<ore than sixty years ago, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir John Slessor, one of the authors of Britain’s nuclear deterrence concept , asked what “the great deterrent” really deterred? The answer was almost disappointingly precise. While it did prevent an all-out nuclear war and could stop a potential aggressor from embarking on a course of action that could escalate into such a conflict, Slessor did not expect that mutually assured destruction would deter “the wicked men in the Kremlin from seeking to achieve by other means their crazy dream of a Communist World dominated by Moscow.”
Today, as the world digests the recent meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the strategic nuclear balance has changed little, if at all. Classical nuclear deterrence theory still seemingly works in controlling direct relations between the two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, even in this era of hypercompetitive “gray-zone” campaigning. However, what are we to make of the latter’s recent pursuit of hypersonic and unconventional delivery means for its nuclear arsenal? Russia is no longer the Soviet Union of sixty years ago. Then, as a multinational empire presiding over a large collection of vassals and allies, it could claim to be a viable competitor of the West, militarily, ideologically and even economically. Today, Russia clings to the title of superpower only because it possesses one of the two largest nuclear arsenals on the planet. The “wicked men in the Kremlin,” however, are just as determined as their Communist predecessors to expand their dominion. In so doing, they will not stop at using the threat of nuclear weapons, so long as these would, in their view, fall short of requiring a strategic response in kind. Their dreams may sound crazy, but there is a method to their madness.