Is Nuclear War with Russia a Real Possibility?

Social psychology holds the disturbing answer.

Posted Sep 03, 2019

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the possibility of nuclear war with Russia was top of mind. Living on a military base, we frequently rehearsed “duck-and-cover” drills against nuclear blasts, and heard tests of air raid sirens the last Friday of every month. We figured out where in our house we would hunker down to minimize exposure to fallout, we filled an old oil tank with fresh water, we stockpiled food, batteries, and other necessities. We even debated whether or not we would eat our beagle if food ran out.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 only exacerbated our already high anxiety about global nuclear annihilation. 

But despite America’s recent difficulties with Russia, no one stays awake at night anymore worrying about nuclear conflict with America’s old cold war foe, do they?

Well, actually, some people who are in a good position to know do worry a lot about a nuclear war with Russia.

CC4 Kremlin Russian Federation
Vladimir Putin
Source: CC4 Kremlin Russian Federation

One such expert is George Beebe, a colleague of mine when I worked at the CIA, and former head of Russian Analysis at the agency.

George’s new book, The Russia Trap: How our shadow war with Russia could spiral into nuclear catastrophe, describes in frightening detail exactly how and why nuclear war could break out, and interestingly enough, Beebe focuses a lot of attention on what social psychologists call “attribution theory.”

Simply put, attribution theory tries to explain why and how we perceive the origins and motivations of other people’s behavior. And just as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and colleagues have identified dozens of cognitive biases that warp our perception of the outside world, attribution theorists have identified several attribution biases that warp our perception of other people’s behavior.

Before explaining how these attribution biases might lead to nuclear war, let me first provide a thumbnail sketch of a few of these biases.

  • Fundamental attribution error. We tend to see other people’s missteps as growing out of deep character flaws, rather than reasonable and well-intended responses to difficult circumstances. (We think a coworker is late to work because of laziness, not traffic.)
  • Actor-observer bias. We tend to view our own errors as caused by external circumstances rather than any internal deficiencies—we think we are late to work because of bad traffic, not habitual tardiness—while believing others’ lateness grows out of character flaws
  • Hostile attribution bias. Some people tend to interpret other’s behaviors as inherently hostile. (I think my employee is late as a passive-aggressive attack on my authority and not that traffic was bad.)

In his book, Beebe asserts that, when we observe Russia invading its southern neighbor Georgia, taking the Crimea away from Ukraine, or trying to subvert our presidential elections, the majority of Americans, including many policy-makers in Washington, attribute these actions to deep “character flaws” in the Russian psyche or in Vladimir Putin, or in both Putin and Russia.

One hears observations in policy circles such as the “Putin is just a modern day Hitler” or “The Russians have always harbored expansionist ambitions.”

According to Beebe, though, these may be dangerous attribution errors, and Russian behavior that we view as aggressive “character flaws” aimed at destroying our democracy could actually be understandable—even legitimate—responses to external events, including:

  • Russia’s historical adversary, NATO, expanding to Russia’s borders. (How would we feel if Mexico and Canada became close Russian allies?)                       
  • The U.S. romancing former Russian states such as Ukraine into aligning with or even joining NATO. (How would we feel if Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona left the U.S. and joined a Russian alliance, including welcoming a Russian military presence?)
  • The U.S. military failing to leave former Russian republics (such as Uzbekistan) after promising that our presence there after 9/11 would be temporary. (How would we feel if we consented to Russian forces in Canada in response to a Russian security crisis and Russia then refused to leave Canada?)

Taking these events into account, Russia’s recent behavior could be viewed as primarily defensive in nature, aimed not at destroying us, but at keeping us off balance, and less able to cause trouble in its own back yard.

If this explanation is accurate, then the West’s misattribution of Russian behavior could create the very hostile intent in Russia that we worry about: That is. concerned about Russia’s malign intent, we try to contain Russia through sanctions, arming adversaries such as Ukraine, and so forth, leading the Russians to believe that we are intent on destroying them. A vicious-circle spiral toward nuclear war could then occur if, for example, American troops mistakenly attacked Russian forces in Syria, or Russian warships in the Persian Gulf, sent to discourage attacks on Iran in an escalating crisis, mistakenly fired on US Naval ships.

If you think that such mishaps and misunderstandings couldn’t lead to global war, think again. Beebe points out that in 1914 no one expected, or wanted, an assassination in the Balkans to plunge the entire world into war, but the killing of an Austrian duke did exactly that because of a fiendishly complicated set of alliances, whose collective behavior was nearly impossible to predict.

And today’s world is infinitely more complex and interconnected than the world of 1914, according to Beebe, so that the potential for misattributions of even “minor events” to trigger all-out war, has to be taken very, very seriously.

So what should we in the West do to decrease the chances of a nightmare nuclear scenario playing out?

In The Russia Trap, Beebe outlines a number of foreign policy options worth considering for reducing the likelihood of war with Russia, such as the U.S. backing off recruiting former Russian allies into NATO. Although I don’t agree with all of Beebe’s recommendations (probably because I am biased by childhood anxieties about the Russians), I do wholeheartedly embrace one important idea: that we turn our focus, at least for a moment, away from the Russians and their behavior, and look inwards to our own behaviors, attitudes, and potentially flawed perceptions.

Given that all of us are prone to attribution biases to one degree or another, it would be astonishing if the majority view of Russia in the West (or for that matter, the majority view of the West in Russia), was even remotely close to accurate.

And although we all somehow muddle through everyday life despite our misattributions of others, and others' misattributions of us, our interactions with a nuclear superpower are about as far from ordinary everyday life as you can imagine because, if we’re not careful, these misattributions could end ordinary everyday life.