The Crazy Logic of Brinksmanship Is Back

The West can only counter Putin’s nuclear threats with ruinous threats of its own.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021.
Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2021. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

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In March 1955, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles publicly threatened to drop atomic bombs on China if the regime continued to bombard the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, occupied by forces of Nationalist China. The crisis was ultimately resolved through diplomacy, but in a fawning article in Life magazine the following January, Dulles boasted of his gifts at nuclear blackmail. “Some say that we were brought to the verge of war,” Dulles blithely said. “Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.”

That is the origin story of the term “brinksmanship.” Dulles’s nuclear saber-rattling, widely denounced at the time, came to be seen as so wildly reckless that no senior statesman of a nuclear power has engaged in it—until Vladimir Putin did so last week. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” the Russian leader said. “This is not a bluff.” Ukrainian forces are, of course, defending their own territory, not jeopardizing Russia’s, but once Russia formally annexes what is now Ukrainian land, any attempt to retake it would cross Putin’s line. Similarly, in his speech announcing the advent of hostilities on Feb. 24, Putin obliquely threatened to use nuclear weapons against “those who may be tempted to interfere.” Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov clarified that supplying advanced weapons to Ukraine “means the direct involvement of the West in the conflict.” Putin will soon have two rationales for the unspeakable.

It is a testimony to the lunacy of nuclear blackmail that leaders have declined to deploy it even under the most intense pressure. In the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel’s very existence briefly seemed threatened, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed readying the nation’s nuclear forces for a “demonstration” blast, but, according to an extensive study of the incident, the nation’s war cabinet rejected the idea. India and Pakistan fought three wars before both nations acquired nuclear weapons, but neither has ever openly threatened to use them against the other. Nuclear theorists cite both of these acts of restraint as evidence that the prospect of “mutual assured destruction” makes nukes, on balance, more stabilizing than destabilizing. Some, such as Kenneth Waltz in his 1981 essay “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” have even insisted that we should welcome the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In March 1955, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles publicly threatened to drop atomic bombs on China if the regime continued to bombard the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, occupied by forces of Nationalist China. The crisis was ultimately resolved through diplomacy, but in a fawning article in Life magazine the following January, Dulles boasted of his gifts at nuclear blackmail. “Some say that we were brought to the verge of war,” Dulles blithely said. “Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.”

That is the origin story of the term “brinksmanship.” Dulles’s nuclear saber-rattling, widely denounced at the time, came to be seen as so wildly reckless that no senior statesman of a nuclear power has engaged in it—until Vladimir Putin did so last week. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” the Russian leader said. “This is not a bluff.” Ukrainian forces are, of course, defending their own territory, not jeopardizing Russia’s, but once Russia formally annexes what is now Ukrainian land, any attempt to retake it would cross Putin’s line. Similarly, in his speech announcing the advent of hostilities on Feb. 24, Putin obliquely threatened to use nuclear weapons against “those who may be tempted to interfere.” Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov clarified that supplying advanced weapons to Ukraine “means the direct involvement of the West in the conflict.” Putin will soon have two rationales for the unspeakable.

It is a testimony to the lunacy of nuclear blackmail that leaders have declined to deploy it even under the most intense pressure. In the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel’s very existence briefly seemed threatened, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed readying the nation’s nuclear forces for a “demonstration” blast, but, according to an extensive study of the incident, the nation’s war cabinet rejected the idea. India and Pakistan fought three wars before both nations acquired nuclear weapons, but neither has ever openly threatened to use them against the other. Nuclear theorists cite both of these acts of restraint as evidence that the prospect of “mutual assured destruction” makes nukes, on balance, more stabilizing than destabilizing. Some, such as Kenneth Waltz in his 1981 essay “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” have even insisted that we should welcome the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But all this fine theorizing, and indeed the very metaphor of brinksmanship, seems crazy, in part because it treats nuclear posturing as if it were a game of chess. In The Strategy of Conflict, a famous 1960 work applying game theory to warfare, Thomas Schelling noted that even the most rational government is “necessarily an imperfect decision system” and thus nuclear gamesmanship is shot through with unknowable and uncontrollable elements. “The brink,” Schelling wrote in a pointed rebuttal to Dulles’s claim of mastery, “is a curved slope that one can stand on with some risk of slipping, the slope gets steeper and the risk of slipping greater as one moves toward the chasm.”

We should recall that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the one instance in which nuclear-armed powers brought the world to the brink of cataclysm, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did not threaten to fire nuclear missiles but only to station them at the United States’ doorstep. That was enough to provoke a chain of events that terrified leaders on both sides. All of us alive today are fortunate that both Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were rational actors who regarded no conceivable objective as worth the risk of a nuclear exchange and thus found their way out of their game of chicken.

It is increasingly clear that that cannot be said of Putin. Losing a war to Ukraine would not endanger Russia, but it might endanger his rule, since he has staked his own prestige on victory. The mobilization he has ordered will not affect the tide of battle for months to come. What if, in the meanwhile, the Ukrainians break through in the south and threaten Russia’s control of Crimea? What if Russian forces continue to retreat in the east? What if Russian militarists begin to openly assail Putin’s leadership, putting his legitimacy open to question? Putin would surely attempt intermediate steps, such as seeking to wipe out Ukraine’s energy and communications infrastructure or increasing the pace of terrorist bombing of civilians, as he did in Syria. But that almost certainly wouldn’t work. What then?

The metaphor of the brink assumes rational actors who would not risk mass destruction for a limited objective. But Putin might go nuclear to assure his own survival and that of his regime. The Russian dictator has spoken of the lessons he learned from cornering a rat in a stairwell as a boy, as Roger Cohen recently reminded readers of the New York Times. The question the world may have to answer, a question that wells up from our nightmares, is: How do you deter a cornered rat with a nuclear arsenal?

The most obvious answer is: Don’t corner the rat. Realists such as John Mearsheimer have blamed the West for seeking military victory in Ukraine, an outcome that Putin can’t tolerate and won’t accept. Of course, the whole point of nuclear blackmail is to raise the stakes to the point where the other player folds. But since Putin’s goal is not merely a neutral Ukraine—he could have had that on Feb. 23—but a prostrate Ukraine with a puppet government in thrall to a fascist state, the West would be buying peace at an intolerable price. In any case, Ukraine would of course continue to fight for its survival even in the absence of outside support. Putin must fail if Ukraine is to succeed; the best outcome might be a failure that Putin does not regard as a catastrophic reversal.

Ukraine’s Washington-led alliance may have no choice but to proceed, as carefully and consciously as possible, down the steep and slippery slope of brinksmanship. Putin must be persuaded that the costs of conducting even the most limited nuclear strike against Ukraine are intolerable. U.S. President Joe Biden has not yet spelled out those costs, saying only that they would be “consequential”; national security advisor Jake Sullivan less equivocally described those consequences as “catastrophic.”  Biden has surely learned from former U.S. President Barack Obama’s experience in Syria not to draw a “red line” that he is not fully prepared to enforce.

Nevertheless, as nuclear theorist Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council writes, Biden will need to convey a public threat, even if a nonspecific one, in order to show Putin that Washington, too, is not bluffing. You cannot, of course, threaten nuclear retaliation unless you are prepared to carry it out. Kennedy was prepared to do so in the face of a direct nuclear threat; the stakes here are simply not that high (and perhaps weren’t then either). Kroenig suggests some combination of enhanced weapons supplies to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia and a limited conventional strike on Russian forces involved in the war.

But even such moves assume that Putin is making calculations of national rather than personal interest. It may be that the only prospects that could deter Putin would be regime death or personal death. Absent an invasion of Russia, an act of madness, the West may not be able to convincingly threaten Putin with the loss of power or life. Others, however, can. Chinese President Xi Jinping could stay Putin’s hand by privately informing him that China would renounce its alliance with Russia and add its weight to Western punishments and sanctions should he let loose a nuclear strike, a development that might well produce a coup. As for fear of death, a strong hint from the head of Israel’s Mossad to the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service that Putin himself would not survive a nuclear attack on Ukraine might be highly persuasive.

Putin almost certainly is, in fact, bluffing. But the nuclear threat sends nations down a spiral, or an ever-steepening slope, in which unforeseen events supersede cool calculations. Not just the West but the whole world has no choice but to take Putin’s threat seriously.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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