Nuclear war unlikely despite Russia’s threats, says military strategy guru Edward Luttwak

He stressed: "Nuclear weapons were born too powerful to be useful."

Nirmal Ghosh

Nirmal Ghosh

The Straits Times


October 10, 2022

WASHINGTON – Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders that nuclear weapons be used against Ukraine, his generals will not do it, surmises war historian and strategist Edward Luttwak.

“Nuclear weapons are too powerful to be useful,” Dr Luttwak, 79, told The Straits Times’ Conversations on the Future.

“I think we will avoid nuclear war,” added the veteran US military strategist, when asked about the nuclear threat and if the war in Ukraine could escalate into a third World War.

Major nuclear powers like Russia, the United States and China are complex, with procedures and checks and balances, said Dr Luttwak, who has advised governments from Tokyo to Washington. He has also authored, among others, the 1987 book Strategy: The Logic Of War And Peace.

“They’re complex, and (if President Putin) orders the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine (and) says, ‘Okay, I’m tired of these Ukrainians – drop a bomb on Kyiv,’ the ministry will not do it. They will simply not do it.”

He stressed: “Nuclear weapons were born too powerful to be useful.”

And that has been factored into the political system, he said, citing the example of India in March 2022 accidentally launching an unarmed Brahmos missile into Pakistan. No casualties were reported in the incident between both nations, which possess nuclear weapons.

“The Indians apologised and Pakistan said, ‘Be more careful with your missiles’… Nobody went on any alert,” he said.

Asked if China and the US are heading towards war, Dr Luttwak said “everything is possible” under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Xi Jinping, having overthrown the constitutional order of his own country, definitely would not hesitate to do anything else.”

However, Dr Luttwak said China may recognise from the Ukraine war how a deliberate war, even by a much bigger country on a smaller one, can go wrong, he said.

Sanctions by the Group of Seven on Russia were the first response.

Dr Luttwak is sceptical of China’s ability to fight a major war, given its vulnerability as a major importer of food and animal feed.

Russia has been able to continue the war because it has its own energy and food, but similar sanctions on China would have a massive effect, he added.

“People have to eat. And Chinese food comes by ship,” he said.

With big economies cutting off supplies to China, the nation would have to slaughter its livestock within three months, he predicted.

“There’ll be a lot of meat for several days or even a couple of weeks, maybe a month. And after that no more.”

He also questioned if Chinese society would accept massive loss of life, especially when so many families have only one child.

“I don’t think that they’re actually ready to fight the ground war where… you have 400, 500 people killed before breakfast, another thousand after breakfast,” added Dr Luttwak.

While China cannot afford a major war, there is one domain it has a chance in, he said.

“Cyberspace is the only domain where the Chinese can win. And this domain has been created largely by the United States, and then it made it much more vulnerable (by concentrating data in) the cloud.”

The Conversations on the Future series focuses not on current news but on broader, and larger, long-term issues and trends.

Among the interviewees are Harvard professor Graham Allison, historian Wang Gungwu, science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, Yale Law professor Amy Chua and diplomat Tommy Koh.

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