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Rattling the Nuclear Saber: Rethinking Escalate-to-Deescalate Strikes

Loomis, Ryan (2023) Rattling the Nuclear Saber: Rethinking Escalate-to-Deescalate Strikes. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Would a low-yield nuclear escalate-to-deescalate strike achieve its desired end of capitulation? Would the strike adequately demonstrate the willingness and ability of the escalator to impose greater compellent violence, “thereby giving the adversary pause for thought,” or would such a strike result in unintended consequences like continued fighting or counter-escalation (Freedman & Michaels, 2019, p. 667)? The answer to this question is critically important today with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russian leaders’ overt and implied threats of nuclear use. Such events are especially concerning when combined with published Russian strategic doctrine, nuclear investments, messaging, and military exercises exemplifying their low-yield nuclear weapon escalate-to-deescalate concept. Despite the importance of this issue, current research on escalate-to-deescalate strikes does not address the conditions necessary to obtain the desired result of capitulation. This dissertation offers a new look at escalate-to-deescalate strikes throughout history to identify the requisite conditions to achieve capitulation and avoid the unintended responses of continued fighting or, even worse, counter-escalation. I argue that a victim’s response to an escalate-to-deescalate strike is the result of three variables: 1) its danger situation, 2) the value of the target struck, and 3) the damage sustained by the target, ex ante. Utilizing near-history case studies involving escalate-to-deescalate strikes to test this claim, I find that only a narrow set of conditions exist that are likely to result in the desired result of capitulation. Significantly, the results of these case studies also underscore both the high probability and the stark reality of failure of escalate-to-deescalate strikes.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Loomis, Ryanrwl21@pitt.edurwl21
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairGrauer,
Committee MemberWilliams,
Committee MemberPoznansky,
Committee MemberSpaniel,
Date: 2 February 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 October 2022
Approval Date: 2 February 2023
Submission Date: 3 January 2023
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 341
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Graduate School of Public and International Affairs > Public and International Affairs
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Escalation, nuclear weapons, escalate to deescalate, low-yield nuclear weapons.
Date Deposited: 02 Feb 2023 14:11
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2023 14:11


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