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Nuclear Deterrence in Perilous Years


JULY 22, 2022

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resulting toxic relations between Russia and NATO, questions about nuclear deterrence have been revisited by analysts who have spent some time acclimated to a climate of reduced nuclear risk. Will the continuing war in Ukraine push nuclear arms control into the dustbin of history?

Despite the continuity in the basic nature of deterrence, significant geopolitical, doctrinal, and technological developments now demand that we again adapt our deterrence goals, means, and applications to a new strategic landscape.


The rapid pace of technological innovation and proliferation has magnified the scope of change and uncertainty in the emerging threat environment. Adversaries and potential adversaries are improving familiar capabilities and acquiring new and unprecedented instruments of coercion and warfare.

One of the most critical issues requiring imminent future discussion and resolution is the challenge of nuclear arms control. Even before Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Russian-American nuclear arms control dialogue had reached a state of paralysis. The 21st-century choreography of the nuclear arms race is going to be shaken by at least a couple of challenges.

First, the rise of China as a major nuclear power is no longer in doubt. China is modernizing its land- and sea-based nuclear missile forces and bombers, developing the potential for a regionally dominant and globally competitive nuclear arsenal. 

Second, new technology will put stress on prior assumptions about the stability of nuclear deterrence based on assured retaliation. Hypersonic missiles might shorten the time between launch detection and the impact of attacking warheads, or they might confuse antimissile defenses by using evasive tactics.

Drone swarms may be employed either for offensive or defensive purposes to confuse warning and command systems to strike precisely at high-value counterforce or counter command targets, or to locate previously undetectable launch platforms.

Effective nuclear deterrence is increasingly important in this new strategic environment characterized by severe, coercive nuclear threats, and increasing prospect for adversary employment of nuclear weapons, and possibly other Weapons of Mass Destruction. Effective deterrence now demands much greater attention to the deterrence requirements posed by diverse adversaries, and the force flexibility needed to adapt deterrence strategies and capabilities accordingly.

Current debates on nuclear weapons are characterized by prescriptive arguments for disarmament on one side and security-based arguments for deterrence on the other. While acknowledging the Nonproliferation Treaty-based commitments in principle, the latter argument holds that disarmament would be premature due to imperfections of the current world order. As a result, nuclear deterrence and disarmament have appeared mutually exclusive.

This gap has widened further following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing nuclear sagas with both North Korea and Iran. President Vladimir Putin’s threats of the possible use of nuclear weapons against any state that might interfere with Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine have contributed to increased militarization and stronger arguments in favor of nuclear deterrence. And the threat worked, the West has been carefully calibrating its arms supply to Ukraine. 

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine would not have happened had Ukraine not surrendered its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assistance, which included American and Russian guarantees to respect and defend its territorial integrity.

North Korea and Iran, the revolutionary powers, have watched these developments closely. For Iran, a rising Shia power, its nuclear program represents an insurance policy against surrounding Sunni powers, all allies of Israel and the United States. North Korea’s nuclear logic is not much different.

At the same time, the crisis has highlighted the fragility of nuclear deterrence, awakening the world to the dangers of large-scale nuclear escalation for the first time since the end of the Cold War. During most of the Cold War and the years since the European NATO members are meant to shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella. .

As part of the transatlantic alliance’s nuclear sharing, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey host an estimated 100 American nukes on their soil. To retaliate against a Russian strike, the allies would be able to drop these bombs from their own planes. 

France and UK also have their own arsenals. Before Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine this year, the US has shifted its geopolitical focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, specifically toward containing China. Some worried that the American umbrella was becoming less reliable, and less of a deterrent. Some also regard the bolstering of nuclear deterrence as an appropriate response, for others, the situation further stresses the urgency of nuclear disarmament. 

At the moment, the odds are against disarmament. Putin’s threats violate the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, in which all states pledged to refrain from the threat against other countries that may endanger international peace and security. The reaction of the international community has been too mild. 

A more forceful rejection of nuclear weapons and threats of use emerged from the meeting of states parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons held in Vienna on June 21-23. The states-parties condemned all threats to use nuclear weapons as violations of international law. The declaration demands that all nuclear-armed states never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

Far from preserving peace and security, nuclear weapons are used to coerce and intimidate. This highlights the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons, and as a result, risks of the destruction of countless lives, of inflicting global catastrophic consequences. The declaration underscores that outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks.

The only way to eliminate the danger is to enforce the norms against nuclear use and the threat of use and to accelerate stalled progress toward eliminating these weapons. The more NATO rhetoric emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimate Putin’s nuclear threats and the dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense.

What is not often said is that nuclear deterrence is working, both the United States and Russia face constraints in how to approach conflict that involves the other. Nuclear deterrence has limited the escalation of the conflict in profound ways. But there is a caution, there is no guarantee that it will continue to do so, nor can there be. 

It would be unwise to hand-wave away Russian nuclear threats. All states must seek to rise above their differences and work together to reverse present dangerous nuclear trends. Non-nuclear weapon states can encourage wider support for the norms against nuclear weapons. They should condemn unambiguously all threats of nuclear weapon use. All states must unite in demanding that the nuclear weapon states undertake specific actions to fulfill the NPT’s Article VI disarmament provisions. 

No conclusion could be more depressing. It amounts to entering a new tactical arms race and therefore goes in the opposite direction of the vision behind the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by 86 non-nuclear countries and meant to ban these diabolical arms altogether. Instead of eliminating nukes, we would look for new ways of deterring their use.

While all these options are worthy of serious consideration, none readily presents itself as suitable for immediate straightforward implementation. The world might have to wait for a call to shake the relevant parties into action and motivate them to overcome political reticence to seriously contemplate steps to dealing with these perils in ways that would seem inconceivable beforehand.


Maj. Gen. (ret.) Daniel Tjen is a former surgeon general of the Indonesian Armed Forces. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.