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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Analyzing the US-Russia Deterrence Stability

Despite the oft-repeated declaration that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, it seems that the tacit understanding of nuclear weapons being the last resort is slowly eroding, with so-called tactical nuclear weapons and scenarios of a limited nuclear war gaining importance for both US and Russia.

Stable deterrence is essentially a reduced risk of intentional or inadvertent war. It falls under the larger rubric of strategic stability, which is dependent on risk reduction measures between states, such as arms control measures that serve to contain arms racing and maintain stability in crises.

An interesting case for deterrence (in)stability is the dyadic relationship between the United States and Russia, which, in light of current geoeconomic and geostrategic developments, points to the risk of both deliberate and accidental war.

The two states bear a grave responsibility to ensure stable deterrence as they cumulatively possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons and have come close to war numerous times over the past.

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Understanding the matter better

Both countries’ national security strategies rely on the concept of deterrence stability and “reducing the risks of nuclear war” and “guarantee[ing] the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State”. But they also acknowledge the possibility of deterrence breaking down, resulting in the use of nuclear weapons.

In its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the US stated that Russia’s threshold of first use of nuclear weapons seemed to be lowered, and to “preserve deterrence stability,” the US would “enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options” – i.e., limited war.

The US strategic reviews released on October 27, 2022 – National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review – view Russia as an “acute threat.”

They reaffirm that the “fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the US, [its] allies, and partners”, and that the US will use nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances” to defend its “vital interests”. While this seems to be a sensible and stabilizing approach, what counts as an “extreme circumstance” is largely ambiguous.

Read more: Russia Ukraine Crisis: Why Russia?

Nuclear deterrence works on the rational actor model

A rational actor would presumably use nuclear weapons as last resort. Rationality functions alongside negotiations and agreements on the limitation, reduction, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, in the absence of which an endless arms race would ensue, increasing the risk of war.

Deterrence stability too rests on the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), as explained by cold war nuclear strategist Schelling, “[If] two powers show themselves equally capable of inflicting damage upon each other by some particular process of war so that neither gains an advantage from its adoption and both suffer the most hideous reciprocal injuries, it is not only possible but it seems probable that neither will employ that Means.”

As rational actors, the US and Russia must mitigate the risk of war through stringent arms control measures yet the only bilateral arms control agreement remaining between the two states is New Start, which ends in 2026, and both sides are blaming the other for not walking the talk over it. Mutual inspections under the treaty, which serve to build mutual confidence and prevent nuclear miscalculation, were also suspended.

Leaders of both states acknowledge the need for bilateral dialogue to ensure strategic stability. Furthermore, they assert that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought…[and] nuclear weapons… should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”

However, no real measures have been taken to ensure this amidst a breakdown of bilateral relations. US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile, Open Skies and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties has further eroded stable deterrence.

Read more: Stalemate in the Russia Ukraine War

One view holds that deterrence stability cannot be achieved through an arms race, especially when nuclear-armed states have serious security issues. An arms race in this scenario only assures limited deterrence.

Classical deterrence theory maintains that a high cost of war guarantees deterrence stability and that adversaries see conflict as the least favorable outcome. However, per perfect deterrence theory, adversaries may actually carry out their threats.

What is more, in this “stability-instability paradox” between the competing US and resurgent Russia there is thinning stability in the overarching nuclear realm. However, the US-led NATO’s support to Ukraine against Russia’s so-called “special military operations” in that country may escalate from the conventional to nuclear realm. None of the nuclear-armed competitors can guarantee that they can dominate the escalation to nuclear weapons use.

Despite the oft-repeated declaration that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, it seems that the tacit understanding of nuclear weapons being the last resort is slowly eroding, with so-called tactical nuclear weapons and scenarios of a limited nuclear war gaining importance for both US and Russia.

The way forward

The Ukraine conflict is rife with US involvement under NATO, and with Russia’s redlines being crossed, there is a greater risk of war between it and the US, marked by increased proximity between NATO and Russian troops.

The dominant Western view of the conflict is classifying it as an unprovoked “invasion” of sovereign territory by expansionist Russia. However, a strong view also holds that the US-led NATO’s eastward expansion and foraying into Russia’s geographical buffer is the basic reason for entering Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly been called out as a direct threat to its core strategic interests. Hence, threat perception also becomes an important consideration with regard to deterrence stability.

Emerging technologies – such as hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks, space weapons, and lethal autonomous weapons – also increase the risk of accidental war as a human interface is swapped with Artificial Intelligence based command and control. These technologies require focused dialogue between US and Russia in order to maintain deterrence stability.

Read more: Russia Ukraine Crisis: Who is the beneficiary?

A key feature of deterrence is that the reality of a threat is in the beholder’s eye. The US-Russia strategic stability paradigm rests on a shared understanding that a preemptive counterforce strike by either side would be vulnerable to retaliation, and thus striking first would accrue costs. To mitigate a breakdown in this confidence, both countries may take “self-restraint” measures that provide reassurance of the unviability of a first strike.

Currently, deterrence stability is under stress due not only to bilateral tensions but also as a result of a widening trust deficit. The sooner US and Russia sit seriously down for their bilateral strategic stability talks process the more stable will be their relationship. “It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war,” said the late Churchill. It still holds true.


The writer is an M Phil scholar at the Strategic Studies Department of National Defence University, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.