Michael KreponNuclear Threats

Tense situations that prompt nuclear threats occur when one (or more) of three conditions exist: when the state issuing threats feels weak in some important respects, when other means of suasion are unsuccessful, and when the stakes involved are exceptionally high. Examples abound. Kim Jong-un threatens nuclear devastation when U.S. and South Korean troops carry out joint exercises. The United States resorted to not-so-veiled nuclear threats against China when bogged down in the Korean War. Nikita Khrushchev used veiled threats during the Berlin crisis. (“It is best for those who are thinking of war not to imagine that distances will save them.”) Pakistan employed nuclear threats when both armies mobilized after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by extremists based in Pakistan. New Delhi threatened massive retaliation if Rawalpindi resorted to first use.

To threaten mushroom clouds when the stakes are low (see Kim Jong-un, above) devalues the currency. Ditto for repeated threats of mushroom clouds. Multiple nuclear threats are once again emanating from the Kremlin. NATO’s advance eastward and Vladimir Putin’s actions to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence along its periphery are the proximate causes.

Time, once again, to pull Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (1987) by Richard Betts from the bookshelf. Here are some passages:

Confusion is the central reality of beliefs about nuclear leverage. The source simultaneously of potential political clout and potential military disaster. Confusion can be used against against an enemy by increasing his uncertainty and encouraging caution, but it also widens the range for miscalculation…

In the first twenty years of the postwar era… presidents and their principal advisers often appeared to make the [nuclear] threats without carefully thinking through whether they would be willing to initiate the use of nuclear weapons as implied by their signals or what the consequences would be if they did. They focused more on the political imperative of blocking the adversary’s advance than on the danger of war if the enemy refused to desist and the dispute intensified.

From the record of American deliberations during past crises, it is hard to argue that any of the Soviet threats were effective; indeed, they provoked more than deterred.

If direct confrontations recur, they will probably be over peripheral areas that become central or over local conflicts that spill into more crucial arenas.

Moscow might be willing to push Washington to the brink. Or if Moscow shares Washington’s view of the balance of interests at stake in a confrontation, if Soviet protestations … are not only illegitimate in U.S. eyes but disingenuous in theirs as well, the balance of resolve will favor the U.S. position and lessen the likelihood that the Soviets would stand up to a U.S. threat.


  1. Yeah, Right (History)

    “Multiple nuclear threats are once again emanating from the Kremlin.”

    Huh? When, exactly?

    “NATO’s advance eastward and Vladimir Putin’s actions to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence along its periphery are the proximate causes.”

    Huh? Cause and effect: the NATO advance is a “cause”, and Putin’s reassertion is the “effect”.

    • Cameron (History)

      Putin’s reassertion isn’t an effect, it is an event in and of itself. If Putin wasn’t pushing out the borders of Russia’s sphere of influence, it wouldn’t be hitting an expanding NATO. Failing to give Russian any agency in it’s own fate belittles that country. I doubt that was your intent.

      So both spheres grind against each other like tectonic plates, this meeting has caused bellicose words and actions to come from the Kremlin.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      NATO expansion has been voluntary for all concerned. Moreover, NATO made no attempt to expand into Ukraine. Russia’s expansion into Ukraine is coercive and its coercion is continuing. It is more than just the grinding of tectonic plates, the Russian side under Putin’s direction is actively engaged in military aggression.

      And, yes, implied nuclear threats using veiled language and active bomber flights near civilian aircraft with transponders turned off are part of Putin’s current nuclear game.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Pardon my poor grammar above. I assume everyone knew that it was the Russian bombers which turned off their transponders, not the civilian aircraft.

      Russia Direct claims 1) there is no international law requiring military aircraft to turn on the transponders, and 2) NATO military planes also turn off their transponders. Any truth to that? http://www.russia-direct.org/opinion/new-cold-war-skies-over-europe

      What are the odds that this behavior could lead to a mid-air collision between bomber and civilian aircraft? If a collision occurred, I am assuming the worst that could happen is passengers die, and bombs fall to the ground or sea, but no nuclear detonations and no nuclear war. In that event, Moscow will be sued for reckless conduct and subject to serious embarrassment. For what purpose is Moscow undertaking such a risk?

    • Alexis TK27 (History)

      Jonah, this description of consequences of accidental collision assumes that the Russian bombers are carrying live nuclear missiles during these patrols.

      From this link the RAF claimed on at least one case that Tu-95 bomber was armed with real nuclear weapon, using a source they did not name. At the same time, Russia officially denied any live weapon to have been carried.

      I find it quite hard to believe Russia would use any live nuke for this kind of training & “show the flag” missio. That would be dangerous, without bringing any advantage.

    • Yeah, Right (History)

      Cameron: “If Putin wasn’t pushing out the borders of Russia’s sphere of influence, it wouldn’t be hitting an expanding NATO.”

      No, sorry, that doesn’t actually challenge my argument.

      Putin did not make any move until he saw NATO expanding in his direction.

      The Cause is therefore NATO’s expansion in the direction of the Russian border.

      The Effect is that this NATO expansion hits that “Expanding Putin Sphere Of Influence(tm)” before it has a change to get to where it intended to go i.e. butting up against the Russian Border.

      But the first move was by NATO, and Putin felt compelled to respond to it because, you know, he ain’t stupid.

      Cause and…. Effect.

    • Yeah, Right (History)

      Jonah: “NATO expansion has been voluntary for all concerned.”

      You might have to explain to me why that would be a comfort to the Russians.

      Do you expect the Russians to relax because, well, heck, everyone is AGREEING to gang up against them?

      Would the USA be so sanguine if it say all the Central American countries agreeing to join a South American military alliance that was, indisputably, aimed against the US military?

      Or would the yanks – pardon my French – go “ape shit”?

      Jonah: “Moreover, NATO made no attempt to expand into Ukraine.”

      Hmmm, I don’t argue about the lack of “attempt”, though I would argue about “intent”.

      As in: I suspect very much that this was the plan, and the plan got checkmated by Putin.

      Jonah: “Russia’s expansion into Ukraine is coercive and its coercion is continuing.”

      No Russian troops have been moved into the Ukraine, Jonah, and the decision by Crimea to secede from the Ukraine and rejoin Russia was, indeed, quite voluntary.

      Jonah: “It is more than just the grinding of tectonic plates, the Russian side under Putin’s direction is actively engaged in military aggression.”

      Where, exactly, is Russia engaging in “military aggression”?

      Because if there is one thing that history teaches us it’s this: when the Russian Bear goes to war then it ain’t “subtle”, it ain’t “secret”, and it certainly ain’t “debatable”.

      As in: if Russia had engaged in military aggression against the Ukraine then we’d know it, because there’d be T-90 tanks rumbling over the carpet-bombed rubble of Kiev within, oh, a week of the order being given.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “NATO expansion has been voluntary for all concerned.” This statement distinguishes the peaceful NATO behavior from the militarily aggressive Russian behavior. A peaceful Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, because NATO is strictly a defensive alliance. NATO action requires unanimous consent of its independent members. Unanimous consent would be impossible to obtain for an offensive attack on Russia, unless Russia first attacked a NATO member.

      Objectively, a peaceful Russia has nothing to fear from the NATO defensive alliance, even if all nations along Russia’s borders would join NATO. New NATO members are not joining up to attack a peaceful Russia; they are joining up to defend themselves against an aggressive Russia.

      There was neither plan, nor intent, nor attempt by NATO to bring in Ukraine as a member. The main consequence of Russia beating up on Ukraine is to motivate Ukraine and most other East European nations to want to join NATO as soon as possible. Thwarting NATO expansion is only the KGB cover story, not the true reason for why the Russian dictator attacked Ukraine.

      Russian troops dressed in civilian clothing undertook a war of subversion within Ukraine. The resulting “secession” by Crimea was engineered by Moscow. To slice off Crimea and create additional troubles in eastern Ukraine did not require Putin to send tanks into Kiev, and he has chosen not to.

    • Cameron (History)

      YR, post hoc ergo propter hoc? Really?

      NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact states was a response by those countries to protect their independence in the face of a powerful neighbor, because, you know, they aren’t stupid…

      Putin felt compelled to respond to this expansion by invading the Crimea? Again, your vision of Putin is of someone who is only reactive, and able to be pushed into taking action by outside forces. Someone like that doesn’t become the ruler of a country.

      Finally, “there were no Russian troops in Crimea” and we’d know if Russia went to war because T-90s and all over by Christmas.

      I doubt it. Overt conflict is dangerous, obvious, and marks you out for sanctions and retaliation. What they did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, unmarked military units, deception, and “local forces and volunteers” is safer, as we have seen. And if Putin says all he wants is a referendum in this one place, that’s ethnically close to Russia, there’s a chance he gets away with it.

  2. Alexis TK27 (History)

    I don’t think nuclear threat have been emanating from the Kremlin, and I would be interested in verified quotes of such threats, if they exist.

    I should wish to underline that during Putin’s interview a couple months ago for a Russian documentary about integration of Crimea to Russia, no past nuclear threat was discussed, contrary to what some media have unaccurately reported.

    What Putin said during that interview was that in the event when US / NATO forces would have attacked in Crimea in March’14, Russia would have answered in force, and if the circumstances would have warranted it, Russian nuclear forces would have been activated. Which was not a nuclear threat at all: discussion of an hypothetical about a scenario which didn’t come to pass (US forces in Crimea), and assertion that Crimea would be defended the same as other parts of the Russian Federation – which are under protection of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

    • Cameron (History)

      Planning to move nuclear weapons into the Kaliningrad enclave, and the resumption of long range nuclear bomber flights off the coast of NATO countries, without transponders.

      As for your “everything is hypothetical” comment, mentioning nuclear weapons in the context of the Crimean invasion is signaling with nuclear weapons. It ratchets up a situation that was already fraught.

    • Alexis TK27 (History)

      All of which does not amount to nuclear threats. Mentioning nuclear weapons, or moving them from one part to another part of one’s territory (Kaliningrad), creates an atmosphere to be sure, but is not an actual threat.

      Another thing: this mentioning does not happen in a situation with low stakes. Crimea following the referendum is now deemed by Russia to be part of its territory and defense of territory is not a low stake to anybody. This, no matter what we think of Crimea’s status: we do not have to recognize Crimea’s integration to Russia, but it would be imprudent to not recognize the fact that Russians are earnestly convinced that it has legitimately happened, even if we disagree.

      Nor is the situation of Ukraine regarding NATO a low stake question to Russia. For quite obvious geographical and strategic reasons, a NATO-integrated Ukraine would be an unmitigated disaster to Russia. Essentially, we would be speaking of July 1942, the last time an enemy of Moscow reached Eastern Ukraine. To Russia, Ukraine outside of NATO is a “must-win”, not a ifs nor buts situation.

      The reasons for cautious optimism about no further reignition of the war is that Russia has already reached her minimum objectives, which Minsk-2 agreements officialize: they recognize a situation which will prevent Ukraine from ever acceding to NATO membership.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Alexis –

      They are not “threats to use nuclear weapons”. However, they are nuclear threats.

      The general consensus is that nuclear weapons should (*) not be used for fighting wars, or for making threats against each other. Their only legitimate purposes are deterrent of use of other nuclear weapons, or of regime change or national destruction. And really, not even very much of that, to the degree they’re not good at that.

      There is not a huge difference between an ICBM or SLBM 5,000 miles away, and a bomber 250 miles away. All are about a half hour from a lot of kaboom. Per the above consensus, however, new activity and/or resuming old activity long abandoned in the name of stability is destabilizing. And an implicit challenge to the no-use consensus.

      An IRBM is much closer, which is why they’re supposed to not be used anymore (except China, who weren’t involved in that treaty). A SRBM is closer still. The closer things are dangerous because they’re destabilizing. Which is why they’ve been largely removed and retired. SRBMs were not banned as IRBMs were, but SRBMs in Kaliningrad were not a feature for a while, and resuming having them there is destabilizing in the same was as resuming other activity (or new activity).

      The short summary:

      All of these actions are *confrontational*, and inherently threatening if not in an urgent war-starts-now sense. They are an explicit and active threat with nuclear weapons.

      Putin is playing great-power geopolitics with reckless abandon for the prior conclusion that doing so with nuclear weapons was a good way to accidentally start us all glowing one of these days. If he’s seen as likely to accidentally get us into a nuclear war, then there’s a very strong case to be made (particularly by Hawks) that we need to up our armaments and deployments and so forth and be prepared to counter him, because he shows signs could use them.

      We know the west’s leaders are not universally on board following the unstable deterrence research of late. Putin shows no sign of it either. This is not a good thing.

      (*) Not everyone entirely agrees with this, however, that’s what the western enlightened consensus is.

  3. Gregory Matteson (History)

    All this about Ukraine, with a lot of ambiguity claimed by Russian apologists. Then I recall this http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-threatens-denmark-with-nuclear-weapons-if-it-tries-to-join-nato-defence-shield-10125529.html

    Was there an explicit nuclear threat to Denmark? Sure seemed like it according to the media.

    • Alexis TK27 (History)

      Here, at least, is an example of an actual threat of nuclear use.

      By contrast with what the title suggests, the threat was not “in case (Denmark) tries to join NATO defence shield”, but in case a war happens when NATO missile defence shield is used against Russia. In this case, as the Russian ambassador to Denmark undiplomatically exposed, “Denmark will be part of the threat to Russia” – see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/world/europe/russian-warns-denmark-on-joining-nato-missile-defense.html?_r=0

      Then, Russia has warned, Danish ships being integrated into that missile defence system would be targeted by nuclear weapons, like other elements of that system (its “one or more frigates” that Denmark intends to contribute, “We will offer that one or more of our frigates can be outfitted with a radar that can be part of the missile defence”, see http://www.thelocal.dk/20140822/denmark-will-join-natos-missile-defense-system )

      Note that here would not be the kind of situation when “the stakes are low”, that Michael Krepon was speaking about. If missile defence was used by NATO to attempt negating part of Russia’s deterrence, it would by definition be in the course of aggression against Russia – because that’s the only situation when you want to negate somebody’s deterrence.

      I don’t think Danish military planners were surprised to learn that such frigates would be targeted by Russian nuclear weapons in case of war. There is no reason to accuse them of incompetence, they must have known the consequences of their decision.

      What is notable indeed, is that Russia decided to go public about those consequences, instead of just quietly updating their strike plans.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      A part of the surprise in this overt threat is that Denmark’s involvement in missile defense is hardly new. The Thule BMEWS was a key part of radar surveillance of the Russian arctic since the late 1950’s, since replaced by the evolved PAVE-PAWS radar SSPARS, which is explicitly integrated into NATO, and into all our Anti Ballistic Missile schemes. Hmmm, that does make it sound like Russia is part of our calculus, doesn’t it?