Why did Russia never utilise tactical nuclear weapons in the Ukraine War?!
Few concepts in geopolitical strategy are as unnerving, paradoxical, and fascinating as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short.
This philosophy, which arose from the horrific uncertainties of the Cold War, provided a perilously balanced peace on the verge of unthinkable tragedy. It was a high-stakes game of chicken, played with nuclear arsenals capable of repeatedly destroying civilisation.
During that time, humanity’s survival was based on a terrifyingly simple concept: any direct conflict between nuclear-armed countries would inevitably result in their mutual destruction.
Mutually Assured Destroyment?
During the Cold War, a military doctrine and strategic concept known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) originally emerged. It basically states that if two opposing forces use all of their nuclear weapons on each other, both the attacker and the defence will be destroyed. During my military training, this ideology received a lot of attention.
This hypothesis is based on the concept of deterrence, which states that threatening an adversary with the use of a powerful weapon deters that adversary from using the same weapon.
This plan is based on the assumption that both sides have enough nuclear weapons to fully destroy the other and that both sides will surely retaliate if the other attacks.
The context for its expansion following WWII
Following World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers, altering the geopolitical scene.
This new bipolar world, typified by power struggles and ideological splits, set the stage for the Cold War, which was fought through economic rivalry, political intrigue, proxy battles, and an endless arms race rather than actual battlefields.
Nuclear technology was evolving at the time. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II demonstrated the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The devastation saw in Japan revealed that no one can win a nuclear war.
This realisation prompted a shift in strategic thinking, which argued that the objective of nuclear weapons is to prevent conflict rather than to cause it.
This is where MAD comes in.
At the same time as the MAD concept, there was a revolution in military technology. The arrival of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles enabled both superpowers to build long-range nuclear weapons, or “second strike” capabilities.
This bolstered the MAD paradigm by permitting one side to respond to a surprise nuclear attack with devastating nuclear reprisal.
What inspired the creation of MAD?
Mutually assured annihilation did not arise as a theory overnight. Its roots may be traced back to the early days of the nuclear era, and it has affected the development of both deterrence theory and game theory.
Game theory, a branch of mathematics that studies decision-making in competitive and conflictual contexts, provided the theoretical framework for MAD.
Throughout the Cold War, the equilibrium was one of mutual deterrence, which meant that neither the US nor the USSR would benefit from launching a nuclear first strike because doing so would almost certainly result in a devastating response and their own demise.
MAD was, in essence, a convergence of intellectual developments in various fields—mathematics, military strategy, and international relations—in an attempt to negotiate the frightening new reality of a nuclear-armed world.
The end effect was an ideology that was as terrifying as it was compelling: peace on the verge of annihilation.
When MAD almost started a nuclear war
Several key events and crises in the Cold War drama exposed the terrifying prospect of nuclear war and propelled the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to the forefront of international affairs.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was possibly the most significant of these. When the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons stationed in Cuba, only 90 miles from American shores, the entire world held its breath as the two titans clashed.
A nuclear war loomed unavoidable for 13 frightening days. The war ended when Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev promised to destroy missile bases in Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret deal to destroy American missile bases in Turkey.
The Cuban missile crisis revealed that MAD is a harsh reality, emphasising that any error could result in nuclear Armageddon.
Another significant occurrence occurred during the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Negotiations, which resulted in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
The ABM Treaty limited each side to two (later reduced to one) locations where they might base a defence system to intercept incoming missiles, hence maintaining the mutual vulnerability required for MAD.
This agreement was crucial because it formalised the MAD concept and laid the groundwork for future debates about weapons control.
The NATO exercise Able Archer in 1983 was also noteworthy. Able Archer was a standard military exercise, but since it was so realistic, the Soviets feared it was a cover for a real first attack.
The mistake brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war, highlighting the hazards of MAD doctrine.
The Cold War has concluded.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Cold War in 1991 was a watershed point in international relations, resulting in major shifts in geopolitical dynamics.
While the immediate threat of a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers faded, the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) ideology did not.
In the post-Cold War era, there was a renewed emphasis on nuclear disarmament, culminating in a series of arms reduction accords between the United States and Russia.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, or START I (1991) and START II (1993), aimed to drastically reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries.
Despite these reductions, both countries possessed sufficient nuclear weapons to ensure a mutually lethal outcome in the event of a nuclear battle, so sustaining the fundamental tenet of MAD.
Another key post-Cold War development was the nuclear club’s growth.
Deterrence and MAD ideas began to apply to new geopolitical interactions when more countries gained nuclear weapons, such as India and Pakistan.
These countries, aware of the dreadful consequences of a nuclear war, have generally pursued a nuclear deterrence posture, showing the tenacity of MAD’s basic reasoning.
MAD’s influence is still felt today.
In the twenty-first century, new technological breakthroughs also represent a threat to strategic stability.
The traditional MAD calculation has become increasingly sophisticated with the emergence of missile defence systems, hypersonic weapons, and cyber warfare. While such changes have the potential to undermine the concept of mutual vulnerability, they also raise the prospect of a new arms race and increased insecurity.
Even as the strategic landscape changes, the threat of devastating retaliation—the essence of MAD—remains critical in deterring nuclear attacks.
MAD’s continued existence after the Cold War underscores the importance of its role in defining nuclear strategy.
Despite changes in people, technology, and the geopolitical landscape, the assumption that nuclear war can have no winner continues to deter nuclear aggression, illustrating MAD’s continuing impact in the post-Cold War world.
Given the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons, the topic of how viable this concept is today is one that all military institutions, academies, politicians, and countries are debating.
This post was written by Mario Bekes