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How to Remind a Political Generation of 'Gamers' That Nuclear War Is Not a Game?

A political generation that has forgotten the meaning of nuclear deterrence needs to be reminded that when it's "game over", it really is game over.


This post first appeared on Russia Insider


The author is a professor at the Moscow Higher School of Economics.


Russia pays great attention to strategic nuclear forces, believing that the presence of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery are not an absolute guarantee of Russian security.

<figcaption>If this ain't deterring you...I don't know what I can do for you!</figcaption>
If this ain't deterring you...I don't know what I can do for you!

Nuclear weapons are more complex than it may seem. They exist in order not to be used. Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence, and deterrence requires the other side to take responsibility for its nuclear weapons and the possibility that they may be used. In other words, the critical point in nuclear deterrence is the enemy’s conviction that you really intend to deter it.

The US was our partner in strategic deterrence during the Cold War. With the emergence of multipolarity, China joined the members of the nuclear deterrence system, creating a new global reality. And while Russia doesn’t expect any problems with Beijing in the foreseeable future, not only by virtue of the political partnership between our countries, but also thanks to the responsible behavior of China’s leaders in pre-crisis situations over the last decade, the situation with the US is more complex.

Washington is likely to try to revive its advantage in high-precision conventional armaments in coming years, while trying to decrease the significance of nuclear weapons.  This is obvious from its claim that the world needs to further reduce its strategic nuclear arms.

An entire generation of politicians, unused to weighing their actions against the nuclear option, has grown up in the US. It was raised according to the idea that there are no military or political deterrents for the West. This is a generation of politicians, who, if it has any concept of  nuclear deterrence, probably doesn’t believe in it. With the biggest nuclear stockpile in the world, they see it as a failsafe tool of global stability.

Hillary Clinton probably understands the significance of nuclear weapons, but we can be sure that she sees them as a new tool of the "messiahship", she undoubtedly has in store for the world, should she come to power, while Donald Trump is likely have the most vague idea of "a bomb". However, no one should doubt that demonstrations of nuclear delivery vehicles, and at least a few threats, will become important elements of US foreign policy in either election result.

This is a big problem.

When Cold War Mohicans in the American establishment previously played supporting roles, remembering what it meant to sit in a bunker expecting a nuclear attack, we didn’t have to worry. But a while ago, dangerous ideas appeared. Remember how the Pentagon seriously discussed using tactical nuclear ammunition in the Roki Tunnel to force Russia to surrender over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Discussions over the US missile defense system in Europe also demonstrated a high level of irresponsibility when it comes to nuclear deterrence.  

The new political and military generation having come to power using drones, we risk no longer having partners who understand that they must not "play dice" with nuclear weapons, but "gamers", who would look for the reset button only after taking a fateful decision.

Games with public opinion also transform perceptions. Although the nuclear test moratorium turned into the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty of 1996 (which didn’t actually come into force because the US refused to ratify it), the demonization of  nuclear weapons boosted nuclear disarmament during the nineties and the early 2000’s – resulting in the loss of the culture of nuclear deterrence and the political use of nuclear threats. Under these circumstances, we cannot count on the nuclear shield as reliable protection from those who want to test our country’s endurance.

If we want to maintain the political efficacy of our strategic nuclear forces in the near future, we should generate scenarios involving nuclear weapons that would be convincing for the current crop of Western politicians. A deterrent for Ronald Reagan, may not apply to Trump or Clinton.  

Nuclear policy should be simpler, clearer and more demonstrative in every respect. We should convince Western politicians that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, the simpler, the safer.  

The purpose should not be to simply maintain the nuclear potential in working order, but to begin speak out about what nuclear weapons are, what nuclear deterrence is and what the consequences of engaging in nuclear war are, as well as where and how Russia can use nuclear weapons, if need be.

In other words, Russia needs a renewed nuclear strategy, which will guarantee global stability for 25 years. Otherwise, all our efforts to strengthen our nuclear potential will be in vain. 


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