Until now in this blog I’ve been pressing my views, for what little they’re worth, on what’s happening in the world, but I’ve assiduously avoided touting myself as some kind of expert in the matters on which I’ve opined. But on the matter at hand, that being nuclear warfare, I’m compelled to admit I do know whereof I speak. I know whereof I speak because before I specialised in the philosophy of war – in fact before I imagined I could be a professional philosopher – I spent a goodly portion of my misspent youth formally studying the science of war, and more particularly nuclear war. So in what follows I’m not so much blogging as, well, educating. To wit:

There’s a myth, a myth masquerading as self-evident truth, that since 1949 when the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons, it’s been the existence of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that’s prevented American and Soviet steel from meeting on the battlefield. This is because, or so it’s been argued, if one side was on the verge of being decisively bested by the other, it would see itself as having no choice but to resort to a nuclear first strike. The other would then respond in kind, the exchanges would escalate, and within hours the world would be no more. It follows – or so it seemed – that if American and Soviet steel were to meet, neither could allow the other to be decisively bested. And so, since victory could only be Pyrrhic, there’d be no point in sending steel against steel in the first place.

If you’ve been following the news, this is precisely the putative rationale behind the refusal of NATO to meet Russian steel with steel in Ukraine. I say ‘putative’ because it’s nonsense. If it were true, then after Ukraine the same would hold for not sending steel to meet steel in one of the Baltic states, or in Poland or Slovakia or Hungary or Romania, notwithstanding NATO’s much-touted Article Five. 

So it’s not a matter of geopolitics, it’s a matter of simple logic, that fear of nuclear war is not what’s holding the West back from rescuing Ukraine. It’s just a straightforward Trolley Problem. The governments of NATO’s eastern flank are hoping they can get away with sacrificing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, to avoid exposing their own populations to a wider conflagration. 

And they may well be right. Or would be, were the threat of a wider war turning nuclear real. But it’s not. If Putin fired a strategic nuclear weapon Moscow would cease to exist in less than an hour. And he knows it. If he fired a tactical nuclear weapon Belgorod would cease to exist in less than an hour. And he knows it. But a tactical exchange won’t be initiated by Moscow because there’s no concentration of Ukrainian forces west of Belgorod that would make such a strike worthwhile, whereas there is such a target across the border from Kharkiv, namely the tank yards and barracks outside Belgorod, which is the main mustering and resupply site for the Russian campaign in Ukraine. So if anyone has cause to fear a tactical first strike, it’s the Russians. And they know it.

Would a full-on air and ground war in eastern Europe escalate? It would have to. To the Baltic and the Black Seas certainly. To the north Pacific and the Stans possibly. The pundits will no doubt want to call this a Third World War. It would be a costly war. But as I say, thanks to MAD it wouldn’t be a nuclear one. 

In the long run the West would prevail. So what’s holding it back?

That long run. 

That long run coupled with what would have to be the Deputinization of Russia,  a process that could prove as challenging as the Denazification of Germany after WWII. So if all of this is to be avoided, the West is counting on Zelenskyy, and his beleaguered but surprisingly adept Ukrainian army, to perform a military miracle. Or the equally beleaguered Russian conscript to turn on his commander, or for his commander to turn on his commander, not unlike he did in 1917.

For all my expertise – which I’ve just claimed to be considerable – I have no crystal ball. I’m not on the ground, and even if I were, I’m not privy to the ordnance available to each of the sides. I do think, however – as von Clausewitz would surely put it – steel has to meet steel at some point. Otherwise steel loses its credibility. 

The longer that point is put off, the better for the solider nearing the end of his tour of duty. But the worse for those he’s been paid to protect.  

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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3 replies

  1. Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology, agrees with you here

    that Russia will not use tactical nuclear weapons in the current circumstances. Your point that there are no massed military targets in Ukraine suitable for tactical nukes is undoubtedly part of the reason. He argues though that were NATO to intervene with, say a mission to deny the Ukrainian airspace to Russian airplanes, Putin would be motivated to use tactical nukes against NATO targets like the airbases and aircraft carriers from which the sorties fly. NATO and the Americans are, in Russian psychology/mythology, an existential threat to Russia while Ukraine is not. Yes, Belgorod would go next. But NATO’s involvement would present the military targets suitable for tactical nuclear strike that do not appear if NATO stays out….and they would provide the rationale — existential threat — to justify their first use in Putin’s mind.

    Your argument that Russia has no gain from using tactical nukes and only the risk of serious loss from retaliation I think holds only if NATO stays out. If NATO comes in, all bets are off. I agree that MAD prevents a general strategic exchange, as long as no one miscalculates or goes mad.

    The video linked above gets into the topic of no-fly zones and other nuclear aspects of NATO involvement at 40:26, for those less interested in the technical aviation aspects covered earlier in the interview.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To the best of my knowledge – which for all I know may be out of date now – NATO has carriers in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, but not the Black Sea. Even so, the airbases from which NATO sorties could fly number in the dozens. Adding them up would be indistinguishable from a strategic strike, which we’ve agreed would not be in the cards. Which is not to say NATO could enter the war with impunity. It would take time, perhaps a couple weeks, to bring adequate resources closer to the front. Maybe it’s in the process of doing just that even as we speak. I suppose we’re about to find out. In the meantime, I have an additional concern about a no-fly zone, which I’ll share in a forthcoming entry.


      • Correct. Under the Montreux Convention of 1936, powers that do not border on the Black Sea may not transit the Turkish Straits with warships displacing over 15,000 tons. (Wiki says the United States has not signed the Convention but observes it.) This bars access to the Black Sea by all modern fleet attack aircraft carriers of the NATO signatories. (There is also the great risk that a large ship would be trapped there if, say, one of the bridges that now cross the Dardanelles and the Bosporus were to be destroyed and fall, blocking the Straits.) Use of the Black Sea by by Russia is murkier — anything I say is likely to be wrong — but to the extent that their warships can enter and remain in the Black Sea they are an additional threat to NATO aircraft before they even reach Ukraine.

        So air sorties over Ukraine from carriers in the Med (and the Baltic) would need to rendezvous with orbiting vulnerable air tankers, presumably based in Turkey, to complete their missions. (Since the retirement of the venerable Vietnam-era A-6 Intruder bombers, and their replacement with thirstier supersonic fighter-attack aircraft, the United States Navy is described as having a “range problem” and is more dependent on tankers from the US Air Force than it would like to be.

        Ukraine is a big country and located where it is hard to get to, particularly where the fighting is, close to Russia’s borders in the north and east. That means long dangerous missions even from Poland.


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