How Putin's Nuclear Threat Echoes Cold War Strategy


"There is... no evidence for any contingency other than that in which any use of nuclear weapons in Europe will quickly become theaterwide nuclear war."

That disconcerting sentence comes from a 1972 CIA analytical report [PDF] that aimed to explore how the Soviet Union might respond to the use of tactical (read: small) nuclear weapons by the U.S. or NATO. The short answer: Poorly. 

According to declassified contemporary documents and nuclear weapons historian Stephen Schwartz, in the middle of the Cold War U.S. intelligence analysts believed that once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, even by a relatively small detonation, the Soviet defense doctrine called for a "massive" nuclear response.

Related: Office of Bad Ideas: Yes, Nuclear Landmines Were a Thing

If that sounds at all familiar, it's because it's awfully like the stance Russia is taking today, nearly a half-century later, as described by President Vladimir Putin in a televised address today.

"I believe it as my duty to say this: any use of nuclear weapons of any yield -- small, medium or whatever -- against Russia or its allies will be regarded as a nuclear attack against our country. Retaliation will be instant with all the ensuing consequences," Putin said, according to Russia's TASS news agency.

Putin said he was responding to America's new nuclear strategy [PDF], which critics including Putin said dangerously lowers the threshold for a nuclear strike. The strategy says the U.S. would use nukes only in "extreme circumstances," but that could include responding to non-nuclear attacks. Putin said that aspect of the U.S. strategy "trigger[s] tremendous concern."

"One can try to calm down anyone behind the scenes as one chooses, but we read what has been written," he said. 

Russia, Putin said, "reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies or in the event of aggression with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is jeopardized."

Part of that counter-attack, Putin said, would include missiles that he claimed were "invulnerable to all existing and future anti-missile and air defense weapons."

Primary Source: 'Key Points' in Putin's Address (TASS)

Primary Source: U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, 2018 (PDF, Defense Department)

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