The war in Ukraine is a scenario in which doubts reappear about whether the theory of nuclear deterrence works or whether a miscalculation on the part of one of the parties can end in a fateful outcome
Judging by the multiple analyzes that appear these days in the media, the war in Ukraine has been more or less expected by political analysts, experts in geopolitics and international relations. However, we do not know what its outcome will be.
The reason is clear: there is an inherent uncertainty associated with war that exceeds any planning and strategic design of the advisers and analysts that may be behind each administration or government of a country. In any war situation, one must always deal with unpredictable factors or those that may be modified during the course of a military operation.
The war in Ukraine has once again highlighted the role that deterrence and, in its greatest exponent, nuclear deterrence, may have in said planning and possible outcomes.
The nuclear threat in the war in Ukraine has revealed the fragility of the current and changing international order in the face of the risks of relying on nuclear deterrence as a guarantee of security in the face of adversity. The consequences for the civilian population, as well as their possible serious environmental consequences, add to the complexity associated with nuclear weapons.
The theory of nuclear deterrence
If we analyze the theory of deterrence, we will find countless academic articles with arguments for and against the central element that the theory of nuclear deterrence presents us: the fact or the illusion of coming to think that possessing nuclear capabilities can be a long-term security guarantee.
And it is precisely at this point where the vulnerability of nuclear deterrence reappears: for nuclear deterrence to work in a situation of conflict between two nuclear powers and ultimately not to occur, the costs associated with a hypothetical situation of mutual destruction insured must be the same (situation known in English under the acronym MAD). In other words, all the actors involved must equally consider the cost-benefit calculation equation of deploying or using their nuclear weapons, in such a way that the probability that they would annihilate each other would precisely be the fact that would stop confrontation occurred.
However, history shows us the sad paradox that possessing nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security, far from its initial will or reason for being, de facto increases the risk of a nuclear escalation. The war in Ukraine is one more scenario where doubts reappear about whether the theory of nuclear deterrence would work beyond theory or whether a miscalculation by one of the two parties could end in a fateful outcome.
The dilemmas of the outcome in Ukraine
Analyzing the probability of a possible nuclear outcome in the war in Ukraine is full of dilemmas, complexities and doubts that lead us to explore and review the origins of the theory of nuclear deterrence, its consolidation during the Cold War and subsequent evolution.
It is time to stop to think and analyze globally the risks of nuclear deterrence in Ukraine or beyond, in its possible destabilizing role in any international conflict. According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2021 alone there were more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with Russia (6,255) and the United States (5,550) leading the list. Undoubtedly, Ukraine is one more scenario where the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence reappear.
Number of nuclear warheads in 2021
Deployed warheads refer to warheads located on missiles or located on bases with operating forces. Other warheads refers to stored or reserved warheads and disused warheads awaiting decommissioning. In 2010, the British government declared that its stockpile of nuclear weapons would not exceed 225 warheads. SIPRI calculates that in January 2021 the reserve remained at this figure. The North Korean data are estimates by SIPRI of the number of warheads the country could build with the amount of fissile material it has produced. No public evidence is available to prove that North Korea has produced an operational nuclear warhead for ICBM delivery, but it may have a small number of medium-range ballistic missile warheads. Figures for North Korea are highly uncertain and are not included in global totals. /
Given the renewed importance of nuclear deterrence, it is necessary to recover the teachings of the 2005 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Thomas Schelling. In his award collection speech, the brilliant economist opened with one of the simplest, but at the same time most forceful, warnings and reflections on the use of nuclear deterrence in the past century:
“The most spectacular event of the last 60 years is one that never happened.”
Schelling’s words become yet another historic allusion to the risks involved in relying on nuclear deterrence as a long-term security strategy.
This article has been published in The Conversation
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