Doing the Stability-Instability Dance

26 April 2014, 1643 EDT

The stability-instability paradox is a concept from nuclear deterrence land: that if two sides both have nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike, it might just create deterrence at the strategic level AND free up both sides to engage in violence at lower levels.  Sounds just like an air-headed theory that would never happen in reality because, you know, NUKES!*

* To be clear, I have not studied deterrence theory closely since grad school, so I may not have this entirely right, but I am pretty sure I have the basics.

Well, in 1999, the Pakistani army pretty much followed the Stability-Instability Playbook by attacking India but only very selectively.  The idea was that India would not use its nukes since they would then face the wrath of Pakistan’s nukes.  Well, Pakistan faced other wrath (they tend to lose every war they start with India….) including from the international community.

Anyhow, this is relevant today because of PUTIN!!!!  The fear that some folks have (the Poles, the Latvias, Estonians and Lithuanians) is that Putin might engage in some salami tactics–taking a small sliver of one of them (well, the Baltics) and then say, nyah, nyah, fait accompli, nyah. Putin could say–if you then attack me, we will blow the world up.

Which leaves me with the following thought: why can only one side play this game?  If NATO (US/France/UK) is deterred from using nukes over Russia taking a small hunk of Estonia, then wouldn’t Russia be deterred from their its nukes if NATO used just a wee bit of force to take back the hunk of Estonia?

I got to thinking about this as folks at the German Marshall Fund conference were pondering such scenarios and mentioned that this is one of the reasons why John Kennedy opted for flexible response–that there might be not just war at lower levels against the non-nuclear folks (North Vietnam) but that there might come a time where the Soviet Union might take a hunk of West Germany and say: trade you for West Berlin.  This apparently caused many nightmares for NATO in the old days.

So, we need to be clear–the Stability-Instability paradox “works” for both sides, as long as each side is somewhat comfortable with risking just a little bit of nuclear war.  The good news is that Schelling comes in here for practiced nuclear powers: that “the threat that leaves something to chance” ameliorates the Stability-Instability paradox because you cannot be to sure that the low level violence will stay low level.  That salami tactics are not usually worthwhile because the small risk of things getting out of control multiplied by the huge costs of nuclear war offset the gains from a slice of salami/Estonia.

Still, the Baltics are worried that Putin’s game of subversion may not end with Ukraine.  I tend to think it will, but as one Baltic speaker at this conference put it, it is far easier for those of us farther from the big bear to be confident.  Indeed.

[Update: Others have also pondered the S-I paradox, basically arguing that Putin might have pulled this act on Ukraine even if Ukraine had not given up the nuclear weapons it inherited as the USSR broke up.  See Mark Fay and Jeffrey Lewis with similar perspectives.  Cheryl Rofer also has some related thoughts on the matter.]


The required video is, of course: