Winning the nuclear game against Putin’s Russia

Winning the nuclear game against Putin’s Russia

It’s a question of who would strike whom first, and who would enter the fray.

February 23, 2019, 9:00 AM EST
Trump and Putin - Game theory? Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images Europe
Tobin Harshaw
February 23, 2019

Last week I discussed nuclear game theory with Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT and author of “Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era.” If we agreed on one thing, it was that nuclear war is not a game. “It’s  really about a strategic logic,” Narang explained, “how your adversary behaves based on your moves and how you react to their reaction to your moves.” 

President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam next week. I don’t expect to see much strategic logic when the self-proclaimed “best negotiator in the world” sits down with the monomaniacal leader of a starving police state. I also don’t consider North Korea a viable nuclear threat to the U.S. or its allies. Kim may be unhinged, but he doesn’t seem the suicidal type.

The real problems are the other two great military powers, China and Russia. The former is formidable, but is (at least for now) unlikely to foment even the tiniest military imbroglio. Russia is the wildcard. As we saw in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin likes to conduct war by other means: propaganda, destabilizing politics, arming separatist groups and sending in the so-called little green men to give himself a fig leaf of plausible deniability. Putin is not unhinged, but he is an expansionist, with dreams of restoring not so much the Soviet Union but rather the Eurasian empire the czars strove for but never quite accomplished. 

There is an old phrase attributed to Lenin 1 : “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”  Putin’s bayonet includes more than 4,000 deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons. Here is a lightly edited transcript of what Narang and I worry he might do with them:

Tobin Harshaw: We started our discussion with North Korea and the Asia-Pacific. So let’s switch to Europe, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.  Was that a mistake, as opposed to trying to fix it?

Vipin Narang: Russia was violating it for at least five years. But the way we first went about it – by threatening to immediately begin unilateral withdraw rather than consulting allies and formulating a unified front against Russia – probably wasn't ideal in terms of alliance management and getting NATO buy-in. I don't think it would have been better to quietly violate the treaty ourselves, by threatening to develop and deploy ground-launch systems that violated the treaty, or to say: “Look, this treaty is falling apart because the other side is violating it and we're going to legally withdraw.” The reality is that the U.S. does not really need intermediate-range ground-launch systems in Europe to deter Russia. And we've managed in East Asia without them. We have air-launch and sea-launch systems. It may be that you want to give yourself the option for ground-launch system, but they're potentially very vulnerable. Deploying systems in Guam would require the development of new longer-range ground-launch systems. And you obviously can’t deploy them in Taiwan without giving the Chinese an aneurysm. So your ground options in East Asia are limited.

TH: Is there a chance to work a new deal on intermediate-range missiles into talks on renewing New START 2  before it expires?

VN: I'm not going to die on a hill for INF, but I will for New START. It is good for American security and global security. I worry that if you start linking INF to a New START extension, the Russians might just say that they’re not going to play this game, that the INF systems are too valuable to them for their European strategy. So, given Russian violations and no willingness for them to come back into compliance, I'd rather let INF go at this point than try to link the two and have Russia destroy the whole thing. New START is that important.

How Many Have You Got?

TH: Last week you gave me a really good rundown of Kim Jong Un's strategic thinking. What is Putin’s?

VN: He has apparently rediscovered his mojo. All the systems that Russia is developing and deploying pose a real threat to Europe. There are reasonable concerns that his appetite may be more expansive than just Crimea and Ukraine. It may include Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics. A lot of these systems are designed to support potentially offensive military or coercive actions against those states. Russia believes that it is in a position of strength, and is exploiting divisions within the Western alliance and within Europe itself, to pursue its political aims.

From the U.S. nuclear side, my concern has been that, for example, the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is looking for technical solutions to a political problem. What we need is a better political strategy, and I think that includes a stronger conventional deterrent and cohesive alliance management. Nuclear weapons only come into the picture in Russian thinking if it starts losing the conventional war and you're pressing up against Russia. But the broader issue is how you got to that point in the first place, and it is not going be solved by simply developing a new low-yield nuclear weapon.

TH: This is Russia’s supposed “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, right? Using low-yield nukes to buy time for a conventional war.

VN: I call it escalate to win, or escalate to survive. Basically, if they're losing a conventional war and NATO forces are threatening to push into the Russian homeland, I can see Putin saying, “OK, now I need to use battlefield nuclear weapons on NATO forces.” I don't think it's going to be his first move. I think it's very deep into a conflict before nuclear weapons become salient, because of the escalation potential; Russia is not going to risk a strategic nuclear war unless its homeland is being threatened. The world comes to a screeching halt the second a nuclear weapon is used.  

The key is signaling to the Russians that NATO has no intention of invading the Russian homeland, but that we also are not going to stand by while it tries to incorporate independent states into Russian territory.

TH: Would Putin believe that NATO promise?

VN: I think right now he sees division in Europe. He's smelling blood in the water. And that's on us. Alliance cohesion has fallen apart, and that is the real problem in deterring Russia. If he sees divisions in the alliance, a question about whether the U.S. will come to the defense of Eastern European states, it may embolden him to take the shot.  

TH: That goes to Trump saying that Americans aren't going to die for Montenegro after it was added to NATO.

VN: Exactly. That’s a real problem with extended deterrence. Making extended deterrence credible is very difficult.

TH: Are the British and French nuclear arsenals helpful in any way, or are they just symbolic? Are they possibly dangerous?

VN: I don't think they're dangerous. I love the British and French! The British and the U.S. have a very tight coupling of their nuclear force postures. Whereas the French are completely independent; they have not historically coordinated patrols with the U.S. the way the U.K. has, and all of their capabilities are indigenously produced. The French love their nuclear weapons. It is a point of national pride.

TH: French President Emmanuel Macron has floated this idea of an EU army. If that actually happened, how would it affect the U.S. in terms of strategy against Russia and within NATO?

VN: It's not going to happen any time soon. I'm very skeptical of that concept, for a variety of material and political reasons. I think those are all the proposals in the event that there are real threats to the integrity of NATO. Trump's heavy-handed threats to withdraw from NATO, to me, were a negotiating tactic to get the allies to pay more. He may question the utility of the alliance, or the asymmetric resources the U.S. provides, but I can't see the Pentagon in any way, shape or form ever really taking measures to threaten the integrity of the NATO conventional force. It's so important to the defense of Europe. It's so important to American national security that I can't see a world in which it dissolves any time soon. But that does not mean that the current tensions are not real, and warrant careful observation and management.

TH: Do you think the allies, and this is not just the Europeans, feel that America's stepping back from the world is just a Trump blip, or do they think it marks a turning point for future administrations as well?

VN: We go through cycles like this. The U.S. during the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty 3 , then came the Iraq war. There were a lot of threats to the integrity of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It's fair to say that Trump's incarnation of it is something that Europeans have not seen for a long time.

TH: Elizabeth Warren has co-sponsored a measure that would have the U.S. declare it would never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Isn’t that letting your potential enemy know too much?

VN: I’m neither here nor there on a declaration of no-first-use. The U.S. nuclear posture is geared toward pre-emptive first use. And unless you make changes to your alert levels, and in how quickly and promptly and responsively your nuclear weapons can be launched, no adversary is going to believe just a declaration of no-first-use when the time comes. The problem is that your allies will, and a declaration or an actual no-first-use posture may result in the loss of a big piece of reassurance to our formal allies. When it comes to something like Japan potentially pursuing nuclear weapons, a no-first-use declaration could be a real catalyst. If we flat out say — rather than leaving it ambiguous, which may enhance extended deterrence — that we will not use nuclear weapons against China even if it overwhelmingly overruns Japan, the Japanese can say, well, we might need that capability ourselves.

TH: The Pentagon has been promised up to a trillion dollars to modernize the arsenal. What would you say are the priorities?

VN: I would say the first is priority command control. We have very, very old complicated command control. We're deterring 2020 threats with 1970s command and control technology. It is surely perfectly reliable, but just maintaining it may be increasingly difficult and costly, since no one makes parts for the systems anymore!

TH: I love the argument that that the Air Force should stay with floppy disks in the ICBM launch systems because they can’t be hacked.

VN: Yes, the challenge going forward is that you may make yourself more vulnerable as you modernize some of the command and control. In terms of the actual capabilities and platforms being modernized, the nuclear submarine force is the backbone of our strategic deterrent. The new Columbia class is being pursued on the theory that the oceans are not going to be opaque forever, and so we need a new generation of survivable ballistic-missile sub. That’s what I would put my money on first, and prioritize.

TH: I know we touched on this before, but is there such a thing as limited nuclear war?

VN: I think a nuke is a nuke. Any time you have a nuclear weapon go off, we are in uncharted theoretical and practical territory. One should not assume that any nuclear war, once it starts, is going to remain limited. We started our talk with game theory. There are game-theoretic models in which you can have limited first use and it's over. But this is where psychology and emotions, the stress of the situation on how humans respond, need to be injected into these sterile models. Because once a nuclear weapon goes off, there's just no predicting how the adversary is going to respond.

  1. I have my doubts. But then I think nearly every quote attributed to Vince Lombardi is bogus as well.

  2. The New START treaty of 2011 limited the aggregate number of deployed and undeployed missiles, warheads and launchers held by the U.S. and Russia.

  3. The ABM treaty, signed by President Nixon in 1972, committed the U.S. and the Soviet Union to limit the number of systems capable of shooting down strategic ballistic missiles.

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Tobin Harshaw at

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Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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