Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 3-2023, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

On the significance of nuclear deterrence in the Ukraine war

The democratic public in the West (Germany being a shining example) do not ask what the war in Ukraine is all about, what’s at stake there. They already have their politico-moral answer. What the Kremlin wants is to conquer, suppress democracy in Ukraine, and altogether embark on a new Russian imperialism; what Putin is after is his own personal power. Ukraine is out to defend itself against illegal aggression and protect democratic values. The NATO states are interested in helping the victim of an attack that violates international law, maintaining the European peace order and altogether the rules-based world order. The only way to see the course of the war is that Russians are viciously attacking civilian targets, while some Ukrainian actions arouse hope for a breakthrough and Russian defeat, others are sadly not successful enough, and others are understandably aimed at targets inside Russia. And of course there is the untiring call for weapons of the next higher caliber to be provided. People who have doubts about whether the war should be continued and escalated and Germany should take part in this do not stand a chance of being taken seriously, being instantly condemned as taking sides with a criminal and refusing to provide emergency aid. Those who express fears of a nuclear war that would devastate Europe have been taken in by baseless threats from the Kremlin. And so forth. After a year and a half of war in Ukraine, the world is tidier ideologically than it has been for some time.

Experts and government advisors of the two nuclear powers involved in Ukraine, on the other hand, quite seriously pose the question of what is at stake in Ukraine for each of them and altogether, and as professional partisans they give somewhat different answers. In Russia, there is debate about the pros and cons of using nuclear weapons; in the USA, there are firm views on this. The two sides’ positions are documented below, in order to see what conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the deterrent relationship between the USA and Russia.

Three controversial contributions to a Russian debate on the questionable benefit of nuclear weapons for Russia as a nuclear power in the Ukrainian proxy war

Sergei Karaganov[1] opens the discussion with a journal article (Profile Magazine No. 23-24, 2023) under the momentous title

“A difficult but necessary decision: The use of nuclear weapons can save humanity from a global catastrophe”

In the article, he first draws an unvarnished picture of the difficult war situation (from his country’s perspective), in relation to Ukraine on the one hand and to the West on the other:

“Russia and its leadership seem to be facing a difficult choice. It becomes increasingly clear that a clash with the West cannot end even if we win a partial or even a crushing victory in Ukraine.

It will be a really partial victory if we liberate four regions. It will be a slightly bigger victory if we liberate the entire East and South of present-day Ukraine in the next year or two. But there will still remain a part of it with an even more embittered ultranationalist population pumped up with weapons ― a bleeding wound threatening inevitable complications and a new war. Perhaps the worst situation may occur if, at the cost of enormous losses, we liberate the whole of Ukraine and remain in ruins with a population that mostly hates us. Its ‘redemption’ will take more than a decade.

Any option, especially the latter one, will distract our country from making an urgently needed step to shift its spiritual, economic, and military-political focus to the east of Eurasia. We will get stuck in the west, with no prospects in the foreseeable future, while present-day Ukraine, primarily its central and western regions, will sap managerial, human, and financial resources out the country. These regions were heavily subsidized even in Soviet times. The feud with the West will continue as it will support a low-grade guerrilla civil war.”

Imagining a possible alternative, he arrives at what the conflict is really all about from Russia’s point of view:

“A more attractive option would be liberating and reincorporating the East and the South of Ukraine, and forcing the rest to surrender, followed by complete demilitarization and the creation of a friendly buffer state. But this would be possible only if and when we are able to break the West’s will to incite and support the Kiev junta, and to force it to retreat strategically.”

In the short term, at least, he sees no chances for success:[2]

“So there will be no quick end to the unfolding Western defensive but aggressive confrontation.”

On the contrary:

“The United States has turned Ukraine into a striking fist intended to create a crisis and thus tie the hands of Russia ― the military-political core of the non-Western world, which is freeing itself from the shackles of neo-colonialism ― but better still blow it up, thus radically weakening the rising alternative superpower ― China. For our part, we delayed our preemptive strike either because we misunderstood the inevitability of a clash, or because we were gathering strength. Moreover, following modern, mainly Western, military-political thought, we thoughtlessly set too high a threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, inaccurately assessed the situation in Ukraine, and did not start the military operation there successfully enough.”

Evidently, Russian experts are just as good as NATO/democratic ones are at criticizing their own side for not having taken the other side’s hostility seriously enough. In Russia’s case, what this misperception and misjudgment kept it from seeing, according to Karaganov, is how the West’s Ukraine war policy is full of world-war potential, following from the “failure” and “inhumane ideologies” of the Western elites:

“What is most important is that the situation will only get worse there. Truce is possible, but peace is not. Anger and despair will keep growing in shifts and turns. This vector of the West’s movement unambiguously indicates a slide towards World War III. It is already beginning and may erupt into a full-blown firestorm by chance or due to the growing incompetence and irresponsibility of modern ruling circles in the West.”

Karaganov explains the West’s total readiness for war by a crucial negative reason that leads him to his proposal for overcoming the otherwise inevitable world-war situation. The reason is that nuclear deterrence no longer works. As he puts it:

“The situation is aggravated by ‘strategic parasitism’ ― over the 75 years of relative peace, people have forgotten the horrors of war and even stopped fearing nuclear weapons. The instinct of self-preservation has weakened everywhere, but particularly in the West.

For many years I have studied the history of nuclear strategy and come to an unambiguous, albeit seemingly not quite scientific, conclusion. The creation of nuclear weapons was the result of divine intervention. Horrified to see that people, Europeans and the Japanese who had joined them, had unleashed two world wars within the life-span of one generation, sacrificing tens of millions of lives, God handed a weapon of Armageddon to humanity to remind those who had lost the fear of hell that it existed. It was this fear that ensured relative peace for the last three quarters of a century. That fear is gone now. What is happening now is unthinkable in accordance with previous ideas about nuclear deterrence: in a fit of desperate rage, the ruling circles of a group of countries have unleashed a full-scale war in the underbelly of a nuclear superpower.

That fear needs to be revived. Otherwise, humanity is doomed.”

Up to this point, Karaganov’s colleagues agree with his considerations, without resorting to God or Western moral collapse and being remarkably sober by comparison and just as blunt.

Ivan Timofeev[3] defines Russia’s strategic situation this way:

“The underlying assumption Sergei Karaganov makes in his article is that the Ukraine crisis and relations with the West are a deep ‘bleeding wound’ for Russia. Human lives and material resources are running into the sand, distracting us from more promising relations with the Global Majority.

Even a military victory in the Ukraine conflict will not solve the problem. The West will continue to restrain Russia with much zeal, seeking to wear the country out economically and facilitating conditions for revolutionary upheavals. This assessment seems to be correct.”

This author explains the origin and escalation of the war situation without drawing on Karaganov’s theory of Western world domination rotting away. He sees Ukraine’s struggle as a war to actually found a state. In the West he sees a quite intact elite taking resolute steps against Russia’s turning away from the West, so he can’t offer the consolation that imperialism can be expected to collapse:

“We are going through an acute phase of deepening contradictions which had not been resolved by the end of the Cold War and which are now growing even deeper. Relations between Russia and the West have slowly degraded since the mid-1990s, although Moscow has made several attempts to improve them and reach a compromise. Russia has for a long time underestimated her perception in the West as a fading power that does not deserve equal relations. The West, in turn, has underestimated the determination of the Russian leadership to take extreme measures to make it heed Moscow’s position. The Ukrainian conflagration is a delayed consequence of the mistakes and contradictions that have piled up for more than 30 years. What could have happened in the early 1990s by the Yugoslav scenario as a big civil war is happening now, when Russia and Ukraine have long been recognized internationally as different states, which they legally are. An open armed conflict has spurred the hitherto simmering processes, bringing them out of shadow: NATO’s enlargement and militarization, the expansion of its military and political presence in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. For three decades, these processes developed slowly — once open conflict broke out, however, they have made a jump beyond anything we have seen since the end of the Cold War. There is no doubt about their irreversibility now. Over the past year and a half, Russia has made an equally abrupt turn to rely on its own resources and reorient its economic and humanitarian cooperation towards the Global Majority. What had been going slowly and hesitantly since the time of Yevgeny Primakov[*] accelerated perforce after February 2022.

Now, Russia and the West are locked in a fierce confrontation that will continue for years. It is far from obvious whose side time is on. There is a popular belief in Russia that the West is about to collapse under the pressure of objective historical processes so that the problem of Ukraine will apparently get solved all by itself. But what if the West doesn’t collapse? Or if it collapses after Russia has overstrained itself or missed its historical chance? What if time plays against us even if we secure a military victory in the special military operation? After all, the West’s policy of containment will not go anywhere.

This is the scenario Sergei Karaganov visualizes. It is hard to argue with him on that. Using the author’s expression, the West will not ‘get lost.’”

Karaganov concludes from this scenario (as discussed further below) that Russia must restore the effect of nuclear deterrence through the shock of a nuclear strike, i.e., violate the taboo on using nuclear weapons, in order to make the other side stop calling nuclear deterrence altogether into question by its actions. By contrast, Timofeev, with his more sober view of those commanding the West, sees the risk primarily on his own side:

“This prompts a logical solution — a rapid escalation up the nuclear conflict ladder. In short, this means a crisis that would shock the West, forcing it to overhaul its approach to Russia and leave it alone, agreeing, among other things, to a new status quo in Ukraine. The only thing that can produce such a shock is the real use of nuclear weapons, but without taking the nuclear conflict to the level of strategic arms.

Despite its seeming logic, the implementation of this approach would be extremely dangerous. It underestimates the Western elites’ determination to climb the escalation ladder with Russia, and, if necessary, ahead of it.”

Dmitry Trenin,[4] in his response to Sergei Karaganov’s article, starts off with the same diagnosis of Russia’s strategic situation:

“In his recent article, Sergei Karaganov has publicly raised an utterly difficult question concerning the use of nuclear weapons in the ongoing 16-month special military operation in Ukraine. Many responses to this publication boil down to a well-known formula: there can be no winners in nuclear war and therefore there must be no war. Replying to a question at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, President Vladimir Putin said that nuclear weapons are a deterrent and the conditions for their use are defined in doctrinal documents; a theoretical possibility of their use exists, but there is no need to do that now.

From the very beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, nuclear weapons have actually been ‘on the table’ of Russian politics precisely as a means of keeping the United States and its allies from getting involved in the armed confrontation. Nevertheless, repeated public references to Russia’s nuclear status by its president and other officials have so far not prevented NATO’s creeping escalation of the crisis and increasingly growing involvement in the hostilities in Ukraine. Eventually it became clear that nuclear deterrence, which many in Moscow relied on as an effective means of ensuring the vital interests of the country, has turned out to have much more limited uses.…

The U.S. strategy is most likely based on the belief that the Russian leadership will not dare use nuclear weapons in the current conflict, and its references to Russia’s nuclear capabilities are nothing but a bluff. Even the deployment of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus seems not to have perturbed the Americans, at least publicly. Such ‘fearlessness’ is a direct result of geopolitical transformations over the past three decades and the change of generations of politicians and leaders in the United States and the West as a whole.

The restraining fear of the atomic bomb, which existed throughout the second half of the 20th century, is gone. Nuclear weapons are left aside. The practical conclusion from this is obvious: there is no need to be afraid of Russia’s reaction.”

The author sees the reason for this fatal fearlessness of the West more in the West’s gain in power since the end of the Soviet Union than in a moral decline of the elites. He is accordingly harsh in diagnosing the significance of Washington’s Ukraine-war strategy:

“The United States has essentially set itself the unthinkable task of defeating another nuclear superpower in a region that is strategically important for the latter, without resorting to nuclear weapons, but by arming and controlling a third country. At the same time, the Americans act cautiously, testing the opponent’s reaction and consistently expanding the boundaries of arms supplies to Kiev as well as the choice of targets for them. In fact, starting with the supply of anti-tank weapons, the U.S. has come close to sending F-16 jet fighters and long-range missiles to Ukraine.”

For all its caution, however, its policy of escalation is based on a fundamental misjudgment, which Russia itself has admittedly quite negligently contributed to:

“This is an extremely dangerous misperception. The trajectory of the war in Ukraine clearly shows that the conflict is being escalated both horizontally by expanding the theater of operations, and vertically by increasing the power of the weapons used and the intensity of their use. We must soberly admit that this trajectory leads towards a direct armed clash between Russia and NATO. If this inertia is not stopped, such a collision will occur, in which case the war will spread to Europe and will almost inevitably go nuclear. After some time, a nuclear war in Europe will most likely lead to an exchange of strikes between Russia and the United States.

The Americans and their allies are actually playing Russian Roulette. True, so far Russia’s reaction to the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines, drone attacks on a strategic air base in Engels, the incursion of Western-armed saboteurs into the Belgorod region, and many other actions of Ukraine, backed and directed by Washington, has been relatively reserved. As President Putin recently made it clear, there are serious grounds for such reserve. The Supreme Commander-in-Chief said that Russia has the ability to destroy any building in Kiev, but it will not stoop to the methods of terror the enemy uses. However, Putin also said that Russia is considering different options for destroying Western combat aircraft if they are deployed in NATO countries but used in the war in Ukraine.

Until now, the Russian strategy in the Ukraine conflict has allowed the enemy to ramp up the hostilities. The West used this in an attempt to wear Russia out on the battlefield and destabilize it from the inside. Following the same path makes no sense for us.”

For Trenin, what follows from this is what Karaganov has put up for debate and what Timofeev finds logical but wrong:

“On the contrary, it makes sense to refine and update our nuclear deterrence strategy, taking into account the practical experience gained during the conflict in Ukraine. The current doctrinal provisions were worded not only before the start of the special military operation, but apparently without a clear understanding of what might happen during it.

Apart from purely military considerations, Russia’s foreign strategy also includes foreign-policy, information, and other aspects. We should send our main adversary an unambiguous ― not verbal any more ― signal that Moscow will not play at giveaway and by the rules set by the opposite side. At the same time, we should build a trust-based dialogue with our strategic partners and neutral states, explaining the motives and goals of our actions. The possibility of using nuclear weapons during the current conflict should not be hushed up. Such a perspective, real not theoretical, should serve as an incentive to curb and stop conflict escalation and ultimately pave the way for a strategic equilibrium in Europe that suits us.”

In their diagnosis of the trouble the Ukraine war has become and will deepen for their country, all three experts refer to Russia’s nuclear armament as a security guarantee for the nation. They see it as being progressively overridden by the West’s escalation of the war and their own side’s patient acceptance of this. Sergei Karaganov as quoted above speaks of “75 years of relative peace” based on the “credibility of nuclear deterrence” that Russia must “restore” to get the Cold War situation back:

“The enemy must know that we are ready to deliver a preemptive strike in retaliation for all of its current and past acts of aggression in order to prevent a slide into global thermonuclear war.

I have said and written many times that if we correctly build a strategy of intimidation and deterrence and even use of nuclear weapons, the risk of a ‘retaliatory’ nuclear or any other strike on our territory can be reduced to an absolute minimum. Only a madman, who, above all, hates America, will have the guts to strike back in ‘defense’ of Europeans, thus putting his own country at risk and sacrificing conditional Boston for conditional Poznan. Both the U.S. and Europe know this very well, but they just prefer not to think about it. We have encouraged this thoughtlessness ourselves with our own peace-loving rhetoric. From studying the history of the American nuclear strategy I know that after the USSR had gained the convincing ability to respond to a nuclear strike, Washington did not seriously consider, although bluffed in public, the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Soviet territory. If they ever considered such a possibility, they did so only against the ‘advancing’ Soviet troops in Western Europe itself.”

Dmitri Trenin begins also quoted above by referring “to a well-known formula: there can be no winners in nuclear war and therefore there must be no war.” Summing up his reflections that it might become necessary to escalate the conflict with the West by using nuclear weapons, he returns to the all-encompassing significance of nuclear deterrence, which it might be possible to reinstate through a nuclear strike:

“We must be ready for such a turn. In order to avoid a global catastrophe, fear must be brought back into politics and public consciousness: in the nuclear age, this is the only guarantee of humanity’s survival.”

Ivan Timofeev develops a similar scenario of increasingly destructive Russian nuclear strikes to finally hit on the pointlessness of the inevitable final step:

“What’s next? Use strategic weapons? But the one who uses them first will die second as a result of a retaliatory strike. This will be a disaster with tens of millions of casualties in Russia, Europe, and America. Other parts of the world will have a hard time, too, including the Global Majority, due to the disruption of global economic processes, possible climate changes, radiation, and other factors.

Not everyone will go to heaven. Perhaps, many will survive, but they will find themselves in a radioactive hell. Under such a scenario, the Russian state will most likely be catastrophically undermined if not destroyed.”

Nuclear deterrence makes sense only to rule out this last step, as an absolute guarantee for the state’s existence:

“Nuclear weapons retain their significance as a deterrent. Should there be direct military aggression against Russia or a threat to the very existence of the state, their use may become inevitable in full compliance with the effective Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence. Otherwise, other foreign policy tools should be used.”

To repeat: in their characterization of Russia’s precarious war situation, all three experts assume that it is headed toward or must absolutely not head toward an escalation that has always been considered out of the question, as expressed by the “formula” that nuclear war is impossible. They see Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons as a security guarantee that the West is effectively ignoring in Ukraine. The matter they are referring to — the specific achievement of nuclear deterrence — is therefore worth an objective explanation, without the partisan standpoint of being disappointed after trusting in it. After all, if this supposed survival insurance fails as soon as the Russian side needs it and relies on it, then peace (be it only a “relative” one, and even if it has somehow lasted for three quarters of a century) can’t have been the ultimate strategic purpose of thousands of nuclear weapons, or what the corresponding special kind of military deterrence is all about.


So what has it been about?

In reality, the military quality of this type of weapon, its incredible dangerousness, and the resulting, completely redefined level of strategic confrontation between the two major nuclear powers, were made the object of a nuclear deterrence policy conceived and implemented by the USA, very soon after the Soviet Union “got the bomb” itself. This policy has always started out from a standpoint that was not at all self-evident, not at all to be taken for granted by the USA as a world-war winner. The thing was that once the new main enemy was catching up to the US by its own massive nuclear armament, it was no longer properly feasible to wage war with such “weapons of mass destruction” on the conventional (i.e., from then on considered “conventional”) model of attacking, defending, overpowering the enemy to the point of a victory that the stronger side chalked up as a success. This recognition did not lead to a throwaway campaign; instead the power that was imperialistically more experienced, technologically superior and diplomatically in charge came to the ever clearer and more consistent conclusion that security could only be had at the highest level of strategic confrontation if the anti-American side in turn ‘understood’ that regular warfare was impossible with nuclear weapons, i.e., recognized this and respected it despite all continuing and increasing hostility. The absolute refusal of the “free West” to accept the “socialist camp,” the war relationship between the East and the West, could be established, maintained, and expanded — only — by being “frozen.” It was a Cold War based on both sides agreeing, in arms control treaties, that a direct military confrontation had to result in mutual destruction and was therefore out of the question. The beauty of this agreement was visible from the outset in diplomatic meetings where each side’s negotiators openly laid their tools for destroying each other on the table. And it subsequently showed a quite logical development. Strategically, a sequence of steps was worked out for the nuclear war to be avoided at all costs, involving first strike and second strike, and introducing the principle of “mutually assured destruction” into world history. This is what the Russian expert refers to above saying “the one who uses them first will die second.” Militarily, the result had to be an arms buildup that has ever since followed the imperative of credibility: it had to guarantee an absolutely unshakable capacity for “massive retaliation.” This was something the USA has never related to any particular points of view, but rather set the criteria for. It can be left open whether the uppermost intent has always been to consolidate the “balance of terror” or to shake off the “nuclear stalemate” shackles, with the constant (re)establishment of balanced nuclear deterrence being “only” the result. After all, the crucial thing has always been the politics that the “superpowers,” mainly the leading imperialist power America, have pursued on the premise that strategic nuclear war could not be waged once the USA spelled the premise out and its global opponent acknowledged it. Renouncing mutual annihilation has allowed each power to gain freedom of action: to confront each other below the “forbidden” level of directly attacking the other’s sovereignty; to use their unequivocally superior military power to intervene by force in world affairs in general; and — taking those two freedoms in combination — to wage proxy wars on fronts all over the world.

At the same time, the “balance of terror” they attained has never meant there was any balance in their power to act on the global stage. For the Soviet Union, the “nuclear stalemate” was in reality essentially the way to guarantee its existence in view of a world-war situation implemented by the West under the heading “containment.” For its decimated successor, this hasn’t changed. For the world power of democratic imperialism, the same “stalemate” is a concession it has been forced to make to the enemy, restricting its dominance in a barely tolerable way. But America has always defined and handled this restriction very offensively: as an instrument for its freedom of action. It has never got tied up in an escalating defensive struggle itself, but has instead repeatedly put its adversary in the awkward situation of having to defend the territory it rules over, and having to overextend itself by building up more and more arms to keep proving its strategic equality with the Western superpower even though the West has basically recognized it. Quite unlike its enemy, the USA has used the stipulation ruling out direct confrontation to enhance the quality of its sub-nuclear military power and forge a system of alliances, thereby committing the world of states to a “world order” based on letting it lay hold of this world as a source of its national wealth and a resource for its power. All in all, nuclear deterrence policy has paid off for the USA; it has guaranteed its freedom to make imperialistic use of the globe at its own discretion, following only its own calculations of expense and return, and to thwart all its adversary’s claims and objections.


This — coming to a head — is exactly what the three Russian experts notice with partisan dismay by the way the Ukrainian war is going. The nuclear “balance” has created real, politically effective, militarily backed freedom of action only for the side that is able to display the greater power below this highest strategic level. What Russia thought it could do by invading Ukraine was to use the exclusion of direct confrontation by nuclear war to prevent its power from being pushed back and constricted in Europe, to undo what had already been done. What it is confronted with is that this will not work. The Western side is managing to check Russia’s military buildup, thoroughly wear it out, and strategically put it on the defensive in the theater Russia has chosen. Instead of Russia putting the West in the awkward situation of being existentially challenged, as a nuclear power, in a conventional war, the roles are reversed. And that is awkward in a completely different way from the question that accompanies every “normal” military action: what is the strategically successful, politically worthwhile, and therefore militarily sensible relation of cost (resources and human material) to benefit (effective gain in power)? For an escalation based on this criterion, nuclear-deterrence weapons are useless as already quoted:

“From the very beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, nuclear weapons have actually been ‘on the table’ of Russian politics precisely as a means of keeping the United States and its allies from getting involved in the armed confrontation. Nevertheless, repeated public references to Russia’s nuclear status by its president and other officials have so far not prevented NATO’s creeping escalation of the crisis and increasingly growing involvement in the hostilities in Ukraine. Eventually it became clear that nuclear deterrence, which many in Moscow relied on as an effective means of ensuring the vital interests of the country, has turned out to have much more limited uses.” (Dmitri Trenin)

The great “weapons of mass destruction” are simply unsuitable for the security problem that nuclear power Russia wants to solve in Ukraine; they do not give it the freedom of action it is fighting for by conventional means there. And that is because the Western nuclear power, despite its “creeping” escalation of its “hostilities in Ukraine” to attack Russia’s “vital interests,” is simply not treating this confrontation as the critical situation that “nuclear deterrence” is supposed to prevent, and would actually have prevented according to Cold War logic. Dmitri Trenin again:

“The United States has essentially set itself the unthinkable task of defeating another nuclear superpower in a region that is strategically important for the latter, without resorting to nuclear weapons, but by arming and controlling a third country.”

The USA is pushing a war that Russia is supposed to lose, and nonetheless not waging it with the weapons that would take the USA over the threshold to a “forbidden” strategic exchange. In this way, the West is respecting the dictate of nuclear deterrence — the “nuclear standoff” — while escalating conventional war in Ukraine. But it is not respecting it as the ultimate threat it must expect to be carried out in this war. So the USA is more or less depriving its Russian enemy of this last impregnable shield in Ukraine, without giving up the “weapon” of nuclear deterrence itself.

On the basis of this assessment of the situation, Trenin sees the Americans as running the risk of a suicidal miscalculation here because in the end Russia may not be able to avoid first use of a nuclear weapon, with the dire consequences that might entail. Ivan Timofeev, by contrast, expects that the USA might even then not see a need to engage in the final nuclear exchange, and would shy away from this risk if a nuclear weapon were used in Ukraine. He thinks it more likely that the West will continue having the freedom to calibrate its response in such a way as to keep the situation under control for it:

“The governments of the United States and other nuclear powers in the West will most likely carefully think over the level of response. They will try to keep the escalation under control, striking when and where they consider it necessary and convenient.”

The fundamental dilemma this makes for Russia is reflected in all three experts’ comments when they work out the scenarios that would result for Russia if it tried to counter the West by using nuclear weapons when the Ukraine war escalates further. Sergei Karaganov, the initiator of the whole debate, does so with a strange mixture of despair and optimism:

“And this brings me to the most difficult part of this article. We can keep fighting for another year, or two, or three, sacrificing thousands and thousands of our best men and grinding down tens and hundreds of thousands of people who live in the territories that is now called Ukraine and who have fallen into the tragic historical trap. But this military operation cannot end with a decisive victory without forcing the West to retreat strategically, or even surrender, and compelling it to give up attempts to reverse history and preserve global dominance, and to focus on itself and its current multilevel crisis. Roughly speaking, it must ‘buzz off’ so that Russia and the world could move forward unhindered.…

We must not repeat the ‘Ukrainian scenario.’ For a quarter of a century, we did not listen to those who warned that NATO expansion would lead to war, and tried to delay and ‘negotiate.’ As a result, we have got a severe armed conflict. The price of indecision now will be higher by an order of magnitude.

But what if they do not back down? What if they have lost the instinct of self-preservation completely? In this case we will have to hit a bunch of targets in a number of countries in order to bring those who have lost their mind to reason.”

Karaganov draws all the other states of the world into this bold calculation, saying they will ultimately benefit if Russia goes to extremes in resisting the West:

“Morally, this is a terrible choice as we will use God’s weapon, thus dooming ourselves to grave spiritual losses. But if we do not do this, not only Russia can die, but most likely the entire human civilization will cease to exist.”

And this even if the lucky states don’t accept it right away:

“We can hardly count on quick support, even if many countries in the Global South would feel satisfaction from the defeat of their former oppressors, who robbed, perpetrated genocides, and imposed an alien culture.

But in the end, the winners are not judged. And the saviors are thanked. European political culture does not remember good things. But the rest of the world remembers with gratitude how we helped the Chinese free themselves from the brutal Japanese occupation, and how we helped colonies free themselves from the colonial yoke. If we are not understood at once, there will be even more incentives to engage in self-improvement. But still, it is quite likely that we will be able to win, bring our enemy to reason and force it to back off without resorting to extreme measures, and a few years later take a position behind China, as it now stands behind us, supporting it in its fight with the United States. In this case it will be possible to avoid a big war. Together we will win for the benefit of everyone, including the people living in Western countries.”

Dmitri Trenin’s sketch of a presumed course of nuclear war leads him to the half-open conclusion that, although it might be absolutely necessary for Russia to use nuclear weapons in its military situation, no clear success is foreseeable:

“As for possible Russian nuclear strikes on NATO countries, hypothetically speaking, Washington is unlikely to respond to these strikes by attacking Russia for fear of its retaliation against the United States. The absence of such a reaction will dispel the myth built for decades around Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and will lead to the deepest crisis in NATO, perhaps even to its collapse. It cannot be ruled out that the Atlantic elites in NATO and EU countries will panic and will be swept away by national forces, which will realize that the security of their countries does not depend on the non-existent U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella,’ but on building equitable relations with Russia. It may also be quite possible that America will finally leave Russia alone.

The above considerations may or may not prove entirely correct. There may not be an immediate U.S. nuclear strike on Russia. In fact, the Americans are unlikely to sacrifice Boston for Poznan just as they were not going to sacrifice Chicago for Hamburg during the Cold War. But there is likely to be some kind of response from the United States. This non-nuclear response ― let’s not make guesses about what exactly it may [be] ― in all probability will be sensitive and painful for us. It will probably pursue a goal similar to ours: paralyzing the will of the Russian leadership to continue the war and creating panic in Russian society.

The Russian leadership is unlikely to capitulate after such an attack as the very existence of Russia will be at stake. A retaliatory strike is likely to follow, and we can assume that this time it will target the main adversary rather than its allies.

So let us stop at this point of no return and summarize our preliminary analysis. The ‘nuclear bullet’ must necessarily and demonstratively be put into the ‘revolver drum’ the U.S. leadership is recklessly playing with. To paraphrase a now-deceased American statesman, we can say: Why do we need nuclear weapons if we refuse to use them in the face of an existential threat?

There is no need to scare anyone verbally. It is necessary to prepare for a possible use practically, thoroughly considering possible options and their consequences.”

When it comes to “an existential threat,” he makes an assessment, in closing, that includes a noteworthy admission:

“The war in Ukraine has become protracted. As far as one can judge from the actions of the Russian leadership, it expects to achieve strategic success, relying on internal resources, which by far surpass those of Ukraine, and on the fact that the stakes for Russia in this war are much higher than for the West. This perception is probably correct, but it must be borne in mind that the adversary assesses Russia’s chances differently from us and can take steps fraught with a direct armed clash between Russia and NATO and the United States.”

It is the Russian side, not America, that is in existential danger. It expects to achieve “strategic success” not only because it believes it can, but because it absolutely needs it; that is what the West must not overlook.

Ivan Timofeev, finally, finds a catchy image to show how useless Russia’s strategic deterrent power is for winning the escalating war in Ukraine:

“Sergei Karaganov is quite accurate in assessing the current risks of a slow escalation. The West is gradually raising the bar for arms supplies to Ukraine. While they talked about defensive systems earlier, they are now gradually supplementing them with increasingly advanced offensive weapons. Roughly speaking, they are trying to cook Russia on a slow fire. Nuclear escalation is a way to jump out of the boiler, abruptly bringing the temperature to the boiling point. The problem is that after jumping out of the boiler, you can get directly into the fire.”

He concludes that it is necessary to decide the war in Ukraine the way it was conceived and waged from the outset, i.e., with conventional weapons, staying below the higher level of nuclear deterrence for which nuclear weapons of course ultimately remain indispensable:

“The question arises: if the proposals under consideration are risky while unlikely to solve the problems with the West, is there an alternative? There is. An alternative would be living with a ‘bleeding wound’ in the form of a hostile West and Ukraine, but understanding that the confrontation with Russia is also a ‘bleeding wound’ for the West, which will be losing resources and political capital.”

For success, he banks on the very indefinite time factor, and more definitely on the degree of freedom to act on the global stage that Russia still has on the premise that its nuclear deterrence is still effective. Not a very grand option, since it is tied to an admitted dependence on the other great anti-American power; but at least the anarchy of competition includes the possibility of achieving success through one’s own efforts:

“Not only Russia, but also the omnipotent West, is slowly boiled. Such a ‘wound’ does not seem to be an exorbitant problem for the United States, given its huge potential. But the slowly boiling relations with China are changing the nature and the danger of the ‘wound’ in the form of a hostile Russia.

Moscow has the opportunity to consolidate the status quo on the battlefield, withstand the tsunami of sanctions and stop attempts to incite internal destabilization. Yes, the price is quite high already. But a preemptive nuclear strike will neither recover losses nor solve the problem. Over time, Russia will get a chance to tighten the ‘bleeding wound’ or reduce the loss of ‘blood,’ because Moscow is not the only headache for the United States and the West.

In addition, a turn to the East can increasingly make the western direction secondary and then tertiary for Russia. Hopes for a conciliation with the West in the current situation are illusory. Rivalry is a long-term factor for the relations with the West, with all the ensuing costs and losses. Ultimately, however, international relations are doomed to anarchy and competition.”

An American response

The other side also has something to say about the freedom to act on the global stage based on the Cold War relationship of nuclear deterrence between the USA and Russia. What Jake Sullivan says in a speech in June of this year[5] perfectly fits the debate between the three Russian experts. It fits both in terms of the matter at hand, i.e., the imperialist status of the USA in confronting its Russian enemy, and in terms of the agenda that goes with this and America’s affirmative awareness of itself.

He begins with an unreservedly positive review of the “era” when the USA and the Soviet Union agreed on the policy of mutual nuclear deterrence in the diplomatic framework of arms control:

“60 years ago next month — in grainy, black and white video — President Kennedy addressed the nation. He was sitting behind the same Resolute desk that President Biden sits behind now nearly every day, and that I sit across from him nearly every day. ‘My fellow citizens,’ he said. ‘I speak to you tonight in a spirit of hope… Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests…’

After years of non-stop negotiations, or stop-and-start negotiations to be more precise —Years of dialogue — Years of commitment and courage — Establishing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a huge moment. Not only for our own national security. But for the security and stability of the world. And as this group knows well, it was one of the first steps that would help slowly usher in an era of responsible arms control and nuclear deterrence measures. An era where nations could compartmentalize the issues of strategic stability, even if they couldn’t cooperate on much anything else. An era where adversaries could disagree and debate across basically every domain, but could always find ways to work together to limit nuclear risks. An era where world leaders chose transparency even during times of tension — especially during times of tension — because what was at stake was too important, too vital to our shared future. That is the foundation of nuclear stability and security that we’ve depended on for decades. And it’s the foundation that the Arms Control Association has helped to uphold across generations.”

From America’s point of view, recounted here by the Security Adviser, this wonderful achievement of “nuclear deterrence measures” was the work of the USA. The Soviet Union, the partner itself capable of deterrence in the epochal deal, is not even mentioned as such. It anonymously comes under the general category of “adversaries” with whom it was possible, under American leadership, to bracket “issues of strategic stability” out of the ongoing hostility (referred to a bit euphemistically as “disagreeing across basically every domain”). This emphasis on the US and failure to mention the Soviet Union are an extremely gentle way to refer to the interest actually asserted by America at the time and institutionalized between the “East” and the “West.” The US was out to use nuclear arms control to make sure that its imperialist freedom of action was divorced from a genuine strategic threat “even during times of tension.” He says this is guaranteed by the agreed “transparency,” which in his speech takes the place of the thing that arms control was making “transparent” and keeping out of war-laden world events. It was the two great nuclear powers’ ability and resolve to prove by mutually assured destruction, when push came to shove, that it was impossible to wage a nuclear war that made any political sense, something both sides recognized.

Painting this flattering picture of the Cold War logic prevailing in the decades up to the Soviet Union’s self-abandonment makes way for accusing Russia of betraying the idyllic conditions of old:

“But over the last few years — that foundation has begun to erode. And today, we now stand at what our President would call an ‘inflection point’ in our nuclear stability and security. A point that demands new strategies for achieving the same goal we’ve held since the Cold War: Reduce the risk of nuclear conflict.

So today, I’d like to lay out what we’re endeavoring to do in pursuit of this. I’ll start with the cracks in the foundation that we see — the new threats that are challenging the post–Cold War nuclear order. And then I’ll walk through how we’re trying to adapt both our nuclear deterrence and our arms control strategies to meet this moment.

As we’ve all seen recently, some of the major cracks in our nuclear foundation have come from Russia. Last year, Russian forces recklessly attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine — the largest operational nuclear plant in Europe — with little concern for the potential catastrophic consequences of a nuclear incident. Earlier this year, President Putin unlawfully suspended Russia’s implementation of the New START Treaty that places limits on the most destructive weapons in our arsenals — the kinds that could destroy the world many times over. Only a month later, President Putin began to take steps to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. And, as we all saw just a few days ago, Putin formally announced that he will withdraw from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe — putting the final nail in the coffin of an agreement that once served as a cornerstone of European security, which Moscow began violating years ago. But even prior to Russia’s brutal assault against Ukraine, Putin has been destabilizing the nuclear foundation our forebearers laid. For years, he’s advanced the development of dangerous new nuclear capabilities, like radiation-spewing, nuclear-powered cruise missiles — all while modernizing and stockpiling old capabilities that aren’t regulated by arms control agreements — like theater-range missiles and torpedoes. Russia’s actions have been dealing body blows to the post-Cold war nuclear arms control framework.”

It is again striking that although Sullivan sees Russia as posing an extreme threat with weapons “that could destroy the world many times over” at the same time America itself is somehow immune. The US does not really see any attack on itself, its own security, let alone a dilemma for its own strategic power. The Ukraine war, while being the explosive current confrontation between the West and an enemy nuclear power, is mentioned only as the danger of a nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, and by reference to tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus at least. But what is in real danger is the arms control agreement (no matter that the Americans terminated it themselves). That is also the angle for looking at “the development of dangerous new nuclear capabilities.” It is an unwelcome reminder of the reason for the arms-control achievement that America watches over: Russia’s capacity for nuclear deterrence.

After mentioning this relationship of virtual annihilation that puts Russia on a strategic par with the USA, Sullivan makes a generalization that considerably waters down this adversary’s special position. That is, the USA’s security policy that it owes to itself as a world power and to the whole world must also address the existence of three other hostile nuclear powers, one significant, one illegal, and one possibly about to appear:

“But it’s not just Russia that we have to look to, to consider the full scope of the context we find ourselves in today with respect to nuclear security and stability. We’ve also seen a change in approach from the People’s Republic of China. By 2035, the PRC is on track to have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads — one of the largest peacetime nuclear build-ups in history. But unlike Russia — who is threatening to walk away from the negotiating table, from the arms control agreements our countries have relied upon for years — the PRC has thus far opted not to come to the table for substantive dialogue on arms control. It has declined to share the size and scope of its nuclear forces, or to provide launch notifications. And it has not shown much interest in discussions regarding the changes it is making to its nuclear forces. Simply put, we have not yet seen a willingness from the PRC to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship. And that compartmentalization, as I noted before, has been the bedrock of nuclear security — indeed strategic stability — for decades.

Finally — we’re seeing increasing nuclear threats from the DPRK and Iran.

In the last year alone, Kim Jung Un declared that he aimed to have quote, ‘the world’s most powerful,’ nuclear arsenal — announcing plans to ramp up the development of everything from tactical nukes, to ICBMs, to unmanned underwater nuclear weapons. He announced a sweeping new ‘Nuclear Forces Policy Law’ that would permit Pyongyang to use nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear states — in direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. And, he has tested more ballistic missiles than any other period in the DPRK’s history.

On Iran — after the previous Administration’s departure from a deal that put strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear development, and prevented it from obtaining a nuclear weapon — Iran’s nuclear program was left unconstrained. As a result, Iran is now operating more advanced centrifuges. It has enriched more uranium, including at levels closer to weapons grade. And it has done so with less international monitoring of its program, than when it was under the strict constraints of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

What follows for America is a “new era” of “strategic stability” in which the supposedly idyllic arms-controlled Cold War is a thing of the past:

“Taken together, the cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation are substantial and they are deep. And today, we’re entering a new era — one that demands new strategies and solutions to achieve the goals we’ve always had: Prevent an arms race. Reduce the risk of misperception and escalation. And most importantly, ensure the safety and security of our people — and people around the world — from nuclear threats.”

“Prevent an arms race” is the diplomatic way of saying what he subsequently expresses clearly as America’s plan to upgrade its armaments so as to set standards that other powers cannot attain. The goal to “reduce the risk of misperception and escalation” at any rate implies it will continue to be necessary to reach a consensus on the non-use of this “weapon of mass destruction” with every nuclear-armed adversary in order to prevent any unclear points from impairing the USA’s freedom to treat them as enemies. And that is the whole service to “our people and people around the world.” So:

“Same goals, new strategy. That’s the core of our approach to strategic stability — one that can be boiled down to two main lines of effort. First, update our deterrence capabilities and plans. And second, advance new arms control and risk reduction measures. These are two sides of the same proverbial nuclear coin. Responsibly enhancing our deterrent capabilities allows us to negotiate arms control from a position of strength and confidence — and new arms control helps limit and shape our adversaries’ decisions on nuclear capabilities. And so today, I’d like to spend a little time discussing each of these sides of the nuclear coin.

I’ll start with the deterrence side of the coin — where we’re taking a two-pronged approach.

First — we’re modernizing our nuclear program here at home. In practice, that means replacing each leg of our nuclear Triad — land-based ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers. It means updating our nuclear command, control, and communications architecture by replacing aging capabilities with next generation systems. And it means investing in our nuclear complex and defense industry to help ensure that we have a responsive nuclear enterprise and a resilient base for long-term competition. And I want to be clear here — the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them. We’ve been there. We’ve learned that lesson. Nor does the United States need to deploy ever-more dangerous nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. Rather, effective deterrence means that we have a ‘better’ approach — not a ‘more' approach. It means ensuring that we have the capacity and capabilities necessary to deter — and if necessary, defeat — major aggression against our country, our allies, and our partners. So to enhance that effectiveness, we’re investing in cutting-edge non-nuclear capabilities that will help sustain our military advantage for decades to come. Capabilities like conventionally-armed hypersonic missiles that can reach heavily-defended, high-value targets — in contrast to the nuclear-capable missiles of similar kind that Russia and China are developing. And capabilities like new space and cyberspace tools that will help the United States retain its advantage across every domain. Together, these modernization efforts will ensure our deterrent capabilities remain secure and strong as we head into the 2030s — when the United States will need to deter two near-peer nuclear powers for the first time in its history.”

So the nuclear-deterrence logic developed in the good old days is in any case still in force to a certain extent. The “nuclear triad,” the arsenal for securing a second strike after an enemy has launched a first strike aimed at destroying one’s nuclear capacity — a strategy worked out since Kennedy’s days — is being “replaced” so as to keep it working under the latest war conditions. What needs to be added is an armament including nuclear capabilities but explicitly also “non-nuclear capabilities,” which no longer only ensure nuclear deterrence in this old sense but can be used against “major aggression” successfully in a militarily sensible way. That means the number one world power is of course all the more in need of the capability to actually “deter two near-peer nuclear powers” so as to retain its freedom of action while dealing with everything it defines as “major aggression.”

There is something else the USA needs both for its ultimate “strategic stability” and for “compartmentalizing” that from whatever wars might prove necessary below that level, e.g., against North Korea as well. In addition to its own dominance it needs the whole system of military alliances that the Biden administration uses to underpin its regime over the world, again after the Trump interlude:

“But we can’t go at it alone — which leads me to the second prong of our deterrence strategy: investing in and strengthening our alliances abroad. That has been President Biden’s overriding priority — indeed in many ways, his strategic North Star — since his very first day as President of the United States. And, as we’ve worked to further deepen our alliances, we’ve always remembered that one of our greatest nonproliferation accomplishments of the nuclear age has been U.S. extended deterrence — which has reassured so many of our partners that they do not need to develop nuclear weapons of their own. For example, in April, the President reaffirmed our ironclad mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea — including our extended deterrence commitment. And together with President Yoon, he signed the Washington Declaration — a step that created more mechanisms for cooperation between our two countries — including during a potential nuclear crisis — and showed a recommitment to our shared nonproliferation objectives.

Together with our NATO Allies, we’ve been laser focused on modernizing the Alliance’s nuclear capabilities — from ensuring broad participation in the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent mission, to certifying our F-35 aircraft to be able to deliver modern nuclear gravity bombs. All of these new steps — from revitalizing our nuclear program here at home, to reinvigorating our alliances abroad, and all of the elements that fall into those two categories — are necessary in their own right. But taken together, they’ll help achieve the same strategic stability goals we’ve always had. They’ll show our adversaries and competitors that in an arms race with the United States — that any arms race with the United States — is counterproductive at best, and destructive at worst. And, they’ll help the United States negotiate arms control agreements from that position of strength and confidence that I described.”

For they still remain necessary; first and foremost in relation to Russia:

“Nearly 20 years ago — when then-Senator Biden addressed the Arms Control Association … he said quote, ‘we must invent new approaches and foster new international cooperation to meet changing threats.’ Those words only ring more true today. And under the President’s leadership, we’re advancing three new approaches to strengthen arms control and decrease nuclear risks in this changing nuclear age.

First — we have stated our willingness to engage in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and with China without preconditions. And before I jump into this — let me just step back and say that ‘without preconditions’ does not mean ‘without accountability.’ We’ll still hold nuclear powers accountable for reckless behavior. And we’ll still hold our adversaries and competitors responsible for upholding nuclear agreements. For example — the United States will continue to notify Russia in advance of ballistic missile launches and major strategic exercises, in line with pre-existing nuclear agreements. But yesterday, we adopted lawful, proportionate, and reversible countermeasures in response to Russia’s violations of New START — including suspending our day-to-day notifications to Russia that are required under the Treaty. These steps will help guarantee that Russia does not receive benefits from a treaty they refuse to abide by, and that the principle of reciprocity — a key tenet of strategic arms control — is upheld. It will also demonstrate to Russia the benefits of returning to full compliance — including once again receiving detailed information regarding our nuclear forces — a conversation we continue to press for directly with Russian officials. But, while claiming to suspend New START, Russia has also publicly committed to adhere to the Treaty’s central limits — indicating a potential willingness to continue limiting strategic nuclear forces through 2026. We agree. It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces — and we’re prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does. And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences — the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework. We are prepared to enter into those discussions.”

On the side, Sullivan makes it quite clear that the world power is not negotiating with Russia on an equal footing, but from the standpoint of the obligations it wants to pin its main enemy down to. It is the Biden administration that is calling the shots. In the end, he doesn’t sound like he’s only talking about a new era, however, but about old times. The USA is ready to persuade Russia to achieve “strategic stability” by way of arms control over the long term without first “resolving all of our bilateral differences” meaning: in order to preserve America’s world-dominating freedom to fight out its “differences” with Russia in the “compartment” below “nuclear risks,” i.e., without any regard for them.

One particular reason why the Security Adviser sticks to this special relationship with Russia in his speech is that he always has his eye on the whole world. America’s deterrent agreement with its old and new main enemy is a model for integrating China too, now that its nuclear power is gradually taking on strategic dimensions, into a deterrence regime with an “arms control framework” to guarantee America’s freedom of action over the large range of its normal imperialist superiority. Sullivan goes ahead and extends the new arms control diplomacy to all four of the five recognized nuclear powers that have already been in the world-war business with the USA in one way or another. He even co-opts the Russian enemy for a deterrence policy that would commit China to wall off its sought-for nuclear might from its “differences of opinion” with the USA. Here again, criteria like transparency and avoidance of misunderstandings stand for the thing causing the unmanageable threat the USA is trying to get under control. Also, in view of the qualitative advances in strategic arms that America has been pushing, a new clear distinction is required between the highest level of “nuclear deterrence” and the use of the “non-nuclear capabilities” the world power needs and is procuring for its control regime over whatever “aggression” crops up in the world. The leading power must also provide its “P5” colleagues with corresponding new guidelines:

“Now — the type of limits the United States can agree to after the Treaty expires will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup. That’s why we’re also ready to engage China without preconditions — helping ensure that competition is managed, and that competition does not veer into conflict. It’s our hope that among the topics on the table for diplomatic discussion, Beijing will be willing to include substantive engagement on strategic nuclear issues — which would benefit the security of both of our countries, and the security of the entire world.

Next — the United States is willing to engage in new multilateral arms control efforts, including through the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P5: The United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. We’re under no illusions that reaching risk reduction and arms control measures in that setting will be easy. But we do believe it is possible. And as you all know, four of the five nuclear powers are — with some exceptions that I just mentioned — already de facto committed to some transparency and restraint in their nuclear policies and postures. The U.S., the UK, and France have also all demonstrated their commitments repeatedly to responsible behavior. And — some of the P5 have nuclear agreements with each other. For example, the U.S. and Russia have a ballistic missile launch notification agreement with each other, which I mentioned before. So do Russia and China. But these existing agreements are limited and piecemeal. We can do more. The P5 provides an opportunity [to] manage nuclear risk and arms race pressures through a mix of dialogue, transparency, and agreements. For example, formalizing a missile launch notification regime across the P5 is a straightforward measure that is simply common sense. It’s a small step that would help reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation in times of crisis. And one that could potentially build momentum toward further measures to manage nuclear risks and arms racing —

From maintaining a “human-in-the-loop”[6] for command, control, and employment of nuclear weapons —

To establishing crisis communications channels among the P5 capitals —

To committing to transparency on nuclear policy, doctrine, and budgeting —

To setting up guardrails for managing the interplay between non-nuclear strategic capabilities and nuclear deterrence —

These are all areas where we could take further steps in a multilateral context, working among the P5.”

On the basis of this security it is aiming for, America, represented by its leading security advisor, is once again acting the way Sullivan demonstrated at the beginning of his speech: as the power in charge of global relations of force. As a helpful world power, the USA sees to the ‘norms and values of the new nuclear age’; it lectures the other states in the world on all the major security concerns they have to go along with:

“This leads to my third and final point — the United States will step up to help set the norms and shore up the values of the new nuclear era. We’re already making some progress, including across every major multilateral body that seeks to limit nuclear and WMD risks.

The Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The Conference on Disarmament.

The Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Biological Weapons Convention.

Across all of these forums — we’re leading results-based discussions. And we’re ensuring that our frameworks are fit for the threats we face today and tomorrow. For example — the fielding of weapons based on emerging technologies will create new, interconnected, and unpredictable escalation pathways. So, we’re working to establish new guardrails — especially in space and cyberspace. And of course, with the advent of Artificial Intelligence, this entire picture only becomes more complex and challenging and requires the new kinds of approaches that I’ve been describing throughout the speech. The approach that we are looking at takes into account technologies and tools that could complicate a potential nuclear conflict — like hypersonic weapons, like AI-enabled systems. And as the President often says — we’re making sure that we’re leading not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. That’s why we’ve committed to not conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing — and we’re encouraging our Allies, partners, and competitors to do the same. And it’s why we’ve put forth proposals for responsible behavior in space and principles for the use of AI in the military domain — both of which we are actively promoting in international fora.”

His closing remarks make it clear, summing up, how wrong those Russian experts are to think that US security policy planners, of all people, have lost sight of the dangers of strategic nuclear war. These policymakers have worked out their up-to-date approach to the policy of nuclear deterrence and continue to perfect it:

“Today — as we face new threats and as we face those cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation — I not only believe that we can find this hope again. I believe that we must. Because when it comes to nuclear risks, what is at stake — for our people, and for our world — is too important, too consequential for our shared futures not to. We are under no illusions about the task at hand — of the hard work, and likely the long work needed to help lay a new, stronger foundation for this era. But through new deterrence and arms control measures — one fit for this age — we can turn this moment of peril into a moment of possibility.”

Jake Sullivan, at any rate, is talking about nothing other than deterrence. But as a complement to his Russian colleagues, he is not doing so defensively but from the standpoint of intending to optimize America’s arsenals to make it superior to both the nuclear and the non-nuclear powers in the world.

This imperialist resolve subsumes even the war being waged in Ukraine by the enemy nuclear power. This war, too, is a “moment of peril” that who else but us “can turn into a moment of possibility”!

Translators’ Note

[*] Russian politician and diplomat, Prime Minister 1998–99.

Authors’ Notes

[1] Political Scientist, Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia. “A Difficult but Necessary Decision,” Russia in Global Affairs, full text of article.

[2] His justification for this is an ideological picture of the decline of morality and power of the Western elites and their resistance to that, a picture that shows its origin in the Soviet Communist Party’s wrong theory of imperialism. It plays no role in his diagnosis to start with. Anyone who wants to can read it — as well as the entire debate in its original context — in Russia in Global Affairs, see footnotes 1, 3, and 4.

[3] PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Moscow, Russia; Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council; Program Director of the Valdai Club. “A Preemptive Nuclear Strike? No!” Russia in Global Affairs, full text of article

[4] Research Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University —Higher School of Economics; Lead Researcher at The Center for International Security of The Sector for Non-Proliferation and Arms Limitation, Moscow, Russia. “Conflict in Ukraine and Nuclear Weapons,” Russia in Global Affairs, full text of the article.

[5] Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for the Arms Control Association (ACA) Annual Forum, June 2, 2023,, full text of article.

[6] “Human-in-the-loop” means that human interaction must still be required even in a highly automated process.

© GegenStandpunkt 2023