The doctrine of mutually assured destruction has kept the peace since the Cold War. Can it hold, asks Sir Lawrence Freedman emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London
On October 24, 1962, the US Strategic Air Command moved its alert status to Defcon 2 — Defcon being short for “defence readiness condition”. This was far removed from the lowest, peaceful level of Defcon 5 and only one step from the highest, Defcon 1, which would mean that nuclear war was breaking out.
This was at the beginning of the blockade of Cuba, as the US navy prepared to intercept Soviet ships carrying missiles and nuclear warheads. In the event, no ships with such lethal cargo were close to the blockade line at the time. Because his elaborate plan to get the missiles into Cuba had been exposed, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had decided to avoid an immediate confrontation with the US and had ordered his ships to turn back. As this became apparent to American policymakers, the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, observed: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
Are we facing a nuclear crisis of comparable severity to Cuba? The answer is largely reassuring, but that does not mean there is nothing to worry about. It is also the key to understanding why the West has not responded with its own invasion or bombing raids in Ukraine.
President Putin has ordered the alert status of Russia’s nuclear arsenal to be raised, but not to the same level as the US Strategic Air Command in 1962. Nor, unlike the missile crisis, is the Russo-Ukraine war all about nuclear weapons. At its heart, for both sides, it is about questions of national identity. The missile crisis did not escalate, however, while this war is already intense and vicious.
Among Putin’s many justifications for the war is his claim that Ukraine is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. From Ukraine’s perspective, this puts history on its head. At the end of the Cold War, and as it became independent after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a nuclear arsenal — then the third-largest in the world — which it gave up in return for security guarantees from Russia that turned out to be worthless. If it had kept the arsenal, Ukrainians assume, Russia would have treated it with more respect and not dared to invade.
The arsenal was part of Ukraine’s inheritance after the Soviet collapse. Kazakhstan was in a similar position. They were put under pressure to dismantle the weapons, not only because of Russian anxieties, but also because the US did not want any more nuclear powers and intended to push ahead with arms control agreements with the Russians. The Americans told the Ukrainians that they had no need to worry about their security. They also lacked the systems for maintaining and launching the missiles, although these might eventually have developed.
Unsurprisingly, the Budapest memorandum of 1994, which confirmed that the missiles would be dismantled in return for security guarantees (from the US and UK as well as Russia), has become a bone of contention. When the Russians have been challenged about how their promises under Budapest can be squared with their aggression against Ukraine, they reply, as they do on all these questions of their obligations under international law, that the Ukrainian government is illegitimate, brought to power by a coup, made up of nationalist Nazis and a threat to all Russian people.
A few days before his country was invaded, in a speech to the Munich Security Conference, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, drew attention to the meaninglessness of the security guarantees of 1994 and declared that his country could no longer be bound by its obligations. It fitted in with his speech’s core theme, which was that Ukraine had been left to fight alone. His remarks were seized on by Moscow and described as an immediate threat to acquire nuclear weapons, although that for now is well beyond his country’s capabilities, and it was certainly not why Ukraine was invaded.
Meanwhile, Russia has been able to make its own nuclear threats which — given its nuclear arsenal of some 4,500 warheads — have a grim credibility. On the Saturday before the invasion, Putin conspicuously took part in the annual drill of Russian cruise and ballistic missiles. When he announced the “special operation” directed against Ukraine on February 24, he warned that “whoever tries to hinder us” will face “consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.
He was more explicit three days later with the announcement ordering his defence minister and chief of the army’s general staff, sitting gloomily some metres away at the other end of the table, “to transfer the army’s deterrence forces to a special mode of combat duty”. This clearly referred to nuclear weapons. Unlike the Americans with their five levels of defence conditions, the Russians have four, and this was a move up a notch to the second, still short of full preparedness. It appears to have involved little more in practice than to make sure that the nuclear command posts were fully staffed.
What was Putin trying to achieve? There are no evident preparations for a move to a nuclear offensive. No extraordinary movements of nuclear forces have been detected by western intelligence. The only development was that Russia’s new client state Belarus agreed last December, and has now approved, a change in its constitution to allow Russia to deploy short-range battlefield nuclear weapons in the country, although they are yet to arrive. There are no obvious roles to be performed by these systems in the current conflict, while anything directed against Nato countries would invite full retaliation. Mutually assured destruction has not gone away.
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