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Nuclear deterrence must work in both directions, not just against the West

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping use the threat of nuclear weapons to safeguard against retaliation for their aggression and to seek strategic advantages.

Talk of nuclear weapons and their use has significantly ramped up since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine. Putin himself began the latest rhetorical escalation, even before sending his forces across the Ukrainian border for the third time in eight years, saying that any outside country that interfered in the war would face “consequences that they have never seen in their history.”

He enhanced the credibility of his threat with overt action, putting his nuclear forces on alert, while warning the U.S. and NATO countries not to come to Ukraine’s defense. President Biden took the threats seriously. When asked by reporters whether the United States would directly intervene, with a no-fly zone or otherwise, to help Ukraine, he declared emphatically that it would not, since “that’s called World War III.” Washington would not even support Poland’s offer to send MiGs to Ukraine.  

Putin made further nuclear references as the United States and other NATO countries flowed defensive arms into Ukraine. As a former communist power, Putin’s Russia is following a well-honed practice of other nuclear-armed communist states to enhance their positions in times of stress and to achieve strategic objectives.  

The paradigm Cold War case was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his predecessors had failed repeatedly to get Washington to withdraw NATO missiles deployed in Turkey and Italy. The Soviets also objected strongly when President Kennedy tried to overthrow Cuba’s communist dictator Fidel Castro in the CIA’s botched Bay of Pigs operation in 1961.

Moscow then stationed nuclear-capable missiles on the Caribbean island 90 miles off U.S. shores. Kennedy threatened retaliation against the Soviet Union if those weapons were ever used against the U.S. and imposed a naval blockade (a “quarantine”) around Cuba.

As the world came closer than it ever had to all-out nuclear war, the crisis ended not quite the way U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk described it: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy just blinked.” In fact, both sides blinked: The Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of NATO’s weapons in Turkey and Italy. In addition, Washington gave an unprecedented security guarantee to the Castro regime.

The frightening episode taught the world, particularly the five nuclear powers at the time — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union (later Russia) and China — that, as President Reagan later put it, “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”  

But two of the nuclear powers, the Soviet Union and China, later joined by North Korea, learned a second lesson: The threat to use nuclear weapons can be a useful safeguard against retaliation for conventional aggression, as well as a source of leverage to seek otherwise unattainable strategic advantages.

Putin’s “no-limits strategic partner,” the People’s Republic of China, is well-steeped in wielding nuclear threats for those purposes. When Washington sent a carrier battle group through the Taiwan Strait after China fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1995, a leading Chinese general warned the United States, “You care more about Los Angeles than Taiwan.”   

The chilling impact of the threat was felt a few months later, first when Chinese officials asked their U.S. counterparts how Washington would react if China attacked Taiwan. The U.S. response was, “We don’t know, and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”  There was no firm declaration that America would defend Taiwan and no mention of the legal or moral commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and other documents governing the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationships.

The second effect of Beijing’s nuclear warning occurred when Taiwan held its first direct presidential election and China again fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait. But as two U.S. carriers steamed toward the Strait, China’s warning of “a sea of fire” turned the ships away. A Clinton administration official called it “our own Cuban Missile Crisis; we had stared into the abyss.” In 2005, China’s nuclear threat against a U.S. defense of Taiwan was expanded to target “hundreds of U.S. cities.”  

China has not limited its nuclear threats to the United States. When Japan began to acknowledge publicly in 2021 that its own national security is linked to Taiwan’s and that it has an interest in helping to protect it, the People’s Liberation Army circulated an article warning Tokyo in no uncertain terms of the dire consequences. “We will use nuclear bombs first. We will use nuclear bombs continuously …[w]hen we liberate Taiwan, if Japan dares to intervene by force.”

The other communist state that learned the benefits of nuclear coercion is North Korea, whose nuclear program was facilitated by both Soviet and Chinese technology. Its provocative missile and weapons testing, and its fiery rhetoric threatening apocalyptic consequences for countries standing in its way, proved a highly useful distraction of international attention from the expansionist courses that Russia and China have pursued over the past few decades.  

The psychology of nuclear deterrence has shifted significantly as Russia, China and North Korea brandish their nuclear weapons and willingness to use them while the West’s nuclear powers caution restraint and responsibility. French President Emmanuel Macron even counseled caution on collective Western economic cooperation against China because it could lead to the “highest possible” level of conflict. To avoid that risk, he told the European Parliament on Jan. 19, the European Union should avoid aligning with the United States and instead should play the role of a “balancing power.”

The West no longer can afford to allow the aggressive nuclear powers to threaten nuclear Armageddon and leave the burden of restraint entirely on Western shoulders. When NATO members assumed their Article 5 obligations to each other, they accepted that the United States, United Kingdom and France would be providing a nuclear umbrella to non-nuclear NATO states — just as Washington offers extended nuclear deterrence to its other non-nuclear allies in Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand.

It’s bad enough that nuclear warfare hangs like the Sword of Damocles over civilization; it should not also be allowed to serve as a protective shield for aggressive nuclear powers to pursue their evil ends.

Biden should declare three “red lines” of his own: (1) no use of nuclear weapons, (2) no use of chemical or biological weapons, and (3) immediate safe passage to Ukrainian lines for all civilians and soldiers trapped in Mariupol. If either of the first two occurs or if the third does not, the U.S. will remove its self-imposed restraints in Ukraine and push NATO for immediate Ukraine membership.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Biden China Fidel Castro Nikita Khrushchev North Korea Nuclear proliferation Russia Vladimir Putin

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