Michael KreponArms Control Implications of the War in Ukraine (I)

Quote of the week:

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Let’s start with the good news. We’re not out of the woods yet, but the war in Ukraine, like those preceding it, is again demonstrating that nuclear weapons are not useful in warfare. If Vladimir Putin authorizes a mushroom cloud in this war, he would lose more than he would gain. If he doesn’t, the norm of No Use will be reaffirmed. And arms control will have a future.

My claim that nuclear weapons have no military utility is supported by the historical record. If nuclear weapons were useful in warfare, they would have been used during the past three-quarters of a century. If national leaders truly believed that nuclear weapons were effective instruments of waging and winning wars, the combined efforts of deterrence and arms control would have failed.

Instead, leaders, regardless of nationality, whether democratic or autocratic, have concluded that it was best not to use their most symbolically freighted and powerful weapons in war. They rejected the precepts of nuclear war fighting and deterrence strategists. This historical record strongly suggests that, if national leaders — including assassins and mass murderers — remain in control of their faculties, they will do their utmost to avoid pressing the proverbial button.

The instinct to avoid Armageddon is reinforced by practical concerns. The battlefield use of nuclear weapons does not help ground forces seize and hold territory. Mushroom clouds get in the way of military operations. They transmogrify the first user into the devil incarnate.

Nuclear weapons don’t help win wars of aggression — even when one of the combatants doesn’t possess them. Nor do they deter other states from coming to the aid of a victimized state. The possession of nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent stalemate and loss. Neither does first use. The first use of a nuclear weapon since 1945 would be a sign of weakness or desperation, not strength.

Nuclear detonations change the nature of war, making it far more destructive. The extent of destruction depends on the ability of the combatants to agree upon escalation control.

The war in Ukraine clarifies that escalation control is hard even when one of the combatants does not possess the Bomb. It is more complicated when both combatants possess the Bomb. Escalation control between two nuclear-armed adversaries is an entirely speculative and unproven construct. It’s possible, but no one can reasonably depend on it.

We keep hearing from nuclear deterrence strategists about the advisability of fine-tuning countervailing capabilities by adding nuclear use options with lower yields and tailored weapon effects. We hear warnings about Moscow’s advantages in tactical nuclear weapons, and strident admonitions about the need to prioritize their inclusion in nuclear arms control negotiations.

Tactical nuclear weapons are indeed problematic. They are most definitely worth worrying about. But we also need to worry about those who, in the comfort of safe, contemplative spaces, postulate comparative advantage in nuclear war fighting scenarios. Granted, someone has to work in these spaces. But there are no essential truths to be found in the pursuit of refined nuclear war fighting capabilities. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t take nearly as much effort and expense as its backers presume.

The war in Ukraine once again reminds us of first principles and essential truths. One is that usable military capabilities are worth far more than costly weapons national leaders will try very hard not to use — no matter what their nuclear doctrines postulate regarding first use.

Two additional essential truths come in the form of “Do Nots.” Do Not waste human life and national power in conventional wars that cannot be won and ought not to be fought. And above all, Do Not use nuclear weapons in warfare. Or, in Ginni Thomas’s twisted parlance, Do Not release the Kraken.

By extending the norm of No Use through another harrowing war, it will become harder for the next leader to act on threats of first use. Not impossible, but harder. That’s how the nuclear taboo — the norm of No Use that we live by — has been strengthened, war after war, crisis after crisis.

Stigmatizing the threatener helps greatly. It would be good to make a habit of this. Diplomacy is essential. And as long as nuclear weapons exist, deterrence is, too. Diplomacy needs constant fine-tuning; nuclear deterrence, not so much.