Ross Douthat: How to stop a nuclear war

We don’t need to take wild nuclear risks to defeat Putin in the long run.

(Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP photo) In this photo taken on June 24, 2020, Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow, Russia.

In September 1983, Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet military, assigned to the command center that monitored early warning satellites over the United States. During one of his shifts, the alarms went off: The Americans had seemingly launched five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.

This was at a peak of Cold War tension, just a few weeks after the USSR shot down a Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace. With only minutes until the missiles were predicted to hit their targets, Petrov had to decide whether to report the attack up the chain of command, potentially triggering a swift retaliatory strike.

Following both intuition and the assumption that a real first strike would feature more than five missiles, he decided to report the alert as a malfunction, a false alarm. Which it was: The satellite had misread sunlight reflecting off clouds as a missile launch.

Petrov passed to his reward in 2017 — a suitable one, hopefully, for a man who saved millions of lives — but there are two reasons to reflect on his choices now, as the West tries to respond to Russia’s Ukrainian invasion with the Russian nuclear arsenal in the background.

The first is simply to be reminded how fortunate the world was to escape a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, when near-misses happened not just during moments of maximal brinkmanship like the Cuban missile crisis but also through randomness, coincidence and error. If there’s a path to nuclear war in this century, it will probably feature a similar kind of contingency and accident, the devil taking a hand in ways that can’t be predicted in advance.

But it’s also worth considering exactly what made Petrov’s position so excruciating: He had to decide whether to escalate toward Armageddon in a situation where not to escalate threatened his entire society with defeat. And then also to consider how he found a way out of his predicament: through the fact that five missiles was not actually a defeating blow, which was both evidence that the satellites were erring and also a sign that he didn’t actually hold the final fate of his country in his hands.

His specific experience vindicates a general doctrine for confrontations between nuclear-armed powers: It’s often better to constrain yourself than to limit your enemy’s choices, pushing them toward a doom-laden decision between escalation and defeat.

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

Second, they mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Russian President Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Third, they imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

But if that makes our situation more dangerous, it also should give us confidence that we don’t need to take wild nuclear risks to defeat Putin in the long run. The voices arguing for escalating now because we’ll have to fight him sooner or later need to recognize that containment, proxy wars and careful line-drawing defeated a Soviet adversary whose armies threatened to sweep across West Germany and France, whereas now we’re facing a Russian army that’s bogged down outside Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

We were extremely careful about direct escalation with the Soviets even when they invaded Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, and the result was a Cold War victory without a nuclear war. To escalate now against a weaker adversary, one less likely to ultimately defeat us and more likely to engage in atomic recklessness if cornered, would be a grave and existential folly.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.