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HomeDEFENCENuclear weapons: Putin has a point

Nuclear weapons: Putin has a point

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Vladimir Putin has recently said that, in case the US deploys troops to Ukraine, it will be regarded as direct American intervention in the war and, in response, from a military-technical point of view, Russia was ready even for nuclear war. In an interview to Rossiya-1 TV, Putin boldly declared, “Weapons exist in order to use them. We have our own principles.”

Russia’s nuclear threats are often condemned in the West as sabre-rattling or even bluster. However, on March 9, citing two senior Biden-administration officials, Jim Sclutto of CNN has revealed that in late 2022, the US had begun “preparing rigorously” for Russia potentially striking Ukraine with a tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon. In other words, those who know Russia also know the resolve of Putin, and do take him seriously. Sclutto was told that the US government’s fear was not just hypothetical but was based on highly sensitive intelligence. Accordingly, the National Security Council convened a series of meetings to put contingency plans in place as to how they would respond in case of nukes being used, and how they would try to pre-empt it, or deter it.

In sync with this, Putin said that there are enough specialists in the field of Russian-American relations and in the field of strategic restraint in the US and that’s why, he did not think that everything was rushing to a nuclear confrontation, but Russia was ready for that. He reiterated that Russia’s nuclear triad of land, sea and air threats was ‘much more’ advanced and modern than those touted by America.

Also Read: Corruption in Russian military and Putin’s future strategy   

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Putin Really Knows How to Exploit Deterrence to His Advantage

For a threat to be effective, it must be credible. Incredible threats do not work. The opponent must have good reasons to believe that you are actually capable of carrying out what you have threatened. The secret is that the threatening nation must show willingness to engage in the very war it really might desire to deter or prevent. In a way, it is a battle of nerves which the strongman Putin is adept at winning and the effete West is not.

For illustration, suppose there is an old dispute between two neighbours and the situation is so bad that physical violence could indeed take place. You have threatened your neighbour of dire consequences. How and why would your neighbour take your threats seriously? For one, it could be your reputation as a tough guy capable of inflicting physical harm. How is that reputation built? A reputation is built on account of your resources or your past exploits as a tough guy, who has beaten up people in the past. Nations behave in exactly the same way.

A nation’s military reputation is built on similar factors. Merely having a bloated army is not enough. Merely having some imported weapon systems, or nuclear weapons is not enough. They should have the guts to use them. They should also be prepared to take heavy casualties in wars and sustain them. By battering Ukraine ruthlessly and relentlessly in spite of a costly war both in terms of money, weapons’ losses and casualties, and the world opinion being against it, Russia has demonstrated exactly that sort of resolve.  Deterrence does not work for pusillanimous nations which only seek to muster ‘moral’ international support or at best, a UN resolution against the adversary.

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Pic : war on the rocks

At a psychological level, you must not only have the will power to use the weapons, but you must communicate it to the enemy in such a manner that in his perception too you are seen as possessing that will power. Mere possession of that will power in your mind is not enough unless your enemy has been made aware of it. That’s why Putin has, since 2018, been repeatedly sabre-rattling and talking of his super weapons. They include the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, Zircon scramjet powered anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile, Poseidon unmanned underwater vehicle, and the Sarmat/Satan-II ICBM.

Threats work only when everybody knows that you are capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on the enemy and that you also have second or even third strike capability. That is, you can absorb the nuclear weapons unleashed by the enemy in retaliation of your nukes, and yet have enough weapons surviving to strike them again once or even twice. That’s where the world knows that Putin is not blustering or bluffing. Russia has the greatest nuclear armoury in the world with 5,889 warheads compared to 5,244 of the USA. This includes some 2,000 TNWs (Tactical Nuclear Weapons or Battlefield Nuclear Weapons) which are rather small in their explosive power. Russia is thought to have about ten times as many tactical nuclear warheads as NATO. Of Russia’s nukes, 1,674 are actually deployed on missiles, that is, ready to be launched.

Nuclear War Can Indeed Be Fought

During the height of the Cold War, at the request of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Office of Technology Assessment, USA had undertaken an extremely exhaustive study to assess the effects of a nuclear war on the civilian populations, economies, and societies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Director of this assessment was Dr. Peter Sharfman, Group Manager for National Security Studies. The OTA was assisted by Nuclear War Effects Advisory Panel, chaired by Dr. David S. Saxon, President of the University of California. Before that, OTA had convened a panel of distinguished scientists to examine the effects of a limited nuclear war.

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They worked out all the possibilities of coping with as many as 80 warheads of one-megaton each and yet maintaining the war-fighting capability of the nation. The school of Marshal Sokolovsky had done similar calculations for the Soviet Union.

The OTA study calculations had shown that the Soviet attack would destroy 64 per cent of US oil refining capacity besides millions of civilian deaths. Still, they argued that it would not mean the end of the world! The study showed that the nation would eventually be able to cope with the sudden disappearance of the bulk of oil refining capacity. How? The government would impose rationing, for example. Critical industries and services like military forces, agriculture, railroads, police, and fire-fighting would have top priority. To save oil, railroads could substitute for airlines, trucks, and buses on intercity routes; mass transit would probably substitute for private automobiles and taxis in local transportation. In other words, make proper contingency plans and a nuclear can be fought. There will be massive destruction alright but the nation can cope with it.

Nuclear Winter Theory Is a Hoax

Very many people think that a nuclear war will usher in a ‘nuclear winter’. The ‘nuclear winter’ theory that smoke from burning cities and forests and dust from nuclear explosions would cause worldwide freezing temperatures was conceived in 1982 by the German atmospheric chemist and environmentalist Paul Crutzen. After that a barrage of newspaper and magazine articles followed, including a scaremongering article by Carl Sagan in the 1983 issue of Parade, the Sunday tabloid read by millions. Another influential article was written by R. P. Turco, et al.

The nuclear winter scenario was debunked over two decades ago on purely scientific grounds. Interested readers can find a comprehensive review in a 1986 paper of Starley L. Thompson and Stephen H. Schneider, atmospheric scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research titled ‘Nuclear Winter Reappraised’. In fact, Sagan had played Cassandra again when, during the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had set fire to some 610 Kuwaiti oil wells. It is known as Kuwaiti Oil Fires. Sagan had again predicted that the smoke would result in an environmental crisis. Nothing of that sort happened and he was deeply embarrassed. As for the nuclear winter theory, it was later found that it was actually cooked up as part of a KGB disinformation campaign during the 80s to demoralize the world. Unfortunately, most people do not read the busting of myths—they only love the creation of myths.

Get Rid of the Bugbear of Nuclear Weapons

In popular imagery, even the word ‘nuclear’ is treated as some sort of taboo or ‘hair trigger’. Most people have been conditioned into believing that the use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of their destructive power, would be some sort of unpardonable ‘sin’, confirming that the enemy has crossed the limit of ‘immoral behaviour’ in war. They have imagined that the moment you touch them in any form, all hell would break loose. Let us be rational. If nations can make and keep chemical, biological or space-based weapons, what crime nuclear weapons have committed? You cannot have double standards. Can anyone argue that preparing for them is moral but doing the same for nukes is immoral?

Relax, There Will Be No Uncontrolled Escalation

A popular myth is that once you start using nuclear weapons, there will be no end to it. The fallacy of uncontrolled escalation believes that the nations which use nukes once will face a retaliatory strike. Then they will also respond, inviting the second retaliation, and so on. In other words, they will end up using their entire nuclear armoury, or are completely destroyed in the process before that. No, it is not so. Who said so that the nations are bound to behave so? Such a notion is based upon utter ignorance of the psychology of waging war.

Nuclear weapons must not be regarded as a taboo or an inherently uncontrollable genie which once let out of the bottle would never go back into the bottle. Wars are not driven by any machine logic. Waging war is a human activity and the way the wars will be waged depends on the nature and character of the humans that are waging it. There is no good psychological, social or historical reason to even suspect that any country is prepared for a fight to the finish and be reduced to rubble.

In terms of military theory, nuclear weapons are just like any other weapon system. Suppose Ukraine turns out to be much tougher than expected or that US/NATO troops physically pitch in to support them. Now, even as Russia’s war-fighting potential is very high, it cannot afford a long-drawn out war like the Vietnam War nor can it match the overall industrial resources of NATO in a direct conflict. That may be provocation enough for them to precipitate a swift end to the war by using nuclear weapons on the Ukrainian capital or on selected battlefields to offset NATO’s advantages.  But that is not the whole story.

The secret is that the actual target of suing nukes would be NATO even as the nukes would be used on Ukrainian soil. It would convey a clear message to NATO that in future conflicts also elsewhere in the world; they must not cross a Red Line in messing with Russia.

Nuclear Weapons Exist In Order To Use Them

I fully agree with Putin that nuclear weapons exist in order to use them whenever it is deemed necessary. If you are going to keep them under lock and key forever and swear to God to never use them, what is the point of wasting trillions of dollars in making them in the first place?

If you hide behind stupid moral pretensions like ‘No First Use’, etc., you are not fit to possess nuclear weapons. For example, in the context of a nuclear war between countries that are not as vast as USA or Russia, the best thing would be, in the very first instance, to wipe off the capital itself replete with the entire government and top-level decision-making machinery of almost every department, not to speak of the armed forces, in a single or multiple strikes with 2.75 megaton hydrogen bombs. When the government itself will vaporize, who will survive to order firing their nukes then?

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.

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