Transformation of Nuclear Deterrence

DOI: 10.20542/0131-2227-2018-62-7-5-16

A. Arbatov (,
Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), 23, Profsoyuznaya Str., Moscow 117997, Russian Federation


It would be difficult to find a term that has been more frequently used in international security discourse than “nuclear deterrence”. During the last three decades, U.S. and Russian nuclear forces have been reduced by 6-7 times in warheads number, and strategic balance is more stable than it has ever been in the past 30 years in its classic sense – the mutual unfeasibility of a first (disarming) strike. However, the main present paradox is that the threat of nuclear war between the two leading powers is now higher than any time during the last three decades. Also the understanding of the notion of stability and nuclear deterrence by the two nations has diverged far apart. It is noteworthy that the main strategic document of Donald Trump’s administration – “Nuclear Posture Review” of January 2018 – makes the nuclear stance of the two powers more symmetric. In contrast to the previous administration of Barack Obama, the new U.S. government is emphasizing the growing importance of nuclear arms and nuclear deterrence for American and international security. While the democrats were reducing reliance on nuclear deterrence and promoting long-range conventional defensive and offensive weapons, the republicans have approved a massive program of modernization of all legs of strategic triade, development of new sea-based and airbased nuclear cruise missiles and introduction of low-yield nuclear warheads. However, this new symmetry is not a guarantee for a new beginning of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control dialogue or removal of the danger of nuclear war. The main threats of an armed conflict between the United States and Russia stem from several directions. One is the probability of an uncontrolled crisis escalation in Eastern Europe or Syria. Another is the possibility of the employment of conventional long-range precision-guided cruise and boost-glide missiles in attacking nuclear forces and command-control system of the opponent in line with the strategic concepts of “conventional (or pre-nuclear) deterrence”. Yet another threat is the deployment and possible employment of low-yield nuclear weapons, which are assigned missions of selective nuclear strikes in line with the concept of conflict “de-escalation”. In order to remove these dangers strategic arms control negotiations should be resumed as soon as possible and in the meanwhile existing treaties must be sustained. The juxtaposed Russian and NATO armed forces in the Eastern Europe should be disengaged and limited. New understanding of the notions of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability should be forged.


nuclear deterrence, general purpose forces, nuclear arms, limited (selective) strike, conflict escalation


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For citation:
Arbatov A. Transformation of Nuclear Deterrence. Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 2018, vol. 62, No 7, pp. 5-16.

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