Tyler Cowen discovers John Mearsheimer’s seminal 1993 Foreign Affairs article “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent”. Since I know I won’t be alone in teaching this piece the next time I put together an Intro to IR reading list, let’s take a moment to see whether, as Cowen wrote earlier, “the expected rate of return from denuclearization has fallen”.
International relations scholars disagree about a lot when it comes to nuclear weapons, and the belief, which I mostly share, that nuclear weapons mitigate the outbreak of interstate wars is not the only view. Even Mearsheimer in his article points out that “nuclear proliferation does not axiomatically promote peace and can in some cases even cause war.” But more than a few IR scholars would agree that nuclear weapons are not in themselves causes of war and may even pacific effects on the international system. Sometimes, of course, pacific properties aren’t desirable from a Washington-centric point of view. I suspect that the lesson quite a few leaders that American officials find to be distasteful or threatening took away from the examples of Iraq and Libya was that nuclear weapons can deter U.S. intervention. We should also be mindful that the more nuclear weapons exist the likelier it is that one of them will be used inadvertently. Nevertheless, although I have great respect for the work that Scott Sagan has done on nuclear accidents, the fact that Pakistan and India have been able to coexist since their declarations of nuclear arsenals has gone a long way toward convincing me that the risks are more remote than the pessimists have feared. (As a friend reminds me via email, the non-nuclear Kargil War is an important piece of process evidence in this regard.)
Instead of asking whether nuclear weapons matter in general, as Cowen does, we should ask whether they matter for Ukraine in its current situation. The answer is almost certainly not.
What, after all, is the counterfactual? If Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons, it is probably unlikely that Russia would have moved so precipitately in the Crimea. But it’s not clear at all that nuclear weapons would have made any of Ukraine’s recent governments more stable. After all, the Mearsheimer hypothesis is that nuclear weapons will deter Russian intervention and “a Russian reconquest of Ukraine” (a probability much dimmer today, when we know better what prolonged occupations by great powers look like, than it was when he wrote 20 years ago). Ukraine’s decade of political instability, however, has had domestic roots, and it is difficult to see how nuclear possession would have changed Russia’s behavior in trying to bring Ukraine back under its political umbrella or paved over the ethnic and linguistic fault lines in the country.
We know very little about how a nuclear-armed country faces domestic unrest. Indeed, of the major nuclear powers, only the USSR, post-USSR Russia, and the PRC have faced massive domestic demonstrations on the scale of the Independence Square protests. In neither case, as far as I know, does anyone think that the possession of nuclear weapons mattered for the outcome of those demonstrations (even though it surely kept the rest of the world on tenterhooks). This matters because the motivation for Russia’s intervention is (probably) not the sort of almost atavistic territorial expansionism Mearsheimer ascribes to Russia in his article (written, again, less than two years after the fall of the Soviet Union) but instead a relatively comprehensible and limited attempt at partition or Finlandization (see Dan Nexon here and here).
Mearhseimer was definitely right that “abuse of [an ethnic] minority by the local majority could be a flash point for crisis” in Russo-Ukrainian elections. Yet his prescience on that point, and the persuasiveness of the more nukes, less wars argument on other grounds, should not lead us to condemn Ukraine’s leaders (and the U.S. government) for seeking to de-nuclearize the former Soviet Union. The events that led us to Independence Square and Crimea don’t involve the sorts of political relationships that nuclear weapons would have affected.
Huh? Nobody is saying that Ukrainian nukes would have changed the outcome of the Maidan protests. Only that, holding all else constant, Russia would have been much less likely to invade Crimea in response. Maybe we can’t hold all else constant, but that doesn’t seem to be your point here.
How, exactly, would this have worked? The government was in turmoil. It’s not clear that anyone had, or has, the authority to command the military. As of yet, a major conventional deployment has yet to meet even a minor conventional response despite the violation of sovereignty. What would have been different over the past month?
And if you say that a major conventional incursion would have triggered a nuclear response, or that a nuclear deterrent would have prevented a conventional incursion, consider Kargil or the Sino-Russian border conflicts.
The only situation that a nuclear deterrent would have prevented is the sort of existential crisis Mearsheimer clearly had in mind. But that isn’t what’s happening here.
You don’t think the idea of a newly installed, inexperienced, insecure, fractious leadership in Kiev sitting atop an uncertain chain of command and an arsenal of a couple thousand nuclear warheads might induce a little caution from Putin? You make it sound like the collapse of the Ukrainian military command structure means that no one could fire off a nuclear missile. No, Russia’s occupation of Crimea would likely not produce an immediate nuclear response from a cohesive, rational Ukrainian leadership with a stable command and control structure. But that’s not the Ukrainian leadership in place at the moment. And the possibility of misperception, overreaction, or an unintentional nuclear launch — possibilities that can be significantly heightened by the type of instability seen in Ukraine over the past several months — is often enough to deter aggression or crisis escalation.
And no one ever argued that mutual possession of nuclear weapons is sufficient to completely prevent conventional incursions or crisis escalation. Many would, however, claim that deterrence dynamics make conventional incursions less likely, of shorter duration, and less likely to escalate. The simple occurrence of the Kargil War proves very little. The relevant counterfactual is what the Kargil crisis would have looked like had there been no nuclear weapons in play. Or would there have been more such crises in a non-nuclear India-Pakistan dyad.
Mearsheimer’s argument presupposes a unified, rational state seeking to deter predation. That may well have been the case in 1993, although it’s possible that this model always overlooked the degree to which Crimeans wanted to be ‘returned’ to Russia. The argument is that nuclear weapons would have maintained territorial integrity against a Russian incursion.
If we believe that’s true, what incentive would Yanukovych (if we assume that he prefers Russian assistance to territorial integrity) have had to maintain a nuclear arsenal in that case? To put it another way, how would a nuclear Ukraine–which would have been a global pariah state–have actually maintained its arsenal for 20+ years?
Sure, if Ukraine had had nuclear weapons this week, and the head of the Ukrainian strategic command hadn’t, say, pledged his fealty to Crimea (as heads of the navy seem to do with regularity), then that might have induced some caution. (Remember that any ‘uncertainty’ in the Ukrainian command structure is likely to come as a result of wondering whether the commanders are, to oversimplify, Russian speakers or not.) But that’s assuming that more or less everything else would have been equal between 1993 and 2014.
Moreover, the risks of ethnic division and state failure in Ukraine seem to me to suggest that the possibility of unauthorized use or escalation would be much higher.
I wasn’t really speaking to Mearsheimer specifically or making an argument about how Ukraine would have existed for 20 years as a nuclear pariah state. I was more registering my disagreement with the claim that “…it is difficult to see how nuclear possession would have changed Russia’s behavior in trying to bring Ukraine back under its political umbrella…” I obviously can’t prove a counterfactual. But to my mind, a fragile, inexperienced, and fractious political leadership in Kiev with a sizable nuclear arsenal and tenuous command and control mechanisms would probably have a massive effect on Putin’s calculus when deciding whether to occupy Crimea.
OK–that’s a more specific point. I should have written “objective”, not “behavior”. Sorry.
I wrote about this as well, “About That Pesky Budapest Memorandum…”
I dunno, I think Mearsheimer was right on this one.