Chekhov’s Nuclear War

‘If there’s a gun on the wall in act one,’ wrote the Russian playwright Anton Chechov, ‘it must be fired by the third act.’ This rule of narrative structure calls us all to sit up and pay attention to what is happening right now in Ukraine, for this is a conflict the opening words of which were ‘nuclear war.’ The threat of a nuclear strike, tactical or otherwise, has never been absent from the ticker tape running from western governments, western corporate media, and the ideological war dogs of the western commentariat. From the outset of the invasion, the purpose of this refrain has been quite clearly designed to establish in the western imagination the settled will of Russia and its president Vladimir Putin; that Ukraine is an unprovoked war of territorial conquest which the Russian Federation intends to win even if that victory requires the use of nuclear weapons. This has been the cornerstone of the NATO narrative of the conflict from the start, and yet nothing of this narrative is based on anything Moscow has actually said or done. It is pure propaganda.

Like all other nuclear powers, the Russian Federation does have its own blueprint outlining the criteria which would need to be met before its military could upgrade its conventional strategy to a nuclear option. In fact, Russian military doctrine with regard to the nuclear option is no secret. Russia has developed what is described as a ‘tailored damage’ strategy:

While Cold War deterrence was predicated on the threat of inflicting an overwhelming degree of damage on enemy military and civilian targets, de-escalation rests on the concept of “tailored damage.” The doctrine defines “tailored damage” as inflicting “damage subjectively unacceptable to the opponent [and] exceeds the benefits the [opponent] expects to gain as a result of the use of [conventional] military force.” In other words, Russia’s military planners believed that the threat of a limited or tactical nuclear strike against enemy targets would be an effective deterrence against a conventional attack by the United States or NATO.

Joshua Ball, Global Security Review (7 March 2022)

NATO and the western media have made a great fuss about Russia’s revision of its nuclear strategy; suggesting that, by incorporating a particular nuclear option into its conventional military response, the Putin administration has adopted a fundamentally more aggressive and bullying strategy — and has leapt on this to accelerate the expansion of the anti-Russian nuclear alliance and the buildup of ‘defensive’ forces on the Russian border. Little if anything, however, has been said about why Russia made these revisions in the first place. In violation of the 1990 NATO-Soviet agreement, the western alliance — which should have been dissolved at the end of the Cold War — moved eastward to include former Warsaw Pact countries and even former Soviet Republics. The US reneging on this agreement, together with its interference in eastern European affairs and its instigation of colour revolutions, could only be read in Moscow as a threat to Russia and its regional interests. What is understood now from the work of US think-tanks like the Rand Corporation is that this sense of threat was never merely a case of Russia’s perception. The eastward expansion of NATO was a threat to Russia.

Anyone saying this — including Noam Chomsky — has been rounded on by the western media and the western political establishment and dismissed as ‘pro-Russian’ and a ‘Putin apologist.’ But this has become more difficult for them to do. It is now a well-documented fact — from US government sources — that the unbalancing and destabilisation of Russia was the game plan of NATO expansion from at least the mid-1990s. Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has also joined his voice to the chorus of dissent, saying that by continually knocking on Russia’s door NATO provoked a response from Moscow. It is hard to see how Washington, Brussels, or London can spin the Holy Father’s support for Russian aggression.

Dispassionate analysis of the Kremlin’s revised nuclear strategy shows it to be anything but an aggressive posture. Alright, no nuclear strategy is a good military strategy in the mind of this author, but weighed against the strategy it replaced — the Cold War doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)’ — it is most definitely an improvement. Russia’s tailored damage response holds that if a hostile force poses a real and immediate existential threat to the Russian state the Russian armed forces are authorised, within their conventional military toolkit, to make pre-emptive tactical nuclear strikes with short-range missiles armed with low-yield nuclear warheads against hostile military targets. As nightmarish and terrifying as this sounds, it is miles short of the Armageddon promised by the strategic launch of ICBMs against the major population centres of the enemy — which is the current and unrevised nuclear doctrine of the United States and NATO.

The key distinction between these doctrines is that ‘the strategic option’ prefered by the West is offencive and ‘the tactical option’ recently adopted by the Russian Federation is defensive. Rather than initiating the launch of ICBMs that demands a counter response from the other side, the thinking behind the tailored damage strategy is to put the question of further escalation back to the enemy; presenting it with the reality of unacceptable costs against the non-existent benefits of further aggression. Between the two forms of deterrence, tailored damage is in fact more effective — and therefore more peaceful.

In light of this analysis, then, some thought must be given to why the western governments and their aligned media outfits are so preoccupied with this fictional nuclear threat posed by Russia. Ultimately this is the gun hanging on the wall in act one — and it was NATO and not Russia that put it there. So why? If this is to be answered, one must ask: What is the purpose of Ukraine? It cannot be a simple case of Russian aggression and its desire for territorial expansion — the whole western myth of a new Russian Empire or a neo-Soviet Union — because Ukraine qua the current situation in Ukraine long predates the Russian invasion (24 February 2022). Evidently, Ukraine serves a purpose for the West — that is, it serves a purpose for the United States. It is a nonsense that the US is a benign hegemon looking out for the good and wellbeing of a ‘fledgling democracy’ in eastern Europe. This was precisely the language used by Washington in the past when it supported murderous right-wing military juntas in El Salvador, Niceragua, and elsewhere in Latin America. This is nothing but the coded language of US imperialism. It is the language of the Cold War, and Russia understands this language. This is the language the US deploys when it is furthering its geopolitical reach by supporting authoritarian regimes and instigating anti-democratic coups.

Case in point: Ukraine had an anti-democratic and right-wing coup in 2014 — and the fingerprints of the US State Department and the CIA are all over it. The purpose of Ukraine, then, is the furtherance of US global strategic interests in eastern Europe and on the Russian border. Act one of this drama was all about pushing Russia and provoking it into an invasion of Ukraine where the CIA and NATO had laid a trap. From the moment Russian forces crossed into Ukraine, the western media began mounting nuclear war on the wall — this was what the threat of an air exclusion zone was all about; inserting the threat of a Russian initiated nuclear war into the discourse. Thus, even if NATO launched first it could be construed as a pre-emptive and therefore defensive strike against a monsterised enemy which western audiences had been persuaded was going to strike anyway. This narrative was built on the monsterisation process that began in the opening scene; Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler, the fiction of a genocide, the dubious accounts of massacres without investigation (in fact, Britain blocked a Russian call for an investigation into the Bucha massacre at the UN Security Council), and the constant spin of Ukrainian journalists (writing in English for western consumption) of hideous atrocities — rape in particular — without any supporting evidence. Radio Free Europe — a CIA Cold War instrument — even conceded that the story about Russian women encouraging their boyfriends and husbands to rape Ukrainian women and girls was ‘a joke’ when the lie fell apart.

Washington’s concern is no more for Ukraine and its people than it was for El Salvador or Chile or Nicaragua. Ukraine is a means to an end — an endgame — and that end is securing the United States’ unipolarity by the destruction of Russia — and this is, by definition, a World War III endgame. Nuclear war was quite deliberately put on the wall in the first act because one way or another the plan is for the US to achieve its objective by a nuclear war. This can be known and understood because, quite frankly, there is no other way for the US to achieve this objective without a nuclear response from Russia — a defensive tailored damage nuclear response the West has already been primed to take as Russian aggression. The game plan as we approach the end of act two is for Ukraine to give the United States and NATO the provocation they need to enter the war — they need a massacre that cannot be doubted, they need a biological or chemical weapons attack, they need something ugly enough to move the western public to demand intervention. NATO boots on the ground triggers Russia’s tailored damage defence and so Washington can blow the whistle to send western Europe over the top into a nuclear war with Russia. But that is act three, and we are not quite there yet.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.


Ball, Joshua. “Escalate to De-Escalate: Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy.” Global Security Review (blog), March 7, 2022.

Moore, Thomas C. “Tailor-Surgeon, Soviet and Silovik : Russian Nuclear Strategy.” Revue Defense Nationale 801, no. 6 (2017): 42–50.