On The Lack Of Analytical Utility Of The Concept Of Deterrence

With the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, we will be hearing more about deterrence. That word is used far too broadly, muddying discussions of military strategy and focusing discussions of war and peace too narrowly.

As the Cold War progressed from open competition for bigger bombs in the 1950s, through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the realization that Ronald Reagan expressed so nicely, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” slowly formed, although seldom expressed openly by the governments of the United States or the Soviet Union. Nuclear war became more unthinkable, and communication and arms control measures were instituted to make it less likely.

That uneasy standoff continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. It is often attributed solely to both countries’ possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other, that rough equality called deterrence. But there are many other reasons to avoid nuclear war, like developing a country’s economy and attending to other areas of instability. When those reasons are left out, discussions of strategy are distorted.

Deterrence is the ability to warn off another party from doing something bad to you. “If you do something bad to us, we will do worse to you.” The emphasis on mutual nuclear destruction pulled the term toward nuclear use, but it is more general. Deterrence theory is now largely about nuclear weapons and often descends into unrealistic game theorizing. Nuclear arsenals are often referred to as “deterrents,” a concretization and  further distortion. Deterrence is a relationship, not a thing in itself.

Deterrence can lead to an arms race as one party seeks to overcome the other’s power to deter.  That was why arms control treaties were a stabilizing factor in the later Cold War.

There are some current analyses that use the word “deterrence” but are talking about something else. Deterrence is treated as a concrete thing that exists on its own, when it is a descriptor of a particular relationship. If deterrence is a thing that can be imposed on a situation, or a characteristic of particular weapons, then much becomes possible.

 

Escalate to De-Escalate

Russia is believed by some to have a military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.” Russia would use a small nuclear weapon early in a conflict to indicate its willingness to go nuclear and thus scare off an opponent and end the war at a time favorable to Russia. There is a question as to whether this is in fact Russian doctrine. If deterrence depends on knowing what the other party is thinking, then it’s important to know whether this is Russian doctrine.

In response to such a move, more than one action is possible. The United States might indeed calculate that withdrawal and negotiations toward peace are best. But the decision equally could be to retaliate in kind: Russia nukes Tallinn, and the United States nukes Rostov. And then what? Or the response might be a different sort of attack. The decision depends on a calculation of costs and benefits. Use of a nuclear weapon has been felt to change the course of war fundamentally. Does that assumption fail to hold for a small and early nuclear attack?

Within the United States, those who assume escalate to de-escalate is Russian doctrine argue that low-yield nuclear weapons are necessary to deter that strategy or to meet it if its use is not deterred. The threat of meeting it, of course, is part of deterrence. It could also be argued that having only high-yield weapons (which is not the case) deters an escalate to de-escalate strategy because of the potential escalation to the use of those weapons. Instead, the argument is that the United States would hold back from using those weapons.

Those arguing that low-yield weapons are necessary to deter an escalate to de-escalate strategy are choosing one set of actions and responses, one set of motivations, out of that group. I do not see that clarity.

 

 “We Must Match Their Weapons”

Vladimir Putin claims that Russia is working on exotic new weapons – a stealth underwater drone to deliver a radioactive tidal wave, a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, a hypersonic delivery vehicle. All seem to be impractical or not a material change in the balance.

I am highly doubtful that the first two will ever exist, and the third is a very expensive way to evade missile defenses that can be overcome with the numbers of nuclear weapons Russia possesses. Nonetheless, some people’s definition of prudence demands that we match those weapons. A pointless expenditure of billions of dollars may be what Putin is baiting us into whether or not those weapons are real.

The point of deterrence is to avoid war and to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. Decisions for war or use of nuclear weapons are much broader than matching weapon for weapon. There is an argument that deterrence requires that each new development be met with a new development on our side. This opens the way for all those imaginary weapons every boy ever wanted. And it’s not how deterrence works.

 

“This Weapon Is For Deterrence Only”

That claim is nonsense.

The weapons laboratories have long justified their work by saying that they design and build nuclear weapons so that they will never be used. That justification is attributed to Norris Bradbury, the second director of Los Alamos.

Deterrence depends on a believable threat to use force. The effectiveness of nuclear weapons in deterrence depends on the possibility that they will be used. But if deterrence works, they won’t be used. That’s the basis of the Bradbury justification. It’s a paradox.

To develop a new weapon and assure the public that it’s for deterrence only, not use, undercuts the believable threat to use it. If this is the justification, developing it is pointless because it makes no difference to the balance of power.

 

These three scenarios do not illustrate deterrence, but rather tactics that can lead to escalation. Deterrence means that war or nuclear use will be avoided. The decision is whether war or nuclear use will be disastrous for the whoever takes the step. That is a big, overall decision. The details worked out in these three examples would be a small input.

Although nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War, it’s unlikely that nuclear deterrence was the only reason. Trade relations, treaties and other agreements,and  internal divisions within a country all influence decisions on peace and war. Diplomacy played a role. And the bottom line is that a nuclear war is in no country’s interest.

 

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.



Hey, Thanks, Kevin!

Kevin Drum has taken my Steele dossier analysis and made some evaluations of the claims. Here’s what he came up with:

It looks about right to me.

Kevin:

Aside from three oddball claims that I couldn’t really classify (6, 7, and 19 if you’re counting), it looks to me like the dossier includes 15 claims that are now fully or partially supported and 27 claims for which we have no evidence so far. These 27 claims include a fair amount of insider Kremlin gossip.

What I found most interesting is this: although there’s no public evidence one way or the other for these 27 claims,² there doesn’t appear to be a single claim that we know with certainty is false. There are claims that have been denied by the American participants, but none that we have documentary proof of being mistaken. Partly this is because it’s hard to prove a negative, but it’s still surprising that not a single claim in the report has been conclusively debunked. It’s especially surprising since the dossier is a patchwork of raw intelligence, and even if it was well done by competent professionals you’d still expect it to include at least a few claims that, two years later, we could say were categorically wrong.

Emptywheel, however, feels that I’m missing evidence against some of the claims. I’ve suggested that she and talk about it offline.

And open thread!



Reconsidering The Steele Dossier

 

It’s time to reconsider the Steele dossier. Not necessarily to show how much Christopher Steele got right or wrong, but because it is a relatively compact collection of information about how the Donald Trump campaign may have worked with the Russians. Looking at it can help to organize the torrent of information coming at us.

Lawfare has posted an excellent summary, in narrative form, of recent evidence in court filings that supports the material in the dossier. It also gives a good background summary of what the dossier is.

The narrative form tends to impose a particular organization on the material. The dossier is a raw compilation of human intelligence, with no evaluation. The court documents now available do not point to one single scenario; in fact, much of their material is redacted, so we know that there is much more to the story.

I’ve seen people more informally claim that the dossier is supported, but they seem to be referring to a general sense that a story that can be elicited from the dossier are similar to what is in the news. This is often correct, but when I have checked some of these claims with my breakdown of the dossier, the correlation is often cloudy.

My breakdown of the dossier is a listing of its claims, in the order in which they are presented in the dossier. In this post, I’ll state the claim and add evidence for or against it. I may have missed some things; there’s a lot out there.

In this post, the claims are in italics, often shortened from the wording in the dossier. They are identified by the numbers in my breakdown, along with the Company Intelligence Report (CIR) number and date of the document in the dossier. I have included a broader selection of relevant evidence than do the Lawfare authors. The summaries of information may be verbatim from sources or shortened. If you want to do detailed analysis, refer to the linked sources. Read more



Who Is Sam Clovis?

This is a small point in the larger Russia investigation. But in my science, I have found that small points that don’t seem to make sense can be important. I am not putting forth a theory here. I want to raise questions that I think reporters should be looking at. The overarching question is Who is Sam Clovis and how did he develop his contacts?

When Donald Trump announced his foreign policy advisors in March 2016, a great many of us said “Who?” The five people announced were Joseph E. Schmitz, Gen. Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Walid Phares. Three had policy experience. Two didn’t. None were obvious choices.

Page was off to Russia that June. He had meetings with at least one high-level official, although his answers to congressional committees on that subject are evasive. A few years earlier, two Russian agents attempted to recruit Page as an informant.

Papadopoulos was convicted of lying to the FBI earlier this year. His wife worked for Joseph Mifsud, who had Russian connections and a job that looks like a cover. Mifsud has disappeared.

Who recommended Page and Papadopoulos? Eventually it came out that Sam Clovis, the national co-chair of the Trump campaign, had brought them into the campaign. Read more



Russian News

This is a compilation of Russian news you might not have heard. There’s a lot going on in Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is flagging, so much so that his United Russia Party had to resort to shady dealings in recent elections in Russia’s Far East. The retirement age for pensions has been raised, and people are not happy. They’ve just mounted a big military exercise, but probably not as big as they claim. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church will probably split organizationally from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Paul Goble worked in the State Department during the breakup of the Soviet Union. He retired some time ago and has taught in universities in Estonia. He speaks Russian and Estonian. He maintains a blog, Window on Eurasia, where he summarizes news and opinion from Russia and its neighbors in English. I’ll draw on his posts and a few other sources to note recent developments in Russia. This is far from exhaustive, and probably not even indicative of larger trends. Just things that are happening.

Quick tl;dr for those who don’t want to look through this whole long post. It looks like the events most likely to persist and potentially cause trouble for Putin are dissatisfaction because of the pension changes and the border changes in the North Caucasus. The other issues, like the continuing annoyance to people whose native languages are not Russian of Moscow’s emphasis on Russian in the schools. That was a continuing annoyance in the Soviet Union and contributed to its breakup. Tie that to other upsets, and larger disturbances could result.

Putin’s declining popularity could convince him that he needs to ramp up his foreign involvements, although this prediction has been out there for a year or more, with no significant ramping up of military action.

Russia is a big country, with a wide variety of people. It’s not surprising to find various types of conflict. Sanctions are hurting a vulnerable economy. It looks like Russia will continue pretty much as it has, barring extraordinary events. Read more