The dangers of nuclear bluffing
The last time the world faced a dangerous nuclear crisis like the war in Ukraine was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. There had been multiple close calls since the end of the Great War including Berlin (1948, 1958, 1961), Korea (1952-53), and the China Straits (1954, 1958), but Cuba marked a turning point in superpower relations. More dangerous incidents would still threaten the world in the decades ahead, none worse than the Soviet satellites’ false alert on September 16, 1983. The hero of that incident, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, likely kept nuclear lunacy from escaping the asylum.
I spent several years pouring through once-secret archives made public by both sides during the hopeful period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. My research also benefitted from substantive interviews and books by Cold War military commanders, politicians, and officials who had stared at each other across the nuclear abyss. These efforts focused on decision-making, not history, and were part of a project to develop a high-stakes decision-making framework, which I later applied to the Israeli Iranian nuclear standoff. One sobering realization emerged out of once-secret Cold War records: we had been lucky, very lucky to have escaped nuclear Armageddon.
There are important differences between nuclear decision-making during the Cold War and today. Decision-making in Soviet days was more structurally collective than in today’s Russia. The Soviet Secretary was first among equals in the Politburo, but he was still constrained by the Communist Party’s power structure. Putin’s decision-making and implementation constraints are not clear and had not been tested under high risk and uncertainty before the current crisis.
There are also important differences between today’s protagonists and their predecessors. Cold War leaders, including Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and their key allies and advisors, had known total war. They had experienced the risks, uncertainties, and costs of miscalculations. The same can’t be said of Presidents Putin, Xi, Biden, and current European leaders.
We’ve entered a period of growing uncertainty and risks of poor decisions, miscalculations, and misunderstandings, with nuclear conflict in the balance. What should shock international leaders is how quickly an old-fashioned autocrat with outdated concepts of power brought the world to the brink of the unthinkable. It should occupy their thinking going forward, assuming we survive the dangerous days ahead.