983 decision to deploy only 50 new counterforce-capable Peacekeepers in modified Minuteman III silos, instead of the 100 or 200 missiles previously under discussion. The US also decided to deploy around 400 high-yield W-88 warheads on Trident II SLBMs, capable of destroying ICBM silos and devastating ground-mobile missiles’ deployment areas, even though, technically, the number of missiles on 18 submarines could have provided for delivering 3,456 such warheads.

There are no examples of comparable restraint in Soviet and Russian nuclear-arms procurement and deployment decisions, except as part of arms-control treaties. One exception is a shift in Russian strategic policy in the late 1990s, driven in part by a severe shortage of funding as a result of the 1998 financial crisis. No less significant at that time were the broad contacts between Russian and American militaries, including regular exchanges between the two strategic forces’ top commanders. However, intensive arms-control talks and agreements (START II and START III) were most important in making Moscow’s policymaking on weapon programmes more rational.46

The change was also facilitated by the increased intellectual influence of some Ministry of Defence research institutes (particularly the Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute of Strategic Rocket Forces, an analogue of the RAND Corporation in the United States) and the relatively broader involvement of academic experts.

The most vivid example of this was the work of the special commission of military and civilian experts on strategic-forces planning under the chairmanship of the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, Nikolai Laverov, in 1998. It recommended placing emphasis on ground-mobile SS-25 single-warhead missiles and their follow-on systems with a small number of MIRVed warheads (SS-27 of various modes), as well as on a new compact submarine type (the 955 Borei) with SS-N-32 Bulava 30 SLBMs (designed as a largely common system with the SS-27 ICBM). Silo-based MIRVed ICBMs, including heavy missiles, were to be withdrawn from service in line with START II upon the end of their life cycle. (For this reason it was agreed in 1997 that the term of the treaty would be extended by five years.) Strategic planning emphasised delayed second-strike capability and force survivability, despite lower counterforce capabilities.

Alas, this positive break with traditional policy was eventually curtailed. Since 2012 the Soviet legacy has been in many respects revived: inadequate public access to reliable defence information; ostracism of dissenting analysts; and decisions on military matters taken completely behind closed doors, and under the predominant influence of the defence bureaucracy and industrial lobbies. Current Russian nuclear-force modernisation programmes also recall the Soviet tradition. A multiplicity of weapon systems are again being developed and deployed in parallel.47 It is noteworthy that, while implementing the massive nuclear-force modernisation programme of 2011–20 and proudly stressing its technical and strategic advances, Russian political authorities and military commanders have never expressed any concern about possible US and NATO reactions. Nonetheless, the first reports on the new cycle of US nuclear-force modernisation after 2020 have already triggered a Russian campaign focusing on an imminent nuclear threat from the United States. As Legvold points out:

the United States and Russia, in modernizing all three legs of their nuclear triads, have reopened a potential competition between offensive and defensive systems and introduced new destabilizing technologies, such as conventionally armed strategic missiles theoretically capable of striking the other side’s nuclear weapons, thus blurring the firebreak between conventional and nuclear warfare.48

Nuclear weapons and strategic stability

In no way should the above be interpreted as idealising the American model. It was the United States that first tested and used nuclear weapons in war. Up to the 1990s it initiated four massive, consecutive cycles of the nuclear arms race, obliging the USSR to catch up. Since the early 1960s, US strategy has envisioned, to various degrees of prominence, counterforce targeting and hard-target-kill capabilities against Soviet nuclear forces, challenging Moscow to respond in kind and at the same time implement expensive programmes to enhance force survivability. With a few exceptions, the United States initiated the development and deployment of all new types of strategic arms, including the recent conventional ballistic-missile defences and prompt-global-strike systems. The United States undercut nuclear arms control by failing to ratify SALT II and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and by abrogating the ABM Treaty. Washington’s nuclear posture has long envisaged the first use of nuclear weapons, and retained this concept even after the end of the Cold War, when NATO acquired conventional superiority over Russia and relations with Moscow were highly cooperative.

Nonetheless, some features of Russian thinking, talking and acting on nuclear weapons should be treated as a very serious matter, particularly at a time of high political tension. In contrast to the USSR, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is its only attribute of great-power status, and its only inheritance of Soviet superpower standing. Russia’s economy and export structure, science and technology, political influence and alliances abroad, conventional-force projection to overseas theatres, and development of space assets and advanced weapons all lag far behind those of the United States, NATO, the European Union and, in some respects, China and a number of other states. This inferiority is growing at a time of economic crisis, low oil prices and Western sanctions related to the Ukraine disaster. The main danger of armed conflict stems not from Moscow’s grand expansionist designs, but rather from its sense of vulnerability and isolation, its determination to take risks in order to stand its ground and avoid ever being seen as weak, a deficit of sober civilian input into military operational plans, programmes and exercises, and the tactic of militarily challenging NATO in the vicinity of Russian territory. Disregarding the fears of its weaker neighbours, Russia considers NATO expansion to its borders inherently unlawful and threatening, regardless of the scale of the Alliance force deployment, which is considered a forward echelon of its superior conventional military power.

Nuclear forces are virtually the only area where Russia is equal – and in some categories superior – to the United States, as well as to the aggregate capability of the other seven nuclear-armed states. Unlike the Soviet leadership, the Russian political elite does not consider nuclear arms control to be a tool for enhancing national security, and believes most past treaties on offensive nuclear arms to be unilateral concessions to the West. New START is one of few exceptions. Its transparency and predictability mechanisms make it clearly beneficial to both parties – but, in addition, it obliges the US to implement force reductions, thus helping Russia to sustain strategic parity at a time of massive withdrawal of its obsolete 1980s- and 1990s-era weapons, while proceeding with extremely costly modernisation programmes. After New START, further nuclear arms reduction has been commonly perceived as a risk, since it would diminish the only Russian asset of security and world status. The role of the nuclear arsenal in Moscow’s eyes is thus greater than it ever was for the USSR after parity was achieved in the early 1970s. Nuclear weapons are treated with an odd combination of romanticism regarding their international political value, and a matter-of-fact assessment of their possible practical use.49

These circumstances should be understood in the West. Moreover, both powers must do their best to forge common, up-to-date understandings of the principles of strategic stability. Such common principles should include, for example, the recognition that nuclear war not only cannot be won, but cannot be conducted according to rules designed to achieve political objectives. Any chic attempt to revive Clausewitz’s maxim about war as ‘a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means’ must be totally renounced when it comes to nuclear weapons.50 It should be acknowledged that the nuclear posture of each side may increase the probability of war despite their mutual political desire to avoid it. Both powers’ military programmes affect the other’s, and may incite an arms race. Weapon systems threatening the survivability of each other’s strategic forces and command, control, communications and intelligence assets imply a first-strike strategy and provoke pre-emption. While undertaking phased nuclear-force reductions, both sides should in parallel downgrade prompt and slow counterforce capabilities. Expanding defensive systems to reduce each side’s vulnerability to a third country’s attack, or limited or accidental strikes, should only be based on mutual agreement.

It should be recognised that systems and concepts blurring the line between nuclear and conventional operations are destabilising and should be subjected to limitations and confidence-building measures. There must be a mutual understanding that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is inherently escalatory, and the possibility should be excluded from bilateral strategic relations. As for prevention of conventional aggression, this should be implemented not by a threat of nuclear escalation (even if called de-escalation), but by sufficient conventional forces, or better still by mutual reductions of troops and armaments, limitation of military activities and confidence-building measures. A new strategic understanding between the United States and Russia should be forged to prevent prolonged and disruptive deadlocks in the arms-control process. That understanding is still more important in order to avoid dangerous encounters in a crisis situation, which might have worse results than they did during the Cold War.

Urgent measures are required to salvage nuclear arms control: settling controversies over alleged violations of the INF Treaty; resuming, as soon as possible, negotiations on a follow-on to New START; ensuring adherence to the terms of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty; and reviving cooperation on the safety and security of nuclear materials, sites and technologies. None of the above will be possible without bridging the deep US–Russian divide on strategic issues, and restoring the cooperative relationship on nuclear matters. The agenda of the new US administration in this area is not yet clear, although it will probably be less engaged than its predecessor; the only hope is that Russia will take on a much more active and constructive policy on nuclear arms control.

* * *

The deep strategic differences between the US and Russia, and the origins of those differences, have never been properly understood by either side. After the Cold War, the discrepancies stayed in the background of political and strategic relations, having never been openly discussed, let alone mutually adjusted. They did not dissolve on their own, however, like medieval scholasticism did centuries ago under the impact of scientific and social progress. They returned with shocking speed and power during the new confrontation over Ukraine. Now that the attention of policymakers and the general public has been drawn back to core issues of nuclear strategy, the time has come to correct this deficiency.

As long as nuclear weapons stay with us, and nuclear deterrence remains at the core of the US–Russian strategic relationship, joint efforts at nuclear-war prevention should continue – regardless of fluctuations in political relations and the international environment. As a first step, and in the aftermath of the deep reductions in nuclear arsenals of the last three decades, the two powers’ political leaders should revive their predecessors’ commitment to do ‘everything possible to avoid military confrontation and prevent a nuclear war’, and reconfirm their conviction that a ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The state of US–Russian relations has recently deteriorated so much that even such trivial joint statements would not be easy to negotiate. Nevertheless, this is not enough. The leaders and top officials of the two nations must elaborate a common understanding of such fundamentals as the role of nuclear weapons in politics and war, the possible causes of war, and the state and dynamics of the strategic balance. This should be done through regular military and civilian dialogue, translated into follow-on arms-control treaties with elaborate qualitative and structural limitations on the model of START I, and enhanced by comprehensive confidence-building measures related to strategic offensive and defensive arms.

Peace is not to be taken for granted; it requires relentless efforts to sustain – whether relations between the great powers are good or bad. This is the main lesson to be learned from the quarter-century after the end of the Cold War.


The author expresses gratitude to Robert Legvold for his assistance.


1 See ‘Zarubezhnye SMI: Putin ugrozhaet Zapadu yadernym oruzhiem’ [Foreign Mass Media: Putin Threatens the West with Nuclear Weapons], Russian Times, 29 August 2014,; and ‘Excerpts from Transcript of Meeting with Seliger 2014 Forum Participants’, 29 August 2014, http://

2 See Markell Boytsov, ‘Terminologiya v voennoi doctrine’ [Terminology of the Military Doctrine], Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, 31 October 2014,; and Konstantin Sivkov, ‘Pravonaudar’ [Right to Strike], Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, 5 March 2014,

3 Ministerstvo Oborony, ‘Aktual’nye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii’ [Critical Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation] (Moscow: Ministerstvo Oborony), p. 43.

4 Margaret Brennan, ‘Carter Laments Putin’s “Loose Rhetoric” on Nukes’, CBS News, 22 June 2015,

5 David Alexander, ‘Russia “Playing with Fire” with Nuclear Saber-Rattling: Pentagon’, Reuters, 25 June 2015,

6 ‘Nato Chief Says Russian Nuclear Threats Are “Deeply Troubling and Dangerous”’, AFP, 28 May 2015,

7 Academy of Military Sciences, The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences, 2015).

8 ‘Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii’ [Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation], Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 30 December 2014,

9 US Department of Defense, ‘U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report’, 2010,

10 ‘Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation’, 2014.

11 Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 269.

12 Calculated on the basis of Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin and Milton M. Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume I: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 7–11, 148–58; and David A. Anderton, Strategic Air Command (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), pp. 72–82, 252–89.

13 Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon, p. 279; ‘Fiscal Year 1968 Defense Budget’ (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1967), pp. 38–9.

14 The ‘counterforce’ concept was proposed in 1962, and envisioned a massive disarming nuclear strike against Soviet strategic forces and other military targets to prevent retaliation against US cities, while avoiding hitting Soviet cities. ‘Damage limitation’ was proposed in 1964, and implied initially attacking Soviet strategic and other military targets with the more limited goal of reducing the damage from Soviet nuclear retaliation. To an extent, the latter concept was McNamara’s alternative to the US programme of development and deployment of Nike-Zeus/Nike-X systems for defence against the USSR’s and China’s ballistic missiles.

15 Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961–1969 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 175, 207.

16 Robert McNamara, The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 51–67.

17 Alexei Arbatov, Lethal Frontiers (New York: Praeger, 1988), p. 13.

18 See Vasilyi Sokolovsky, Voyennaia Strategiya [Military Strategy], 3rd ed. (Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1968), pp. 14–20; Vladimir Tolubko, Raketnye Voiska [Rocket Forces] (Moscow: Obshestvennye Nauki, 1977), p. 42; and Sergei Kozlov (ed.), Spravochnik Oficera [Officer’s Handbook] (Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1971), pp. 78–80.

19 See Alexey Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin, ‘The Impact of MIRVs and Counterforce Targeting on the US–Soviet Strategic Relationship’, in Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler and Shane Mason (eds), The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age (Washington DC: Stimson Center, 2016), p. 63.

20 Joint Statement Following the Soviet–United States Summit Meeting in Moscow, 1 June 1988,

21 This unilateral pledge by the totalitarian USSR was officially revoked in democratic Russia’s Military Doctrine of 1993. This step was justified with reference to the fact of NATO conventional superiority over Russia after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Reference was also made to US/NATO military doctrine, which incorporated a nuclear first-use concept.

22 William Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 53.

23 David Hoffman, Dead Hand (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 149.

24 John T. Bennett and Eric Garcia, ‘Biden: Trump “Not Qualified to Know” Nuclear Codes’, Roll Call, 15 August 2016.

25 ‘Chemodanchik nomer odin’ [Briefcase Number One], Trud, no. 3, 11 January 2000.

26 While in the Duma, I submitted a draft law, ‘On the succession of supreme command’, in which the president was to be the only holder of the Cheget terminal and his successors were the prime minister and the speakers of the two chambers of parliament. However, the rest of the Duma and the executive authorities did not understand the essence of the problem and refused to promote the draft law.

27 Sokolovsky, Military Strategy, pp. 14–20.

28 ‘Department of Defense Annual Report’, Fiscal Year 1975 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), pp. 38, 40–1.

29 Hoffman, Dead Hand, pp. 150–4.

30 Ibid.

31 David Hoffman, ‘Cold-War Doctrines Refuse to Die’, Washington Post, 15 March 1998, p. A01.

32 President of Russia, ‘Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club’, 22 October 2015,

33 Oleg Grinevskyi, Perelom: Ot Brezhneva k Gorbachevu [The Break: From Brezhnev to Gorbachev] (Moscow: Olma Press, 2004), p. 69.

34 Ibid., pp. 69–75.

35 This pattern was changed by Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59), signed by president Jimmy Carter in July 1980, which stipulated attacks against Soviet sites of state political and military leadership. See; Desmond Ball, ‘Counterforce Targeting: How New, How Viable?’, Arms Control Today, February 1981, p. 7; and Milton Leitenberg, ‘Presidential Directive 59’, Journal of Peace Research, no. 4, 1981, p. 312.

36 Enthoven and Smith, How Much Is Enough?, pp. 174–5.

37 See Ministerstvo Oborony, ‘Critical Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation’, p. 43; Boytsov, ‘Terminology of the Military Doctrine’; and Sivkov, ‘Right to Strike’.

38 Robert Legvold, ‘The Challenges of the New Nuclear Age in the 21st Century World (Dis)Order’, in The Multipolar Nuclear World: Challenges and Opportunities (Moscow: Carnegie Center, forthcoming).

39 See Dmitry Akhmerov, Yevgenyi Akhmerov and Marat Valeev, ‘Aerostat – Drug “Sarmata”’ [Balloon – A Friend of ‘Sarmat’], Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, no. 39, 12–18 October 2016, p. 6; and John M. Donnelly, ‘Pentagon Panel Urges Trump Team to Expand Nuclear Options’, 2 February 2017,

40 This was the assessment of Major-General (Retd) Vladimir Dvorkin, a participant in those contacts and at that time the commander of the Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Ministry of Defence, an analogue of the US RAND Corporation.

41 The idea is that, according to its General Staff plan, Germany had to attack France without delay, since its military-transportation plans envisioned quick victory over France to permit timely troop redeployment against Russia, which took longer to mobilise for war.

42 ‘Soviet–United States Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability’, 1 June 1990,

43 See Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon, p. 279; Milton Leitenberg, ‘Presidential Directive 59’, Journal of Peace Research, no. 4, 1981, p. 312; and ‘Fiscal Year 1968 Defense Budget’, pp. 3–39.

44 Leitenberg, ‘Presidential Directive 59’, pp. 314–15.

45 McNamara, Essence of Security, pp. 51–67.

46 Those agreements had a very positive effect, but were not ideal. START II set the warhead ceiling too high at 3,500, not compatible with the prohibition of MIRVed ICBMs, and it did not place any limitation on SLBM warheads. START 3 never moved beyond a framework agreement. Those deficiencies made the treaties difficult to defend in the Russian parliament, which for many years was the task of the present author.

47 These are the deployment of ground-mobile and silo-based MIRVed SS-27 Yars Mode 2 and SS-27 Rubezh Mode 3 single-warhead ICBMs; the development of a new silo-based heavy MIRVed Sarmat ICBM; the development of a new rail-mobile MIRVed Barguzin ICBM system; and the deployment of a modified SS-N-23 M1 SLBM system on Delta IV submarines in parallel to SS-N-32 Bulava 30 missiles on the new Borei SSBNs.

48 Robert Legvold, Return to Cold War (Malden, MA: Polity, 2016), p. 132.

49 As President Putin has put it: ‘nuclear arms are a factor of deterrence and a factor of providing for peace and security in the whole world ... It should not be considered as a factor of any potential aggression.’ Vladimir Putin, remarks to the Valdai Club, 27 October 2016,

50 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 87.

Alexey Arbatov is Director of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and is a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He participated in the START I negotiations (1990), served as deputy chair of the Defense Committee of the State Duma from 1994–2003, and headed the Non-Proliferation Programme at the Carnegie Moscow Center from 2004–17. This article is part of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences project.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April–May 2017

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