The Breakdown of Deterrence

Since the end of the Second World War, deterrence became a crucial strategy after the nuclearization of the United States and the USSR. In an incalculably lucky feat of diplomacy, the two powers, which at the time engaged in vicious ideological disputes, somehow found a way to avoid war and total destruction. They competed in other ways (e.g. proxy wars, the Space Race, propaganda), but the use of deterrence strategies is the main reason that the conflict did not escalate to nuclear conflictreached an equilibrium.

Deterrence is a strategy founded on principles of game theory. It instructs strategic players how to coerce their opponent when engaged in zero-sum competition and in the absence of perfect information. To coerce is to convince another power — through negotiation, promises or threats — to accommodate to your interests. As threats and strategic objectives are progressively matched an equilibrium emerges where no player can earn new profit by taking from another player [1]. Thus, the balance of deterrence. To achieve it, nations did their best to signal readiness to retaliate, and armed themselves to ensure the credibility of their threat.

To achieve credibility both powers sought the means to reliably issue a counterattack. This was achieved in the form of the nuclear triad . Signaling readiness was much easier, since the threat of nuclear war was concentrated on their respective territories, any attack would merit at least an equal attack, if not total obliteration, but this was stated in their strategic doctrines for the world to see. The attacker knew that the cost of any strike was equal or greater losses, the “twisted logic” behind the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War. And although the threat of accidental attacks and errors in threat-detection still threatened the stability of the equilibrium, we were fortunate, by the fact of our very existence, and now 74 years have passed since the last nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons of the Cold War era were largely strategic. These are designed to be used against reinforced targets, and thus have greater yields and take longer to deploy, 30–45 minutes to contact. Although the U.S. and Russia are matched in their strategic weapons and have around 1550, deployed and in high alert, the balance is no longer just predicated on strategic weapons [2].

Tactical weapons were originally developed during the Cold War, but their destructive potential soon led to their withdrawal following the Cuban Missile Crisis and NATO wargame casualty estimates [3]. These are often smaller and less destructive, but they can be deployed in as little as 1–3 minutes, and thus lend themselves to wholly different strategies [2]. Russia has modernized their arsenal by adding 500 of these tactical weapons, threatening to upset a delicate balance. In addition, in Russian war games on the its army has been seen developing a strategy known as escalate to de-escalate. This consists of threatening to use nuclear bombs to settle small disputes that would not provoke an opponent sufficiently for them to risk using their nuclear weapons. Take the case of the Crimean Annexation. Since US interests are not such that they would risk all-out war with Russia over the territory, they cannot issue a credible threat, and deterrence breaks down, leaving a gap for Russia to pursue territorial expansion and quickly put an end to any resistance with small, tactical nuclear strikes. The US would have had little chance to respond, even with full knowledge of Russian tactics.

US nuclear doctrine is not suited against this threat because they cannot deter such attacks without tactical weapons of their own. It is obvious to Russia that the US is unwilling to risk all-out war over anything other than a direct threat. As said by Henry Kissinger, “great powers do not commit suicide for their allies.” The beauty of deterrence is that it works without ever having to draw blood, but to do so powers must match each other so that no threat is unmatched. Otherwise, nuclear conflicts are, once more again, on the table.

It is in the interest of all that nuclear war should be averted, but what is not obvious is that for deterrence to render nuclear war strategically unsound, non-proliferation agreements between the US and Russia will have to be renegotiated, particularly the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. On first of February, President Trump withdrew from the treaty, citing Russian non-compliance as the reason, and soon thereafter President Putin followed suit. Although the decision was by no means popular, the choice is backed by the logic of deterrence. Following Russian development of these weapons, the US could no longer effectively deter without developing weapons of their own.

To this end, the US should match capabilities and signal readiness to retaliate against Russian forces in case that they use their short-range armament. This involves the creation and deployment of these weapons and declaring the conditions for their use in US nuclear doctrine. Twisted or not, it is necessary so that nuclear conflict remains a thing of the past.


[1] M. J. Osborne, A Course in Game Theory, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, p. 14.

[2] E. Colby, “If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War: A Strategy for the New Great-Power Rivalry,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 97, no. 6, pp. 25–32, 2018.

[3] W. i. Boring, “Adam Rawnsley,” War is Boring, 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7 03 2019].

[4] ”America’s Nuclear Triad,” United States Department of Defense, [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 02 2019].