Russia, Dr. Strangelove and Deterrence Theory

             I’ve written about game theory on my blog before in the context of North Korea, but with the reports last week of a Russian TU-95 aircraft being intercepted in UK airspace carrying a nuclear payload, I think it may be a good idea to rehash the idea of deterrence theory to help explain what is going on here. The fact that most mainstream media outlets in the US aren’t covering this story in great (if any) detail is a bit alarming, but that’s another story entirely.

Deterrence theory is mainly attributed to Thomas Schelling, an American economist and professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy, and arms control at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, College Park. He was awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis”.

In his 1966 work “Arms and Influence,” Schelling introduced Deterrence Theory as a form of Game Theory, and brought the idea of mutually assured destruction into popular American thought. This theory has been argued and studied by numerous defense strategy think tanks, military scholars and heads of state and can get pretty complex, so I’ll dumb it down a bit for the sake of time and space.

Deterrence Theory is essentially the idea that if my enemy believes an invasion of my territory or hostile acts against my state will end in catastrophic losses or mutually assured destruction (due to my nuclear or strategic response capabilities), he won’t attack in the first place.

Some scholars have refuted this idea and called it nonsense, but since the nuclear proliferation began between the nuclear superpowers of the world, we haven’t had a major incursion. The upside of deterrence theory: the fact that both sides have nukes and immediate response times prevents any actual nuclear war, unless a real Dr. Strangelove arrives on the scene and doesn’t care that both sides perish.

The downside of deterrence theory: while it may prevent large scale, high intensity conflicts around the world, it increases the proxy wars and use of special, clandestine and covert operations against each other so that no country can be directly blamed for hostilities against the other. Think of how we fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the proxy wars in Central and South America in the 1980’s, and the influx of foreign fighters we fought in Iraq in Afghanistan.

So now we turn back to Russia flying bombers armed with nuclear payloads over the English Channel last week. Intelligence officials in the UK claim they knew that bomber had a nuclear payload long before it entered UK airspace. The Norwegian listening post who picked up the crews communications confirming the payload claims the Russians know that post can hear everything they say internally while in UK airspace.

Yet they still went ahead, under the auspices of a training mission to hunt British Vanguard submarines (funny enough, the very submarine in the British fleet designed as a nuclear deterrent).

This, by very definition, is deterrence theory. With all of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West lately, they want to send us a reminder that not only are they still a military superpower, but they still have the ability to “reach out and touch someone.”

Many Westerners (including Obama, proven in his televised debate of Mitt Romney in 2012) made the false assumptions that after the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union the threat of the Bear went away. Putin, a former KGB operative and highly intelligent and strategic military thinker just wants us to remember that, while the Bear may have taken a short nap, it is not in hibernation.

Perhaps the winter has ended, and the Bear is starting to get hungry again.

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