Nukes, Crimea, and Possible Putins


As the Crimea crisis steadily worsens, many have floated the counterfactual: what if Ukraine hadn’t given up its nuclear weapons? Walter Russell Mead and other commentators have pointed to an old article by John Mearsheimer arguing that Ukraine ought to have resisted giving up the old Soviet nuclear weapons that the USSR’s collapse left in Kiev’s hands. That way, the Russians would have thought twice before making like Brezhnev in the heart of Eurasia. This is an exercise in counterfactual inference—and an awfully faulty one. In explicating why Mead and others error, we can learn a valuable lesson about the complexities of counterfactual analysis. 

So why are Mead (and by extension Mearsheimer) wrong? After all, nukes seem to have been a boon for North Korea. Iran seems to want them precisely because of the perception that a nuke means you force the world to treat you according to Big Boy Rules. As Harvard political science PhD student Anton Strezhnev notes, the counterfactual instinct isn’t the problem here. But just as Mobb Deep famously noted the streets have no room for halfway crooks, geopolitics has no room for halfway counterfactualists:

In order to ask what would have happened had Ukraine opted to retain its arsenal, it is important to think through the entire counterfactual. The problem with the “if only Ukraine had nukes” line of argument it assumes that Russia would have tolerated a nuclear weapons state on its border in the first place. If we were to hold the world in 2014 constant and by magic turn Ukraine into a stable nuclear power, then perhaps Russia would have been deterred from occupying Crimea. But this is not the counterfactual we’re interested in.

The assumption that the Russians would have tolerated a nuclear Ukraine is a big one to swallow. A good deal of Israeli security policy is premised on encouraging the perception in Washington that Jerusalem would rather send Israeli Air Force pilots on the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Doolittle Raid than tolerate a nuclear Iran. The security of weapons of mass destruction in Syria, Pakistan, and North Korea are also a topic of hot debate today, and the preventive war in Iraq was premised on the specter of Saddam Hussein handing his arsenal to terrorists. We have been told that we must engage in preventive war with Iran because it may have weapons itself, may give them to extremists, or use them to underwrite aggressive behavior.

When we think through the entire counterfactual, we see that there are plausible outcomes in which Russia would have taken preventive action to secure its arsenal by force. And even if it didn’t, Strezhnev argues that a conflict resembling the India-Pakistan crisis could have been possible in a world in which Ukraine kept its nukes. Strezhnev cites a model that casts the problem as a two-player game, but introduces more players besides Ukraine and Russia (like Poland, the Baltic states, the United States, etc.) making the model more complex. Though if we work through it, it remains to be seen whether or not it gives Mearsheimer’s newfound fans any more reason for optimism compared to a two-player dynamic. For all we know, it might be far worse!

Regardless of how the problem is represented, we have to ask the right counterfactual question. As Strezhnev points out, the counterfactual implied by pundits that cite Mearsheimer asks “What if Ukraine suddenly got nukes in 2014?” That’s a different counterfactual than the possibilities of Ukraine’s nuclear choices in the early 1990s—one perhaps considered interesting when contemplated in an abstract sense, but also likely irrelevant. We could also explore the outcome of Watchmen‘s godlike Mr. Manhattan suddenly becoming real and pledging fealty to America. Then it would be a legitimate question of if a Mr. Manhattan-equipped America could deter Russia from invading Ukraine. However, neither outcome occurred in early 2014 nor is it likely to occur in the future. Hence, there’s little point of contemplating it.

So how could the Ukranian nuke enthusiasts have done better? Pay better attention to the problem of counterfactual inference. Counterfactual inference is extremely important in social science and science more broadly, particularly when it come to small probabilities. Wars in particular are rare events in world politics. And as complex a problem is the Ukraine nuclear counterfactual, there exist far worse risk questions. Take Stephen Pinker’s argument that the risk of war is declining, and we live in an era distinguished by the “better angels of our nature.” Many experts in national security have argued about this, but what do the academics writing on on risk, probability, and causal inference say?Risk iconoclast Nassim Nicholas Taleb had a bone to pick with this. Wars, again, are rare events and a theory like Pinker’s must deal with many problems that come from rare and dangerous events, such as the survivorship effect of erroneously believing that what kills you makes you stronger and the effect that nested counterfactuals (e.g., layered counterfactual states) in a potential history have on our ability to assess risk. Taleb did not feel that Pinker sufficiently tackled such difficulties. Political scientist and forecaster Jay Ulfelder, in contrast, is more sympathetic to Pinker’s reasoning. And others say we need to wait 150 years to know for sure.

What we don’t have to wait 150 years to do, however, is to take better stock of these kind of problems. Yes, a world of possibilities exists. But whenever we make a counterfactual about a past situation, we are revving up what scientist Peter Turchin dubs an “imperfect time machine.” Turchin was discussing the problem of reaching back into the far past to test theories about the development of human civilization, but his metaphor could be expanded to think about the problem of assessing a complex historical event (or non-event), the choices available to the actors involved, and the probabilities and desirabilities of alternative outcomes.

The time machine we want is one that would transport us back in time to the event, give us a menu of possible actions, and show us each outcome in fine resolution. We don’t have such a contraption, and if it could be made it would be hidden away in the same government warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant got stashed at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Until then, we’re left to watch Ukraine burn and ponder possible Putins with the crude historical and social scientific tools we have available.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Image: George Chernilevsky