Ukraine Post #8: Risk of Nuclear War

It seems worth going through the exercise of estimating the probability of nuclear war, and in particular the probability of it causing one’s death. If the probability gets high enough, one can strongly consider being elsewhere or otherwise doing something about it.

Note that all scoring rules and wagers are essentially useless here. You can look back and decide whether your reasoning was good, but saying ‘I was right’ is meaningless.

As a baseline to work from, this EA forum post presents multiple perspectives on nuclear war risk in terms of the danger of being in London, with the author of the post modeling risk as relatively high, versus some superforecaster predictions that modeled risk as relatively low. The forecasts are divided into steps.

  1. Will there be a conventional exchange between NATO and Russia?
  2. Will there be a nuclear exchange?
  3. If there is a nuclear exchange will it hit London?
  4. If it does will you have to get out?
  5. If you don’t get out, will you die?
  6. (Alternate path) Background risk of accidental nuclear war, which is higher when everyone is on alert.

If you multiply the odds of each step together, you get the level of danger from being in London. The level of danger in New York City should be similar.

Aside from the chances of the bomb killing you if it lands, these differences all point in the same direction, with two of them being on different sides of 50%. It is an interesting exercise to read the arguments, and to decide on one’s own opinion on each leg.

Probability of conventional war

There are two ways to get a conventional war. Russia could attack NATO and cause NATO to invoke Article 5 without an intervention in Ukraine, or NATO could decide to intervene in Ukraine.

We have a Metaculus market on whether a NATO country will invoke Article 5 by the end of the year and it is sitting at 5%. That seems reasonable.

I think there is a modest chance that Article 5 is technically invoked but there is nominal fighting, and there is a similar chance that NATO does something crazy and intervenes first for whatever reason. 5% here seems fine.

Dynamics of nuclear deterrence have changed

In the Cold War, both sides felt NATO had woefully inadequate conventional forces, and would need to resort to either lose or use nuclear weapons within weeks if the Warsaw Pact invaded Western Europe.

This has now reversed. Russia’s conventional forces have been exposed. Both sides now believe (correctly) that NATO has vastly superior conventional forces, and could easily repel a conventional Russian attack on NATO. At worst, Russia could make temporary gains in the Baltics.

Thus, I put the chances of NATO dropping the first nuclear weapon at epsilon. NATO has no reason to open Pandora’s box when it can win a conventional war.

I wouldn’t quite put the chance of Putin not knowing that NATO will never drop the first nuclear weapon at epsilon, but I remain very highly confident he knows this. Russia would have to use nuclear weapons first, knowing NATO would never use one first.

I would also put the chances of conventional NATO military invasion of Belarus or Russia, beyond at most necessary incidental incursions during a war over the Baltics or Poland, to be essentially epsilon, for the same reason. Russia is credibly threatening to respond to such attacks with nuclear weapons, even if ‘they started it’ and we have no interest in putting that to the test. Even in a hot conventional NATO/Russia war caused by a Russian invasion, I would expect us not to put troops even into Ukraine because we would not have to.

Putin thinks the West is weak. In some senses he is wrong, but in an important sense he is very right. One does not need to threaten the West with the mass destruction of its cities to make outcomes unacceptable to us. The only reason we would have the stomach to fight a hot war with Russia is if not doing so would break our commitments and thus the entire world order. Thus it is also unacceptable.

That is a very different situation than the Cold War. Only Russia might use the first nuclear weapon, they are under no threat of conventional invasion, and they know this, that NATO is not going to jump that gun even in a hot war. I don’t care what our official doctrine says, that’s ambiguity directed at China and even there it’s almost certainly a bluff (but that almost can make a big difference).

Russia still might choose to use a nuclear weapon, either to escalate-to-deescalate because Ukraine (or being able to claim a symbolic victory) was sufficiently existential, or because Putin thinks the West will simply fold.

Then there is the question of further escalation. Suppose Russia has used at least one nuclear weapon. Will it go strategic?

That depends on a lot of things, most obviously what we do in response. Even then, assuming the use by Russia was tactical and does not threaten to turn the tide of battle, I presume that we almost certainly don’t use our nukes on them at all nor do we conventionally strike at Russian territory.

Using a nuclear weapon in response, or even conventionally striking Russia, is not necessary. We can win a conventional war even if Russia uses some number of tactical nuclear weapons, and the diplomatic fallout would be immense especially if we did not answer in kind. Instead, I expect Russia to face additional conventional firepower combined with complete diplomatic and economic isolation, losing all the friends it has left with the possible exception of Iran. Our current sanctions may or may not pack sufficient punch, but the ultimate version of them really, really would pack quite a ton of punch. Russia would also be facing vastly superior conventional firepower, but we would have no desire to go to Moscow.

The logic of nuclear escalation is completely different when one side has zero interest in escalation even in the face of extreme provocation, because they have faith that they don’t need to do it and would not benefit from it.

Yes, if they hit central London with multiple warheads we would likely have to hit back in kind, but that begs the question.

There is little or no risk Russia would feel the need to do a first strike as pre-emption, out of fear that they are about to get hit first instead or perhaps lose their capabilities.

What are the remaining potential reasons?

  1. We need to worry about whether Putin will decide to go full outright nuclear apocalypse on his own, out of spite or other madness, and in turn whether his ministers and crews would cooperate with that if he tried.
  2. We need to worry Putin somehow thinks he can ‘win’ via the widespread use of tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional sense, despite them having little utility in Ukraine. I don’t see how this works.
  3. We need to worry Putin uses nuclear weapons as escalatory blackmail, expecting the West to fold. Perhaps he thinks if he keeps dropping nukes we will back down and give him whatever he wants, and he is willing to make that gamble such that he forces a nuclear response. But to back down in the face of nuclear blackmail would be the end of the world soon enough in its own way, so we can’t fold in the way Putin would like here. ‘The West actually folds in response’ beyond a cease-fire is so unlikely I’m not even considering it. But what we do maybe need to worry about is that Putin’s mafioso nature is so warped that if he drops a nuclear weapon and we don’t respond with one, he treats that as a green light to use more of them and/or directly test Article 5. In which case, either he is truly insane (which is case 1) or the intention is to back down if we do retaliate which we would at some point have to do.
  4. We need to worry about a ‘escalate-to-deescalate’ move where the goal is a cease-fire aimed at keeping territorial gains, which only works if it doesn’t go strategic, and at most results in ‘all right you get your cease fire’ at the cost of complete and permanent isolation.

Note on defensive capabilities (can be skipped)

Dominic Cummings has written extensively lately about the historical logic of Cold War deterrence strategies, and our decision to intentionally be unable to defend against a Soviet nuclear attack. We adopted Schilling’s theory that by staying defenseless, we gave the other side hostages and thus created a stable strategic situation.

It turns out that a lot of our assumptions about Soviet thinking and deterrence dynamics were false. There were also numerous close calls. We were very lucky to survive the Cold War, in a ‘no time travelers allowed to go back before 1991’ kind of way.

I notice that in the new world, with its new dynamics, this more obviously nonsense.

What we need is for it to be clear to other nuclear states that the United States will be deterred from attacking because the cost of their retaliatory strike is unacceptable. Maybe not completely for those with a lot less than six thousand nukes, but quite a lot. Given our levels of risk tolerance, this is very much way over all our thresholds. The incentive this gives other nations to get nukes is unfortunate, but that ship has sailed. We expected during the Cold War for Russia to be deterred by the possibility that we might fight a nuclear war over Berlin. Thus, we do not need certainty that we can be devastated, or to maximize the pain. We merely need there to be the possibility that we would take unthinkable losses.

Whereas if the other state actually uses its full nuclear stockpile, now they both have really pissed us off and untied our hands, and are defenseless, with no chance that we would lose our second strike capabilities. And if they try to launch some nuclear weapons and they fail then that too leaves them fully exposed.

In that world, unless I am missing something, a probabilistically successful missile defense system is wonderful. Which describes every missile defense system. You never know if it is going to work until it is tested.

If you try to launch your nuclear weapons, you have to worry that it might not work, which would be the end. Total disaster. Imagine if Putin tried to use some of his nukes and we found out they hadn’t maintained them any better than his conventional army and they no longer work. Or that we can actually shoot them down. Or the crews refused to fire. Or they’ve been hacked and now we know it worked. Now suddenly maybe we do launch the bombers or march on Moscow.

Thus, as per Shilling’s logic, the uncertain situation helps in both directions. We remain deathly afraid of provoking a nuclear strike if we back the enemy into a corner, but the enemy is strongly deterred from actually launching without being backed into a corner, because they risk collapse of their deterrent.

Another argument was that if the Soviets saw us about to deploy a missile defense system they might attack us first. Cold War logic made that coherent. In today’s conditions it no longer seems coherent to me. Such things are continuous and probabilistic, there is no practical threat of anyone losing their deterrent value any time soon only some of their blackmail value. The blackmail move has already been tried. The cost of trying to stop the defense system from happening seems absurd in the modern world. The better argument is that others might then feel the need to expand their offensive capabilities to get around the defenses, and China is especially worrisome here, but again I see a probabilistic deterrent here as better on all sides – it is something they would absolutely use if under existential threat, but which is now that much riskier to use otherwise.

Others have thought about these questions a lot more than I have, and I am sure all of this is in some sense terribly naïve. But then again, from what I can tell, past decisions on these questions did not have a sounder basis, and also are the people currently making these decisions thinking about such issues at all? Dominic Cummings frequently points out that no one in government takes nuclear security seriously, and then points out this means they take nothing seriously. It also has direct bearing on questions like this.

Certainly improving mitigation capabilities such as bomb shelters and emergency supplies seems clearly good. During the Cold War, the logic was that doing such things might make the Soviets think we thought that a nuclear war was thinkable, so we should avoid it. At this point, that logic is obvious nonsense. If we had better protections and thus a nuclear war killed 50 million Americans instead of 100 million while potentially creating nuclear winter, frying our electronics and leaving massive radioactive fallout, would that suddenly make it thinkable for us? If we also had a backup system that wouldn’t be fried and still had cell phones and computers, would that make it thinkable? If we had ALLFED’s emergency foodstuffs ready to go?

No. Obviously not. But it would make nuclear blackmail somewhat less effective, and if the worst did happen it would make it less bad. Logic no longer reverses itself, and we should look to cost-benefit. We depend on the world and on ‘regular order’ far too much to not be well-deterred from existentially messing with nuclear states. Being even more vulnerable makes threats and escalations more attractive, and increases risk that things go wrong, while also increasing the negative consequences of things going wrong. There is much talk in Russia that the West will lose because they are not willing to risk nuclear war, which in turn is causing that very risk to rise.

That does not mean that any given mitigation plan is worth its cost. As always, one must talk price.

Probably a lot of that is wrong and perhaps stupid, but it is at least thinking about the situation at all, which is something I otherwise do not see.

Back to the original question at hand.

Probability of nuclear use

What is the probability it goes nuclear? Well, how would it go nuclear? An accident is one possibility, but if it is not an accident, what happened?

I would presume that Russia is attacking NATO, and NATO is defending itself, as noted above without substantially invading Russia. Using a nuclear weapon offensively against NATO while not under attack, if NATO stayed out of Ukraine and Belarus as well, goes against all stated policies and all reason and I put this probability as rather low. Even if Putin wanted to do it, I’d put a large probability that he was refused, especially if he tried to go strategic.

But it might be different if Russia attacked NATO and then NATO sent forces into Ukraine, so the question is whether NATO would do that in response, and then whether Russia would use a nuke in that situation. I don’t think Ukraine would like it if NATO still wouldn’t enter Ukraine with its troops, but that is what I expect would happen for exactly this reason. I’d only give at most a ~25% chance that we’d take that risk, although we would step up military aid short of this.

Given the probabilities here, I obviously agree with this expected path. That is especially true given I would expect Ukraine to win anyway, since we are siphoning off much of Russia’s strength while increasing our levels of aid, and nuclear weapons are of little practical use in Ukraine.

So let’s say in the 75% of cases where we stay out Russia has a 5% chance of using a nuclear weapon anyway because if they attacked at all Putin might be nuts and be allowed to go nuts, and a 50% chance they use it if we do go into Ukraine given the evidence of the attack on NATO. So that’s about 17% chance, conditional on a war, that Russia uses the first nuclear weapon.

I will note that I don’t buy that risk is evenly distributed throughout the year. If Russia is going to launch an attack I think it more likely happens sooner.

5% times 17% is 0.85% (85bps) of risk of first use, plus the background risk of accidental use that is not covered above, but that goes on a distinct track since it could cause unintentional escalation to the strategic level, or could be something less dangerous than an intentional launch.

Probability nuclear use becomes strategic

So what we need to worry about isn’t stepwise nuclear escalation and whether we can do things like trade cities. We have to worry that Putin launches one nuke, we don’t give in, so he launches another, then another, or a lot of them. If it’s the first scenario, he skips to full apocalypse at the start.

I’m going to go with 25% chance that Putin is crazy enough to go all the way, conditional on him willing to drop the first nuclear weapon.

In all these scenarios, there is also a substantial chance that Putin tries to use the nukes and is told no. I realize this could be called wishful thinking. I certainly wouldn’t rely on it, but in terms of probabilities, trying to launch strategic nukes while not under direct attack (no matter what he might call an intervention in Ukraine) and without enemy nuclear use seems like it’s only maybe 50% to get carried out. I’m going to combine ‘Putin is not allowed to launch one nuke’ into this 50%.

If we instead are so foolish to respond to Russia’s first use with our own use or a strategic conventional attack on Russia itself, I don’t like our chances for de-escalation after that and presume Putin would probably be allowed to proceed, but I see this as rather unlikely. What would even be the point? Still, we can be this kind of stupid and I want to be appropriately uncertain here, so maybe 20% chance, and after that the 65% chance things go all the way.

Thus, a 13% (20%*65%) chance of escalation via us being stupid, and a 10% chance (80%*25%*50%) via Putin being crazy and allowed to strike, adding up to 23%, so that’s an 0.2% (23%*0.85%) chance of Putin attempting escalation within a year.

Chance of getting out

This seems underspecified. At what point on the risk curve is this person deciding to leave? What is their trigger? If they leave now, their chances are very very good.

Presumably the trigger that makes sense here is the start of the conventional war between Russia and NATO. The other trigger is the first nuke.

If it’s the first trigger, then I think the chances of a person who wants to get out getting out are very good, unless actual everyone tries to leave at once, in which case it’s a capacity question and a how-long-did-it-take-to-escalate question. If you’re informed on the level of making these plans I think you’re a strong favorite to get out and the 25% risk seems fair. There is still some chance that escalated quickly.

If you wait until the first nuclear weapon, that’s different, because a lot of the risk is that the others fly very quickly and also yes at this point the streets are going to be mobbed disaster-movie style. A 70% risk seems fair here.

There is also the question of what it means to ‘get away.’ A random location in the UK is better than an apartment in London, and a random rural area in America is better than New York or Washington, but how much better? I ask because I do not know, and this ties into the last question.

In practice few of us know what our threshold would be, so for simplification purposes I am going to split the difference and call this a 50% shot, for an 0.1% chance of being there when the nuke hits.

Chance of dying

Here is where their forecasts align, but they do not adjust for the fact that someone who is considering these questions can adjust their behavior even if they are stuck in London or New York. If it is worth considering leaving, it is worth having a plan for where to take shelter and packing an emergency bag, and knowing what to do. I haven’t studied in detail, but I know what the very basics are, and assuming I got an alert soon after the missiles launched and I was at home, I know I would be able to make it reasonably deep into a subway tunnel along with the rest of the family. Given the chances there are six thousand other nukes, to me this is not obviously worse than being in a random town in Kansas with no plan, although it is obviously worse than a town in Kansas plus a properly stocked properly constructed bomb shelter, and obviously worse than hiding out some place safe in the southern hemisphere. But where are you going to go, Detroit?

A lot of people won’t even do the basics, so I am going to say that you can at least knock this down to a coin flip and a 50% shot, and also even if you leave your chances of survival are very much not 100%, especially if you are still in the UK or continental USA. So at most, we are talking about an 0.05% risk (5bps), or 1 in 2000, over the next year.

There are a few places where I am guessing my estimates are high or I could give reasons to lower the answer, but model uncertainty is also a thing. I’m going to let those basically cancel out here.

That puts me in between the two estimates above. For the next month, I would say there is about a basis point (0.01% or 1bp) of risk. The longer things go on without escalation, the less likely that escalation is imminent, a lot of war is Lindy.

Comparing this to the two estimates above, the existing two estimates are 0.2bps (0.002%) and 3.7bps (0.037%).

This should make us some combination of happy (we are in the middle of two well-intentioned estimates) and also somewhat suspicious (that I went looking for a ‘reasonable’ conclusion on some level). It should also be a clear mix of reassuring (in some sense risk is not so high) and also utter terror (in another sense risk is really super-frighteningly high).

Practical bottom line

This is about the annual risk of death for someone who is 56 years old, so it is no joke, but it also clearly does not rise anywhere close to the level where I would be willing to seriously consider not living my life.

I am not in the ‘I do not want to survive a nuclear war’ camp. I very much would want to survive and for my family to survive, but I would acknowledge that the utility available would be much reduced, which is a further discount on effective practical downside risk from being in the wrong place and thus dying.

What I find most interesting is that the logical pathways I am thinking about seem distinct from those either of the other two forecasts were thinking about. The conflict’s exact details and paths of escalation seem important to me, more so than questions like where everyone is aiming missiles or our general ‘skills at de-escalation.’ It seems hard for things to actually go nuclear or go fully strategic now in a crisis like this, in a way that it doesn’t retrospectively feel hard when thinking about the cold war even knowing it did not happen. The strategic dynamics are very different. Still possible, certainly, but hard.

If you told me a strategic nuclear war happened in 2022 anyway, my presumption would be that it was not an accident or a situation that slowly got away from everyone. Rather, it would be that it happened either because Putin actively decided he would start a global thermonuclear war rather than face defeat at the hands of Ukraine or because we were stupid enough to interfere in Ukraine directly and things escalated from there.

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32 Responses to Ukraine Post #8: Risk of Nuclear War

  1. bean says:

    Worth pointing out that I recently wrote a piece on the destructiveness of nuclear weapons. Short version is that they’re less destructive than you think, and the long-term environmental effects are minimal. Nuclear winter was a bit of scientific fraud perpetrated by anti-nuclear activists, while fallout, particularly from the arsenal we can expect to be used today, isn’t nearly the problem you’d expect. I wouldn’t want to live downwind of a missile field, but you should be able to survive and evacuate from surprisingly close range.

    As for missile defense, a lot of the messed-up thinking came from the Kennedy Administration, who got many truly baffling ideas about how nuclear war would work. I should probably expand on that at some point, because it’s not known nearly as well as it should be.

    • Dave says:

      I agree with most of what’s in your post, but I don’t share your optimism that counterforce targeting plans would be scrupulously held to in a general war.

      • bean says:

        I’m not saying they’ll be scrupulously adhered to. But I only assumed that pure counterforce would soak up 25% of the warheads, and getting rid of that really doesn’t change very much.

    • John Lynch says:

      There’s a novel called “War Day” by Whitley Streiber (really!) about the scenario you describe. It’s a pretty good book, and the consequences of a limited war still suck a lot. It’s not Mad Max, but it sucks.

    • John Lynch says:

      Counterforce depends on the USA surrendering rather than launching the Trident missiles from our subs. The subs won’t be aimed at counterforce targets of their own, because they aren’t first strike weapons, and all fixed Russian weapons were used to hit our missiles and air bases in their counterforce strike. The Tridents are aimed at cities. They’ll launch, and then the Russian mobile missiles will launch at our cities. GG.

      • bean says:

        There’s no inherent reason you couldn’t use Trident II as a counterforce weapon. It’s plenty accurate for the job. And I expect that given where the US warheads are, some of them are going that way.

        • Dave says:

          You could use them that way, but my understanding is you don’t want to launch SLBMs early in an exchange, so by the time you’re going to use them there won’t be many good counterforce targets left to attack.

  2. sniffnoy says:

    Really the recent Russian change-of-goals makes me a lot less worried about nuclear war. I was worried that Putin might be unwilling to back down and would do something crazy if he felt the only other option was defeat. Now that it’s more clear that he’s willing to back down when things aren’t working out, I’m less worried.

    • TheZvi says:

      The danger is if he thinks that ‘victory’ means taking substantial territory – keeping the north was never part of the plan.

      • TheZvi says:

        Or rather, it was never part of the plan for a *limited* victory – taking everything would have been great but they’re not going to want to dig in north of Kyiv without Kyiv.

  3. Ninety-Three says:

    “In that world, unless I am missing something, a probabilistically successful missile defense system is wonderful.”

    Consider the role of the public. As the last two years have demonstrated, Joe Average is incapable of probabilistic reasoning: if he hears that there is a missile defense system, it’s either worthless or it works and the military people keep saying it’s not worthless.

    How big a problem this is depends on how influence you model the public having on declarations of war, but that number probably isn’t zero and it seems to be pushing in a dangerous direction.

    Also, typo: “this more obviously nonsense” seems to be missing an “is”.

  4. maline says:

    On the one hand you agree with the standard position that “to back down in the face of nuclear blackmail would be the end of the world soon enough in its own way, so we can’t fold in the way Putin would like here”, yet you also think we should and would let him get away with using tactical nukes? How is that not a contradiction? Tactical nukes are a very clear violation of the red lines/taboos/Schelling points we have set up as to allowable warfare. Isn’t “failing to defend those lines due to the implied threat of escalation” a perfect example of “backing down in the face of nuclear blackmail”? And if there is some difference too subtle for me to see, what makes you think that Putin would see it?

    • TheZvi says:

      I wouldn’t let him ‘get away with it’ I would escalate in ways other than an invasion or retaliatory nuke. There’s a lot of options left.

      • maline says:

        I don’t see them. If we’re obviously pussyfooting away from the longstanding threat of MAD, and also not fighting for immediate regime change, anything less will be seen -correctly – as “folding”.

        • John Lynch says:

          Regime change how? The last army to overthrow the ruler of Russia was the Mongols. It’s not possible militarily. Russia is too large geographically and the entire armed forces of all NATO countries put together are not enough to do it. It’s also not possible to win a nuclear exchange in any meaningful way. I’m all for other options. Yes, nuking Russians may be necessary if they start using nukes, but I’m all for thinking about any other idea that has a chance of working. We can always get back to killing a billion people later. I don’t understand the necessity of acting right away.

          Also, we are not a military ally of Ukraine and don’t have an obligation to go to war for them. For better or worse, that decision was made already. It’s really strange to nuke Russia when we won’t use conventional arms against them. If we were going to use our deterrent to protect Ukraine, the time to do that was before the war started. NATO is a list of countries the US will nuke Russia to defend. That’s all it is. Our president could have offered a bilateral defense treaty (we have many) independent of NATO, but he chose not to. That means he already decided not to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. That decision has consequences. Deciding to enter an active war is much riskier than deterring one in the first place.

          Arguments about what “must” be done really have to prove that the result won’t be the complete destruction of the western world. Defending international norms is totally meaningless if there’s nothing left afterward.

          My opinion has been since before the war that the only way to deter Putin was the threat of force. We should have either moved sufficient conventional and nuclear forces to eastern Europe to protect Ukraine, or pulled the rug out from them and said no NATO membership ever. The only way to keep Russia from attacking Ukraine every few years is a US military (nuclear) guarantee. If we aren’t willing to do that, then we shouldn’t be surprised when Russia ignores us and attacks Ukraine.

        • maline says:

          To be clear, I was still talking about the hypothetical where Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Defending the taboo against doing that is much more important than defending Ukraine itself.

          As for how we might push for regime change in that case, I was imagining an ultimatum: “Vladimir Putin had brought nuclear warfare back into the world. For this, he Must Not Remain In Power. Within the next 48 hours, the man must be in NATO custody, either alive or dead. If he comes willingly, he will receive a comfortable house arrest. If the above condition is not met, the city of Moscow will be completely obliterated. We suggest using the time to evacuate the city. We will not attack anything outside the city limits unless other nuclear weapons are used. “

        • Basil Marte says:

          maline: there are a lot more possible sanctions, formal and informal, not yet implemented. What would Russia do if Panama and the Marshall Islands (quite US-friendly states) announced that ships under their flags would not visit Russian ports? If the big ship-owning or -operating companies, likewise mostly Western or West-friendly, would announce the same? If the West set its diplomats on a coordinated effort to get as many countries/companies to stop trading with Russia? Obviously this would start with the EU stopping the oil and gas purchases from Russia (btw, if Hungary doesn’t want to stop buying because they negotiated an unusually low price, I presume the EU could ask *Ukraine* to turn off the tap on that and pay for the money Ukraine would otherwise receive from transporting the goods).

          It’s not as if these sanctions wouldn’t massively hurt the West, it’s not as if there wouldn’t remain customers for Russian goods (and that some new ones wouldn’t sprig up), it’s not as if overland transportation to e.g. China or unaffected shipping (e.g. Chinese-flagged vessels) didn’t remain with which to accomplish the trades (and greatly expand on a timescale of a few years). But Russia needs the West much more than the West needs Russia, because Russia doesn’t have the capital, demographic composition, population size, and other factors (e.g. allegedly, culture) to be autarkic (though do note that if we look at China+Russia together, many of these problems disappear, but in that analysis Russia is China’s pet).

          John Lynch: Russian elites are presumably quite aware of how WW1 ended for Russia and its tzardom (or for that matter somewhat later for the German monarchy, or Austria-Hungary as a monarchy and as a state), and for that matter how the Cold War ended for the USSR. The West need not put boots in the Red Square to effect a regime change. It can focus on, basically, ruining the finances of Putin’s court (as an informal entity, which largely but not completely overlaps the top level of Russian government), such that it becomes common knowledge among the courtiers that they personally can expect a better outcome by holding a coup, taking Putin behind a shed — or because this is the 21st century, shipping him to The Hague to be tried for whatever — and creating a new government which structurally hews somewhat to Western specifications, since that is the (implicit) condition for the West to remove its sanctions.

          In case you haven’t seen this CGP Grey video or read the book it is based on, I recommend this map to be added to your atlas:
          The part 2 (“death and dynasties”) may also be relevant, given the speculations about the long table, the recent absence of bare-chested bear-riding photos, and the relevance of whether Putin might be a griefer.

  5. Dave says:

    Good stuff, a few points:

    –The classic argument against missile defense is that it only incentivizes the construction of more warheads by the enemy. MIRVing (putting multiple warheads on offensive missiles) makes it cheap and easy to overwhelm any missile defense system by launching more warheads than the defense system has interceptors. Since MIRV weapons are destabilizing because they put more of one’s retaliatory eggs into one basket, missile defense is destabilizing as well. I don’t see any way around this calculus unless the technology changes drastically. (The calculus is different against N Korea, since they can’t afford very many missiles and lack MIRV technology.)

    –I believe the Russian president doesn’t have the codes to launch alone; he needs the consent of either the defense minister or the chief of the general staff. This affects the question of whether it’s likely that Putin might commit suicide-by-nuke.

    –You are much more sanguine about whether NATO would use nuclear weapons in response to Russian tactical nukes than mainstream defense analysts tend to be from what I’ve seen. I would submit that the defense analysts probably have their finger on the pulse of what NATO would or wouldn’t do in a crisis.

    –In general I think you may be overestimating the dangers of a deliberate mass murder-suicide by Putin, and underestimating the danger of miscalculation or accident. Russian early warning systems are worse maintained than they were during the Cold War overall, which heightens the risk of accident. There have been false alarms in the past, and if a false alarm happened now, the restraint of Stanislav Petrov might not be repeated.

    –To expand your imagination a bit about how a war of miscalculation could occur between the United States and Russia, I recommend watching Countdown to Looking Glass, which is a fascinating little film and quite realistic:

    –I’d also recommend checking out the following nuclear security pros: James Acton, Jeffrey Lewis, Brad Roberts

    • TheZvi says:

      On the counter-argument, that is indeed a good argument, however the word ‘only’ is doing a lot of work there. First, as you point out, actors like NK (or in future Iran) would be unable to amass large numbers of missiles and MIRVs, and those are important places for missile defense. And MIRV vs. defense is more uncertain than regular vs. no defense. If you have 6k nukes, it doesn’t seem destabilizing to instead of 1.2k 5-nukes instead, that’s still plenty, so I don’t see the problem on that end either?

      Correct that Putin can’t launch alone, he needs the minister of defense and then some additional hoops. That’s why I give the 50% that it wouldn’t happen.

      NATO defense analysts have a strong incentive not to say what would actually happen, and also come from a long tradition of being wrong about such dynamics. And those ideas come from a world where Russia’s military is a real threat – if we thought Warsaw would fall, or even Berlin, then a nuclear response seems much more credible. Also common sense here? In response to a tactical nuclear weapon, how would NATO use a nuke in response? Using our own tactical nuke on the battlefield doesn’t accomplish anything we can’t do anyway. Using a strategic one is suicide. I don’t get the point.

      Russian early warning systems have multiple known false alarms I am very aware of, perhaps I am giving too much credit in terms of reacting sanely to such actions, but it would be a Petrov-style a-few-missiles thing rather than look-USA-launched-everything given the technical specs, and I think in context the reaction to that alarm is obvious and anyway you can retaliate on impact anyway if it’s small?

      Not going to check out the Pros further at this time simply because I have too many other things going on, but good to have names in case I have reason to revisit in more depth.

      • John Lynch says:

        The Russian ABM defense around Moscow results in the entire French or UK nuclear deterrent being needed to destroy one city. Before the ABM system, France or the UK could target every large city in European Russia. ABM systems do matter. It’s not trivial to build and maintain hundreds of ICBMs. No one can do that but the USA, Russia and PRC.

        • Dave says:

          This claim doesn’t pass a basic smell test. Wikipedia tells me there are an estimated 68 interceptors deployed by Moscow ABM. One of the four British Vanguard subs can hit with 192 warheads (or 96 if they’re carrying a half-load of Trident IIs, per their standard practice for the last decade).

      • Dave says:

        >>And MIRV vs. defense is more uncertain than regular vs. no defense. If you have 6k nukes, it doesn’t seem destabilizing to instead of 1.2k 5-nukes instead, that’s still plenty, so I don’t see the problem on that end either?

        More uncertain means the enemy will deploy more weapons until they *are* certain of the effectiveness of their retaliation. This means that if they have 6k warheads initially, then you deploy some interceptors, they will (for much cheaper than you spent on your interceptors) go to 6k x5 MIRVs, and if your defense turns out *not* to work well, you will be hit by 5x as many warheads in an exchange if one occurs.

        Also, 1.2k 5-nukes is more destabilizing than 6k single-nukes because the latter is harder to destroy with counterforce attacks. Thus the former creates incentives to launch earlier with less warning.

        >>NATO defense analysts have a strong incentive not to say what would actually happen, and also come from a long tradition of being wrong about such dynamics.

        On the first point, granted, but I’m also talking about academics, not just government guys. On the second point, I’m more skeptical of the Keith Payne/Dominic Cummings line than you seem to be. Just because the Russians drew up some plans involving heavy use of nuclear weapons early in a conflict doesn’t mean those were the plans they would have executed. It is highly unclear to me whether those were the *only* plans they gamed out, and to apply reasoning parallel to your own reasoning about NATO, it would be suicide to follow those plans. It’s clear that the Soviets had more of a “today is a good day to die” attitude about total warfare than the West, but whether in practice they would have acted in ways Schelling would count as “irrational” is at best unclear I think.

        >>Also common sense here? In response to a tactical nuclear weapon, how would NATO use a nuke in response? Using our own tactical nuke on the battlefield doesn’t accomplish anything we can’t do anyway. Using a strategic one is suicide. I don’t get the point.

        The point would be to deter further Russian use of nuclear weapons by showing that we are willing to fight fire with fire. In a situation like this, we want them to believe that we are willing to match the level of escalation they employ. It’s possible you are right, but the existing inertia and culture behind pre-committed plans may hold strong in a crisis. At best I’d say the chance of us not responding with nukes is 50/50.

        • Dave says:

          To be clear on the last point, I think a tactical weapon would be used against targets outside Russia (maybe in Belarus). Or against a target at sea like a Russian warship. You’re right that it would be crazy to use strategic weapons or hit targets within Russia.

    • Al Quinn says:

      Re: “Countdown to Looking Glass” dang, nice little cameo from Newt Gingrich

      • Dave says:

        He was just a boy then! Who knew the wonders that lay ahead for him?

        The combination of excellent B-list character actors and eye-popping DC guest stars (Gene McCarthy!) makes for a nice little cast.

  6. Craken says:

    A 1% risk of nuclear exchange involving Russia and NATO is reasonable now.
    I think the odds of a London nuclear attack conditional on Russia/NATO nuclear use is closer to Samotsvety’s estimate (18%) because I think the use would involve tactical nukes which might well not escalate to strategic use. I would go a bit higher due to risks of overreaction, poor leadership: 30%.
    But, if London is hit that implies the significant possibility that things quickly spiraled out of control, and here I would split the difference with an estimate of escape chance of 50%. Ukraine borders Russia; if we use nukes in Ukraine, this will likely make the Russians very anxious, and could cause a disproportionate response.
    And if they go for London, they go for everything–this is full countervalue territory, London is a major target and its people are very ill-prepared. It is a huge city in surface area, meaning several strikes might be assigned to it. Mortality would be very high over the few weeks following from all effects. 80% is reasonable.
    That is close to their estimates for total nuclear mortality risk in London: 0.12%/year.
    Which of these risks are we most likely to be underestimating? I would guess the one involving whether a tactical nuclear exchange becomes a strategic nuclear war. But, even if that was a 100% chance, it would increase the final 0.12% to 0.4%.

    One thing to consider is that Putin apparently directed special operators to assassinate Zelensky. He may believe–and some statements by Biden, Graham, and others reinforce this notion–that America would consider it a reasonable turn around to seek his assassination by whatever means. Our idiot political/media class are exacerbating Putin’s risk of descending into this type of paranoia. He may deem an attempt on his life (or even a suspected attempt) to be cause enough to take extreme measures.

    The chance of a tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine against the Ukrainians is now a bit higher, maybe 3%. Russia’s odds of success in Ukraine are generally worsening because the Ukrainians are positioned to improve their military efficacy faster than the Russians can improve theirs–short of full mobilization. The Ukrainians are acquiring superior ground weapons and rapidly training new soldiers. Putin may decide at some point to use a small tactical nuke (TN) to test the waters. How will the West respond? China is also no doubt curious about the actual Western response, aside from rhetoric. What if they used it in a bunker buster capacity to destroy some fortified military storage site, with modest, mostly military casualties? They could use something with fairly low yield. The range of yields for TNs is 4 orders of magnitude (0.01 to 100 kilotons). This ranges from a very large conventional bomb to slightly larger than the bombs used on Japan. What if they do a first tactical strike in response to a claimed chemical weapons attack? I think this is probably their most likely excuse for such a strike. But, given the dispersed nature of the war, these weapons probably have limited capacity to kill large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers. I doubt that his generals would recommend their use if they are just considered on their pure battlefield merits.

    As far as we can tell (the intel agencies may know otherwise), there is a dangerous opacity in Putin’s decision process. Also, the incompetence of the Russian invasion ought to be chastening to those of us who thought Putin was more competent in such matters. But, there was little discussion of the decision making process of the American regime. Nominally Biden is CINC, but one hopes he is not the one actually making decisions concerning Ukraine. He was never very bright, never honest, and now appears to be in clear cognitive decline. With a guy like him at the top, there is an opacity to the process that ought to be worrying. The Defense Secretary doesn’t seem too sharp either. Is it even worse than this? Is there a reckless nut like Curtis Lemay in the current American War Room? I think it’s a 40% (not 20%) chance we continue the escalation if Putin uses a TN against our forces in Ukraine. Not to match him signals weakness.

    As to how much better it would be to escape a major city prior to nuclear war, there is such a thing as “countervalue” targeting, which includes deliberately destroying population centers to kill large numbers of civilians. These maps give reasonable estimates of what counterforce and countervalue targeting might look like in a major nuclear war:
    When people think about surviving nuclear war they generally pay far too little attention to medium and long term survival. Some problems include:
    nuclear reactor and cooling pool meltdowns causing more radioactive release than the nuclear weapons, no electricity, no fuel, no transport, very limited comms, no clean water, no non-radioactive food, no law enforcement, no medicine, radioactive contamination of surviving wildlife, mass death of livestock, no logistics to support most agricultural activity (fuel, seeds, fertilizer, transport), very few fallout meters to guide activity/travel.
    I think long term mortality among city dwellers would be extremely high: 95%+. Only truly rural areas with significant arable land would have a reasonable chance of keeping mortality below 50%

  7. Quixote says:

    I read parts but not all this post so discounts my response as you feel appropriate for that disclaimer.
    A quick google search shows around 13,000 warheads exist with another 9,000 or so in storage or standby so they technically don’t count as active for treaties, but they could be quickly reactivated. I think doing your survivability analysis based on “an explosion” in the center of a city is basically the wrong approach. You should be assuming many explosions blanketing the city and also explosions in all nearby cities, and all nearby ports / bridges, etc. With that assumption, I think you should expect to be killed in the initial bombardment. If you did somehow survive, you should expect to die of radiation poisoning, or if that doesn’t get you immediately, of thirst over the next few days after water infrastructure has been wiped out and no social function capable of coordinating bottled water delivery remains. If you live somewhere that’s of any value at all, your assumption should be dying in a nuclear war.
    Even living “off gird” is likely far less protection than you might think. Most “off grid” living actually involves vast interconnection with a global economy that will no longer exist. People can’t service or repair electrical motors, or water pumps, or solar cells without access to tools and parts. Becoming something truly disconnected like a nomadic goat farmer in the mountains somewhere requires a lot of subject matter expertise a person can’t learn on short notice.
    Basically any effort in surviving is likely to be wasted effort, all war related effort should go into war prevention. Human beings intuitively don’t believe in large numbers or small probabilities, but reality does. Taking prevention efforts that you assess as being very unlikely to make an impact (eg 1/300,000,000) is still highly worthwhile given the numbers of people who could be impacted by a nuclear war.

  8. Rotten Bananas says:

    I’m more interested in whether the anthropic principle will still hold no matter how credible and immediate the nuclear threat (or any other catastrophic risk) becomes. It feels like putting the cart before the horse in our probability of survival, which is (given the abundance of timelines where catastrophic risk has occurred) much lower than some EA will appreciate.

    My money (perhaps spiritually) is on the exact opposite – apocalyptism has been built into modernism and it is set to manifest in a destructive way.

  9. Lalartu says:

    I think this analysis misses one important scenario – Putin using his nukes to conquer Europe. That is, declare war on every NATO state except USA, France and Great Britain, demand unconditional surrender, nuke a few cities to show this is no joke, promise to nuke more every hour or so, and hope that USA folds.
    Why can Putin attempt this? There are some reasons:
    1) Due to sanctions, situation in Russia can deteriorate to such extent that he decides that his leadership days are numbered anyway.
    2) Successfully executing this plan would make Russians declare him best ruler ever, fix the economy (sort of) and make sanctions irrelevant.
    3) It is not exactly crazy to expect that given a choice between abandoning Europe and full-scale nuclear war, USA leadership would choose the former.

    Given that, making the impression that USA wouldn’t attack Russia unless attacked first is counterproductive and makes nuclear war more likely.

    • TheZvi says:

      The West folding to that is the end of the world anyway (leaving aside whether Putin would be able to get his crews to fire.) There is no folding. Nor would any government that tried it survive. Our missiles fire.

  10. Lambert says:

    The question isn’t “do I leave now?” it’s “at what point do I leave?”
    We’re likely to see a few days to weeks of escalation before global thermonuclear war breaks out. That’s plenty of time to move out of the city and dig a rudimentary fallout shelter, according to research done at Oak Ridge. Having a plan beforehand, including deciding at what point you put the plan into action, will make that go a lot more smoothly.

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