War under a nuclear umbrella

Guest post by Aleksi Roinila. 9 December2014.

Aleksi RoinilaFor European security the failure of nuclear deterrence to deter conventional war may not be any better than the deterrence that has so far prevented the EU and NATO from giving direct lethal aid to Ukraine in its war against an unmarked Russian expeditionary force. It is therefore imperative that further Russian aggression is deterred primarily with other means, whether political, economic or conventional military force. Failing to do so may have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, writes Aleksi Roinila.

Aleksi is a Master of Social Sciences from the University of Tampere and has studied Strategy and Defence at the Finnish National Defence University, International Relations at Aberystwyth University, and served as an analyst with the Finnish Defence Forces in the ISAF and KFOR operations for nearly three years.

During the past weekend Russia reportedly flew several sorties with its nuclear-capable Tu-95 ”Bear” strategic bombers over the Baltic sea, alerting the countries in the region. It was but one signal on a months-long continuum of Russian saber-rattling incidents along NATO’s borders following the revolution and war in Ukraine. But is Russia truly a threat to NATO or the European Union?

Last week the Finnish parliament was presented with a report that sought to analyze Russia’s future attitudes towards its neighbors. The report entirely omitted the possibility of Russia using military force against any of its neighbors, stating that any attack against Finland (or supposedly any other EU member) would “in practice mean the start of a third world war”.

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber. Source: Wikipedia.

It’s unlikely that military planners anywhere in Europe would believe such a ridiculous proposition, but politicians, pundits, and scholars sometimes do. Therefore it is important to make two things absolutely clear to shake away the false comfort:

  1. Russia using military force against Finland, Sweden, the Baltics or even the European Union and NATO at large does not automatically mean the start of a Third World War;
  2. A major war, even a World War, is by no means impossible even today – but it does not necessarily mean the start of an all-out nuclear war.

Our understandable desire to close our eyes from the possibility of war in Europe is not merely harmless naivety. It is also dangerous. If we refuse to accept the possibility and fail to prepare ourselves both to fight it and to prevent it, we will have inadvertently increased its likelihood with our own willful denial: It’s hard to get serious about prevention if the danger itself is not taken seriously.

Examples of such good-willed negligence are plentiful across Western Europe, from Sweden’s decision to effectively scrub its national defence to Finland’s ambivalence towards sanctioning Russia for the war in Ukraine. Even in NATO many countries persist in the hubris of the 1990s, thinking that major wars in Europe are a thing of the past, not of the future: Even before the highly controversial decision to sell Russia two modern Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, France was happy to supply Russian tanks with advanced thermal optics which it was incapable of producing itself – a decision which robbed NATO of a major tactical and operational battlefield advantage in any future conflict. Others, like the Netherlands, have simply sold of much of their heavy weaponry – much of which has fortunately ended in the arsenals of a number of Eastern European countries, including Poland, Finland and Estonia.

But even though the war in Ukraine has clearly and at long last put an end to the fantasy that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a reliable partner for the European Union and NATO and never again a threat to European peace and security, the idea still persists that the renewed confrontation between Russia and the West cannot escalate to the use of deadly military force because of the nuclear deterrent that both Russia and NATO possesses.

The myth of nuclear weapons preventing major wars between nuclear powers

The conventional wisdom regarding nuclear deterrence is that states possessing nuclear weapons will avoid fighting each other directly, even in limited conflicts, out of fear of uncontrolled escalation that could lead to a nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction (MAD). Indeed so far they have: To date no two nuclear powers have ever fought each other directly. While this rule has remained true from Korea to Ukraine, nuclear powers have at the same time fought several wars by proxy, most famously in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and they have also come dangerously close to breaking the rule during the Cold War crises over Berlin and Cuba. We can be cautiously optimistic that nuclear deterrence will continue to make cooler heads prevail in the future as well – if for no other reason than for all sides’ desire for self-preservation – but there is no ironclad guarantee that it will.

Even if a major war against another nuclear power or alliance is something that no nuclear power is willing to risk, it still does not preclude them from using limited, conventional military force. Russia in particular has demonstrated that it has many tried-and-tested ways to apply military force against its neighbors that carry a virtual certainty of not triggering a major mar. Think, for instance, about the Baltic Sea region and consider which of these actions would reliably trigger a major war: A Crimea-like occupation of islands in the Finnish GulfGulf of Finland or the Baltic Sea? Blocking the vessels of other Baltic Sea navies in their ports like was done to the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea? Covertly or accidentally sinking merchant vessels in the Baltic Sea similarly to the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine? Covert sabotage against ports, airports or energy infrastructure?

The above are all actions that Russia could realistically use to pressure Finland, Sweden, or the Baltics and which would not, even in the wildest of imaginations, automatically trigger a major war between NATO and Russia.
This logic is what the 1980s satirical British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister parodied as “salami tactics”: Unlike a sudden large-scale invasion, a “slice-by-slice” escalation will at no point trigger an all-out response that would risk nuclear war, as the other side likely hopes to avoid further escalation every step of the way – and is, in any case, motivated by its own survival to avoid escalating a minor conflict into nuclear war.

Even if limited military force is employed against a NATO country such as Estonia, it does not automatically lead to a major war, let alone a nuclear one. That applies even if NATO would decide to invoke the Article 5 of its Charter, mandating collective defense: Neither the NATO Charter nor the EU Lisbon Treaty obligations require members to declare war or to even respond with military force if a member invokes the collective defence articles of either organization. Both NATO and EU countries could respond to Russia’s limited military force in kind with only limited force, or even just by boosting their military readiness and presence. Russia’s nuclear deterrence practically guarantees that its limited military incursions will not be met with the full force at NATO’s disposal, but instead by a measured response of gradual escalation that permits negotiations and other attempts to contain the conflict.

Russia knows this. Its leaders also know that even though Russia is not alone with its nuclear deterrence, the leaders of the West will never respond to a limited use of conventional force with nuclear weapons. As long as Russia’s nuclear deterrence is intact, no Western leader will willfully sacrifice London, Paris or Washington, D.C. to defend Kiev, Narva or Åland. It is precisely for that reason that Putin can confidently play high-stakes poker against the West with his conventional forces.

This tendency has only been exacerbated by the West’s reluctance to oppose Russia’s invasions in Georgia and Ukraine in any meaningful fashion, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Putin. Every time the West has shown restraint or willingness to reconcile or appease Russia during or after its aggressions, Putin has become even more confident and daring in both his rhetoric and actions. This success may encourage Putin, much like Hitler before him, to take even greater risks – perhaps eventually making an overconfident miscalculation that none of us can afford.

The madness of cold logic: Controlling escalation with nuclear weapons

Putin’s miscalculations carry a much greater risk that any miscalculation by any Western leaders not only because he is more reckless (that is not to say he would be irrational or crazy – he isn’t), but because Russia’s military strategy, like so many things in Russia these days, has in recent years turned back to the Cold War era mindset of the Soviet Union: Prioritizing outcomes with callous indifference towards the number of lives it takes to achieve them. The doctrine of de-escalation serves as a prime example.

The doctrine is problematic because the ”de-escalation” it seeks is supposed to be achieved by the means of a nuclear first-strike against the adversary’s major military or civilian target, such as a capital city. Yes, you read that right.

To someone who is not familiar with the logic of nuclear deterrence, the idea may sound barking mad. However, behind it is a frighteningly rational logic: As long as Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are intact and ready to retaliate in case of any attack against Russia itself, no other nuclear weapons state will respond to Russia’s limited first-strike against a non-nuclear state with their own nukes.

In the event of a Russian “de-escalation” attack on a EU or NATO member, the Western nuclear weapon states would have to re-assess the value and likely cost of defending their allies. There is a strong likelihood, as Russian military planners have estimated, that the Western nuclear weapons states would not only not launch a nuclear attack on Russia, but would also reconsider the risk of using conventional force to defend their allies against a ‘mad’, nuke-wielding Russia; Would Estonia or Latvia truly be worth risking a nuclear war with Russia?

After all, the leaders of Western democracies have their voters to consider, and their always demonstration-prone populations are not likely to want to perish in a nuclear Armageddon just to save Eastern Europe from being drawn back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia’s authoritarian rulers, exerting tight control of the media and always ready to crush civil unrest with deadly force, on the other hand have no reason to care what their subjects think of their nuclear gambles.

Unless Russia’s calculations prove to be in error, Russia’s limited nuclear first-strike would achieve a ”de-escalation” that is highly favorable to Russia. If the strike would target a NATO or an EU country, it would also have a substantial likelihood of achieving another one of Putin’s objectives: To break apart NATO and the EU. It is, after all, hard to see how either organization could retain any credibility in a world where they did not protect their members from a Russian nuclear attack or retaliate in full. In a post-de-escalation world the nuclear deterrence of nuclear weapon states would not reach beyond their own borders, and the non-nuclear-weapon-states of Europe would likely accommodate Russia’s “reasonable” interest before risk becoming a target for another nuclear strike. In such a world Russia could redraw the borders of Eastern Europe as it sees fit – just as it did after the Second World War.

Far fetched? Unfortunately the doctrine is not just an exercise in the mad logic of nuclear strategy. Russia has already practiced the execution of the doctrine against NATO-member Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Sending Tu-95s to exercise over the Baltic Sea may be in preparation for just such an eventuality.

Paradoxically, the more rational and more dependent on their electorate the Russian leadership thinks the Western leaders are, the more likely it is to assess that it’s doctrine of a limited first-strike will work. Even if Russia would never seriously consider executing such an attack, its mere confidence in “de-escalation” as a viable option makes the risks associated with conventional military operations seem smaller and far more controllable. That lowers the bar for the use of military force and increases the likelihood of war – both conventional and nuclear.

A successful deterrent may be a failed deterrent

Fortunately, while Russia appears to have mastered the logic of ”salami tactics” in Ukraine, they can also be made to work against its de-escalation doctrine: Russia won’t resort to its nuclear option if its use of conventional military force is met with gradually escalating conventional force that at no point threatens Russia with such a defeat that the risks of “de-escalation” would start to seem smaller than the risks of not executing it.

If both sides escalate their conventional operations gradually, they may end up in a situation where they are fighting a limited, but comparatively large-scale conventional war somewhere in Europe under the umbrella of a mutual nuclear deterrent. The nuclear deterrent of mutually assured destruction would then succeed only in deterring the use of nuclear weapons themselves, but not much else. It would not be without precedent, as it is exactly what happened to chemical weapons during the Second World War; although all sides of the war had significant stockpiles of deadly chemical weapons, the weapons ended up only deterring their own use – despite the fact that the war was more total and unlimited than any war fought before or since.

For European security the failure of nuclear deterrence to deter conventional war may not be any better than the deterrence that has so far prevented the EU and NATO from giving direct lethal aid to Ukraine in its war against an unmarked Russian expeditionary force. It is therefore imperative that further Russian aggression is deterred primarily with other means, whether political, economic or conventional military force. Failing to do so may have disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

2 reaktioner på ”War under a nuclear umbrella

  1. Jos toteamme että hyökkäys tarkoittaa kolmatta maailmasotaa, meidän ei tarvitse liittoutua koska Venäjän hyökättyä Suomeen ja aloitettua samalla kolmannen maailmansodan, olemme automaattisesti Naton puolella. Toisaalta täysimittainen ydinsota on myös sellainen, ettei sen jälkeistä aikaa tarvitse ihan hirveästi murehtia.

    Jos taas toteammme, että Venäjä saattaa käyttää voimaa meitä vastaan ilman että saamme apua, joudutaan joko panostamaan tosissaan puolustukseen taikka liittoutumaan. Kumpikaan ei käy.

    Siinä syy kyseiselle toteamukselle. Sen tarkoitus on kiistää tosiasiat ettei tarvitse tehdä mitään.

    Gilla

  2. Living in Poland we know Russians to well to not to think about the worst. That’s the reason why we are one of few countries in EU that actually increases spending on military. We don’t want to get toasted like Ukraine… we might not have nuclear bombs but at least our conventional army is getting stronger every year.

    Gilla

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