Victority / Alamy Stock Photo
Nuclear missiles with warheads aimed at the sky (Picture: Victority / Alamy Stock Photo).

Does the war in Ukraine signpost the end of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Victority / Alamy Stock Photo
Nuclear missiles with warheads aimed at the sky (Picture: Victority / Alamy Stock Photo).

The phrase 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (MAD) is one of the most chilling of all the acronyms that came out of the Cold War. The phrase relates to the grim concept of deterrence theory and in a particularly cold way, makes absolute sense. 

Throughout the Cold War, as both NATO and the Warsaw Pact acquired large numbers of nuclear weapons and looked on at each other with mutual distrust, the concept emerged of making a war essentially 'unwinnable'. This would happen by ensuring that if one side attacked the other in a surprise attack intended to wipe out the cities and armed forces of the other, enough nuclear weapons would survive to enable all-out retaliation and in turn wipe out the other side. If you started the war, you would still be destroyed.  

This grim logic held fast throughout the Cold War, with decision-makers on both sides aware that any outbreak of war would result in guaranteed destruction for all. The result was that MAD helped shape how Cold War-era policymakers worked because they knew the implications if things escalated out of control and that a mistake could lead to nuclear annihilation. 

The end of the Cold War saw an end to the era of large forces arrayed in Europe facing off against each other. The reunification of Germany saw Soviet forces depart and a huge drawdown in foreign (British, US, French and other NATO allies) troops based in the country. 

A Trident II D5 Missile breaking the surface, having been fired from HMS Vanguard a Strategic Missile Submarine 101005 UK MOD © Crown copyright 2005
A Trident II D5 Missile breaking the surface, having been fired from HMS Vanguard in 2005 (Picture: Crown Copyright 2005).

At the same time, as tensions eased, there was a significant scaling back of nuclear weapons and in particular, a reduction in tactical nuclear weapons, which are (relatively speaking) less powerful nuclear weapons intended to destroy a military unit or local area. For example, the UK scrapped its WE177 freefall nuclear bombs and cancelled the replacement project, relying instead purely on the Trident system for both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. 

This reduction in nuclear tension meant that MAD seemed an increasingly irrelevant concept, with Russia and the USA reducing their nuclear weapon stockpiles throughout the 1990s. The concept of MAD seemed to have become a historical anachronism, utterly irrelevant to the early 21st century. 

Although NATO remained a nuclear alliance after the end of the Cold War, the actual nuclear capability has been significantly reduced. In the Cold War, when there was an extensive network of weapon systems operated on a 'dual key' system of US-supplied nuclear weapons on other nations' s ships, aircraft and land artillery.

Today, around 100 US B61 nuclear weapons are deployed in Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Turkey for deployment in wartime with these nations' air forces. 

Unlike the West, the Russians took a very different attitude towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Even after the end of the Cold War, Russian doctrine called for the use of nuclear weapons to repel a conventional attack on Russian soil if necessary. To this day, Russia is believed to maintain around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

House destroyed during a rocket attack by the Russian occupants in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine 110322 CREDIT Mykola Myakshykov,Ukrainform, Abaca Press, Alamy Live News
House destroyed during a rocket attack by the Russian occupants in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine (Picture: Mykola Myakshykov, Ukrainform, Abaca Press / Alamy Live News).

The war in Ukraine has raised public awareness of the risk of the use of nuclear weapons as a credible possibility for the first time in a generation. The paradoxical question faced here is whether President Putin can use the threat of MAD, a policy intended to prevent major conflict, to in fact escalate a conflict he must win at all costs, knowing the West is powerless to intervene militarily. 

During the Cold War and beyond, Western leaders have historically attempted to avoid referring to threats of nuclear escalation, even in the broadest of terms, knowing that to do so could inflame a crisis situation. There is a deep-rooted reluctance in the West to be seen to even hint at crossing the Rubicon in these situations. 

By contrast, Russia seems to have no similar restraint or concerns. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, President Putin has made a series of increasingly bellicose statements and actions intended to highlight the strength of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Pronouncements about striking nations that support Ukraine or increasing the combat readiness of the Russian nuclear arsenal have drawn attention to the fact that Russia has a very different attitude to even the use of language around nuclear weapons.

This is coupled with an attitude towards the use of contentious weaponry that is totally different to the West. Under President Putin, Russian intelligence agencies have used Polonium and Novichok in the UK to target known dissidents and former spies as part of assassination attempts (Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal respectively). This brazen willingness to use Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) assets on foreign soil points to a willingness by Putin to be utterly in breach of accepted international norms and calculate on being allowed to get away with it. 

How novichok works animation gfx 040321 CREDIT BFBS.jpg

The invasion of Ukraine points to a similar calculation. Putin seems to have judged that he can act as he wishes, within what he considers to be Russia’s historical sphere of influence and interest, safe in the knowledge that the West is unlikely to respond directly militarily due to concerns about his nuclear capability. 

Events in Ukraine have shown that Putin is willing to take direct military action, out of all proportion to the circumstances – for example the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians in towns, because he knows that there is very little the West can do to practically check and stop him from doing this. 

While there have been calls for a 'no-fly zone' to be imposed over Ukraine, the unfortunate reality is that such a concept would never get past the United Nations (where Russia would veto it) and would require NATO forces to fly and police the conflict zone and be willing to use force to shoot down transgressors on both sides. 

Were a NATO warplane flying over Ukraine to shoot down a Russian jet, then this would be considered an act of war by the Russians – such a move would almost certainly escalate out of control. At this stage the potential for conflict is high, and NATO does not wish for war with Russia. 

The sad reality is that Putin's possession of significant numbers of nuclear weapons means that he can use them as a shield to carry out brazen acts of repression against neighbouring countries, knowing that he is unlikely to be attacked. The fact that Russia is open about conventional threats to Russian territory possibly necessitating a nuclear response means that MAD is being used not as a tool of deterrence to bring about calm, but a means to enable truly horrendous acts of violence while sheltering under the nuclear umbrella. 

Is there anything that NATO can realistically do about this renewed threat and new challenge? To begin with, it is likely that NATO will have to take steps to reaffirm that that Alliance remains, at its heart, fundamentally a defensive alliance which possesses nuclear weapons and a clear willingness to use them to defend its shared sovereignty. 

NATO HQ Brussels Credit BFBS 270619
NATO Headquarters, Brussels (Picture: BFBS).

This is a very powerful statement – unlike Russia, the decision by NATO to be a 'nuclear alliance' is a level of shared commitment unmatched by any other grouping of nations. It means that in a crisis, 30 different countries have agreed to share the risk and burden of potentially coming under attack to protect each other. 

This is an incredibly strong position, as it means that smaller nations that could otherwise be threatened by Russia are far better protected. In the case of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), these individually would stand no chance against a Russian invasion. But as NATO members, they know that if threatened, the Alliance will stand with them. 

The sovereignty of NATO members remains an absolute red line and Russia needs to understand that MAD works in both directions. Any attempt to cross the borders into NATO member states would trigger a unified and overwhelming military response, which may include nuclear weapons. Unlike in Ukraine, Putin must understand that attempting to intervene in a NATO member state as part of his vision to rebuild a historic Russia will trigger the most awful consequences. 

The key priority for NATO now is to ensure that Russia understands its own 'red lines' and the point where Russia seeking to take action will lead to war. It must also show that it is serious about bolstering its own military force to present a credible conventional and nuclear deterrence. 

Members of the Russian armed forces in an armoured vehicle marked with the letter 'Z' 140322 CREDIT Russian Ministry of Defence
Members of the Russian armed forces in an armoured vehicle marked with the letter 'Z' (Picture: Russian Ministry of Defence).

The actions in the immediate aftermath of the invasion saw practically every major NATO power commit to increasing defence spending and expanding both the size and capability of their armed forces. Russian action, for long tolerated by NATO members, has now triggered a strong push for rearmament. 

Most of this money will probably not result in showy new capabilities, but will instead result in additional stockpiles of munitions, improved readiness and upgrades to existing capabilities (for example cyber defence) that will help improve resilience. A key lesson from Ukraine is that stockpiles of munitions, particularly anti-tank guided missiles, are vital and many nations' war stocks have been run down in recent years and will need to be rebuilt – particularly given how many missiles have been sent to Ukraine from individual countries stockpiles. 

NATO planners will be closely studying the Russian experience in Ukraine and identifying their tactics and procedures to work out how to counter them. It does seem increasingly likely that much of the previous assumptions about the Russian Army – namely that it was a highly trained, well-coordinated force with extremely good equipment may have been wrong and overestimated Russian capabilities. 

British Army engineers with Polish personnel deployed to Poland's border with Belarus 141121 CREDIT MOD
British Army engineers with Polish personnel deployed to Poland's border with Belarus November 2021 (Picture: MOD).

Currently, there are troops from many different nations, including the British Army, based in the Baltic as a sort of 'tripwire'. The idea is that if the Russians invade, they will be brought into conflict with these nations, leading to a state of war with NATO. But these forces are relatively small and could realistically only offer token resistance. 

Instead of assuming that countries like the Baltic states would be taken over in a matter of days, if not hours, it now seems likely that a determined resistance could hold and fight any Russian advance to a standstill. This means that wider conversations are needed in NATO about whether what is required is deterrence, or the ability to defend in depth. 

This in turn means that NATO may now look to expand and thicken its conventional defences to ensure that any Russian attack is blunted, buying time for negotiations, rather than moving quickly to the release of nuclear weapons, as was envisaged during the Cold War. 

More widely, NATO is likely to reiterate the importance of its role as a nuclear alliance. The decision by Germany shortly after the invasion of Ukraine to announce the purchase of the F35 not only sends a clear signal of improved defence spending but also recommits the Luftwaffe to the tactical nuclear mission, using US-supplied nuclear weapons. This is a powerful message as it reinvigorates NATO as a tactical nuclear alliance, while it is also regenerating its conventional defence capability. 

In the UK, it remains to be seen whether further defence spending will be approved, or if the Integrated Review (IR) will hold firm and continue to invest more in equipment but reduce the size of the British Army. It is almost certain that the UK will continue to retain its nuclear capability and expand the size of the nuclear warhead stockpile, a controversial announcement from the IR, but it is unlikely that the UK would seek to reacquire a tactical nuclear capability. 

Flags at NATO HQ headquarters Brussels 270619 CREDIT BFBS
Flags at NATO headquarters, Brussels (Picture: BFBS).

The most likely outcome then is that in invading Ukraine, Russia has created the circumstances whereby it has reinvigorated NATO and helped cause a surge in defence spending in Western Europe. It has also shown that its own armed forces are increasingly fallible and not the invincible soldier feared by some. 

The problem here is that Putin's regime will find itself increasingly backed into a corner. The impact of economic sanctions will be felt for a long time to come and do huge damage to the Russian economy, reducing tax revenue. The reduction in opportunities for technology transfer because of sanctions will make it harder to produce replacement precision-guided missiles and other advanced weaponry that has been used in Ukraine, to replenish Russian stockpiles. At the same time, the war will have a fairly dramatic impact on the already dwindling young Russian population, with reportedly more than 10,000 Russian soldiers killed, this will have an impact on birth rates for many years to come in a nation where the population was already predicted to shrink from 145 million to about 110 million in the next 30 years. 

The upshot is that Putin may find himself ever more reliant on the threat of using weapons of mass destruction as a means of trying to achieve his policy goals. With an army that has proven to be ineffective against determined resistance and where the stockpiles of advanced weaponry is almost certainly running out without replacement, he will find himself running out of ways to shape military outcomes short of threatening nuclear escalation. 

IMAGE ID 2HPMRW5 Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian Federation from the Kremlin 210222 CREDIT ALEXEI NIKOLSKY, KREMLIN POOL, ALAMY LIVE NEWS, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian Federation from the Kremlin February 22 (Picture: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY, KREMLIN POOL, ALAMY LIVE NEWS, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO).

This is perhaps the most dangerous outcome of the war – a humiliated President, isolated and cut off from the international community and more reliant than ever on the threat of the use of nuclear force to achieve his policy goals. The West and other nations will need to work out how to deal with him in a way that tries to prevent the nuclear threshold from being breached. 

We are now in a period where international relations seem increasingly challenging for policymakers to handle. The period where Mutually Assured Destruction was seen as a credible way of shaping policy-making has come to an end, at least with Russia and the West must now work out how to engage with Putin in a way that ensures he does not cross the nuclear threshold. 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.

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