John Mearsheimer on Ukraine and nuclear weapons, in 1993

by on March 2, 2014 at 9:50 am in Current Affairs, History, Political Science | Permalink

This Foreign Affairs piece (pdf) is interesting and prescient thoughout, here is one excerpt:

Despite some testy moments, relations between Russia and Ukraine have generally been stable since the Soviet break-up.  There are, however, good reasons to fear these relations might deteriorate.  First, the situation between Ukraine and Russia is ripe for the outbreak of security competition between them.  Great powers that share a long and unprotected common border, like that between Russia and Ukraine, often lapse into competition driven by security fears.  Russia and Ukraine might overcome this competition and learn to live together in harmony, but it would be unusual if they do.

Most of all, Mearsheimer argues that Ukraine should have kept its nuclear deterrent.  Here is my previous post on that topic.

For the pointer I thank Shivaji Sondhi.

1 Ray Lopez March 2, 2014 at 9:56 am

Keeping a nuclear deterrent? Analogous to the argument that keeping guns around the house deters crime? Two countries, Pakistan and North Korea, have GDPs less than Greece (200B, 50B, respectively, vs about 300B) and these two failed states are nuclear powers. Why add Ukraine to the mix? Then again, both Israel and once almost South Africa have/almost had nuclear weapons, so I guess, like the sci-fi short story by Ray Bradbury, everybody including your next door neighbor can or should have nuclear weapons? BTW Greece has three submarines, which caused a bit of consternation there, as they are expensive to maintain. Here in the Philippines, where they need a sub, they have none.

2 Willitts March 2, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Keeping guns around the house does deter crime.

Guns are not analogous to nuclear weapons unless a bullet destroys everything within 30 miles. We don’t even have bullets that kill their intended targets with certainty.

3 dan1111 March 2, 2014 at 1:03 pm

There have been no significant wars between nuclear powers and there have been no large-scale wars since the bomb. Whatever you think of the logic, the evidence strongly suggests that nuclear weapons are a deterrent.

4 Nikki March 2, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Correlation vs causation? With the EU and the US backing Ukraine, in practical terms both sides have nuclear weapons. Here’s hoping it’s causation indeed.

5 So Much for Subtlety March 2, 2014 at 7:17 pm

India and Pakistan are not covered by NATO nor were they by the Soviet Union. They fought three wars. Then they acquired nuclear weapons. And since then have fought none. A little bit of sniping across a large ice cube, but that is about it.

Looks like causation.

Neither the US nor the EU is backing Ukraine. Putin could, and I suspect will, occupy eastern Ukraine and the West will do nothing. When Stalin moved soldiers into northern Iran to provide “fraternal assistance”, Truman sent in the 101st Airborne Division. Where is the 101st now? Not in Karkhiv that is for sure.

6 prior_approval March 3, 2014 at 12:48 am

‘ When Stalin moved soldiers into northern Iran to provide “fraternal assistance”, Truman sent in the 101st Airborne Division.’

And then, just a couple of years later, we did this –

‘By the early 1950s, the political crisis brewing in Iran commanded the attention of British and American policy leaders. In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh was appointed Prime Minister and committed to nationalizing the Iranian petroleum industry controlled by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Under the leadership of Mosaddegh’s democratically elected nationalist movement, the Iranian parliament unanimously voted to nationalize the oil industry – thus shutting out the immensely profitable Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which was a pillar of Britain’s economy and provided it political clout in the region.
Pahlavi with US President Truman in Washington, c. 18 November 1949

At the start of the confrontation, American political sympathy was forthcoming from the Truman Administration. In particular, Mosaddegh was buoyed by the advice and counsel he was receiving from American Ambassador in Tehran, Henry F. Grady. However, eventually American decision-makers lost their patience, and by the time a Republican Administration came to office fears that communists were poised to overthrow the government became an all consuming concern (these concerns were later dismissed as “paranoid” in retrospective commentary on the coup from US government officials).’

7 So Much for Subtlety March 3, 2014 at 8:04 am

Lucky Iranians. It is nice to have friends who care.

Two points.

1. The West didn’t actually do anything. Mossadegh did it all to himself. He started out with everyone’s support – even the American State Department. He ended up alienating everyone, including the Parliament, the Bazzar and the Religious Authorities. Not to mention the Royalist Army and the Shah. He was doomed. The CIA simply claimed credit for an entirely Iranian coup.

2. You don’t care. No one cares. The Middle East had a lot of coups about that time. Syria was having one a year for about a decade. Nasser came to power in a coup with CIA blessing – and CIA money. But no one cares about that either. This is just an excuse for self loathing Westerners to join with the pathological hatred of the West in the Middle East to blame everyone else but themselves for their own problems. If it wasn’t such a good excuse to express loathing of the West, you would find some other excuse to do so. This is just Show Business for the Left.

8 DanB March 2, 2014 at 10:08 am

Seems quite clear that with nukes, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine. Also does a great job of explaining why Iran would like one. Once they have it, the cost benefit analysis of going to war with them for a country like the US (or Saudi Arabia, or anyone really) changes dramatically. That’s the whole point.

9 Ray Lopez March 2, 2014 at 10:12 am

@DanB–that sounds positively MAD. Do you really want a theocracy that believes in martyrdom to have a nuclear deterrent? Remember Schiller’s theory that large groups of people can behave irrationally. Homo economicus only exists on paper.

10 Ray Lopez March 2, 2014 at 10:25 am

An example of a country that supposedly went to war knowing it would lose (a sort of noble suicide) is Japan in 1941, and historian Eri Hotta recently wrote a book “Japan 1941” on this theme. Now imagine a Japan of 1941 with nuclear weapons, and a Pearl Harbor attack on Israel. Got gold?

11 Roy March 2, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Japan did not know it would lose in 1941, they made a miscalculation, there is a big difference. Now you might say they had military leaders who thought they would lose, like Yamamoto, and another leader who thought it was too ambitious, Tojo, but the war wouldn’t have happened if the leadership thought it would lose. This is one of the many strange romantic myths around Japanese militarism that are just hokum.

I honestly think that if they had left the US and Philippines alone, they might have pulled it off, and that is with hindsight.

12 anon March 2, 2014 at 10:28 am

Nuclear proliferation also increases the probability that someone screws up and starts an accidental nuclear war. Or the rational government that developed the weapons falls in a coup to extremists seeking martyrdom ie Pakistan.

13 Anony March 2, 2014 at 10:43 am

The argument isn’t that DanB wants Ukraine to have nukes. It’s that Ukraine wishes Ukraine still had nukes.

14 JWatts March 2, 2014 at 10:57 am


“Do you really want a theocracy that believes in martyrdom to have a nuclear deterrent?” That’s not what he said or implied.

15 Ray Lopez March 2, 2014 at 10:59 am

Sorry for the confusion. By “you” I meant not DanB but you, the reader, as in JWatts. It was a rhetorical question. BTW the book “Japan 1941” by Eri Hotta is very well written, prose-wise. Reading it now.

16 JWatts March 2, 2014 at 11:09 am

Do I desire a theocracy that believes in martyrdom to have nuclear weapons? No. But I suspect the ongoing invasion of the Ukraine makes it more likely that various countries including theocracies will attempt to obtain nuclear weapons.

17 Finch March 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

Suppose Ukraine had nuclear weapons, and Russia began the sort of soft invasion they seem to be undertaking. I.e., limited violence, no apparent threat of extermination, light troops mixed in with your civilian population, basically a coup.

Do you use your nuclear weapons? How? On what target? What do you expect to gain? Ukraine isn’t some suicidal religious cult.

Maybe their mistake was letting their conventional military lapse. At least they could have used that.

18 MR March 3, 2014 at 11:29 am

No, you do not use your nuclear weapons. You use your regular army and wipe their light troops. With 100% certainty that they won’t do anything about that, because you have nuclear weapons…

19 Finch March 3, 2014 at 12:36 pm

The key to this is having a capable and reliable conventional military, which the Ukraine does not have. I’m not sure there’s a good way to credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons here, even if they had that option.

Letting their conventional military collapse was a major mistake (albeit a very common one throughout the world).

20 rayward March 2, 2014 at 10:28 am

Of course, Ukraine was already a Russian client state, Ukraine’s president bought and paid for. Russia can no more violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine than the US can violate the territorial integrity of its many client states. One might ask why the Ukrainians would elect Yanukovych president. Many observers say they didn’t, that the election was fraudulent. What precipitated the crisis now is economics: a poorly performing economy, a Ukrainian majority that wants closer ties to (and membership in) the European Union, and a government devoted to (dependent on) Russia. In this respect, the crisis is a subject for Cowen. Follow the money.

21 JWatts March 2, 2014 at 11:00 am

“Russia can no more violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine than the US can violate the territorial integrity of its many client states.”

I think Panama might disagree with that idea.

22 dearieme March 2, 2014 at 10:30 am

“Ukraine should have kept its nuclear deterrent”: of course it should. But presumably money changed hands. Though I dare say that Ukrainian politicians come more expensive than American ones.

23 bob March 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

Where to draw the line? Nukes available at walmart? Nukes for every country, including Liechtenstein? Which countries, why, who gets to decide?

24 farmer March 2, 2014 at 11:02 am

“Where to draw the line?”

line drawing isn’t a consensus act

“the strong do what they will while the weak do what they must”

25 JWatts March 2, 2014 at 11:05 am

No one was selling the Ukraine nukes, they were part of the USSR’s nuclear force. They became the property of the Ukraine when the USSR collapsed.

It was probably good for the world in general for the Ukraine to voluntarily give its nukes to Russia, but it may well have turned out to be a poor decision for the Ukraine.

26 Doug March 2, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I’d rather have Liechtenstein have nuclear weapons than Russia. Hans-Adam seems a lot more stable than Putin.

27 Mark Thorson March 2, 2014 at 11:43 am

If I were Putin, I’d get tough with Ukraine, mobilize my forces, maybe step over the line a bit and seize a few police stations in Russia-friendly areas, and sell a whole bunch of gold. Then, I’d listen to reason, back down from the war footing, let diplomacy take its course, and in a week or two buy back all that gold.

28 Frederic Mari March 2, 2014 at 12:31 pm

There’s a book written by a French author on this subject, except it’s about Afghanistan and the Russian bankers who are secretly buying the gold, not short-selling…

Putin cannot listen to reason. His masculinity and sense of self is on the line now.

29 dan1111 March 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Woah, slow down there. We know Putin is willing to suppress speech, subvert democracy, and invade foreign countries, but is he really capable of the evil that is insider trading?

30 Ethan Glover March 2, 2014 at 11:51 am

Good grief, the world should be past this petty mafia bs. This is still noblemen bickering over “honor” that no one else cares about.

31 Derek March 2, 2014 at 1:55 pm

I wonder how much this comment represents the thinking of policy makers in western democracies.

Good grief indeed. I wish it wasn’t snowing today.

32 Roy March 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm

You must find yourself perpetually dissappointed with humanity.

33 Anony March 3, 2014 at 8:11 am

You don’t?

34 ummm March 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Mtgox is a failure and an embarrassment but isn’t representative of bitcoin. Bitcoin is bigger than mtgox

35 Dan Weber March 2, 2014 at 2:13 pm

The response comes several days later in a nuclear weapons thread??

36 Matt D. March 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Personally, I don’t get it. Would Ukraine ever be able to credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons against Russia unilaterally? I just can’t imagine any scenario in which that threat would be credible. MAYBE if Ukraine had a very nationalist government and the Russians were marching on Kiev. But Russian never was and never is going to march on Kiev. Even a well-established, rabidly-nationalist government would not be able to credibly threaten nuclear war over the Crimea. And that’s all that’s at stake in the current crisis– the Crimea, plus maybe some of the other eastern provinces.

37 Matt D. March 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm

To put it another way: would Canada and the US ever fight a nuclear war over Quebec? Would the US and Mexico ever fight a nuclear war over Baja California?

38 MikeDC March 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm

You seem so certain how a war would unfold. If it comes to actual fighting, I don’t see any way to be certain though. Suppose the Ukranians put up a fight over Crimea and several hundreds of Russians are killed. They seek to punish Ukraine by air strikes and taking more territory. Ukraine calls a general mobilization and tries to push the Russians out. You’ve got a general war on your hands with very hostile and angry publics who both feel their in the right and bitter over the unwarranted deaths on their side. Things could get desperate and you never know what can happen then.

39 DK March 2, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Ukraine calls a general mobilization and tries to push the Russians out

Ukraine just did that. Hardly anyone responded to that mobilization call. Desertion and joining Russian forces is common. E.g., Ukraine’s elite Spetsnaz regiment in Kirovograd refused the orders and stayed put instead of going and confront Russians in Crimea. Partisan war is only realistic if it has full support of the population. That is, no partisan war is possible in East Ukraine and Russia is simply not interested in Galicia. EU can have that any time.

40 So Much for Subtlety March 2, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Ukraine can announce to the world that they have placed a series of nuclear land mines along the border with Russia and near the naval bases in the Crimea. Russia can risk driving tanks over them if they like ….

How is that not credible, unilateral and probably very successful?

41 Matt D. March 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

Yeah SMFS I think threatening to nuke your own people is probably the least credible kind of threat you could make. There’s a reason why land mines aren’t the preferred delivery device for nuclear warheads.

MikeDC: I think you’re right as far as things could spin out of control. But generally I don’t think they will. Russia has enough incentives to not make this existential for Ukraine, without the threat of nuclear retaliation.

42 So Much for Subtlety March 3, 2014 at 8:19 am

I think nuclear land mines are entirely credible. Which is why people with an interest in defending themselves designed and deployed them. Not the Soviets of course. No plans to defend themselves.

But of course the West openly planned to use nuclear weapons on themselves. Or more accurately, everyone planned to nuke the Germans. The French even made it explicit by deploying missiles that could not reach beyond the Inner German Border. They had to be used on the West Germans. Who, as the British Army used to point out, lived one tactical nuclear weapons away from each other. They also deployed nuclear demolition charges. Which were just nuclear land mines that were not left lying around for anyone to pick up. It is not as if they were planning on smuggling them into Poland.

The Soviets seemed to take it all seriously.

43 Matt D. March 3, 2014 at 11:27 am

Ok, kudos for the history lesson, that’s actually quite interesting. However, note the imagined scenario for the historical tactical nukes: hordes of Soviet armor pouring across the border, according to the US military’s estimates too many to stop conventionally even if every single round was a hit and every single hit was a kill (they would have run out of ammunition first)…. in an all-around doomsday, end of the world scenario.

Some limited Russian action in the Ukrainian border provinces doesn’t have the same existential flavor, not even for the Ukrainians themselves, and so threatening to incinerate a few thousand of your own people and poison many more for a stand on principle might not be as credible in this case.

44 Finch March 3, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Two questions:

1) Do nuclear landmines generally disperse fallout? I thought the idea was that you had pre-sunk shafts which you placed a nuclear weapon in, and the detonation was contained within the ground leaving a crater like you see in the Western US test sites. This renders the area impassable, but does not inflict the widespread harm of an otherwise-similar above-ground detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon.

2) Does the terrain in the Ukraine make this at all useful? In the west, the plan was to do this in choke points, like key valleys, etc. The Ukraine is mostly open plain, right? I’m not sure you could put up a meaningful obstacle without an awful lot of nuclear weapons.

45 Ray Lopez March 2, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Note this ‘macho’ post on nuclear war gets over 30 comments, while the Japan thread, which deals with a far more likely and far more destructive in practice topic, namely the scary situation in Japan’s economy, only gets a dozen or so. You can blame the fear of the unknown and people putting far more resources into preventing something scary like an airplane crash vs something more common but more deadly like preventing a heart attack by exercising more. Cass Sunstein would understand.

46 Roy March 2, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I think it is some variant of “Parkinson’s Law of Triviality” combined with one issue has been going on so long it can by liquor and handguns in every state in the union, and next year it won’t be able to be on its parents insurance anymore, and the other just happened.

As garden shed problem, Honestly no one has any idea what to do about Japan’s economy, other than idiotic ideas like procreate more or import filipinos. So what the heck new is there to say. In this day and age “Worthy Canadian Initiative” is genuinely far more exciting than “depressing economic news out of Japan.” Now if Japan were to occupy the Kuriles tomorrow, I assure you that that comment thread would be huge.

47 Therapsid March 3, 2014 at 12:09 am

Japan’s economic situation isn’t scary.

We’ve been told that they’re staring into the abyss for over two decades. Doomsday never comes and Japan continues to be a manufacturing powerhouse and leading First World nation.

48 We live in interesting times March 2, 2014 at 3:02 pm

For better or worse, ZeroHedge has been vocal about “Abenomics” for awhile now.

Neither the president nor the press has or is focusing the country on “Abenomics.”

This is bleeding & leading, coming on the heels of the Olympics.

49 Nathan W March 3, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Ukraine has never been a great power.

50 nike air max 95 March 13, 2014 at 4:11 am

In 1951, ahead of the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the U.S. plotted and supported the reactionary forces of the Tibetan upper classes to resist the People’s Liberation Army to liberate Tibet. While its plot to help the Dalai Lama flee Tibet failed, it said.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: