Loren Thompson has spent decades thinking about the risk that no one likes to think about: Nuclear war with Russia.
It’s a topic that many in America and elsewhere felt was passé in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But not Thompson, COO and co-founder of The Lexington Institute, a defense think tank backed by industry. In his prior life, he was the longtime deputy director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and taught graduate-level courses in technology, media affairs—and the strategy of global nuclear war.
When we talk about risks—to business, to society—nuclear war is the ultimate risk, one that has once again been put on the table by Russia. This once-unthinkable idea is being taken very seriously by some notable people, including veteran Putin-watcher Fiona Hill, who said in a recent, widely-read interview that yes, in her estimation the Russian leader was capable of using nuclear weapons. So I reached out to get Thompson’s take.
Though it has been a generation or more since the days of glasnost and perestroika, Thompson never stopped thinking closely about the possibility of an atomic conflict, and advocating for a stronger defense, because the stakes, in his view, are simply too high to do anything else.
It’s this unwavering posture—and his bluntness and candor about the issue of nuclear war—that makes talking to Thompson (albeit apologetically, since the only time I call to catch up seems to be when the world is at its worst) so bracing and, yes, unsettling.
But he does offer some great insights and a healthy dose of realpolitik that is clarifying and hopeful in its own way. What follows is a transcript of our conversation on Tuesday, March 1, edited for length and clarity.
You’ve spent most of your career, especially the time you spent teaching at Georgetown, thinking about the things that nobody likes to think about—the strategy of nuclear war. What’s your sense of where we are right now? What are you hearing from the people that you talk to in your network?
Well, not to sound unduly apocalyptic, but today, and for the foreseeable future, the United States and Russia will always be only one afternoon away from being destroyed in a nuclear war. We have no effective defenses, and it only takes the weapons of each country about half an hour to reach targets in the other country.
Most people don’t think about the strategies around a potential nuclear conflict. What are the thoughts about strategies that would be employed that maybe regular civilians aren’t accustomed to thinking about?
Many civilians believe that the United States has active defenses against a nuclear attack. In fact, the United States decided decades ago not to attempt to defend itself against a Russian nuclear attack.
We have a very modest missile defense system, but that is oriented to North Korea. We have decided that in the case of Russia and China, we will instead rely upon the threat of retaliation to deter a nuclear attack.
Now, what that means in principle is that we can deter a rational actor that is not accident prone, but if you have an irrational actor, or one who is accident-prone, or one who has lost control of his forces, our strategy really is to be unprepared for such scenarios.
This is the first time in my lifetime I can remember a leader actively threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Have you ever heard this rhetoric before?
Nobody has used this kind of rhetoric since the Soviet Union collapsed with the occasional exception of North Korean propaganda outlets.
So what does that tell you about Putin’s proclivity for actually using nuclear weapons? Do you take him at his word that he might actually use nuclear weapons based on what you know?
Russian military doctrine foresees circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons might be a rational move, an example of war on the Russian border. But we don’t really know what Putin’s thought process is when he invokes his nuclear weapons as a threat.
There are three possibilities as to why Putin at this juncture would be talking about his nuclear arsenal. One possibility is that he is trying to be clever in coercing the West. The second possibility is that he is exhibiting weakness because of the under-performance of his conventional forces. The third possibility is that he’s not thinking clearly that he may in some way be diminished in his thought process.
In your understanding of their command-and-control process, what are the fail-safes in place between the leader of Russia and the actual deployment of nuclear weapons?
There’s an old saying that when war starts all the plans come unraveled fairly quickly. That would likely be the case with any nuclear exchange because the level of destruction would very quickly take down the infrastructure that has been put in place.
The general belief among Western experts is that although the Russians have fail-safe features built into their command-and-control system like America does, theirs are weaker, partly because their system is so centralized and partly because their technology is not as good.
If Putin orders a nuclear attack on the West, the only thing that would prevent that order from being executed would be a decision by his military commanders to reverse or ignore the order.
What many people don’t understand about the U.S. strategy is that we essentially have the same system. Only the president can order a nuclear attack. And there is no second-guessing. There is no backup. You have to countermand or ignore the president’s order, in order to not launch once the president has ordered a launch.
What about half steps? What about the possibility of Putin doing some kind of a demonstration, essentially using a nuclear weapon as a way of throwing a temper tantrum to say I’m serious?
It doesn’t take much reflection to see what the reaction to any use of nuclear weapons would be. The West would be thoroughly terrorized. The Russian people would be thoroughly terrorized since they know that they too are not defended.
I would have to interpret any kind of demonstration of nuclear use by Putin as an indication that he is no longer thinking clearly and is far more dangerous than we anticipated.
What’s your sense about the impact of what appears to be a great upswell of support for NATO and how people around the world have rallied around Ukraine? Is there a danger to backing Putin into a corner? What risks are we running the more unified we become as a world against one man?
Putin has backed himself into a corner. But whether we did it, or he did it, you have the same problem of perhaps his thought process being diminished, you know, a siege mentality so to speak that leads to rash actions that ultimately are counterproductive to his goals.
But let me speak more to the main thrust of what you’re asking here. The West allowed countries right on the Russian border to join NATO without much reflection as to what it would take to defend them, what the dangers in doing so might be. We’re now discovering that the risk of nuclear war can’t simply be discounted when you oppose Russian military moves right on its own border.
As someone who studied nuclear strategy for decades, what is your best thought about deescalating the threat of nuclear war from where we are right now?
I think that since there was really no sentiment to let Ukraine into NATO, we could have come to an understanding that it would remain a quasi-neutral country in military terms. The Biden administration has not gone that route, but frankly, the reason the West is so resolute to date is because people can’t really imagine the Russians would use nuclear weapons.
If we began to take that thought seriously, we’d probably be much more accommodating to Putin’s concerns.
Is there a face-saving measure for both sides that you see out there in the next month or so?
I think this is a relatively simple thing to fix. Basically, the United States tacitly agrees that it will not sponsor Ukraine’s membership in NATO, in return for the Russians withdrawing from the country.
Now, the drawback is that we would have to make a concession. And although we might never publicize that concession the Russians, undoubtedly, would cite it as their reason for desisting in an invasion. But, you know, there are more important things at stake here for Washington than how we look.
Final thoughts on things that people might want to keep in mind as they’re watching all of this play out?
The only other thing I would say is that for two generations, the United States has built its nuclear strategy on the threat of retaliation. It has not seriously tried to defend itself against nuclear attack since Ronald Reagan left office.
We ought to be asking ourselves whether we really believe deterrence is going to last forever, because if it isn’t, we should be taking the possibility of trying to defend ourselves much more seriously.