Understanding the Security Dilemma

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The concept of “security dilemma” used in the article “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma” written by John Herz in 1950 has played an important role in shaping security policies after that date, especially during the Cold War. In summary, this approach argues that the state which will increase its power against a threat from other states will cause the other actor to take up arms since it threatens the security of the other party, and the actor trying to increase its security will be less secure.[1] This approach had an important place in armament, arms control, and disarmament studies during the Cold War period.

The “security dilemma” debate lies at the heart of the arms race. Conventional and especially nuclear armament studies between the parties of the Cold War were shaped within this framework. For example, the security concerns created by the nuclear weapons of the United States (US) prompted the Soviet Union to acquire nuclear weapons.

While the Soviet Union’s acquisition of intercontinental ballistic missiles and its ability to hit the US lands, the Washington administration also produced missiles that would hit the Soviets, both sides started an arms race on missile defense systems that will protect their lands. The Cold War was shaped around the nuclear strategies and game theories developed by scientists and politicians such as Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Paul Nitze, and Thomas Schelling in the West.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and humanity’s approach to the threat of total nuclear war is another dimension of the security dilemma; that is, the concept of reducing the mutual threat instead of armament came to the fore. In this process, which is called the “Detention Period”, instead of armament, arms control and cooperation-based confidence-building policies through disarmament were preferred, and the endless arms race was paused a bit.

In the post-Cold War period, the moves of the US within the framework of global leadership claims drew the reaction of Russia, which took over the legacy/debris of the Soviet Union and tried to recover, but these reactions could not turn into a concrete action considering the ratio of military, economic and political power. President of Russia Vladimir Putin, who felt the need to maintain and develop his power in the early periods of his power with the Atlanticist wing, which was influential in the first period of Russia, preferred cooperation with the West.

In this process, to cooperate with the US on the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the countries of the former Soviet Union, to be included in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994, important steps have been taken towards unity with the West, such as keeping silent about the enlargement of Western Europe and even Baltic states enabling NATO and European Union (EU) membership.

In this period, “collaborative security” has been a priority. The situation in question was also reflected in NATO’s Strategic Concept; one of the three important tasks of the alliance has been defined as “Collaborative Security”.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US increased its moves towards global hegemony; basing its presence on Russia’s borders and ignoring the security concerns of the Moscow administration; in Russia, the strengthening of Putin’s power and the Russian economy has led to the start of a new process in the security policies of the parties. This situation developed especially on three different pillars.

The first pillar is the resumption of the arms race. The withdrawal of the US from the 1972 Missile Defense System Treaty (ABMT) Convention in 2002 and the establishment of a new Missile Defense System, radar systems for NATO, and a new missile defense system under the name of European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) in Kürecik, although it seems like conventional armament, that this arms race was designed to change the course of a complete nuclear war, has changed Russia’s understanding of security.

Russia started a rapid arms race. While introducing Russia’s new generation weapons, which can carry nuclear weapons, on March 8, 2018; it emphasized that the arms race started because of the US’s withdrawal from the ABMT in 2002.[2]

The other pillar is the repeal of the nuclear weapons control and arms reduction conventions one by one. This process, which started with the unilateral withdrawal of the US in 2002 from the ABM Treaty of 1972, continued with the withdrawal of the US from the Conventional Forces Europe Agreement in 2007, which prohibited the deployment of heavy weapons in Europe and the west of Russia.

The US also withdrew from the contract in 2018, claiming that Russia deployed Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, thus violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Convention. Thus, the obstacles for both sides to place medium-range weapons in the region have been removed.

Apart from the global 1968 Non-Proliferation Convention (NPT), which legalized the nuclear status of the five states that already possess nuclear weapons, only the New START Convention signed between the USA and Russia, which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons, remains. The Trump administration opposed the extension of the contract, which was extended for five years in 2021, especially under the influence of the then US National Security Advisor John Bolton. However, shortly before the expiration of this contract, Joe Biden’s management signed this agreement in the first days of his term.

The New START Convention limits the number of nuclear warheads and their means of launching them. However, it is not clear which category the missile systems with multiple warheads (MIRV) fall into, or the role of weapons developed as conventional weapons but which will enter the nuclear category with the installation of a nuclear warhead within the framework of the New START Convention. In addition, if the crisis on the US-Russia line progresses within this framework, the New START Agreement will probably be repealed in 2026. In other words, while the arms race on nuclear weapons increased, the agreements that stipulated the control of arms and disarmament were abolished one by one.

Simultaneously with all these, the US has made moves to bring in pro-Western governments in the countries that Russia describes as the red line and to ensure that these states take part in pro-Western formations. In this struggle carried out under the name of “Colored Revolutions”, pro-Western governments came to power in Georgia with the Rose Revolution in 2003 and in Ukraine with the Orange Revolution in 2004.

The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and the Jeans Revolution in Belarus in 2006 are smaller and unsuccessful revolutions. The progress of the color revolutions towards Russia by threatening the borders of Russia, especially the lands of the former Soviet Union led to the hardening of the reaction of the Moscow administration.

While Russian officials described color revolutions as a new method of warfare, Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov demonstrated this in the doctrine named after him.[3] NATO’s giving hope about membership to Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest Summit was the last straw. The Moscow Administration, which thinks that the next target of the color revolutions will be Russia, intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014.

Through these interventions, the Kremlin administration has made it clear that Georgia and Ukraine are the red lines for its national security, that the expansion of NATO threatens the survival of Russia, and that it will resort to all kinds of methods, including war, within the framework of this threat. However, NATO’s appetite for expansion has not stopped; in fact, a new move was made against Russia by starting the membership process of Finland and Sweden in the middle of the crisis. Russia’s threat that these moves would have political and military consequences did not deter the alliance.

Within the scope of the process carried out regarding the membership process of the relevant states, 28 states have completed the national approval phase. Hungary, one of the two states that did not complete the ratification process, plans to discuss the issue in its parliament in October 2022. Türkiye, which has made various requests from Sweden and Finland before the membership approval, has not yet given the green light to the membership of these countries.

As Robert Jervis points out, the second important dimension of subjective security is the threat situation.[4] States that feel threatened will take tougher and faster measures than countries that feel more secure. Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008 and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it did not hesitate to intervene in Ukraine in 2014, annex Crimea and create frozen conflict zones in the Donbass region. Russian officials have repeatedly stated that Ukraine was occupied because NATO enlargement threatened Russia’s national security.

Finally, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and threatened the countries that supported the Kyiv administration with the use of “nuclear weapons.” In the words of US President Biden, the world has come this close to a nuclear war for the first time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.[5] The states that provide weapons to Ukraine in various ways do not think about getting involved in the war anyway. However, when this situation was combined with the nuclear threat of Russia, the issue became much more deterrent.

As can be seen, the nuclear threat is increasing day by day. As a matter of fact, in response to Russia’s shift of nuclear troops to the Swedish and Finnish border, it was decided by NATO to hold an exercise involving nuclear weapons.[6]

The threat posed by Russia, which has increased its security measures due to the threats posed by NATO’s moves, has become a threat to NATO’s security, and, as usual, the security dilemma theory has been proven once again. Ignoring Russia’s security concerns has gradually brought the world closer to the threat of nuclear war. As emphasized by Stephen Walt, could politicians or academics working in different states, especially in the US, not understand the security dilemma theory, which is one of the most fundamental theories of international relations.[7]

[1] John Herz, “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma”, World Politics, 2(2), 1950, p. 157-180.

[2] “Presidental Address To The Federal Assembly”, Kremlin,, (Date of Accession: 15.10.2022).

[3] Mehmet Seyfettin EROL, Şafak OĞUZ, “Hybrid Warfare Studies and Russia’s Example in Crimea”, Gazi Akademik Bakış,, (Date of Accession: 07.10.2022).

[4] Robert Jervis, Cooperation under the Security Dilemma, World Politics, 30(2), 1978, p. 167-214

[5] “Biden Warns World Would Face ‘Armageddon’ If Putin Uses A Tactical Nuclear Weapon in Ukraine”, The Guardian,, (Date of Accession: 07.10.2022).

[6] “Putin’in Tehdidinden Sonra Çember Daralıyor… NATO Harekete Geçti: Rusya’ya Karşı Nükleer Tatbikat”, Hürriyet,, (Date of Accession: 15.10.2022).

[7] “Does Anyone Still Understand The Security Dilemma”, Foreign Policy,, (Date of Accession: 26.07.2022).

Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
2019 yılında Doçentlik unvanını alan Şafak OĞUZ, Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri’ndeki (TSK) 23 yıllık hizmetinden sonra 2021 yılında emekli olmuştur. Görevi esnasında Birleşmiş Milletler (BM) ve Kuzey Atlantik Antlaşması Örgütü (NATO) bünyesinde de çalışan OĞUZ, Kitle İmha Silahları, Terörizm, Uluslararası Güvenlik, Uluslararası Örgütler ve Barış ve Çatışma Çalışmaları konularında çalışmalar yapmaktadır. OĞUZ, halen Kapadokya Üniversitesi İktisadi, İdari ve Sosyal Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde öğretim üyeliği görevini sürdürmektedir. İyi derece İngilizce ve Almanca bilmektedir.