GENEVA – An argument now widely heard is that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is in had it retained its substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. This has dangerous policy implications, and must not go unchallenged.
Despite its superficial plausibility, the argument does not withstand scrutiny against the available evidence about how states behave. Nuclear weapons are simply not the effective deterrent that most people think, whether the context is deterring war between large nuclear-armed powers or protecting weaker states against conventional attack.
The claim that the balance of nuclear terror between the United States and the Soviet Union maintained peace throughout the Cold War – and has been important since in restraining other potential belligerents (including India and Pakistan, India and China, and China and the US) – is not nearly as strong as it seems. There is no evidence that at any time during the Cold War either the Soviet Union or the US wanted to initiate war and was constrained from doing so only by the existence of the other side’s nuclear weapons.
We know that the knowledge of an adversary’s possession of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war between major powers in the past. Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and civilian death tolls caused leaders to back down – including after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is now strong historical evidence that the key factor driving Japan to sue for peace was not the nuclear attacks; it was the Soviet Union’s declaration of war later that same week.
But if nuclear weapons have not preserved the “Long Peace” since 1945, what has? A plausible alternative explanation is simply that the major powers realized, after the experience of World War II (and given all of the rapid technological advances that followed), that the damage inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, far outweighing any conceivable benefit.
What of the notion, more immediately relevant to today’s Ukraine, that nuclear weapons are a strategic equalizer, necessary to compensate for inferior conventional forces and capabilities? North Korea certainly believes that possession of even a very small number of nuclear weapons constitutes some deterrent against forcible regime change, with the experience of Serbia in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 no doubt reinforcing its perception that states without such weapons are particularly vulnerable.
But weapons that would be manifestly suicidal to use are not ultimately a very credible deterrent. They will not stop the kind of adventurism now seen in Ukraine, because the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high. Both sides in these situations fully understand that. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that Ukraine would be no more likely than the US to nuke Moscow for sending tanks into Crimea, or even Dnipropetrovsk.
Nuclear weapons are not the stabilizing tools that they are commonly assumed to be. Maybe that is because the scale of nuclear weapons’ destructiveness makes their practical military use unthinkable in almost any conceivable circumstances. Maybe it is just the well-understood ethical taboo that inhibited even US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: Had the US used nuclear weapons in Korea or Vietnam, or against China over Taiwan, Dulles said, “we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned.”
Whatever the reason, conflicts have regularly occurred in which nuclear weapons could have played a part, but did not. Consider the long list of wars in which non-nuclear powers either directly attacked nuclear powers or were not deterred by the prospect of their nuclear intervention: Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, the two in Afghanistan since the 1970’s, and the first Gulf war.
Then there are the cases where both sides’ possession of nuclear weapons, rather than operating as a constraining factor, has given one side the opportunity to launch small military actions without serious fear of nuclear reprisal, owing to the too-high stakes of such a response. Think of the Kargil War between Pakistan and India in 1999.
There is substantial quantitative, as well as anecdotal, evidence to support what is known in the literature as the “stability/instability paradox” – the notion that what may appear to be a stable nuclear balance actually encourages more violence. The old conservative line is that “the absence of nuclear weapons would make the world safe for conventional wars.” But it is more plausible to think that it is the presence of nuclear weapons that has made the world safer for such wars.
There is one thing that the presence of Ukrainian nuclear weapons would have added to today’s mix: another huge layer of potential hazard, owing to the risk of stumbling into a catastrophe through accident, miscalculation, system error, or sabotage. Even true believers in nuclear deterrence must acknowledge that it has always been an extremely fragile basis for maintaining stable peace.
It simply cannot be assumed that calm, considered rationality will always prevail in the enormous stress of a real-time crisis. And it certainly cannot be assumed that there will never be human or technological errors, with harmless events being read as threatening (as in 1995, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin was advised to retaliate immediately against an incoming NATO missile, which proved to be a Norwegian scientific rocket).
There is also a major risk of miscommunication (now compounded by the sophistication of cyber weapons) and of basic system error. Much archival evidence of the Cold War years has now revealed how close to calamity the world regularly came – much more often than was known at the time. And recurring reports of security failures and acute morale problems at US missile sites today add further alarming weight to this concern.
Nuclear-weapons enthusiasts seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for bad arguments. Nothing we have heard in the context of Ukraine suggests that their record is improving.