Is Joe Biden right to warn about the threat of nuclear Armageddon?

The eminent war historian Sir Lawrence Freedman explains to 'The National' whether the US president is correct to be so fearful of Russia's intentions

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In the week when President Joe Biden revealed his concerns over nuclear Armageddon, historian Sir Lawrence Freedman took the time to discuss the lessons from the chapter in his latest book, Command, on the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago this month.

At the outset, Sir Lawrence points to the difference between the Ukraine war, where Russia has invoked its nuclear arsenal in the wider context of Nato support for Kyiv, and the decision by President John F Kennedy to draw a red line against the deployment of Soviet missiles in the US back yard. However, both then and now, he says, the essential resolution was a Kremlin withdrawal: Nikita Khrushchev removing the missiles and Vladimir Putin pulling his troops from Ukraine.

From the start, Putin made clear that nuclear deterrence was about Nato countries, particularly the US, not getting actively involved on behalf of Ukraine
Sir Lawrence Freedman

With the Kremlin facing the prospect of losing the war in Ukraine, Sir Lawrence argues that it would be foolish to discount the possibility that Mr Putin has drawn a red line around the loss of territory in Ukraine. But he says that there are still issues to be resolved in the war that should take priority.

“I think it's unlikely, but obviously we can't ignore it,” the emeritus professor of war at King's College London says of the idea that Russia would deploy its nuclear weapons.

“That would be foolish, but nor should we allow ourselves to think only of that and get so fixated on it that we don't look at the more likely things that are going to happen, which is continuing Ukrainian advances, a Russian attempt to find some sort of durable defensive line and then, at some point, the impact of all of this being felt in Moscow and possibly big changes there.

“So there are a variety of scenarios that are possible and you have to look at all of them. But those, I think, are still the most likely.”

President Biden put the issue in stark relief when he declared on Thursday that “we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis” and cautioned that so-called tactical nuclear weapons won't necessarily contain a showdown to a single battlefield.

In Command, Kennedy's brother Robert, the US attorney general, is quoted recalling that the world was at the edge of a precipice with “no way off”. He also quotes Khrushchev telling Communist Party leaders that the Kremlin wanted to give the US “a bit of scare” but did not want to unleash war.

It was left to President Kennedy to set the terms for the crisis by rejecting nuclear response options, but in a televised speech on October 22, he made his announcement of a blockade. This was greeted with relief in Moscow and Khrushchev was “soon looking for a way out of the crisis he had triggered”.

Sir Lawrence points out that today's leadership in Moscow has already asserted nuclear deterrence in the current conflict. “From the start Putin made clear that nuclear deterrence was about Nato countries, particularly the US, not getting actively involved on behalf of Ukraine -- as opposed to providing them with weapons -- and Russian territory not being attacked,” he tells The National.

“Those things aren't happening and that's because deterrence has worked. So what we're really asking is whether Putin is going to establish another red line, which he hasn't done yet. He hasn't linked nuclear weapons to any developments in the battlefield, as yet. Others have done it for him, but he hasn't done it himself.

Biden's game plan

Looking at how Mr Biden can emulate his great hero Kennedy, Sir Lawrence says the US president has been a model of clarity. “Biden has been very explicit that he wants to avoid nuclear escalation and that's one reason why he is not, for example, providing Ukraine with a no-fly zone or the very long range artillery, which could hit well into Russia, which Ukraine has been asking for.

“I think Biden has gone out of his way to show that he does recognise what he feels are legitimate Putin red lines but does not recognise those that have no legitimacy.”

So what, then, are the behind-the-scenes efforts on going in case of what Mr Biden characterises as Armageddon?

“I'm sure there's a lot of work going on and they're looking at responses, but it's very difficult until you know exactly what [Mr Putin] has got in mind,” he says. “People are talking about everything from a demonstration shot in the Black Sea, to battlefield use on territory Russia claims, to strategic attacks on Ukrainian cities.

“Biden's National Security Adviser Sullivan said it would be a catastrophic response and personally I think it's best to keep Putin guessing — there are lots of things he's aware of that could be done to harm Russia.

“He doesn't have to know that there's one particular response tailored to what is still a very speculative scenario.”

As Kennedy and Khrushchev discovered, there was plenty of scope for lower ranked officers to make a mistake or create new tensions in a crisis. Command examines more than a dozen wars and the uncertain relationships in the chains of command are shown to have been instructive in the outcome of war.

The professor looks at how the frailty of Field Marshal Mohammed Yahya Khan's relationship with his commanders in East Pakistan cast the die for the creation of Bangladesh. Saddam Hussein's blustering pretences to be an accomplished military commander are shown up as destructive for his own army, not least in the botched retreat from Kuwait City in late February 1991. Saddam had declared that the “harvest of the mother of all battles” had succeeded. But Sir Lawrence recalls the withdrawal was disastrous. The retreating Iraqi troops were destroyed by the coalition. The ceasefire was called by the US just days later.

“Saddam was somebody who put on a uniform and thought he was a commander, but without any serious military experience himself, suggesting as a matter of will and numbers Iraqi forces could beat the Americans,” he judges.

The parallels in how the current invasion of Ukraine is being orchestrated are strong. “In the case of Ukraine I think something very similar is happening,” he says. “Putin has demanded particular cities be taken or particular cities or strongholds now be held when retreat would have made more sense. He hasn't been prepared to trade space to gain time, which is certainly what he needs at the moment.

“This has created almost unbearable stress on them [his troops] because at some point, they just can't hold them,” he says. “At some point people don't hang around to be martyrs.”

Since February the contrasting reputations of the Ukraine's armed operations and those of its opponent have led to the war turning on some textbook manoeuvres that could be plucked straight from the military academy classroom.

“Unlike the Russians they haven't got obsessed with particular places, certainly not in their offensives and defences,” Sir Lawence says. “They had no choice in the summer to try to hold the line in Sieverodonetsk, which was one of their most punishing times. I think that convinced them that this sort of attritional war was not for them.

“They've concentrated on manoeuvre, on envelopment and because the Russians are now thinly spread, either they have a hole punched through their lines or the Ukrainians move around and isolate them. What is impressive is they [the Ukrainians] turned themselves from this army that was purely defensive, almost ready for guerrilla warfare in February.”

Assuming the conflict continues on its current course, the only way it can end is with a stable peace between Russia and Ukraine, he says.

“We're not going to get a stable peace deal until Russians feel they have to leave Ukraine,” Sir Lawrence says. People are both more optimistic that this may happen and more nervous because of the [nuclear] news.

“The issue of a stable peace is you want stable borders, which we haven't had since 2014 because there's been a line of contact, which is inherently unstable, between separatist enclaves and the Ukrainian forces.”

The author of the ultimate tour of recent leadership believes that, in the end, these are decisions that will come down to what's decided in the Kremlin. “Commander Putin has made a real hash of it,” he says. “The thing about these sorts of situations is it's not tenable in the long term — something's got to give. We just at the moment don't know how it will give them what will be the immediate effect. But it can't go on like this, that's for sure.”

Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, by Lawrence Freedman, is published by Allen Lane (£30).

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Updated: October 12, 2022, 12:04 PM