Time to Relearn Nuclear Escalation Management for the 21st century

By Robbin Laird

This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will tackle current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in both the US and abroad. The goal of these columns: to look back at how questions and perspectives of the past should inform decisions being made today.

No pure conventional warfighting doctrine against 21st century authoritarian powers will work when those powers have the threat of nuclear fire in their pocket. That was always true, but the Ukraine situation has laid it bare — and this should have a profound impact on US and allied thinking about dealing with those powers going forward.

I recently discussed this situation with Paul Bracken, my colleague whom I met when he was working for military strategist Herman Kahn and myself for future National Security Advisor Zbig Brzezinski, where we first started discussing together “thinking about the unthinkable” as a key to deterrence. We represent a legacy of those who dealt with the blending of nuclear and conventional forces in an overall warfighting strategy. Unfortunately, while that discussion ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has sadly returned with the loose alliance of 21st century authoritarian powers.

Let there be no question: with the war in Ukraine, the nuclear weapons issue has returned as a central one in terms of warfighting, deterrence, and escalation management. The problem is, the US has spent the last three decades siloing nuclear capabilities off into their own box, and hence we are behind the ball on thinking of how to deal with an increasingly desperate foe who sees nuclear weapons not as a final instrument, but as part of the broader orchestra.

President Joe Biden has declared that Russia leader Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and must go. The general narrative is that Putin is delusional and will lose in Ukraine, and we should blow past any threats from what is, essentially, a madman. After all, nuclear weapons were never used in the Cold War, despite all the tensions and rhetoric of the time.

But we forget how we navigated the near-nuclear war in 1983, where rhetoric needed to be contained, and how back channels managed the crisis. Those type of structures are in short supply today, which is why I have emphasized over the past few years that the missing piece of the puzzle for dealing with 21st century authoritarian powers are crisis management skills designed not for peer competitors but powers who seek ascendancy over the liberal democracies.

As Bracken put it: “The kinds of capabilities you are referring to, which existed in the 1980s, are simply gone today. The Biden Administration is in a hysteria to convince the public that Vladimir Putin is an evil person. End of story, end of paragraph, that’s all you need to know.”

What we have now is a new situation which we have not imagined or thought about: urban warfare and threats to use nuclear weapons to stop any NATO attacks on Russian forces and territory. As Bracken noted, “Putin is creating new doctrine here, but he is clearly winging it — and that is dangerous.”

Which is to say, the idea of Putin using a nuclear weapon — especially a lower-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapon — as part of an otherwise conventional war cannot be ruled out, especially if Ukrainian forces continue to take back territory and fight off the Russian military. How the US and its allies would respond is incredibly unclear.

The President has said that we would respond in kind to the Russian use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). I simply don’t think we have anything like proportionate deterrence, and really doubt that NATO has a strategic or operational consensus on any proportionate response to Russia using WMD.

I spent a significant amount of time in Western Europe in the 1980s dealing with the Euromissiles crisis, where there was clearly no consensus among the allies on such weapons, and indeed there was concern on the US side that even if there was a mobilization towards activating the tactical nuclear force, some allies would forcibly stop us. I have spent a great deal of time in Europe since that time, and there clearly is no consensus on how to attack Russia if Russia were to invade NATO territory.

President Donald Trump questioned the usefulness of Article V several times, and in my view, it’s better for a president not to raise that question publicly and cast doubts about American commitments. But the reality is if you look at Europe today, there are some states very serious about defense, and more who are not. So, no matter what one claims, the question of who would fight, how they would fight, and actually what the U.S capabilities and approach are to a nuclear-capable opponent is a key question. That counter terrorism and counter insurgency have dominated operations for the past twenty years has allowed the US defense establishment to not think about this question.

Bracken underscored how he sees this challenge. “I know that people say that it’s the threat of World War III that stops the Russians. But it’s like Stalin used to say, the NATO treaty is a piece of paper. It does not require that the US go to war to defend Montenegro or France or Britain. It only says that an attack on one is an attack on all. I really wonder if the NATO alliance would hold together if the threat of going nuclear was imminent. [French strategist] Raymond Aron used to come to Hudson meetings and say ‘there are no true alliances in the nuclear age.”

The crisis management elements of this loom especially large. How do you negotiate an end to hostilities? And how do you prepare the ground after a successful negotiation for the new conflict?

Putin has seized the energy and rare earth mineral parts of Ukraine, and is leveling ports on the Black Sea to secure a land bridge in that area. Will anyone really be able to dislodge him without a significant attack on Russia’s warfighting capacities on Russia itself? Bracken highlighted this challenge as follows: “There’s the whole topic of an armistice, versus a ceasefire, versus an agreed treaty to end the war. It sounds hard at the moment, but I haven’t even seen anyone distinguish among these things. It’s only a handful of people that are even proposing to consider shifting our policy to getting the war to terminate. What is the future of Ukraine from a US perspective? Finlandization?”

In short, rethinking how to deal with various forms of conflict and warfare with the 21st century authoritarian states, notably because they either are allied with one another or certainly play off of one another, is being driven by the return of the nuclear weapons dimension.

This article was published on Breaking Defense on April 11, 2022.