Putin's nuclear bluffs
Mr. Putin is playing the nuclear card. It’s a reflection of Russia’s economic limitations and its history. In this context, hindsight bias is unavoidable, damaging, and dangerous. In the 1950s, one of his predecessors, Nikita Khrushchev, repeatedly resorted to nuclear bluffing to gain advantage over the US by threatening America’s allies in Western Europe. Khrushchev’s gambles, often taken over objectives of limited value, put Russia and more than two hundred million souls at risk. He convinced American President and former Supreme Ally Commander Dwight Eisenhower that the Soviet Union was a much bigger existential threat than it actually was.
As a result, America’s national security establishment developed a strategy of all-out nuclear response should the Soviets and its allies threaten the nation and its key strategic interests. Khrushchev’s final gamble, which was thankfully pulled back, included arming unstable and inexperienced anti-American revolutionaries with tactical nuclear weapons as deterrence against possible invasion. It sounds crazy, but sometimes reality can be crazier than fictional plots. Still, he got away with it, which fed generations of Soviet leaders with biases on the usefulness and low-risk aspects of this dangerous tactic.
Western scholars and policy wonks were similarly biased in the lessons learned from the Cold War. Many came to believe in hindsight that the East-West nuclear standoff ended as it was destined. A close examination of the period and the contemporaneous decision-making of Soviet and American leaders shows otherwise. I discussed these dangerous mindsets and their implications in two books, Decision-Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War and Going Nuclear: the influence of history and hindsight on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. There are free excerpts on my website. Those lessons are once again relevant in Europe and beyond. The risks, as perceived from both sides, will likely seem more manageable than they are. At stake, based on earlier estimates, are more than half a billion lives. Something to think about. God help us.