In the West today, and perhaps in Russia, leading circles believe that nuclear deterrence is what prevented the U.S. and the Soviet Union from fighting directly during the Cold War. Many assume that these weapons will continue to deter without fail. Both ideas deserve to be questioned.

Is it really true that Soviet leaders were determined to go to war with the United States but were deterred by the existence of nuclear weapons? At what time and place were Soviet leaders willing to go to war against NATO states but chose not to do so because of nuclear counter threats? What specific evidence shows this? There were cases, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, where the U.S. and the U.S.S.R intervened militarily in other states. Would these interventions have happened if Washington or Moscow did not believe that nuclear deterrence would keep the other side from escalating? By making escalation to homeland attacks unthinkable, did intra-war nuclear deterrence prolong these wars and the damage they did? Is it possible that nuclear deterrence allowed more killing than it prevented during the Cold War? Even if objective scholars conclude that nuclear deterrence did directly prevent war and did not enable low-intensity conflicts in the Third World, the future effectiveness of nuclear deterrence remains unknowable.

This article was published by the Security Index Journal of the PIR Center, the Russian Center for Policy Studies, It is a product of the joint PIR and NTI project "Ways towards Nuclear Disarmament."