The Dismantlement Of Nuclear Equilibrium And The Threat Of Nuclear War – Analysis


By Chan Kung and He Jun

On December 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after attending the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Bishkek at Kyrgyzstan, that Moscow is considering whether to follow Washington’s strategy of preemptive strikes and using high-precision missiles for the security of the country. “Speaking about a disarming strike, maybe it’s worth thinking about adopting the ideas developed by our U.S. counterparts, their ideas of ensuring their security,” he said.

This is not the first time Putin has issued a nuclear threat. This is his second statement involving nuclear weapons within a week. Earlier on December 7, Putin had warned that the risk of global nuclear war was rising, calling Russia’s nuclear arsenal a “deterrent factor” to prevent conflicts. He has previously stated that if any country dares to attack Russia with nuclear weapons, it will eventually be wiped off the face of the earth.

Putin’s continuous “nuclear threats” have once again aroused concerns in the international community about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons. Based on Russia’s existing military norms, using nuclear weapons is the last resort for dealing with crises, when the country is facing survival issues. As the Russian army continues to suffer setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefield, the international community is worried that Putin will adopt this last resort to reverse the war situation.

On December 9, U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin said that Russia is expanding and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. He remarked that “as the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling”. Does the U.S. really believe that Russia may use nuclear weapons? Researchers at ANBOUND think that although Austin has issued warnings, as in the usual practice, the U.S. may not really believe that there is an actual threat of nuclear war.

Regarding the possibility of nuclear war and the huge damage caused by nuclear war, ANBOUND has always believed that Western countries lack a deep understanding of it. Although the very phrase “nuclear threats” is often repeated, few are aware of its actual significance and urgency. Indeed, there are even misperceptions about it.

As early as the end of September this year, ANBOUND’s founder Chan Kung has already pointed out the flaws in the West’s response to nuclear threats and their strategies. During that time, on a possible Russian nuclear attack against Ukraine, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau recently said in an interview NATO would have a conventional response. Asked whether NATO troops would enter Ukraine, Rau said he does not rule out that possibility. However, he added that NATO may strike Russia with aircraft and missiles, but not necessarily launch them from Ukraine. At the same time, a retired U.S. general who still maintains close ties with the military also stated that the West’s response to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons may include NATO’s war intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone in the Baltic Sea.

For Chan, the responses from the West are neither strong nor rational enough to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear war. On the contrary, they might stimulate the actual outbreak of it. In fact, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned Putin of “catastrophic” consequences if he uses nuclear weapons. But Sullivan did not describe the nature of the planned U.S. response. This kind of intimidating language, which is strong on the outside but weak on the inside, is probably very difficult for a seasoned geo-politician like Putin to take it seriously, according to Chan.

In the nuclear age, the world can avoid the outbreak of nuclear war through what is known as “nuclear equilibrium”. This is based on mutual assured destruction (MAD), a doctrine that points towards if the countries that own nuclear weapons launch a nuclear war, either the nuclear weapons they possess are insufficient to destroy the enemy yet they themselves may be wiped off, or that their weapons are sufficient for that purpose though they could be destroyed by their enemy. Chan emphasized that the MAD doctrine has achieved a “nuclear equilibrium” and has become a powerful security mechanism that ensures such an outcome is “controllable” even if it is not truly “safe”.

Chan further pointed out that in a world dominated by geopolitical turmoil, all international treaties, organizations, and commitments are not reliable. However, in contrast, the nuclear equilibrium is objective and dependable, as it will not be broken easily. This is because it maintains the basic stability of today’s nuclear world, rather than relying on technology, treaties, organizations, and political commitments. The effectiveness of nuclear equilibrium lies in the fact that only a handful of nuclear powers actually hold nuclear weapons. Some countries may help other ambitious countries master nuclear weapons, but there is absolutely no country that is insane enough to help others to possess the largest number of nuclear weapons, as this would cause it to lose its decisive power in nuclear wars. This is the fundamental reason why the nuclear equilibrium can restrict and limit the outbreak of nuclear wars launched at will. International treaties, on the other hand, do not carry the same impacts.

However, the biggest problem and flaw in the responses to nuclear threats currently being considered by the West and the U.S. is the generalization of the use of nuclear weapons. This is tantamount to acknowledging that nuclear weapons can be used as ordinary tactical weapons, just like any other missiles and bombs that are ready to be used on the battlefield at any time, without having to accept the huge uncertain strategic and political risks, as well as the serious consequences of using them rashly. This is not merely the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but of nuclear wars.

Chan is of the opinion that, according to the theory of nuclear equilibrium, the generalization of nuclear weapons is artificially and unrealistically downplaying the threat of nuclear weapons to humanity through changing attitudes and political tactics. There is the shocking attitude of “tactical nuclear weapons are not nuclear weapons”. This could dismantle the nuclear equilibrium of the world. When the first shot is fired, from then the world may enter an era of nuclear war, there are countless reasons, and the situation will get completely out of control until it is annihilated.

Nuclear equilibrium has already created a stability mechanism that has been effective for decades. This mechanism is achieved through the participating parties being cautious, otherwise, there will be mutual nuclear conflicts. However, due to the lack of tactical wisdom, many politicians and amateur military strategists in the West are entrapped in the challenges before them, hastily changing the rules of the game by making more participate in it. This will inevitably create an unprecedented and extremely dangerous state. Chan believes that this is the kind of response that Putin is waiting for.

It should also be emphasized that nuclear equilibrium is a definition of the entire nuclear world. It describes a balance of power formed by the two nuclear powers of the U.S. and Russia (including the Soviet Union era) under the long-term nuclear competition in the past, which underpins the fate of humanity as a whole. Nuclear equilibrium is based on actual nuclear capabilities and can be regarded as a world structure based on the number of nuclear warheads and weapons. Currently, apart from the U.S. and Russia, any other nuclear-armed country, no matter how powerful its economy is, is not a pillar of this equilibrium. In this theory, any attempt or action to disrupt the equilibrium, once its influence is large enough, will be jointly restrained by the existing nuclear balance forces. In other words, any structural change in the nuclear balance will have global influence and deterrence, and it will affect the fate of the whole world. Judging from this background, Putin recently raised the nuclear threat again, which is actually nuclear blackmail based on the traditional nuclear deterrence theory.

Final analysis conclusion:

The stalemate in the Russia-Ukraine war and Russia’s repeated nuclear threats have triggered the world’s fears of a possible nuclear war. The world we live in is still under the “nuclear equilibrium”. This is a security structure that prevents the outbreak of a nuclear war. No individual and no country should change this, or else humanity will pay a heavy price for it.

Chan Kung and He Jun are researchers for ANBOUND


Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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