Neil Snyder is a U.S. Army Colonel. The views expressed in this article are his own. His research focuses on national security decision-making and civil-military relations. He earned a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University as a Goodpaster Scholar of the United States Army Strategic Plans and Policy Program (ASP3). Follow him on Twitter @neilsny. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Risk of a Nuclear Exchange with Russia: Is the U.S. Whistling Past the Nuclear Graveyard?
Date Originally Written: November 11, 2022.
Date Originally Published: November 14, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that risk of a nuclear exchange in Ukraine is not solely due to Putin’s aggression. Instead, risk is a consequence of strategic interaction between the U.S. and Russia, meaning a consequence of both Putin’s actions and U.S. decision-making.
Summary: There is uncertainty over how the U.S. might respond to Putin’s threats of nuclear weapon use in Ukraine, which raises curiosity about the sources of nuclear risk. This risk includes three aspects of U.S. policymaking: presidential leadership, creativity and engagement of forward-thinking nuclear planners, and the flexibility of the bureaucracy in the face of crisis. The conclusion is that the U.S. may own some of the risk of a nuclear exchange over Ukraine.
Text: Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, prompting comparisons to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, Putin has recently issued statements tempering the threat, but the war in Ukraine is not over. Russia appears to be losing badly, suggesting Putin might play the one (nuclear) card he has left.
Unfortunately, the risk of nuclear exchange over Ukraine is not widely understood because the public discourse has been confusing. Some reporting suggests that Putin’s threats are real, but prominent commentators have also dismissed the threats. There is also uncertainty over how the U.S. might respond to Russian nuclear aggression. U.S. Army General (Retired) David Petraeus recently argued that the U.S. would most likely respond to Russian nuclear action with a massive conventional response. Even so, it is not clear how a massive conventional response would not trigger further escalation, given Russia’s already precarious strategic position.
One narrative is that Putin is singularly responsible for the current nuclear risk because of his blatant attempt at nuclear blackmail and his “record of folly and recklessness.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is clearly a moral wrong and he precipitated the crisis, but the U.S. may nonetheless contribute to the risk of this crisis in unforeseen ways. A rigorous assessment requires considering both Putin’s aggression and how the U.S responds.
Seventy years of U.S. nuclear planning for Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and terrorist-related contingencies has not prepared the U.S. well for the current crisis. Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine does not encumber the U.S. with the same obligations as an attack on a formal ally. It is not altogether clear how the U.S. should respond to an attack on a partner, especially if Russia employs low-yield weapons, performs a nuclear demonstration, or takes other actions lower on the so-called nuclear ladder.
This highly contingent situation motivates a closer look into the black box of U.S. nuclear response planning to see how the U.S.’s own nuclear structures might contribute to today’s risk. U.S. presidential leadership, policy advocacy (or lack thereof) by nuclear policy analysts, and the bureaucratic politics of the U.S. defense enterprise all affect how the U.S. has responded to prior nuclear crises.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s management of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps the canonical example of presidential leadership amidst a nuclear crisis. Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision illustrates how Kennedy’s personal leadership was necessary to structure decision-making and tamp down escalation risk. Kennedy challenged advisors’ assumptions, forced the Executive Committee or “ExComm” to generate alternatives to the escalatory options advisors initially favored, and expanded the bargaining range with Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s intrusive leadership during the crisis was necessary to reduce escalation risk over Cuba, following the model of the “unequal dialogue” advanced by Elliot Cohen.
However, Kennedy’s steady hand may be more the exception than the rule. Multiple presidents have taken the U.S. to the nuclear brink. President Dwight Eisenhower contemplated nuclear escalation in Korea. President Richard Nixon made multiple proposals to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Most recently, President Donald Trump threatened “Fire and Fury” against North Korea. As Keith Payne has observed, leaders have pursued “surprising goals and risked national security in ways…considered highly unlikely and even irrational at the time.”
U.S. Presidents’ personal management style, experiences, and heuristics affect U.S. nuclear risk during crises. Even “ideal” presidents have limits because they are human. Kahneman and Tversky’s seminal work illustrates that all decision-makers suffer from debilitating cognitive biases. The late Robert Jervis argued that leaders’ misperceptions could increase the probability of nuclear conflict in some situations. All of the preceding suggests taking a close look at how the White House and the National Security Council is weathering the current crisis in Ukraine. Unfortunately for the public, presidents’ deliberations over sensitive national security matters are normally done behind a wall of secrecy (which, ironically, could be another source of risk).
Even clear-eyed U.S. presidents rely on the options developed by the national security bureaucracy. Those nuclear response options (or the lack thereof) have frequently been a source of risk for escalation. Fred Kaplan’s remarkable book on the ebbs and flows of U.S. nuclear policy reveals that, throughout U.S. nuclear history, true progress and reform of nuclear plans depended on the actions of a small number of enterprising defense intellectuals who challenged assumptions and led change. Entrepreneurial defense experts are key to the risk equation during nuclear crises because, as Tom Nichols recently pointed out, the “military and the nuclear establishment are resistant to change.” Without experts’ advocacy and influence from within the national security bureaucracy, U.S. presidents are likely to have fewer and less suitable response options.
Furthermore, a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine does not map cleanly to the kinds of situations nuclear planners have historically focused on. As Scott Sagan has observed, the defense establishment often relies on rigid plans. It should not surprise readers that the defense establishment relies on standard operating procedures instead of doing the hard work to chart a new course. And today’s crisis in Ukraine exists within the rich context of the U.S. Defense Department’s ongoing operations, activities, and investments. Skepticism that this vast U.S. national security enterprise has the organizational agility to adapt quickly in the face of a dynamic crisis like the situation in Ukraine is healthy. That lack of strategic agility is evident today, as routine exercises have been identified as a source of increasing risk.
Each of these U.S.-internal sources of risk causes concern because if a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine is a frightening, then the thought of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S. is altogether more terrifying. Deterrence seems to be holding but, as Colin Gray famously argued, there is “no objectively correct answer” to questions of nuclear risk. Assessing nuclear risk is extremely difficult. Putin clearly deserves blame for provoking the crisis and, though there is no moral equivalency between Putin’s actions and potential U.S. responses, U.S. policymakers would gain from remaining strategically humble and assess themselves as source of risk, too.
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