Nuclear Deterrence 101 (and why the US can’t even hint at intervening in Ukraine)

This is a linkpost for https://​​​​2022/​​03/​​11/​​collections-nuclear-deterrence-101/​​ . I found it a very good read for explaining the strategy behind the decisions and signaling in this war. I was inspired to post it as a supplement to https://​​​​posts/​​WX7tpnBCHWrmJcDym/​​why-a-no-fly-zone-would-be-the-biggest-gift-to-putin-and-why , as this piece explains why it’s in Zelensky’s interest to continue to call for a no-fly zone that could turn into a hot war.

It also answered a question I’ve had since a child, visiting old friends of my mother from her childhood growing up on military bases, wondering what the US was doing in so many countries. The answer? Their job is quite literally to die to provoke a US response.

Some excerpts below:

One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ – including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.

Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli – accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast moving armored, mechanized and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.

Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).

The logic of deterrence – in particular the fact that it is both very high stakes and also based entirely on perceptionexplains why NATO and especially the United States took any direct military action off of the table quite loudly well before the conflict began. Saying that ‘all options are on the table’ – as the United States routinely does with Taiwan – would have been a fairly obvious bluff. When Putin called that obvious bluff, it would have damaged the credibility and thus the deterrence value of that same statement when applied to NATO members or Taiwan, weakening the effect of US deterrence, and thus potentially encouraging another state (like China) to try to call an American bluff elsewhere (essentially inviting a piecemeal maneuver). And of course the danger to that is two-fold: on the one hand if the United States and NATO folds, it calls into question even more of its security arrangements, but if it doesn’t fold, the result is likely to be a major war which in turn could (and frankly probably would) lead to an escalatory spiral ending in the use of nuclear weapons.

It is worth noting here though how Ukrainian interests here diverge from NATO interests. Ukraine is already in an effectively total war (from their perspective; Russia is not totally mobilized) with Russia. Russian forces are already targeting Ukrainian civilian centers with the apparent aim of inflicting civilian casualties and making the refugee situation worse. The Ukrainian state already faces the potential threat of extinction. As a result, Ukraine has very little to lose if the war escalates further (especially since from the Ukrainian perspective, nearly all of the escalatory potential is on NATO’s side; note this is not true from NATO’s perspective) and so it may be in Ukrainian interests to push for high-risk NATO strategies that it is in turn not in NATO’s interest – or the world’s interest – for NATO to adopt.