The First Strike Trap

Alexey Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the Organizing Committee, International Luxembourg Forum; Head of the Center for International Security of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS); Scholar-in-Residence of the Carnegie Moscow Center

President Vladimir Putin uttered a memorable phrase last month at the Valdai Forum, saying, “I learned one rule on the streets of Leningrad fifty years ago—if a fight is inevitable, strike first.”

Putin was making a point about the war against terrorism, where the “strike first” principle can certainly be justified. Many states, including Russia and the United States, have hit at terrorists preemptively, both on their own territory and overseas. A first strike may sometimes make sense in conventional conflicts: in 1967 Israel won a brilliant victory over its three Arab neighbors by striking them first, even though they had a clear advantage in weapons and manpower and planned an attack on Israel.

But a “first strike” is not an absolute principle, and it is completely unacceptable when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts between nuclear-armed states, foremost Russia and the United States—even though their military doctrines do allow for this option under some rare circumstances.