By David B. Rivkin, Jr.
February 27, 2023, in the Wall Street Journal
Your editorial “Putin Buries Nuclear Arms Control” (Feb. 22) correctly discounts the significance of Vladimir Putin’s withdrawal from the New Start Treaty, explaining that nuclear deterrence is buttressed by U.S. nuclear force deployments and not by arms-control treaties, particularly given Moscow’s frequent noncompliance. Given America’s demanding extended deterrence commitments to defend numerous allies from conventional and nuclear attacks, however, Washington should take several additional deterrence-enhancing steps.
First, deterrence is bolstered by a nuclear-use policy, targeting enemy assets based on the enemy’s own values and weaknesses. This is why the U.S. moved from a “assured mutual destruction” policy, targeting Soviet cities in the 1960s, toward hitting the Soviets where it mattered to them the most. The final iteration of this strategy, adopted during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, targeted Communist Party headquarters and railways linking European Russia with Siberia. Given Mr. Putin’s highly personalized regime, the U.S. contingency plan should be to target Russian leaders and their close associates, as well as the key transportation facilities connecting Russia proper with restive Muslim and Asian regions.
Second, robust U.S. declaratory policy, describing how we view nuclear weapons, enhances deterrence. Unfortunately, visions of a nuke-free world have been overly embraced by numerous administrations of both parties. Given Russia’s embrace of its ability to prevail in a nuclear war, the U.S. must give up on nuclear abolitionism and refocus on a credible nuclear war-fighting strategy.
Today’s challenges require the U.S. to re-emphasize the first-use policy (already embraced by Russian military doctrine) and stress that a properly prosecuted nuclear war can be won. We need to respond robustly to Mr. Putin’s nuclear taunts, stating that any use of Russian nuclear weapons against Ukraine would so malignantly change the post-World War II global security environment that it would be met by a vigorous U.S. response.
Facilitating Russian defeat in Ukraine would also discourage Beijing’s attack on Taiwan. China is rapidly building its nuclear forces but won’t approach nuclear parity with the U.S. until 2030 at the earliest (it’s during these years that U.S. conventional force vulnerabilities in any conflict with China loom largest.) Discounting Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats, abandoning self-deterrence and returning the U.S. to a muscular nuclear policy would bolster deterrence of Beijing, too.