The Russian invasion of Ukraine has politicians and policymakers talking about something that would have been almost unimaginable as recently as a month ago: the specter that a ground war in Eastern Europe could escalate into a nuclear conflict. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has created an urgent need for what had seemed to be a dusty relic – a strategy for what to do with nuclear weapons. It’s possible the answer may be found in a short policy paper that helped John F. Kennedy blunt Russian ambitions in 1961 when Nikita Khrushchev tested the new American president by threatening to make good on his demand that West Berlin be handed over to the Soviets.
It’s been a long time since nuclear strategy was as pressing as it was in the dual crises, first in Berlin then in Cuba, faced by President Kennedy. Joe Biden, early in his presidency, downplayed nukes as unusable and thus strategically irrelevant: “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” Biden stated in his National Security Strategic Guidance last March.
If the United States has been looking to take nukes out of the war-fighting equation, Russia has been doing the opposite. According to a Pentagon summary of its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, Russia has “adopted military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success.”
That doesn’t mean Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons. But Putin’s regime is clearly using the implied threat of nuclear assault in efforts to constrain NATO’s willingness to help Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union. “The role that nuclear weapons play in Russia’s doctrine is quite elevated,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said last June. “Russia sees much higher utility for nuclear weapons than any other state.”
Putin is leveraging that utility by matter-of-factly saying aloud what would previously have been considered unspeakable:
“Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin warned last week.
“There should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”
“Vladimir Putin must also understand,” countered French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, “that the Atlantic Alliance is a nuclear alliance.”
Le Drian’s warning was welcome. But was his threat credible? Having nukes isn’t the same as a willingness to use them. The paradox of “mutually assured destruction,” as it was once called – or even the dicey prospect of using “tactical” nukes against military targets – has always been that to avoid nuclear conflict, political and military leaders have to signal a readiness to fight a nuclear war, and they have to make it clear they aren’t bluffing. Putin is already prodding the West with threats meant to test NATO’s resolve. As his invasion seemed to stall Sunday, Putin placed Russia’s “nuclear deterrence force” on alert.
It is a dilemma not unlike the one confronting JFK in the summer of 1961, when the three-year-old Berlin Crisis risked escalating into a shooting war. Kennedy turned to a variety of advisors to write strategy papers for how he should meet the Soviet challenge. Among the “Dr. Strangeloves” drawing up strategic plans was an economist, Thomas Schelling, who decades later would be honored with a Nobel Prize for his work on the wonky science of strategy called Game Theory. But in the summer of 1961, Schelling was tasked with setting forward rules for something that was very much not a game – the use of nuclear weapons.
Schelling’s response was remarkable, and not just for its clear-eyed analysis but for its brevity. (Memo to those who would write policy papers hoping to influence decision-makers: Keep your briefs brief. What leader has the time, particularly in a crisis, to read a hundred pages of options and proposals? If you can’t make your case in a few pages, you probably haven’t thought the issues through well enough.) Schelling achieved an astonishing feat. In just two pages he laid out a complete strategy for if, when, and how to use “nuclears” if the Berlin crisis led to war in Europe. Kennedy read Schelling’s memo at Hyannis Port over the weekend of July 21, 1961. Taking notes was National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, who wrote that the paper had made a “deep impression” on the president.
Among the issues Schelling addressed were some that may seem obvious, such as how to maintain control of tactical nukes, which “means preventing the misinterpretation of any initial bargaining use as authority for general tactical use.” And then there is the chain of command: “Local commanders who may be called on to fire nuclear weapons must be able to comprehend instructions.” This means both launching when ordered to do so, and not firing unless clearly instructed to do so by someone with the demonstrable authority to give the order. Battlefields are known for their confusion, the danger of which is hugely magnified when nuclears are involved.
The most important part of Schelling’s memo to Kennedy was his observation that the traditional metrics of winning a war don’t apply when dealing with nuclears. For example, the sort of bombing that was typical in WWII – attacks meant to degrade an enemy’s war-making capacity – were no longer relevant. “A target in a city is important because a city is destroyed,” Shelling wrote, “not because it is a local supply or communication center.”
“We should plan for a war of nerve, of demonstration, and of bargaining, not of tactical target destruction.” Schelling recommended.
“Destroying the target is incidental to the message the detonation conveys to the Soviet leadership. Targets should be picked with a view to what the Soviet leadership perceives about the character of the war and about our intent, not for tactical importance.”
This may seem like crazy talk, but this is where Putin’s aggression and accompanying threats have brought us, back to having to think about how to confront an enemy armed with nukes. It is arguable that over the long, tense decades of the Cold War, it was the credibility of our threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary that kept us from having to use them.
Now that a Russian strongman has revived the threat of nuclear war, today’s strategists need to rethink what parts of our Cold War strategy worked, and what elements of it are most likely to be useful in our newly dangerous world. They may want to take a lesson from Thomas Schelling. That means being clear-eyed, unsentimental, and ruthlessly rational. And don’t forget, any new strategy should fit on two pages.
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Eric Felten studied game theory with Thomas Schelling in the last days of the Cold War.