The Weakness of a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent: Counterfactuals and the Stability-Instability Paradox

(updated below)

Since the Russian incursion in Crimea at the end of February, a meme has been circulating among some national security commentators that Ukraine should have kept the nuclear arsenal it inherited following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The most forceful proponent that Kiev would have been better off maintaining a nuclear deterrent was and is University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. At the end of the Cold War, Mearsheimer argued in Foreign Affairs (pdf),

A nuclear Ukraine makes sense for two reasons. First, it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine… Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend a meaningful security guarantee…  Second, it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fear most.

While the second argument was proved wrong shortly after he initially made it, Mearsheimer revisited the first argument in the aftermath of Moscow’s move into Crimea. Writing in the New York Times, he asserted, “[Russia] could invade eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea, because Ukraine regrettably relinquished the nuclear arsenal it inherited when the Soviet Union broke up and thus has no counter to Russia’s conventional superiority.”

Several people have pushed back against this idea, noting that the counterfactual of a nuclear Ukraine needs to be analyzed not in the present, but going back to the beginning—essentially 1994, when, in this scenario, Kiev would have refused to adhere to the terms of the Budapest Memorandum. As these skeptics point out, Ukraine faced numerous political and economic problems in the immediate post-Soviet period. Leaving aside the problem of “loose nukes” falling into the hands of any number of bad actors, the political and economic instability would have made it difficult to develop the type of stable force posture necessary for an effective nuclear deterrent.

However, there seems to be a question missing from this discussion: would a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent have prevented Russia from taking Crimea? As with any counterfactual, it is impossible to say for certain, but there are reasons to suggest the answer is no. Assuming that the problems related to post-Soviet Ukraine’s political and economic weakness did not prevent it from developing a stable force posture, there is still the problem of the stability-instability paradox.

Mearsheimer and other proponents of the nuclear Ukraine thesis subscribe to the well-founded idea that nuclear weapons will deter nuclear attack or large-scale conventional aggression against one’s own territory or core interests. However, Russian operations in Crimea took neither form. Instead, Moscow inserted a small military force from its Crimean bases with Russian insignias removed and employed armed gangs to capture government buildings, commandeer television stations and other media outlets, harass individuals and groups loyal to the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and to create the fait accompli that facilitated Russian annexation of the peninsula.

That is where the stability-instability paradox comes into play. As described by Robert Jervis, borrowing from his mentor, Glenn Snyder, the stability-instability paradox suggests that stability at the highest level of violence—either all out nuclear war or large-scale conventional war—can actually facilitate instability at lower levels of violence. Once again assuming Ukraine developed a stable deterrent posture, it is highly unlikely Moscow would risk nuclear retaliation against its cities to annex Crimea through large-scale military operations. However, by employing forces in the way it did—offering Vladimir Putin a fig leaf of plausible deniability—to create facts on the ground, the onus would have then been put on Kiev whether it would risk nuclear retaliation to attack Russia or Russian forces.

As with other versions of the nuclear Ukraine counterfactual, there is obviously no way to prove this argument true. Perhaps even the slightest risk of escalation that might reach the nuclear level would have been more than Putin was willing to tolerate. Moreover, it is possible that a nuclear arsenal would have negated the threat of large-scale Russian conventional intervention, thus making Kiev more willing to take action against Russian salami-slicing tactics in Crimea, and now Eastern Ukraine. However, it should make those certain that Ukraine should have retained, or developed, a nuclear arsenal pause before assuming it would have been the panacea they believe it would have been.

UPDATE: Steve Saideman also had a post on the stability-instability paradox yesterday at Duck of Minerva. He argues that it could actually work in favor of NATO in deterring Russian “salami-slicing” against more of its neighbors due to the risk of escalation. Well worth checking out.

UPDATE II: Jeffrey Lewis also wrote about the stability-instability paradox in a very similar vein to the way I did here at Foreign Policy back in March. His piece can be found here.

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