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The logic goes like this: since both sides know, and they know that the other side also knows, the game theory conclusion for Russia to have any chance of something other than defeat is to massively attack with nuclear weapons the moment enough NATO countries demonstrate they are seriously committed to fighting and enough forces are assembled.

Since it’s understood that the Russian armed forces can’t possibly win an exclusively conventional battle if NATO commits, as the industrial capacity of North America + Europe is so much greater.

Although obviously the losses would be horrendous, with less than a fifth of the population, a 5 or 6 to 1 exchange in favour of Russia would cause vastly asymmetric damage. Thus giving a ‘relative victory’ to Russia, which may be perceived as better than a conventional loss.

This then produces the paradox that the more committed the NATO countries are to fighting, the less safe they become. And the more resources spent on their military, the less safe they become, as the conventional gap grows wider.

Whereas conversely the stronger and more confident Russia becomes conventionally, the lower the chance of them resorting to rapid nuclear escalation, thus making the world safer. (assuming nuclear forces remain constant on both sides)

In economic terms, every extra dollar of wealth generated, and every extra bit of productivity by the NATO countries above and beyond what Russia can produce, actually makes everyone less safe as they decrease the confidence that Russia can resist a conventional loss.

It sounds totally bizarre, is there a better interpretation?

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    Leaving aside some major doubts about the premise, which actually distract from the very interesting question: It is the classic cold war dilemma. That's why we used to have arms control, until our NeoCon friends in DC decided they knew better, starting with the Bush-II administration and continuing to return to 1950s mentality ever since. At the same time, it had been observed that peacetime military spending is as much about business as strategy.
    – Pete W
    Jan 2, 2022 at 15:46
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    How is a mutual nuclear destruction better for Russia than a loss in a convential war? In the first case there is no more Russia afterwards, in the second there is.
    – quarague
    Jan 2, 2022 at 16:38
  • 10
    Modern conventional warfare is about a lot more than numbers of troops and weapons, it is largely about national commitment in terms of capital, both monetary and political. This is a much more complicated calculation than just comparing troop/weapons strength. Jan 2, 2022 at 18:23
  • 12
    What do you think "beating" Russia means? Unless and until you define that, you're only going to get meaningless generalities in your answers. Wars are fought to achieve some objective, and it is exceedingly unlikely that NATO would pursue an unconditional surrender in the first place.
    – fectin
    Jan 3, 2022 at 16:40
  • 9
    Let's start with questions about the premise. I see "everyone knows" as an appeal to prejudice: (1) which "everyone"? (1a) Given 7..8 billion people on the planet; which ones did the OP check with (likely closer to 7..8)? (1b) How was the translation managed (surely 1+ Russians were consulted)? (2) What if this "everyone" is missing vital information about Russia's weapon systems? (3) What if the Russian officials are: (3a) otherwise informed, (3b) otherwise motivated than the general welfare, (3c) subject to neurological 'events', (4) factors we've not considered? Jan 4, 2022 at 0:29

7 Answers 7

45

Russia might also be convinced that NATO lacks the political coherence and will to fight, and that going nuclear would be a "Pearl Harbor moment" which turns it into a fight-to-the-finish. Russian tourists helping a separatists movement in the near abroad are one thing, nuclear weapons are something else. The term to read about is Hybrid Warfare.

My personal estimate is that MAD still stands, even if Russia professes to be worried about growing American missile defenses. And the Russian investment in hypersonics suggests that Russia is serious, not just making propaganda noises. Which brings up the stability-instability paradox: as long as MAD stands, minor conflicts won't go major, so minor conflicts can be risked.

Another interesting question is how long a conflict would last. An American think tank believes that Russia could overrun the Baltics in 60 hours. NATO has deployed tripwire forces in the Baltics, they can't stop Russia but they would make it a fight with a dozen NATO member states.

Compare the Western reassurances for Ukraine, which are far less robust. Biden all but admitted that they won't send troops, only arms and sanctions. Those sanctions are going to be interesting -- if the US bans Russia from SWIFT, will that stop the Russian sale of gas to Europe? With the Nord Stream pipeline system, they could still deliver gas even if Ukraine stops transit (or of the infrastructure in Ukraine is damaged). Then-President Trump complained that Nord Stream 2 increases the European dependence on Russian gas. It doesn't. It decreases Russian and European dependence on Ukraine for the gas transport.

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    @M.Y.Zuo, that's not certain. I see two key problems: the Russian leadership believes that the West wants to forment a colour revolution in Russia, and Russia does not accept that the countries on the border of a great power (like them) are free to apply to whichever alliance they want to. This has nothing to do with the number of missiles, and everything with perceptions of political threats.
    – o.m.
    Jan 2, 2022 at 18:42
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    @o.m. It is not just that Russia doesn't want OTAN on it's doorstep (why would they, we saw how USA reacted with missiles on their doorstep in 1962), but there is probably a legal reason why Ukraine cannot join any military alliance, not just OTAN. This Declaration is the basis for this Act on which Ukrainian Constitution is based. In Declaration, in point 9 it clearly says "that Ukraine will not take part in any military block". And Constitution is based on that Declaration through Act.
    – dosvarog
    Jan 2, 2022 at 19:09
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    @dosvarog, according to NATO it is the Ukraine (and not Russia) which decides about making the application, and NATO (and not Russia) which decides about accepting it. Those are two distinct decisions. What the constitutional requirements in the Ukraine are is for Ukrainian courts. It might also enter the judgement of NATO when NATO looks at the application. Russia has no legal standing to sue (but they could certainly find Ukrainians to do it for them, in Ukrainian courts).
    – o.m.
    Jan 3, 2022 at 5:19
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    @rexkogitans Nord Stream 2 increases the European dependency on Russian gas in the sense that it increases the gas supply, bringing prices down, therefore disincentivising the transitioning to a fossil fuel free economy. Increasing the drugs supply to a drug addict increases their addition, not so much compared to the status quo, but compared to a successful programme to become clean.
    – gerrit
    Jan 3, 2022 at 17:09
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    @o.m. for sure. But admittance of Ukraine is not for Ukraine to decide, it is for NATO members countries to decide. And I really fail to see any upside for existing NATO members, so perhaps another model could be used, one that did not screw over Ukrainians but also did not present a security risk to Russia? Switzerland-like? Anyway, my main point is that citing the 1996 constitution's blocks on alliances is valid, but ignores that its context has radically changed. Finland remark is a minor point. Jan 4, 2022 at 17:53
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The hypothesis cited is extremely speculative, to put it mildly. The world survived 44 years of high level competition between the USSR and NATO, when there was a fundamental drive by both systems to extinguish the other.

Avoiding total war was based on:

  • strong mutual conventional deterrence, meaning that there was ample room to escalate and de-escalate using conventional forces.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction at the nuclear level, should either bloc put the other truly at risk.
  • well-honed communication channels that were set up to avoid misunderstandings.
  • A clear understanding by both blocs that they had to keep their armed forces out of direct combat with each other, opting instead to work through proxies.

Most of this machinery is essentially still in place, yet what has dropped out is a very strong commitment by the US to end Communism, and a strong commitment by Russia/USSR to end capitalism. Compared to those times, what we are seeing today in the Ukraine arena is of very limited real danger to either bloc.

Russia does not have the forces to beat the West, but it also has no real reason to pursue the type of confrontation that would escalate to nuclear.

The US/Nato would never be able to "sell" to their electorate the idea of "putting Russia out of action". To be honest, it does not, nor should it, have the intent to fight Russia militarily to protect Ukraine. That sounds horrible, so let me repeat it: the West has no vital interest justifying putting its own troops in harm's way in Ukraine and risking an escalation chain. If Ukraine gets attacked, Russia will suffer consequences, but not of the type you imagine.

We are supposedly at greater risk now than we were say in 1985 and we would be safer if we were unarmed?

Color me skeptical. Both groups will continue to vie for regional influence, but at the end of the day nothing very significant will come out of it, except possibly some more misery for Ukraine. And a lot of economic pain to Russia if that happens.

Russia, in 2022, is not a long term existential threat to the West. China might end up taking on that role (hopefully we will avoid a second Cold War), but Russia is not. Russia teaming up with China? Quite possible, but also exactly the kind of development that would strongly rebut your advice.

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    NATO used to be unable to resist Soviet conventional forces, so they promised to escalate to nuclear war. That deterrence worked for a few decades ...
    – o.m.
    Jan 2, 2022 at 8:00
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    @o.m. in theory. In practice, would Soviet forces have punched through using conventional only and sustained the logistics? That is very much open for debate and in fact Soviet battle plans emphasized nuclear-supported tactical penetration. Threatening to escalate to nuclear war, by either side, was one way to keep ambiguity and avoid being gamed short of declared thresholds. Jan 2, 2022 at 8:04
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    @M.Y.Zuo Nukes were always a last-resort for both sides but both systems were ideologically incompatible, with both claiming they wanted to shut the other down. Marxism raison d'etre is after all ending Capitalism (according to people who know its theory, I just follow Gulag victim counts and military doctrines). And US Capitalism had a rather rabid attitude towards Communism itself. Both sides still have their nukes left, but nowhere near the desire to wipe the other out and impose its will. So, no, 2022 is not 1985. Jan 2, 2022 at 18:34
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    This answer assumes that Western governments act in the interest of their people. The West has not had a vital interest in any of the conflicts it's engaged in post WW2. The reason for putting Western troops in harm's way in Ukraine would be the same as it's always been since Smedley Butler wrote War is a Racket: enrichment of politically connected industries at taxpayer expense. Jan 3, 2022 at 16:38
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    Abuses by the West in places like Central America, failure to recognize reasonable aspirations for liberty in South Vietnam and the support of numerous pro-Western dictatorships (South Korea, Taiwan) do tarnish this struggle. But they do not obviate the need for standing firm against such a tyrannical system. What about racial injustices? True enough, again a stain on Western values, but one needs only look at the fate of the Cossacks in 1944 to see that the vaunted Communist ideal of universal human brotherhood was a joke. Better said here Jan 3, 2022 at 17:23
10

This question seems to simply presuppose that NATO is an aggressive entity bent on wiping out Russia, as "The West is wealthy" is treated as identical to "The West can support a large military", which is identical to "The West can conquer Russia", which is identical to "The West will conquer Russia". There's no question that the US could wipe out Mexico's military rather easily, but I don't see Mexicans clamoring for nukes. It would be absurd for Russia to launch a nuclear attack against the West simply because the West has high productivity and could launch an attack on Russia. Russia loses nothing by waiting for an actual attack before launching, and gains in the case where the West was not planning on attacking in the first place.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, Russia has repeatedly engaged in aggression against former states of the USSR, and a decrease in conventional power on the part of the West simply encourages such behavior. Russia is an oligarchy largely controlled by one man, while the West is a collection of states with a large degree of democratic control. This makes Russia much more likely to be the aggressor, and giving them more power decreases stability.

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    Russia has been invaded from Western Europe several times in history (I'm not sure if Russia has ever invaded Western Europe except for WW II) but never while Moscow was so close to the border. That's probably why they're keen on keeping Belarus and Ukraine as their satellites, having already lost most/all of the rest as a buffer zone.
    – gerrit
    Jan 3, 2022 at 17:18
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    @gerrit Pretty much every country has been invaded, and most, like Russia, have invaded other countries. This "we're justified in invading other countries to create a buffer zone against other countries invading us" argument is silly. Moscow is ~200 miles from their closest border, more than the width of most countries. Jan 3, 2022 at 18:14
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    @Acccumulation says a citizen of pretty much the least-invaded country of the world ;-) I don't believe the Russians are only doing this for defensive reasons, but, if they were, their security concerns would not be all that dissimilar to the US's reaction to Cuba during the Cold War. BTW, assuming your opponent means you no harm isn't the highpoint of clear contingency planning. Jan 4, 2022 at 15:51
  • 2
    @Rekesoft It's common sense that the fewer people that are needed to agree before going to war, it easier it is to go to war. And in a dictatorship, if the leader says they should go to war, people aren't allowed to disagree, or to dispute the alleged basis for the war, and it's easier to engage in conscription. And I don't agree that democracies have historically been more aggressive than dictatorships. Jan 8, 2022 at 1:43
  • 2
    @Rekesoft Iraq was in violation of a cease fire, thus the invasion was arguably a continuation of the war that Iraq (a dictatorship) started. Even if you consider it a different war, that's one each in the dictatorship and democracy column. Bush had to consult the House and Senate, a total of 535, and he then had to seek reelection from millions of people. The idea that dictators have as much check on their power is absurd. And not only is your link a Gish gallop, most seem to be civil wars. Jan 9, 2022 at 20:21
7

No, because game theory assumes you have to play the game

As von Clausewitz famously said, war is a continuation of politics by other means. War is not an end in itself, and war is not the only way to win. The West did not win the previous Cold War by being militarily stronger, they won it by being economically stronger. For another way to win economically, China are currently taking over the world quietly by making large infrastructure loans to developing nations, and then taking assets from that country instead when they can't repay their loans.

War also assumes you have something to gain once it's over. Typically this is economic resources, as exemplified by Germany and Japan in WW2. If it's purely a willy-waving exercise where you start posturing and find you can't back down (as in WW1) then you generally need some way to present the enemy as an existential threat to your people. That's fairly achievable for immediate neighbours, but rather harder for an entire continent. Alternatively (as with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran) you need to be a sufficiently brutal dictator that your people will do what you say because they're more scared of you than the enemy - this is an option, but it's harder to do in more advanced countries.

And more than that, this game theory assumes "acceptable losses" are genuinely acceptable. Fewer UK military personnel were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over both campaigns than die on UK roads in a single year - but these weren't deemed acceptable losses. Is it genuinely acceptable to have every major city nuked, lose 80% of your population, and have the survivors reduced to a life of hand-to-mouth subsistence for at least a generation with all industrialisation basically destroyed?

To quote a well-known film, "The only winning move is not to play."

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    I saw that particular film no less than twelve times in junior high school, because it was the tool teachers used to mind students when they had other obligations and the school only had two or three movies available in its stockpile. :)
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 4, 2022 at 22:30
4

Frame Challenge:

You forgot about the likelihood of China and Russia aligning in any conventional armed conflict. They have a rough past sure, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If NATO is the enemy, they're best buds. This tips the scales far closer to even. Even if not a direct alliance, China would most likely supply the difference in armaments on loan. It's in their interest to protect the shared border with Russia from any Western influence.

To be clear here, my point is that M.A.D. is practically guaranteed in modern conventional war as well (note Russia FOAB mentioned in the article, amongst the literal 100,000's of "small" bombs in each nations stockpiles), if the U.S. and any other large, modern nation "went at it" without holding back. It's unlikely a full-scale conventional war between any of the powers mentioned will occur again - instead the countries will opt for proxy wars fighting for influence, as they've done for decades. In terms of "taking over" another nation, that's much more likely to be attempted (and accomplished) through economic, and even cultural "warfare".

The frame challenge is that neither Russia nor the U.S. has any real, worthwhile interest in a full scale conventional war with the other. A key factor would be, if nukes were entirely eliminated, that other parties besides Russia would have an interest in harming the U.S. effort, namely China given the modern political landscape.

https://www.voanews.com/a/china-deepens-informal-alliance-with-russia/6338773.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China%E2%80%93Russia_relations

https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2021/10/15/china-russia-launch-joint-naval-drills-in-russian-far-east/#:~:text=The%20exercises%20Joint%20Sea%202021,and%20firing%20on%20seaborn%20targets.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-russia-america-military-exercises-weapons-war-xi-putin-biden-11641146041

https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/a37272876/russia-china-joint-military-exercises/

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    Speculative in the extreme. Russia and China are anything but best buddies. While their interests may coincide at times, and one may see a move by the other as an opportunity for itself, that doesn't mean active cooperation. So if China attacks Taiwan, drawing substantial US forces there, Russia may see an opportunity and attack Ukraine and the Baltics now that the US is weak in Europe.
    – jwenting
    Jan 4, 2022 at 8:23
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    Thought: China probably picked up something from the USA in WW2 and will likely have a great time staying out of a potential conflcit between the NATO and Russia and benefit greatly from having an unharmed production capacity and a relatively unharmed (or even boosted because everyone will be buying from them) economy. Jan 4, 2022 at 14:03
  • @jwenting Do the 5 sources I've included not remove much of the speculation?
    – TCooper
    Jan 4, 2022 at 15:30
  • @BenjaminGruenbaum Please see the sentence "Even if not a direct alliance, China would happily supply the difference in armaments on loan."
    – TCooper
    Jan 4, 2022 at 15:31
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    "Even if not a direct alliance, China would most likely supply the difference in armaments on loan." So far, China didn't supply notable armaments to Russia while Russia is still waging war in Ukraine, neither on loan nor for payment. Aug 23, 2022 at 18:56
1

I really hope that in the case of the WWIII, both sides would agree to fight with ordinary weapons only regardless the end because deploying nuclear weapons still does not ensure any easy victory for Russia. NATO has nuclear weapons as well, the strike back will follow and will also be devastating. If in general it could be a winner in a nuclear war, may still not be Russia.

History knows cases like that. For instance, during WWII, A.Hitler had chemical weapons, and he also lost the war but (apart few limited cases) these weapons were not deployed.

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  • Here's my prediction: Putin has already destroyed Russia's wealth. He has demonstrated that you can't have strong military in a kleptocracy, and invading Ukraine was a move of utter stupidity. In Russia, its everyone for himself. And all the people at the top want to continue enjoying their life. So maybe Putin tries to call someone to launch nuclear weapons. If he tries, one if his thousand strong body guards, who prefers a nice life, will take him out before he can.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 23, 2022 at 17:21
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    The story (true or not) is that Hitler, as a WWI soldier, got badly injured by chemical weapons, and as a result disallowed all the German troops to use them first under any circumstances.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 23, 2022 at 17:53
0

At present, Russia, like many other Nuclear Powers, has a second strike only policy. This means that in the event of war with another nuclear power, Russia would only launch it's Nukes if it detected a launch from the belligerent side. They would never be the first to use nukes. The United States is one of the few nations that did not adopt a second strike only policy, opting for one that basically said we will keep the war restricted to conventional arms until we detect Nukes inbound OR we think a tactile nuclear strike is in our interest (Read: We're about to lose and the only way to win the battle is if all the opposing conventional forces were suddenly vaporized). Considering which of the two is the only nation to ever use nuclear arms in actual combat... and you could see why the Russians were so nervous about the West... which was politically opposed to Soviet style government.

It also explains why the Soviets added a "dead man switch" to their nuclear command and control. They will launch if a signal is not received from Moscow within a certain amount of time (the engineering of this system is such that the only way for Moscow to fail to send the signal is if Moscow suddenly was no longer on the face of the earth. Russia has historically been very vulnerable to decapitation strikes. Their capital is much more important than any other city. It's also one of the reasons Russia is pretty difficult to invade.).

That all said, many Nuclear War scenarios, especially in the 80s when the cold war started to go towards a hot one, was that NATO-Warsaw Pact war would start off with a flashpoint crisis of some sort (Trouble in East Berlin or a Crisis in the Middle East) which raise tensions with both powers until the opening salvos of a conventional war begin, at which point, it's a conventional war with infintry, tanks, air battles, and naval battles. The thought is that NATO would have the naval advantage, Warsaw would have the land advantage, and it would be a dead even split on air superiority.

At some point, one of the land battles is going bad for their side... they can barely hold the line and enemy reserves are enroute to the front lines and once there, they will break through. For whatever reason, losing this position in the opening actions of war is unacceptable so the side that is on the ropes will launch a tactical nuke at the re-enforcements because its all they have left. The side that is nuked sees this on early warning detections and, with the fog of war, have no way of knowing if it was the only nuke.

But the thing about Nuclear arms is that the best national defense against a nuclear bomb... is to have a nuclear bomb of your own. That, and the ability to convince the enemy that if backed into a corner... we will use it.

It's estimated that in a total nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that all but 3% of either side's Nuclear Arsenal will be delivered to the intended target when launched. And that both sides had 30 minutes of travel from ground launch points until they reached their target. Now, to the side that sees that lone nuke fired at their re-enforcements... they have no way of knowing if that missile is a shot that will win the battle, or the first shot in a war ending salvo. They have no way to talk to the other side at this point. They have less than 30 minutes at best to retaliate before they lose that capability and the lives of everyone on the home front. It doesn't matter if it's one launch or one thousand launches... if they want even a hope of a chance to win this war, be it for mom and apple pie, or perogies and suka, there's now only one thing to do. Launch everything, and hope that the 3% of arsenal that survives is your own. Of course... the only way to learn their true intentions, is to see if they launch all of theirs before you've launched all of yours... either way... who lost the war is now decided... all that can be said is that we will know who won sooner... because at either rate, nobody does.

And what is troubling, is that in so many scenarios, the implication if not outright statement was that it was the U.S. losing ground that pressed the button first... and those were the predictions from the West... because as was said in the film "War Games," in global-thermonuclear war, the only winning move is to not to play the game. It's how we won the Cold War.

Much like in my family when my sister suggest we play Monopoly (sorry, after writing all that sobering stuff, I had to get a laugh in somehow.).

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    This answer is factually incorrect. Russia's published nuclear doctrine is not no-first-use. It envisions the use of nuclear weapons in response to purely conventional attack "when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy." Contrast to China, whose doctrine is "China will never at any time and under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons."
    – cpast
    Aug 24, 2022 at 0:24

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