Liberation Day minus 7715: Log #9 They’re all bluffing; not just Putin… But that doesn’t make it OK!

Aaron Tovish
6 min readJun 22, 2024


Nuclear threats have been part and parcel of Russia’s assault on Ukraine from day one. They have ebbed and flowed ever since, and no doubt will continue to do so until President Putin either gets his way in Ukraine or is sent packing. Or… something goes dreadfully wrong.

Within weeks of the invasion, I wrote an article calling Putin’s bluff, warning him of the danger of becoming entangled in his own web of lies. Two and a half years later, it’s time for an update.

If there was ever any doubt about it; the dead give-away came on 21 September 2022: “This is not a bluff!” While this was meant, of course, to strengthen the accompanying nuclear threat, it ends up doing exactly the opposite: the threatener is overly desperate to have his threat believed. He does not want, above all, to have his bluff called. Shakespeare springs to mind: “Thou protesteth too much!”

The flip-side of this: neither do the nuclear mandarins in the West! They know perfectly well that Putin is bluffing, because they, too, have been bluffing all along since at least the late 1960s. They hold their tongues, because if Putin is called, the day may soon come when their bluffs are also called.

So, one might ask, why not: “Let’s call the whole thing off.”?

Good question! The world would be a lot less on edge if all the nuclear armed states adopted the no-first-use policies like India and China. We will explore this option further below. But first we need to deal with the other reaction to all this: “Why press so hard for a no-first-use agreement, if all the talk of first use is only that: talk?”

This is what we are up against:

(1) First-use was part and parcel of the creation of NATO in 1949. The threat of massive (nuclear) retaliation against a Soviet conventional assault on Western Europe was, at the time, a compelling deterrent. Why? Because the Soviet Union was heavily outgunned by the United States, in terms of nuclear weaponry. After Sputnik, and as the Soviet arsenal grew, the Soviets attained rough parity in Bombs and their delivery. NATO no longer had escalation dominance (neither did the Warsaw Pact). But any public recognition of the new circumstance could, it was asserted, be seen as a weakening of the US’s commitment to protect Western Europe by all means necessary. Despite a few initiatives to reconsider the matter, the fall-back position has remained: plan and deploy as if first use is a viable option. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

(2) “They do, so we must, too!” The insistence on parity, even when it makes no sense logically — if they do something stupid, then so must we — or financially, is seen as central to one’s “credibility”. Since “parity” is in the eye of the beholder, this is a prescription for unrestrained competition, i.e. an arms race. Arms reductions are reduced to a charade; Alva Myrdal, Nobel peace laureate, wrote a tome on this subject appropriately entitled, “The Disarmament Game” and pointedly subtitled, “How the United States and Russia run the arms race.” That was in 1976, and the game goes on and on.

(3) MONEY!! Money makes the world go around, and when it comes to military expenditures it spins ever faster, rapidly approaching one hundred billion dollars last year according to ICAN. Each use-policy option can serve as the basis for the procurement of its own especially-tailored weapon system. And, with point (2) in mind, every system requires regular upgrading. The ICAN report points out that over one hundred million dollars are spent by the arms manufactures on lobbying for newer, better, Bombs. Money talks!

If we are going to break through this formidable wall of resistance, as we must, then we have to take it head-on and be prepared for a prolonged, sustained effort. The “disarmament movement” has shied away from this task and has paid the inevitable price of failure; snookered in the disarmament game.

The net result is that, when China proposes a multilateral non-first-use agreement, the silence of the West (and Russia) is deafening (sic, but also deadening). The counter-proposal is risk-reduction baby-steps, since the scope for risk reduction is sharply curtailed by the technical and logistical “demands” of first-use policies.

So, let’s take on the three points above.

(1) Lending credence to first-use options creates unnecessary risks. Since it can not be let known that the US will not start a nuclear war in Europe (or elsewhere), there are no emergency plans to remove Bombs from their bases in Europe if there is a danger these bases will be overrun. One could not simply fly all the bombs out, since that could easily be mistaken by the enemy for the launch of a major nuclear attack. This is thought to create a “use it or lose it” dilemma which is “good” for first-use threat credibility. It would be far better to remove the vulnerable systems and rely on an invulnerable retaliatory capacity (which already exists). That commands credibility.

(2) Removing vulnerable, first-use, weapon systems from circulation would knock the stuffing out of the nuclear arms race. It is much harder to justify the acquisition of new systems when the existing ones are more than adequate for the task of deterring the initiation of nuclear war. To repeat: “first-use” weapons only prop up the myth that they are meant to be used first.

(3) First-use weapon systems, including “launch on warning” systems, are very expensive to maintain. Junking them would save mountains of money which could be used for much better purposes, not least social development. Of course, some of it can go, if cogently needed, to strengthening conventional weapons defense.

While we can be reasonably confident there will be no intentional first use of nuclear weapons, the same cannot be said of inadvertent use. While there are redundant procedures in place to avert unauthorized or accident use, they are placed under extreme pressure during security crises largely due to the mobilization of arms which is undertaken to “lend credibility” to the first-use threats. The recent tactical nuclear weapons exercise conducted by Russia, only across the border from the raging war in Ukraine, is a prime example.

I aim to write about the Stanislav Petrov incident and the Able Archer command exercise which occurred in late September and early November, 1983, respectively. If they had occurred simultaneously, say, in October, I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it, having been either killed immediately, or having starved to death in the ensuing decade. No first use is the first step away from these unnecessary risks. It can be taken (viz. China and India) and it must be taken. Indeed, this should be locked in at least a decade before L-Day so that mutual trust fully matures in advance of the final countdown.

Finally, we must recognize that policies to initiate nuclear warfare are the equivalent of repeatedly “crying wolf”. They undermine the truthful communication required to negotiate an end to conflicts. Arms control talks can, but shouldn’t have to, go on in this poisoned atmosphere.

Perpetuating the lie of intentional first use exacts an emotional toll on everyone who doesn’t see through it. (And the intent is that most should not.) It is especially cruel to young people who have their whole lives ahead of them. It is horrible to contemplate that nuclear war could suddenly either kill you and/or those you are close to and furthermore destroy the societies in which you have every right to hope you can live your life in peace and prosperity.

One caveat: madness. President Nixon realized that it was useless, as a rational human being, to threaten North Vietnam with nuclear attack and, thus, intimidate their leadership. To get around this credibility problem, he privately propounded what he called the “madman theory”. The North Vietnam leadership should be led to believe that the war was driving him crazy and that his visceral hatred of “Commies” could lead him to resort to use of the Bomb. The ruse flopped. The North Vietnamese leadership figured they would win the war even if they came under nuclear attack, and that the US leadership knew this and would not allow Nixon, if he was truly so inclined, to do anything of the sort.

Putin does not like to appear nutty, he leaves it to the ex-President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, to say the crazy stuff. Unfortunately, it makes for “great sound bites” and the media eats it up. While this might scare and disgust many people, it doesn’t do much to the credibility of the threat-making.

In summary, nobody is going to intentionally start exploding the Bomb, with the possible exception of a stark-raving-mad terrorist. Sustaining the lie that this is not the case courts unnecessary risks of inadvertent use of the Bomb. It is also viscously cruel to the large portion of people who are fooled by the lie. Lastly, it undermines the trust required to reach mutually beneficial agreement on no first use and only makes realizing Liberation Day harder to keep on schedule.