Is Nuclear War Conceivable? A Cautionary Retrospective on the Escalating ‘Crisis in Ukraine’

Since the so-called ‘Crisis in Ukraine’ made international headlines, speculations abound over the possibility of escalated war. Considering that U.S. President Barack Obama has led international leaders in the continued condemnation of Russian action toward Ukraine, it’s not surprising that concerns over a potential war have been partially wrapped in Cold War rhetoric. Both the United States and Russia have maintained their nuclear arsenals and international intervention in the Crimea remains a real and perhaps immanent possibility, but is there any real legitimacy to the comparisons drawn between the contemporary situation and the Cold War which characterized the second-half of the twentieth century? Setting ideological considerations aside, this post provides a brief overview of the post-1945 technological strategic balance to answer this question.

The collective framework of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) has provided a global measure of security since 1949, but in the mid-1950s NATO adopted a strategy of deterrence to protect its member states in the midst of an intensifying nuclear age. In contrast to security strategies employed prior to the advent of nuclear weapons, deterrence sought to dissuade rather than defeat the aggressor. Based on the underlying principle that the potential risk and penalty for aggression far outweigh any conceivable gain, deterrence was extremely successful when applied to East-West relations during the Cold War. Having both amassed nuclear arsenals capable of global annihilation, the United States and the Soviet Union were forced into a mutually stable strategic relationship in which each side was deterred from attacking the other.

The reality of this nuclear stalemate was tested during a two-week period in late October 1962, commonly known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. When an American U-2 spy plane allegedly discovered and photographed evidence of missile launch sites being secretly constructed by the Soviets in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy immediately blockaded naval shipments to the Caribbean island and urged Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev to stop construction, order the launch sites removed, and end what the Americans considered a clandestine and provocative threat against Western hemispheric security. After two weeks the Soviets backed down and humanity took a collective sigh of relief, and although the Cold War continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the possibility of mutually assured destruction rendered nuclear war mute.

The criteria of Cold War deterrence stipulated that each side possess an offensive arsenal capable of assured, flexible retaliatory action. In other words, in order to maintain stable deterrence, the military arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union were able to survive a first-strike and respond with nuclear as well as non-nuclear weapons. The capacity to respond to an aggressor’s assault after an initial attack became known as second-strike capability, and today both superpowers maintain a triad of offensive strategic forces to ensure the survival of enough nuclear weapons to counter an initial attack. These strategic forces include land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as heavy bombers, and each weaponry component contributes to the stability of global deterrence.

Contemporary critics of the nuclear triad argue that eliminating offensive weapons would reduce defence budgets and promote global disarmament, but this is unlikely to happen given the secretive nature of nuclear protectionism by state and non-state actors. Accepting the unlikelihood of full disarmament, a strong international community emerged in the late-1960s committed to the control and elimination of dangerous nuclear manufacturing and trade. Out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT, 1969) and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT, 1970), emerged the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – a regulatory body which stipulates and controls the transfer of nuclear and nuclear-related materials in and between states. The IAEA has to a significant degree successfully monitored and controlled global nuclear activity, yet despite its best efforts, the international non-proliferation regime remains largely in the dark where the growth of offensive nuclear arsenals are concerned. As long as the totality of strike capabilities remain even partially unknown, nuclear powers will protect and grow offensive arsenals. For the nuclear triad, this means the continued maintenance of bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In contrast to the Cold War years, nuclear deterrence is today focused on multiple nations and threats. In addition to the United States and Russia, a range of non-state actors, rogue regimes, and rising powers have altered the global strategic balance. Yet current tensions in the Crimea between Russia and Ukraine only underscore the significance of deterrence. The Russians have recently test-launched an ICBM and have publicly announced plans to test a new family of missile-ready warheads. The Russians have also violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances – an accord under which Ukraine agreed to return its nuclear arsenal to Moscow in exchange for security guarantees provided by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Considering as well that Washington has promised to protect its allies from external hostility, it seems the need to understand the global security balance from a technological perspective is paramount once again.

Ultimately, technological weaponry and the number of nuclear-capable states have drastically altered since the Cold War, but the underlying principles of deterrence remain. Accordingly, comparisons drawn between the contemporary Crimean situation and the Cold War must be cautionary. Although tensions may escalate, the possible use of small and large tactical nuclear weapons remains remote. Those of us concerned by the ‘Crisis in Ukraine’ should focus our energies elsewhere in an attempt to understand the immediate gravity of the situation.