Deterrence, Intimidation, and Propaganda under the Framework of Nuclear Equilibrium

“Nuclear equilibrium” is a term referring to a relatively steady state of global nuclear forces. It is also a great and terrifyingly comprehensive framework of geopolitical deterrence. Appearing since the time of the Cold War, the history of nuclear weapons can be traced back to Trinity, first detonated at Alamogordo in New Mexico back in 1945. After that, the Soviet Union also tested the first atomic bomb “First Lightning” in 1949. Thus began the global accumulation of nuclear weapons, competition, and race. What comes along with this are the numerous theories of nuclear war.

77 years have passed since 1945, and the development of nuclear weapons in various countries around the world has reached an astonishing scale today. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads, devices that can trigger a nuclear explosion, including about 1,500 that have been retired and await dismantlement. The three nuclear-armed states of NATO have a total of 5,943 nuclear warheads, of which the United States has 5,428, France 290, and the United Kingdom 225. The rest of the world, including China, Pakistan, and India, has a combined total of 785 nuclear warheads. The two camps that were in a state of geopolitical confrontation during the Cold War have a total of 11,920 nuclear warheads, and their total number of nuclear warheads is basically the same. Even if the warheads of all other countries are added together, it would only be a fraction of these two powers.

Nuclear weapons that are capable to destroy the world continue to exist, and the scale of such destructive weapons has increased. In addition, nuclear weapons vehicles are now increasingly diverse. While this sounds alarming, since 1945, nuclear weapons have never actually been used on the battlefield. The actual reason behind this is a subtle and dangerous balance of power that can be termed “nuclear equilibrium”. Its very existence has allowed the world to remain peaceful under the looming shadow of large-scale nuclear expansion. I believe that in the future world, due to the ubiquity of geopolitical resources, nuclear equilibrium will continue to play a disincentive role very effectively.

In other words, nuclear equilibrium in global geopolitics is a crucial concern for the actual use of nuclear weapons.

Now, the West has jointly mobilized to impose all-rounded sanctions on Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The scale of these sanctions far exceeds Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expectations. This has of course, shocked and impacted Russia itself. Putin, in an effort to show that he is in charge of a major power, and one who holds true to his words, ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces to be put on high alert, or as he called it, “special mode”. As a matter of fact, on the very same day when the invasion started, he warned that “whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country … people should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history”. The fact that he has ordered his military to fortify the 6,000-warhead arsenal is tantamount to being a major step towards launching a global thermonuclear war.

Humanity has never seemed to feel the threat of nuclear war as clearly as it does today.

These are, as a matter of fact, mere “nuclear propaganda”. Putin’s order, of course, provides a good subject matter for the Western press. This is because, more often than not, we react instinctively and immediately to several specific themes, including death, sex, sin, and doomsday. As nuclear weapons are frequently associated with apocalyptic catastrophe in popular mind, countless imaginative narratives instantaneously emerged in newspapers, television, and other forms of media around the world, instilling nuclear panic among us, as if nuclear war is at hand.

However, this simply would not happen. This is not “nuclear deterrence” nor even “nuclear intimidation”. It is merely “nuclear propaganda”.

“Nuclear deterrence” means that the enormous power of nuclear weapons is used as a factor to prevent their actual use, i.e., a basis for bargaining. In the actual application of nuclear deterrence, leaders who are well-prepared in their strategy would be less likely to intimidate others with nuclear weapons. It is like a familiar scene of the boy crying wolf in Aesop’s fable, that when false alarms were sounded too many times, it would only cause disbelief. What then, if nuclear weapons were actually fired? In reality, the usage of nuclear weapons does not require such intimidation. Regular and targeted signal monitoring of countries around the world would be sufficient enough to prevent this from happening, including the weapons that were launched accidentally. This has been the case since the beginning of the Cold War to the present day. Therefore, nuclear deterrence is only used occasionally as a strategic tool. Frequent threats with nuclear weapons will only devalue the deterrence to a large extent.

The problem is that even so, we can still see some ignorant state leaders who wield what is known as “nuclear intimidation”.

Nuclear intimidation is not the same as nuclear deterrence. The former is a common practice of rogue states, used by their leaders as a tool to vent their emotions. Yet, these leaders know very well that either the nuclear weapons in their hands are insufficient against their enemies and themselves might be destroyed, as in the case of North Korea, or that their nuclear weapons do possess the capability though at the same time, themselves could be annihilated as well, and such is the case of Russia. This is known as “mutual assured destruction”, appropriately acronymized as MAD. It should be pointed out that “nuclear equilibrium” is a powerful security mechanism that ensures that the risk is “controllable” if not truly “safe”.

Our current world is in such a state of nuclear equilibrium, so to speak. Among the many nuclear-armed countries, only the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia would be sufficient to cause the simultaneous destruction of both parties. As for other countries with nuclear weapons, they can at most cause partial destruction, and the country that created the first nuclear disaster could very well be destroyed by other countries soon afterward. Rogue states that often threaten the use of nuclear weapons either have insignificant numbers of them, or there are obvious limits on nuclear equilibrium. The threats of nuclear war posed by these countries are, therefore, not real nuclear deterrence at all, but only irrational intimidation.

As for Putin putting nuclear forces in “special mode”, it is actually not even “nuclear intimidation” but a kind of “nuclear propaganda”. He did this not towards the outside world at all, but it was for the Russian public to see. Hence, it is a form of propaganda. He wants his people to see the power of their leader, so as to maintain his own image. To put it more clearly, he wants to ensure the legitimacy of his political power. What he wishes to project is that no one else is bolder, stronger, and consequently more capable of defending Russia’s interests than himself. This makes it a kind of propaganda logic targeting the Russians, and this is also what Putin has to do now.

There are two countries particularly fond of emphasizing that they possess nuclear weapons. The first is Russia and the other is North Korea. Russians, from Putin down to ordinary officials, are often seen to clamor for the use of nuclear weapons at every turn. North Korea, on the other hand, tends to be even more aggressive in its choices of words when it comes to nuclear weapons, at times calling their use “sacred war”. These are in reality all meaningless nuclear intimidations and nuclear propaganda.

In this regard, I admire Finland’s attitude towards the Russian threat. In the history of this country, the Winter War broke up in 1939 had resulted in 70,000 casualties, as well as 320,000 deaths on the Soviet side, almost equivalent to the entire Soviet army. Now because Finland is sending weapons to Ukraine, Russia has launched a “threat program”, intimidating Finland that it would face serious consequences. The Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin remains unfazed, however. The world’s reaction, including those of the United States and the United Kingdom, would be similar to that. Putin might be disappointed that his threats are no longer that terrifying to others.

That is not to say that nuclear threats do not exist in the world. In terms of nuclear weapons strategy, there is a doctrine known as “escalate to deescalate” or “E2D”. This doctrine says that if a more powerful weapon is unable to be used, a lesser one would be adopted instead. This is just a fringe theory, yet no one can guarantee that the use of nuclear weapons would not intensify in acts of retaliation. What is theoretical would remain theories, the world’s nuclear equilibrium is still being maintained as of now. Although nuclear weapons have gradually spread to dozens of countries in the world, the often-neglected nuclear equilibrium has been the same for decades.

Frankly speaking, we are living under nuclear threat for too long, and it is time to end this tyranny. The nuclear scare that envelopes the world has long frightened humankind. There are daily doomsday doses fed to us by the media, and pundits are constantly warning of the arrival of a nuclear cataclysm. This is not the kind of world that we should live in. When all are considered, being anti-nuclear is indeed the ultimate rationality of humankind.

Chan Kung
Chan Kung
Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.