Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy
Author: Matthew Fuhrmann Todd S. Sechser
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, UK
Predicting the future is a complex matter. There are plenty of failed predictions—keywords: Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit, Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. The latter has led to a fearful mix of facts and conjectures. The dictator in the Kremlin has endured prestige loss, sanctions, general isolation, and bloodshed on the battlefield. As a result, he has resorted to the ultimate scare tactic – the threat of using nuclear weapons in the fight to «defend» himself. And, as he added, «I don’t bluff.”
It doesn’t have to be cowardly to be afraid. The spectre of nuclear war has materialised. It has made fear rational. And it’s not about fear of the unknown. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we know what awaits us, but… what? The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed around 140,000 people in 1945 yielded 15 kilotons (15,000 tons). Today, it is only one of the smallest weapons in the Russian arsenal, which includes nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons.
These ‘small’ weapons are referred to as ‘tactical’ instead of ‘strategic’. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) elaborates: Tactical nuclear weapons were designed for use in Europe during the Cold War. They were deployed across the continent in case the conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact escalated into a ‘hot’ war. At the end of the 1980s, about 7,500 of these weapons were in Europe until disarmament agreements significantly reduced their number.
In February, Putin announced that he would withdraw from the New START Treaty on nuclear weapon reduction. It is the only ongoing agreement between Washington and Moscow after Donald Trump cancelled cooperation on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF, 1987) Treaty.
A gigantic firestorm
Regardless of the number and size – a nuclear weapon causes unique destruction. It may be worth repeating: it takes ten seconds for a fired atomic bomb to reach its maximum size. It releases enormous energy through explosive force, heat, and radioactivity. The shockwave reaches speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour. The explosion kills people in the immediate vicinity. It causes lung and hearing damage and internal bleeding for those further away. The thermal radiation is so intense that almost everything near the ground evaporates. The extreme heat ignites fires over large areas, forming a gigantic firestorm. Even people in underground shelters risk death due to oxygen depletion and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Considering the extent of the damage, there is no healthcare system in the world capable of adequately responding to such a catastrophic situation, especially not in a country at war. And this is not even counting the long-term effects, such as disease and death from radioactive exposure.
Are nuclear weapons useful for coercive diplomacy?
This reality has come closer with Putin’s concrete threats of nuclear war after his invasion of Ukraine did not go according to his plan. The question is: How much closer? Even the greatest experts are searching for answers. Probability theories stop outside Vladimir Putin’s head. Inside, it’s just him.
Nevertheless, we are not entirely helpless. Matthew Fuhrmann is a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. Todd S. Sechser is a discovery professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Both have authored numerous articles on national security. Together, they have written the book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. Here, they present ample material to illuminate a significant topic: Are nuclear weapons useful for coercive diplomacy? After World War II, most strategic thinking about nuclear weapons focused on deterrence, using the nuclear threat to prevent attacks on a nation’s territory. A frequently overlooked question, they argue, is whether nuclear weapons are suitable for blackmailing other countries.
Contrary to popular belief, their answer is no. Through meticulous analyses and numerous examples, they show that nuclear weapons have ultimately played an insignificant role in resolving serious conflicts. It proved irrelevant who had the largest weapons arsenals. Even so-called brinkmanship, manipulating the opponent and consciously pushing parties to the brink, had little effect. The credibility simply did not hold up. Too much was at stake.
Kennedy and Khrushchev desperately sought a way out of something they were losing control over.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis – one of the most incendiary conflicts in recent history – illustrates the topic. In September 1962, the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons in Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev did this to defend Fidel Castro’s regime and to be able to strike the US mainland with nuclear missiles. Previously, John F. Kennedy had warned Khrushchev that «the most serious situations would arise» if Moscow introduced bases or ballistic missiles in Cuba. This led to a two-week crisis that brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. The US government had decided to settle for a naval blockade of the island, but with clear warnings of escalation if Moscow did not remove its missiles. In a private letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy stated, «the action we have taken (the blockade) is the minimum necessary to remove the threat to the security of nations in this hemisphere. However, it should not be seen as a basis for any misinterpretation on your part.» Four days later, Washington took a step further in an action that, until then, had no parallel. They mobilised their nuclear weapons, ready for use and visible to all, a clear signal to Moscow. Kennedy and Khrushchev desperately sought a way out of something they were losing control over. The result was a compromise that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis: the Soviet Union removed its missiles; the US promised not to invade the island – in addition, they would withdraw their Jupiter missiles with nuclear weapons from Turkey, near Soviet territory.
Was this an example of successful nuclear blackmail? Apparently, yes. But the details of history show otherwise. Among other things, Khrushchev discovered the US nuclear readiness only after he had decided to withdraw from Cuba and before Kennedy’s ultimatum. Moreover, Washington’s concessions in Turkey were signs of a mixed American victory.
The author duo Fuhrmann/Sechser concludes that nuclear weapons are primarily strong in deterrence. The threshold for initiating nuclear war is calculated to be much higher than using nuclear weapons in response to an attack. The consequences are devastating, both humanitarian and economic, and for one’s own reputation in the world. But according to Putin’s perception, the occupied areas in Ukraine are Russian – so he presents what he is doing as a defence of his own territory.
In an interview with CNN in the fall of 2022, Fuhrmann says that Putin, as rational as he is in his own twisted way, is unlikely to choose to unleash Armageddon upon himself. And what would he do with a country he would have turned into ruins? Putin might perhaps be willing to detonate a bomb at sea, theorises Fuhrmann, where no cities or people would be hit. After all, he wouldn’t want to be seen as a mere bluffer. On the other hand, the US has made it clear how NATO would respond if Putin carries out his nuclear threat: by annihilating Russian ground forces and the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet. Since Putin announced the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus in March 2023, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has commented: «We see no growing risk of nuclear war.» They consider Putin a «risk-acceptant actor, regularly threatening to use nuclear weapons without plans to execute it.»
If we trust historical evidence and current expert opinions regarding the Russian nuclear spectre, we are left with just that – a spectre.
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