Why I think there’s a one-in-six chance of an imminent global nuclear war
Many people have asked me what I think the odds are of an imminent major US-Russia nuclear war. My current estimate is about the same as losing in Russian roulette: one in six. The goal of this post is to explain how I arrived at this estimate. Please forgive its cold and analytic nature despite the emotionally charged topic; I’m trying not to be biased by hopes, fears or wishful thinking.
My estimate is 30% x 80% x 70% ~ 1⁄6, as illustrated in the figure and explained below. The horizontal axis roughly corresponds to levels of escalation, while the vertical axis corresponds to how favorable outcomes are to the two sides.
To estimate the odds of pulling a spade out of a deck of cards, it’s important to know how many suits there are. To estimate the odds that the current unstable situation ends up in the “KABOOM” outcome (a major US-Russia nuclear war that might cause nuclear winter and kill most people on Earth), it’s similarly important to know what other reasonably stable outcomes it’s competing against. The shorthand labels I’ve given these outcomes (grey boxes) should’t be taken too literally: “Kosovo” & “Vietnam” refer to scenarios where one side wins outright (breakaway succeeds & Goliath is expunged, respectively). “Libya”, “Korea” & “Finland” refer to intermediate outcomes involving simmering war, frozen war and full peace, respectively. I’m not showing the “Cuba” outcome (invasion averted by negotiated agreement) that was on the table in December 2021, since it’s now off the table, as are resumed EU-Russia gas exports via the Nordstream pipelines.
The grey ellipses represent relatively short-lived situations. We are currently in a vicious circle in the form of a self-perpetuating escalation spiral: since “Kosovo” is deemed unacceptable by Ukraine and the West while “Vietnam” is deemed unacceptable by Russia, both sides double down and escalate further whenever they fear losing. Such escalation has been both quantitative (more weapons, more mobilization) and qualitative (e.g., novel sanctions, heavier weapons, longer-range weapons, attacks inside Russia, scaled-up attacks on civilian infrastructure, shelling of a nuclear power plant, assassinations, sabotage of gas pipelines and Europe’s longest bridge, annexations, and escalatory rhetoric about nuclear use). My assessment is that Russia, whose GDP is similar to Italy’s, can no longer compete with the West in terms of quantitative escalation, and that Putin understands that his only chance to avoid the “Vietnam” outcome is to escalate qualitatively, with nuclear weapons use being his last resort. Last spring, I predicted that once loss of occupied territory loomed, he would annex what he controlled and start talking about nuclear defense of Russia’s new borders – and here we are.
Breaking the vicious circle
I view it as highly unlikely (<10%) that Putin would accept “Vietnam” without first going nuclear, because it would almost certainly result in him being overthrown and jailed or killed. On the other hand, I also view it as highly unlikely (<10%) that the West would accept a “Kosovo” scenario where Russia is granted a peace deal where it keeps everything it’s annexed, because if the powers that be in the West were that appeasement-minded, they would presumable have opted for a “Cuba” scenario in 2021 by acquiescing to Russia’s demand that Ukraine never join NATO. This means that with high (>80%) probability, the current vicious cycle of escalation will end only with de-escalation into one of the intermediate outcomes (“Libya”/”Korea”/”Finland”) or with lower-case “kaboom” (Russian nuclear use in Ukraine).
Estimates of the “kaboom” probability have recently ranged from 5% to 9% in the Metaculus prediction community. My current estimate is a few times higher (30%, e.g. a 2-to-1 chance that the cycle will end with de-escalation rather than escalation), because de-escalation currently seems so disfavored: there appears to be a widespread assumption in the West, shared by Ukrainian leaders, that Ukraine is winning and that Putin will grudgingly accept “Vietnam”. Moreover, there is a near-consensus in mainstream Western media and policy circles against peace negotiations, exemplified by e.g. the hostile response to Elon Musk’s recent suggestion of a peace deal.
The probability that “kaboom” (nuclear use in Ukraine) leads to “KABOOM” (WW3) obviously depends on the Western response and subsequent escalation dynamics. My estimate is quite high (80%) that NATO’s response will be forceful enough to include a non-nuclear military strike against Russia, because key NATO leaders and others have already made strongly worded statements to this effect. Options discussed have included sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which it would be difficult to imagine Russia not viewing as a declaration of war. My most likely (70%) scenario after that is Russian counterstrikes followed by rapid escalation via retaliatory actions from both sides, culminating in execution of the all-out nuclear war plans that both sides have spent decades preparing. My 70% estimate factors in that the long history of nuclear near misses has convinced me that both the US and Russia are much less competent in de-escalation than in escalation.
In the slightly less likely (30%) scenario that global freakout brings the US and Russia back from the brink, de-escalating toward the left side of the diagram, the outcome may be closer to “Kosovo” or “Vietnam” depending on who blinks first, i.e., on whether the de-escalation happens after “kaboom” or “Expansion”.
Many detailed estimates of nuclear war impact have been published in the academic literature. Xia et al (Nature Food, 3, 586–596, 2022) estimate that nuclear winter would kill about 99% of all Russians, Americans, Europeans and Chinese, with the most powerful post-war remaining economies being in South America, Southern Africa and Oceania. However, more work is needed to reduce uncertainties e.g. targeting scenarios, black carbon smoke production and lofting.
The only nuclear target map thus far declassified by the United States suggested that China would also be targeted even in a US-Russia war, to prevent it from emerging as the strongest post-war economy. My guess is that such a strategy is in force today as well, given the frosty state of Sino-US relations. Since China has much more large cities than either the US or Russia, this significantly increases my smoke production estimate.
I’d love to hear your thoughts both on this risk modeling framework and on the factor probabilities (30%, 80%, 70%) listed in the figure! I’ll plan to update them regularly as the geopolitical shituation evolves.
Many Twitter responses to this post have conflated nuclear de-escalation with capitulation or appeasement. Conversely, not all escalation has military value. For example, goading Putin to escalate with Moscow car bombing or viral video taunts is arguably against the national security interests of Ukraine and the West. If you’re generally opposed to de-escalation, I’m curious as to which of the following escalations you don’t want both sides to stop:
1) nuclear threats
3) assassinations lacking military value
4) infrastructure attacks lacking military value (e.g. Nordstream sabotage)
5) shelling the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant
6) misleading disparagement of de-escalation supporters as unpatriotic or appeasement-seeking
- Beyond Simple Existential Risk: Survival in a Complex Interconnected World by 21 Nov 2022 14:35 UTC; 83 points) (EA Forum;
- Future Matters #6: FTX collapse, value lock-in, and counterarguments to AI x-risk by 30 Dec 2022 13:10 UTC; 57 points) (EA Forum;
- Weekly Non-Covid News #1 (10/13/22) by 13 Oct 2022 15:40 UTC; 52 points) (
- Why I think nuclear war triggered by Russian tactical nukes in Ukraine is unlikely by 11 Oct 2022 18:30 UTC; 50 points) (
- Open Letter Against Reckless Nuclear Escalation and Use by 3 Nov 2022 5:34 UTC; 24 points) (
- What to do if a nuclear weapon is used in Ukraine? by 19 Oct 2022 18:43 UTC; 8 points) (
- 9 Oct 2022 1:40 UTC; 3 points)'s comment on Accrue Nuclear Dignity Points by (
Citation/link please? “Trust, but verify.”
This seems overconfident to me. So many people made confident predictions about what Putin would or wouldn’t do (or Trump, or Obama, or Xi for that matter) and were wrong. It’s hard to predict world leader behavior even in cases with somewhat of a precedent, which this is not. Example: Early in this war I thought “Belarus will almost certainly join the war sooner or later, because Putin can have Lukashenko assassinated, along with loads of higher-ups in the government, if he wants.” Welp, I was wrong. Don’t know why yet. Similarly I think that if Putin were to accept a “vietnam” he’d probably still remain in power. You might think that there’d be a revolution, and there totally might, but I don’t know how you can be almost certain.
To support your point here, here is a list of some international wars since the end of WW2 in which a dictator invaded another country but they failed to get more out of the war than a stalemate:
The Korean War: North Korea invaded South Korea, but after interventions by both UN forces (led by the US) and China, the war got bogged down on a front line close to the original border between North and South Korea. There were no signs of instability in either of the two Korean governments, and no nuclear weapons were used despite the US being in unilateral possession of them at the time.
Soviet-Afghan War: The USSR invaded and set up a satellite state in Afghanistan. After a decade of fighting a protracted guerrilla war with insurgents backed by the US, the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, just before the collapse of the USSR. It has been suggested that the defeat in Afghanistan played a part in the dissolution of the USSR, but it seems like it was far from the decisive influence to me. We can count this as a partial success for Tegmark’s thesis at best.
The Iran-Iraq War: Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, but the war became a stalemate that lasted for eight years before status quo ante bellum was restored. There was no sign of instability in his rule that I’m aware of as a result of this debacle.
The Gulf War: Saddam Hussein invaded and took over Kuwait, but subsequently got kicked out of the country by coalition forces led by the US. The US also encouraged rebellions throughout Iraq against Saddam’s rule. These rebellions were crushed by Saddam’s government following peace with the US and its allies.
While the sample size is small, and my memory here may be biased, I think the outside view evidence certainly casts doubt on Tegmark’s thesis. Unless we have some very specific inside view reasons to believe Putin would be overthrown in the case of agreeing to something resembling status quo ante bellum, which I don’t see, Tegmark’s assessment of the odds of Putin being forced from power in such an eventuality seems overconfident.
Thanks David and Ege for these excellent points! You’re giving me too much credit by calling it a “thesis”; it was simply part of my reasoning behind the 30% number. Yeah, I did consider the Gulf War as an important counterexample. I’ll definitely consider revising my 30% number downward in my next update, but there are also interesting examples on the other side:
The Falklands War: The Argentinian military junta’s 1982 invasion of the British Falkland Islands was humiliatingly defeated. This became the final nail in the coffin for a dictatorship facing a collapsing economy and increasing domestic resistance, and collapsed shortly thereafter. Most of the members of the Junta are currently in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide.
The Yom Kippur War: The 1973 invasion of Israeli-held territory by an Arab coalition was unsuccessful. Although the Arab national leaders were able to remain in power, some military leaders fared less well. Syrian Colonel Rafik Halawi, who’s infantry brigade allowed an Israeli breakthrough, was executed before the war even ended.
Survival of nation versus leader: Although mainstream Western media often portrays Putin as the main driving force behind the invasion, there’s also broad and well-documented local sentiment that the West has been seeking to weaken, fragment and dominate Russia for decades, with Ukraine being a red line. Whether such sentiment is valid or not is irrelevant for my argument. In other words, the “escalate-or-die” dynamic may be playing out not only in Putin’s head, but also at a national level. Ukraine itself is a shining example of how powerful such national self-preservation instincts can be.
Responding to your examples:
I agree with the Falklands War being a good example of your thesis; I forgot about it while making my list. No arguments there.
I did consider the Yom Kippur War, but I noticed as you did that the national leaders didn’t lose power and it was not clear to me whether we should say the Arab forces were defeated in the war. It seems like Egypt achieved at least some limited objectives as a result of the war, even if it fell far short of what they might have wanted to achieve. So I’m not sure if we should consider this as a “successful trial” in the reference class or not.
I think this is directionally correct but I’m not sure what the magnitude of the update we should make on this would be. It doesn’t seem like a very strong argument, in the sense that I expect arguments of similar strength to exist even if the conclusion is wrong.
I think if you had said that Putin would have a 20% chance of being thrown out of office as a result of agreeing to a return to the status quo ante bellum, I would agree with you. You said it’s “almost certain”, though, which seems way too strong to me. It’s not at all unreasonable for Putin to back down and take a 20% risk of being removed from power instead of going to nuclear war.
My estimate is that if Putin tried to launch a nuclear war against NATO, he would actually run a risk of being removed that’s significantly greater than 20%; maybe on the order of 50%. If his calculation is similar, it would be more reasonable for him to take the loss and hope he can turn it into a propaganda victory.
But Ukraine is not a part of NATO, nor does it exist under its nuclear umbrella. So Putin won’t be starting a nuclear war with NATO, and if he did go ahead with tactical nukes in Ukraine, NATO (while maintaining strategic ambiguity regarding its response) maintains its response will be “destructive” but “conventional”. Legally speaking, NATO is not bound to retaliate against Putin in the event of such a strike. It will likely do so out of self-preservation interest.
Another important point to remember about Putin being able to hold on to his seat is the company of countries he rans with and depends on. Conceding defeat also imperils his position in the Arab world (note the bold OPEC+ move Russia lobbied hard for) and with key BRICS countries like China and India, who are already circling former Soviet realms of influence in Central Asia. Putin, and Russia, have a lot to lose, and no one likes a defeated ally unless they sell energy at unsustainable discounts indefinitely. Even if Russians don’t come after Putin themselves (which sounds unlikely to me), other countries could opt to install a more favorable ruler to protect and advance their (energy) interests. This is a method long favored by colonial empires, especially in (natural) resource rich countries.
Yes, but then the above argument undercuts the 70% transition probability from a conventional NATO response to Russian nuclear use in Ukraine to a global nuclear war between NATO and Russia. I also do think that Putin would be reluctant to open Pandora’s box in this situation by unilateral use of nuclear weapons—I think saying Putin accepting Vietnam without nuclear use in Ukraine being < 10% likely is wrong.
I don’t find any of these arguments persuasive. As I’ve said, I would expect arguments this strong to exist even if the conclusion you’re arguing for is wrong, so seeing them doesn’t give me any cause for a belief update.
Another example of a dictator driven from power by losing a war is the Greek Junta. They instigated a coup in Cyprus, triggering an invasion by Turkey, and then lost power at home.
But Bruce Bueno de Mosquita claims that dictators are much better at cutting their losses and surviving, whereas democracies double down and escalate to total war.
Not the main point here, but the US was not the only country with nuclear weapons during the Korean War. The Soviet Union tested it’s first nuclear weapon on 29 August, 1949, and the Korean War began on 25 June, 1950.
I can’t square my model of Russia with the idea that Russia genuinely invaded Ukraine because they were afraid of NATO expansion. Pre-invasion, Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO and NATO itself was likely only to become smaller and less significant.
Up until the invasion NATO was increasingly perceived as a relic—an organization that lost the reason for its creation. It was hard for me to even imagine chain of events would revitalize NATO. But then Russia sends columns of tanks straight to the capital of the largest country in Europe and yeah, I guess that would do it. Give every country near Russia’s the strongest possible reason and urgency to join NATO and increase their defense budgets.
That result seems likely even if Russia had conquered the entire country in 3 days. In fact I believe Putin felt comfortable invading Ukraine, knowing this would massively boost NATO, because he had absolutely no genuine concerns about NATO invading RUSSIA itself.
I can’t resolve the disconnect about NATO completely, but: I find it works a lot better if we do not focus on NATO per se, but rather consider NATO to be the heading under which Putin’s government talks about the basic geopolitical problems between Russia and Western Europe. For example, the Dugin school of thought views the European side of the security problem as being a fundamental one dictated by geography. For people in Russian leadership who subscribe to this notion, I expect the significance of NATO to them is as the current incarnation of a permanent problem.
I can’t say for certain, but my hunch is that you’re dead on here.
It could be the classic issue of enemies misunderstanding each other/modeling each other very badly.
I think pre-invasion, Putin had a lot more effective options for bothering the US/NATO, causing them to slip, etc. For example, he could have kept moving troops around at his borders in ambiguous ways, or put a ton of nukes out on Kaliningrad, with big orange nuclear signs all over them, or etc, etc. But he misread the situation.
Which I think the US also does, and has done in more wars than it has not (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other place where “They’re going to throw down their weapons and welcome us as liberators.”)
Truly, knowing the psychological models of the enemy is rare and non-trivial.
Regarding your Twitter comment about Musk’s proposals:
The real issue with backing down from nuclear threats is what happens when you back down.
Let’s say we force Ukraine to allow Putin to keep the annexed territory because of nuclear weapons. This gives him, every Russian and every dictator around the world a clear message: nuclear weapons are the winning strategy.
It would make Putin and all warmongers like Prigozhin or Kadyrov look like geniuses. They stood against the whole world and won! Everyone inside Russia who was opposing the use of nuclear weapons would have to admit that it worked. So they need to use this trick more! It costs nothing. You just need to be a true believer in the greatness and ruthlessness of mother Russia.
Hitler also looked like genius of strategy after annexation of Austria and Sudetenland. From German perspective in Summer of 1939 he obviously knew what he was doing and should be trusted.
So, how far are you willing to back down?
Is Poland valuable enough for you? Poland was not valuable enough for UK and France in 1939 despite them pledging “all support in their power”. They got war anyway gaining only a bit of time.
And to illustrate that Russia’s imperial goals are not limited to Ukraine you have to remember that Russia’s demands in the first place were not limited to Ukraine.
From Article 4 of the draft of the “Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”:
To Poles and Balts this was unacceptable under any circumstances. We would never sign it.
From my perspective if nuclear threat wins Putin anything significant then Poland will need to try to obtain strategic nuclear weapons as soon as possible and at any cost. We lost every fifth person after 1939 because we trusted foreign powers when we should not have. Russian soldiers did not leave Poland until 1993 and we do not want them back.
The way out of nuclear escalation is convincing Russia that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose after using nuclear weapons. They need to back down from their mistake.
This is, without competition, the best counter-argument to Tegmarks post in its enterity, and it’s borderline dishonest that he does not even touch on it. Anything other than a thoughtful answer would reduce his original post to a theoretical game with no connection to reality.
It’s not a counter-argument to the post in its entirety, though—it’s a counter-argument to the recommendation that we de-escalate, from the Twitter post, no? Specifically, it’s not a counter-argument to the odds of nuclear war if we don’t de-escalate.
Two things can be true at once:
Not seeking a complete Russian defeat runs a 1-in-6 chance of Nuclear War—or say 1-in-N for the general case.
Not seeking a complete Russian defeat means that we’ve responded partially to blackmail in a game-theoretically nonoptimal fashion, which means we have M% increased odds of nuclear proliferation in the future and correspondingly O% increased odds of nuclear war in a 50-year time horizon.
But like—these can both be true! Doing the game-theoretic thing where you don’t respond to blackmail means that you might suffer the consequences of not responding to blackmail, especially if your opponent is feeling vindictive, or did not anticipate your not responding to his blackmail, or feels the need to show his resolution for further iterations of his blackmail game.
It’s possible for you to not respond to blackmail because you have a general principle of not doing so and then for nuclear war to happen as a result.
Important clarification: Neither here nor in the twitter post did I advocate appeasement or giving in to blackmail. In the Venn diagram of possible actions, there’s certainly a non-empty intersection of “de-escalation” and “appeasement”, but they’re not the same set, and there are de-escalation strategies that don’t involve appeasement but might nonetheless reduce nuclear war risk. I’m curious: do you agree that halting (and condemning) the following strategies can reduce escalation and help cool things down without giving in to blackmail?
misleading atrocity propaganda
assassinations lacking military value
infrastructure attacks lacking military value (e.g. Nordstream sabotage)
shelling the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant
disparaging de-escalation supporters as unpatriotic
I think it would reduce nuclear war risk if the international community strongly condemned 1-7 regardless of which side did it, and I’d like to see this type of de-escalation immediately.
All 1. to 7. have been condemned by some or all of the Western countries in multiple forms on multiple forums.
Strong words unsupported by actions will not change the situation. To be more precise, I think there is ~0% chance that condemnation form Western countries would reduce my prediction of 10% chance that Russia may use nuclear weapons to 5% or less. This is excluding all situations where weapons supply to Ukraine are significantly limited. (I’m ranked 18th on Metaculus and I really mean that ~0%)
This also follows from your model where “David winning” is a first step towards nuclear use. According to that model we need to reduce Ukraine chances of winning in order to reduce chances of nuclear use. Condemnations are not affecting Ukraine chances of winning. Western weapons supplies are.
Crushing vote for Russia in UN General Assembly on resolution A/ES-11/L.1 “Aggression against Ukraine” did not change anything. The only countries opposed to that resolution were Russian Federation, Belarus, Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, Syrian Arab Republic and Eritrea.
In fact, recent questions and very weak condemnation from India and China were followed by escalation from Russia.
Russia annexed the Southern and Eastern territories of Ukraine two weeks later.
Western media condemnation is pretty one-sided. Tegmark’s suggestion would be condemnations that are not one-sided.
My point stands regardless.
But there are facts and objective reality exists.
This war is a war of choice and a war of conquest. Blanket condemnation would be equivalent to condemning all Germans, Soviets and Poles for the Second World War or blaming Germans and Jews for Holocaust.
Specific instances where Ukrainians are believed to be going too far like killing of Darya Dugina are reprimanded. Truth be told, if Ukrainians were responsible it was a war crime. Instances where perpetrator can not be yet established like Nordstreams are condemned. Shelling the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant is condemned too. But there are unequivocal facts on the ground like the fact that Russia attacked this nuclear plant in the first place and that Russia is hosting their army there. Ukraine itself has fired people like Lyudmila Denisova for false atrocity propaganda. Ukraine is the biggest contributor to the nuclear nonproliferation by voluntarily giving up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal and can not make nuclear threats as it does not posses nuclear weapons anymore. Other countries did not threatened Russia with nuclear weapons since the start of the war.
What specific condemnation do you or Tegemark expect?
If you take the 7 points, “assassinations lacking military value” is something that Ukraine did in Moscow.
“disparaging de-escalation supporters as unpatriotic” if you look at the reaction to Elon Musk’s de-escalation proposal that’s something that Ukraine seems to be guilty of.
“misleading atrocity propaganda” is something where it’s hard to know the ground truth given the fog of war, but it seems that Ukraine does engage in some misleading propaganda.
That’s not the language Western media uses to speak about it. Western government and media could also condemn it more clearly and say “don’t do that again or there will be consequences”.
Apart from those points, there’s also the issue of minority rights. If you look at what the EU expects Ukraine to do before Ukraine can be accepted as a member of the EU it’s to stop violating the minority rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine. It would be possible to speak in the media about the details of the EU demands but that currently doesn’t happen. Minority rights violations don’t justify the war but they do matter.
When discussing Crimea, it would be worthwhile for Western media to look at the desires of the Crimean population instead of ignoring them.
Do you mean that Ukraine claims that proposals to leave a part of Ukraine to Russia are unpatriotic?
Yes. And that makes it hard to negotiate anything that could end the war.
Oh, I see. Those proposals are, in fact, unpatriotic. But yes, it makes them seem less acceptable (which, I assume, is the goal).
A problem is that once the invader attacks your country and declares he’ll willing to end the invasion if you give him x% of the land, this sets a precedent (it already happened once in 2014, and now it’s happening again—except that this time, Putin attempted to take over Ukraine proper). The invader (who, temporarily, accepted peace) now knows you will give him x% of your country when he attacks, just to make him stop. This is, quite plausibly, decision-theoretically suboptimal (like not paying in Parfit’s hitchhiker), wholly apart from the moral dimension (which makes it feel like victim blaming to me).
The option to have those regions vote can’t be realized unless it’s free, which Russian control (which they’d like to exercise over that vote) precludes, since it’s common knowledge that voting in Russia isn’t voting, so a post-takeover vote can’t be trusted.
Once those areas are fully under Ukrainian control, and the safety of the vote is secure, then I could see people make a case for them voluntarily joining Russia.
If the percentage of land the invaders get for each attack is low, and the cost of an attack is high, you are not encouraging them that much.
There might well be other factors—offhand I can think of setting a precedent for “negotiating” after an invasion, and gaining a stable advantage from having the territory (so the loss of the army during the invasion will have been worth it).
Numbers matter. Losing 90% of your army to gain 1% territory does not seem worth it.
Depends on what’s on that 1% of the territory, and whether it allows me to take over the entire country in the future, for example. (I do hope Putin will lose 90% of his army at some point.)
What’s in the interest of Ukraine and what’s in the interest of the United States or other Western countries are not the same. If you grant a significant chance of WWIII, there are strong incentives for the United States to prevent that. The United States has an interest to push for peace.
Russia accepted peace under conditions that include decentralization of power in Ukraine in 2014/2015. The stated justification for that is that centralized power is a threat to the minority rights of the Russian population. In 2017 Ukraine decided to take away the minority rights to have Russian children be educated in Russian. While they can have Russian classes they can’t have their math classes in Russian anymore. This is seen by the Venice commission as an illegitimate infringement of minority rights. Part of the conditions of the EU for Ukraine to join the EU is that Ukraine fixes the issues that the Venice commission pointed out.
Instead of passing laws toward decentralization they essentially did the opposite and passed laws taking away minority rights which the decentralization of power was supposed to prevent. While Russia certainly isn’t blameless, Ukraine didn’t try to de-escalate either.
Elon Musk suggested the UN organize a vote, if Russia would agree to that, it would be a trustworthy solution.
Given Putin’s ability to predict other states’ reactions and the utilities of various options, leaving him (even a part of) Ukraine could be like two-boxing on Newcomb’s problem because Omega already left and now we have to do what’s in our interest.
Is it this commission?
Morally, I don’t see why [minority] children of any country should have a right for a subject at school in their own language. Even if they don’t or can’t learn the official language of the country they live in, is the country obligated to teach them in their own language?
The problem of “trying to deescalate” (by fulfilling the demands of the invaders) is that it’s probably decision-theoretically, and definitely morally suboptimal.
Until the Russian army is out of the territories, people there might not feel safe enough to vote freely.
Putin is no omniscient actor.
Choosing to die in a nuclear war is a huge cost. Precommiting to die in a nuclear war for the principle of Crimeans who don’t want to be forced to speak Ukrainian to have to live under Ukrainian governance because you believe in the sanctity of borders seems to me like an insane position, especially for any Western actor who doesn’t really care about Ukrainian nationalism.
Being good at decision theory means ending up in peace and not dying in a nuclear war. Never make any concessions is not a good strategy from a decision-theoretic place.
We live in Europe according to certain values we have found conducive to keeping peace and currently have no separatist movements blowing things up in Ireland or the Basque country. If Great Britain would suddenly decide to forbid schools in Northern Ireland from teaching subjects in Irish or Spain would decide to forbid Basque children from being taught in Basque that would produce a lot of conflicts.
Minority rights keep the peace.
The decision about how the children are taught is not made by the federal government but by the state/region in which they live.
Speaking about whether Spain is obligated to teach Basque children in Basque or Great Britain is obligated to teach Irish children in Northern Ireland in Irish seems to me like it misunderstands the structures of education and the role of the federal government.
It seems that your position is that it’s decision-theoretically and/or morally suboptimal to act in the spirit of the negotiated ceasefire agreement. That seems strange to me.
Being clear about giving Russian in Ukraine their minority rights gives the inhabitants of the occupied areas a motivation to act in the interest of the Ukrainian government. Support that the war receives in Russia because Russians in Russia believe that protecting the minority rights of Russians within Ukraine would be weaker. Support from the EU would be higher.
Decision theory is about taking paths that are actually leading to good outcomes and this isn’t.
That doesn’t matter.
To simplify it, let’s say Putin can predict our decision with probability p, we value the WWIII at −1000 units of utility, the invasion at −8 units of utility and the annexation of those five regions of Ukraine Putin is attempting to steal at −16 units of utility, and let’s say we value Putin doing nothing at 0 units of utility.
If we’re the sort of people who allow him to do that, we’ll gain
U1=p⋅(−8)+p⋅(−16)+(1−p)⋅0 expected utility, but if we’re not, we’ll gain
U2=p⋅0+(1−p)⋅(−1000) expected utility. Not being the sort of people who allow him to steal a part of Ukraine brings us more expected utility iff
p⋅(−8)+p⋅(−16)<(1−p)⋅(−1000), in other words, for p>97.7%. That seems like he’d need to be an unrealistically good predictor. But other people might have their balance of utilities different, and looking locally (i.e. for the next causally best step) is decision-theoretically suboptimal in both local/global sense, and in the causal/timeless sense. I can see your reasoning here, but you’re doing a decision-theoretic mistake.
It’s not about sanctity of borders. There is no reason to think the people in the stolen territories want to be annexed, and as the Russian army invaded Ukraine, they murdered and raped their way through civilians. There are extremely negative collateral effects from not “believing in the sanctity of borders.” Even now, the Russian army bombs civilian buildings and shoots civilian targets as we speak.
So does not invading other countries. Giving people stuff to keep them from being violent is sometimes wise, and sometimes not.
If Russia were concerned with protecting the rights of minorities, they wouldn’t have tried to take over the entire Ukraine, they wouldn’t attack civilians, they wouldn’t fake the results of the referendums and force the people to vote at a gunpoint (unless you’d like to dispute that), etc. (Not that being concerned with the rights of minorities would justify their actions.)
You’re being vague about what exactly the “negotiated ceasefire agreement” would be, and what that’s analyzed in the non-vague decision-theoretic sense, I see no reason to think it would be a good idea.
Edit 5 hours later: Sorry, I just realized you mean the previous ceasefire agreement. I’ll respond tomorrow.
here’s a game theory dude who has been making good game theory videos. here he analyzes the nuclear threat from the current situation. it’s better on 2x speed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ2z2Qg_o0w
Thanks, that was interesting. That does sound like one of ways in which Putin could escalate.
Your game theoretic model is wrong because it assumes a two-player game. This isn’t a two-player game. For Putin, the most important thing is his domestic political power.
A lot of his reasons for deciding to start the war in 2022 the way he did was also bad intelligence. He didn’t expect the current scenario to appear and as such our predicted behavior in the current situation had little significance for his decision back then.
This is like saying that if the United States would care about human rights, they wouldn’t have tortured people in Abu Graib.
Wars tend to be ugly in ways that those that support waging those wars don’t want. Part of why wars are fought is that they are popular with the population. If you understand the reasons why they are popular, that is part of understanding the decision to start the war. In the case of Ukraine, the plight of the Russian minority does play a significant role.
I would certainly prefer if Russia wouldn’t invade other countries but optimizes for peace, but that’s not the world we live in. We have to choose our policy based on the choices we are facing.
That sounds to me like you spent no energy investigating the question of what people in Crimea want. “No reason” does sound like willful ignorance.
MINSC II point 5 says:
That’s the explicit promise of decentralization that was made. No constitutional reform happened.
Taking away minority rights through the central government is the opposite of that.
You’re right, and I didn’t realize that. But that still doesn’t matter. Because the annexation of the four other regions, and the decision to keep Crimea, was made by Putin already knowing he wasn’t able to win easily (if ever). So we can now only look at the utility of Russia getting/keeping those 5 regions. For being the sort of people who allow him to do it, the expected utility is:
U1=p⋅(−16)+(1−p)⋅0, for being the ones who don’t, it is
U2=p⋅0+(1−p)⋅(−1000). It’s better for us to be the ones who don’t allow him to do it iff U2>U1, which is equivalent to p>98.4%.
From what I just found, those were prisoners, and I would definitely say it’s very strong evidence the people in charge of that happening don’t care about the rights of prisoners, and evidence they don’t care about human rights.
It’s not only about Crimea, but also about the other 4 regions. About Crimea, according to Wikipedia, prior to the 2014 occupation, the support for joining Russia was at 23%. After that, it very significantly grew, but that could easily be explained as people being too scared to share their real feelings. It may well be that unless Russia leaves, the true beliefs of the people will be unknowable.
Sorry, I realized afterwards you meant the old agreement and not the new suggestion. My bad. Yeah, I think that it is, indeed, suboptimal to obey agreements made to the invaders under duress. Under some specific circumstances it could be strategically wise, but it’s still morally suboptimal (under these circumstances, at least), and pointing that out feels like victim blaming.
What alternative choices do you see for Putin? It’s either continuing to fight or making a peace deal. If we aren’t the kind of people with whom you can make a peace deal, it makes sense to focus all efforts on fighting the war.
I don’t think that the domestic political reality would allow him to just withdraw all troops.
In 2013 Ukraine had a pro-Russian president, so the Russian minority had no need to fear an infringement of their liberties. In 2014, Kiev’s police decided to stop protecting the parliament and under the potential threat of violence, the parliament voted to remove the pro-Russian president.
Russia invited OSCE observers for the referendum. If Western powers would have expect that a fair election would lead to a vote against Russia, they would likely have been happy to send observers to make sure that this result will be the one of the election.
Edit: Sorry, I don’t think my link is about that referendum.
Edit2: I found a better link.
That depends on whether he’s a causal decision theorist or not. If I was Putin and had his utility function, I might either accept some political change (without changing the territory), or use a tactical nuke (assuming I’d be unable to take over the relevant parts of the Ukraine with pure military force).
That’s unfortunate, but now the world needs to resist (one-box) to make this timeline as unlikely as possible (if we cooperate (two-box), it becomes retroactively much more likely).
I see, I didn’t know the timeline, thanks. Still, what I wrote about it being unknowable until Russia leaves stands.
Sounds like it wasn’t their idea though.It looks like it was mostly about not wanting to legitimize it.
That’s not necessarily true. It’s possible they didn’t want to give an appearance of legitimizing the referendum (I think most likely), or they didn’t think they could enforce a fair referendum, or they didn’t think the people voting against felt safe enough to vote.
I don’t think we have any reason to believe that Putin is a causal decision theorist and modeling as such is therefore an error.
What kind of political change do you think he could accept? If he would order a complete withdrawal from Ukraine including Crimea, he would likely be disposed of quickly and anyone who replaces him at the top has the incentive to investigate his corruption to remove his remaining power.
That’s surprising. If you can read this much about the topic without being exposed to the basics of how the conflict in 2014 started that suggests that your information sources are either severely biased or you somehow have a bias that prevents you from picking up inconvenient facts.
Is it also surprising to you?
It seems to me like this completely ignores the political reality and how decisions to wage war are made in the real world.
Cooperation is necessary for peace. If you have a policy of precommit against cooperation it’s very likely that people who are badly informed about the world will act in a way that produces a cascade that ends in WW3.
If you would expect the referendum to result in a rejection, it wouldn’t be a problem to legitimize it.
While searching I found that there are actually more polls than I thought. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2015/03/20/one-year-after-russia-annexed-crimea-locals-prefer-moscow-to-kiev/ is a Western media article. This is a topic in which the intelligence establishment has a strong interest. If they would think that those polls are misleading they would make that case.
If Russian activity would prevent people from telling the truth when polled you would expect that have similar results in Crimea and the separatist regions.
What decision theory do you think he uses? Or are you agnostic about that?
Do you suggest any particular improvements to my model?
A compromise between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine politicians in the affected regions (while Crimea keeps belonging to Russia and the other 4 regions go back to Ukraine), maybe.
I did know it started after a coup in Ukraine. I didn’t know it increased the possibility of the Crimean citizens wanting to join Russia (and I’m still not sure about that).
(I also recall Putin Freudian-slip about why they really invaded Crimea, but I can’t find it anymore.)
Neither statement implies unconditional absence of precommitment against cooperation of a specific kind (otherwise, bad actors will take advantage of that). Are you familiar with the general concept of choosing timelessly, rather than what CDT says is best in a specific situation?
Perhaps, if Russia someday stops punishing people for publicly disagreeing, I might consider these hypotheses.
I don’t think he uses decision theory. Most people don’t. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wrote about how he does computer modeling of geopolitical decisions. It involves not just focusing on the person at the head of the hierarchy but also on various other people in the environment.
Putin invaded Crimea because it predictably gave him +15% approval at home and politicians like doing things that give them +15% approval rating. You don’t need much more than that to explain the decision.
If you would go with the kind of approach that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita favors you would look at what makes invading Crimea a +15% approval rating move.
While of course there’s also an ideological justification for the invasion, I think you misunderstand politics if you think the ideology of the leader trumps the internal politics of the country.
Yes. But choosing timelessly a strategy that will result in various conflicts escalating into nuclear war is a bad decision.
A good timeless strategy isn’t just “if you challenge us militarily, we will escalate as strongly as possible”. It’s rather to orient yourself after a bunch of shared values. The sanctity of borders was one of those values but it died in Kosovo. At the time you could have said, that for timeless reasons we should not give Kosovo independence to uphold the principle but that was not the decision made.
The UN charter of human rights provides a bunch of timeless principles for peace to coordinate around. It gives us the self-determination of people. It suggests giving minorities in multi-ethnic countries strong minority rights.
To the extent that what Russia is asking for is giving our minority rights and allowing self-determination of people, it’s valid to give them those in a peace deal even if we don’t like the means of using violence.
From a timeless question to what extend we should respect coup is also questionable. If we think that a coup doesn’t change who’s president, Russia was invited to Ukraine by the legitimate president of Ukraine.
You need to do more than just publically disagree in Russia to get punished. Russia isn’t yet North Korea. Is you disagreed with the war you weren’t allowed to call it a war but mere disagreement was not ground for punishment.
How do you make any decision without a decision theory? Shouldn’t it always be in the background, explicit or implicit?
I mean that I recall him Freundian-slip about the real reason. But maybe I’m confusing it with something else.
That’s not necessarily true.
Perhaps the time has come to timelessly resurrect the part about stealing the territory of another country (this is conceptually different from a part of a country splitting apart into its own country, which could be argued separately).
There is a question to ask about the moral legitimacy of the coup. But there is also a question to ask about how taking over Ukraine by shooting through civilian apartments and civilians helps it, and a question to ask about how suspicious it is, to try to annex Ukraine to protect the legitimacy of the president.
Putin’s actions, to the extent they could be modeled as someone trying to do what is right, are extremely weird, and to the extent they can’t be modeled that way, they shouldn’t be attempted to be justified by anyone, because it would be too much of a coincidence if he, despite not trying to do what is right, managed to do so.
It’s actually worse than you think—people can get arrested in Russia for holding up a blank piece of paper, or for merely pretending to hold a sign, etc. (Maybe now, when he’s running out of cannon fodder, Putin relaxed that rule, but it used to be that bad.)
You can say that about many politicians. That doesn’t mean that principles are irrelevant to how you can get compromises with them.
Trevor recommended the Schelling book and I just started reading it. It’s likely quite good in giving a model of how Western think about the issues about what happened to be red lines that call for a military response.
Western leaders have been quite clear that the line is the NATO borders and that they are not giving Ukraine any security guarantees.
Arguing that we should uphold security guarantees that we didn’t promise for timeless reasons is bad because that means it’s very unclear what we will do and what we don’t do. To compel someone to do something you actually need to be clear about what you are asking.
Holding up a blank piece of paper to protest is protesting. Protesting is more than just voicing disagreement. Protesting generally gets more punishment in totalitarian states than just disagreement.
I don’t see why it couldn’t be made clear.
I agree, finding a balance between Russian speaking minority rights and promotion of Ukrainian language is the right thing to do.
It was a right thing to do before this year invasion and it is a right thing right now too. The fact that Russia makes nuclear threats should not make otherwise desirable policy suddenly undesirable.
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PEACE) voted to support Resolution 2189 “The new Ukrainian law on education: a major impediment to the teaching of national minorities’ mother tongues”. Only Ukrainian voters and one UK voter objected. It is the same body that yesterday unanimously called to “declare the current Russian regime as a terrorist one”.
But we also have to accept the cruel irony that Russia is doing the most damage to the Ukrainian regions with the biggest Russian speaking minority. In cities like Mariupol.
The facts are that Russians are not concerned with well being of the Russian speaking minorities. Finding further balance is not something that will deescalate this war, but it is worthwhile regardless. It is also exceedingly unlikely that Russians would be willing to reciprocate with regard to Ukrainian rights on the occupied territories or in Russia.
The situation is Mariupol is quite weird. Ukraine blames Russia for the destroying a lot of homes and Russia blames Ukraine for destroying the homes. It doesn’t really make sense for either party to destroy the homes expect to blame the other party. Given fog of war it’s hard to know without access to classified intelligence what really happened.
The current Ukrainian position is that they won’t stop the war till they recapture all their territory including Crimea.
The only way to end the war before that point is to put pressure on Ukraine to accept something else. Talking about the desires and interests of the Crimean people who don’t want to live under the rule of Ukraine is a way to do so.
There is very clear cause and effect here. In a counterfactual world were Russia did not attack Ukraine Mariupol would have been a well functioning city. We know this for a fact because Russia gathered invasion forces around Ukraine before. They withdrew and nothing bad happened.
It’s like blaming Poles for destruction of Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising.
And it’s not just homes. Defenders of Mariupol have sheltered in Azovstal after the city was under siege for a long time. There was no Ukrainian units capable of attacking Azovstal form outside. Yet, Azovstal got obliterated.
And it’s not just Mariupol. Covering ground with artillery fire is a modus operandi of Russian army. Have you seen Grozny after the Second Chechen war? The same happened to Volnovakha, Rubizhne, Popasna, Lyman and Sievierodonetsk. Independent journalists had pretty good access to Kharkiv. And again the same situation.
And you can just listen to the Russians themselves. There was talk in Russian propaganda for a long time about destroying Ukrainian civilian infrastructure—electric plants and heating plants. Russia carried out this attack few days ago as officially confirmed by Russian ministry of defense and judged by the effects on Ukrainian infrastructure.
The only reason to attack electric and heating plants is to terrorize Ukrainians.
Russian logic is the same as a man raping and beating his wife. You must love and obey me and if you don’t I will make you. This attitude goes from the very top. As an example, Putin quoted a song during press conference with Emmanuel Macron in early February about Ukraine:
“Whether you like it or don’t like it, bear with it, my beauty.”
The full quote from “Sleeping beauty in a coffin” song by Red Mold would be:
> Sleeping beauty in a coffin, I crept up and fucked her. Like it, or dislike it, sleep my beauty.
Putin was casually quoting songs about necrophilia with regard to Ukraine when he was still planning the war.
There are millions of refugees from these territories. People want to go back to their homes and live normal lives. And there are still Ukrainians living there. They do not want to live under Russian occupation.
Ukrainians also do not believe in peace with Russia. Most likely any peace agreement will be just a time for Russia to rearm and attack again. And as a Pole, I very much understand them. Poland has been under one or another form of Russian occupation for the past 200 years.
I think there are multiple factors at work in the Chechen war. One of them is that the Chechen population is largely Muslim and not Christian. That makes it politically easier to cause them hardship. The also repeatidly rebeled against Russian governance.
There are multiple groups. Ukrainians who identify primarily as Ukrainians, Ukrainians who identify as Russians, and Ukrainians who identify as something else. I will call the Ukrainians who identify as Russian ethnic Russians for the following comment.
I think that attacking the military forces in Azostal, can be explained by military motivations that are not about punishing the ethnic Russians of the region. It is qualitatively different than destroying a lot of the homes in the city.
When it comes to the Ukrainians who do identify as Russians there’s public pressure in Russia to engage in actions to protect them. There’s the US cable from 2008 that describes that choice:
From Russia’s perspective, the events in 2013 and 2014 did force Russia to make a choice about whether or not to intervene. Putin decided to intervene in 2014 and as a result, massively increased his domestic approval.
From the Russian perspective, I don’t think that the ethnic-Russian community in Ukraine did anything wrong that’s worth punishing. On the other hand, under the maximalist claim that Ukraine is a fake country and those people who identify as Ukrainian are actually Russian and those do deserve some punishment for resisting Russia.
As far as I understand they did that in retaliation for the bombing of the bridge and in territories where the majority is ethnic Ukrainians. They didn’t do that in the areas they annexed.
To the extent that this is true, taking Moscow would be the only way to end the current war. The West seems pretty clear that it’s not willing to support Ukraine that far. That’s partly why the West doesn’t give them missiles that are able to hit targets 300 kilometers away.
Europe is going to want peace sooner or later. Even when the US would in principle be okay with longer fighting, they don’t want to fund the war indefinitely either.
To the extent that there’s a decent chance for a new war in the future, it would be good to have a peace deal that makes future wars less likely instead of more likely. Peace after Ukraine retakes Crimea would leave Russia with a lot more pressure to start a new war than peace where Russia keeps Crimea.
We’re still only a few hours post the bridge attack, but worth noting that when given the opportunity to massively escalate with a ‘red line’ being crossed, the Russian government are talking about how this was a terrorist attack and traffic will be up and running within hours (playing down the impact). This suggests to me they’re extremely unwilling to move up to tactical nuclear weapons right now.
Also, please correct me if I am wrong, some parts of the annexed territories—from certain perspective, now a part of Russia—were already regained by Ukraine—which from that perspective means Ukraine (with the support of NATO) attacking and successfully conquering parts of Russia’s territory. And yet, no nukes so far.
My impression of the annexation is that it is a way to move the mobilized troops to the front without having to internally declare war, or break Russian law (which only allows mobilization to protect Russia, as I understand it).
As I understand, Russia declaratively annexed territories not under Russian control even at the time of declaration. This is one reason I thought nuclear border defense rhetoric was bluffing.
This is correct. They will always downplay Ukraine’s successes, explaining them as either terrorist attacks or “smoking accidents”. And yes, as Viliam says, Russia is now officially losing territory every day and nobody cares. They prefer to have ambiguous borders.
To understand Putin, you have to imagine a petty crime boss who accidentally got big. He’s just a thug. “It’s not a bluff” is the telltale sign that his threat is a
100%99.999999% bluff. When he plans to do something, he and his minions always deny it first. He will go to great lengths to continue without nuclear weapons.
All of this means that the 30% chance of kaboom is way way too high. It’s currently closer to 3% or even 0.3%.
Moreover, the probability that a strike will be ordered but not occur is quite high. You don’t just drop a nuke and hope it works. The technology is complex and there have been no nuclear tests since 1990. Russia’s impressive-looking nuclear arsenal would take a fortune to have been properly maintained all this time. A huge percentage of that money ended up in the pockets of the maintainers. This is the Russian Way. So either the technology can fail or, more likely still, people can do something wrong. Incompetence is the key word in the analysis of most Russian failures in this war so far.
That said, he won’t back down and the probability of kaboom could increase with Putin’s desperation. There will be clear signs (e.g. new nuclear tests), so we’ll have time to prepare. But it’s still dangerous. The winning strategy for the West is to kill him. I hope the CIA, MI6 and other professionals understand this. They have to kill him one day and I really hope it happens soon enough.
Russian Way is imperceptible to most Western experts because they never lived in USSR. They don’t know how corrupt & in shambles the system actually was. As a result “Russia is very strong and powerful” is a stereotype that just refuses to die.
A look at the battlefield:
Russian army is undertrained, attacking civilians for shock & terror
Gains at the start of the war were made by using large quantity of weapons & people, but those were lacking in quality. And now the quantity is also lacking
Crimean bridge and air base attacks are a case of “Emperor has no clothes” regarding conventional Russian defence
A look at the internal situation in Russia:
Warlords (Prygozhin and Kadyrov) preparing to take over if Putin slips
FSB and MoD internal quarrels
absolutely massive emigration of young Russians (> 500 thousands already left)
children of Russian elites (IIRC Putin & Lavrov too) enjoying their carefree lives in EU and US
incompetence (which you highlighted) in aerospace / military sector:
failures of legacy products like Soyuz or Proton
uselessness of recently developed products (Armata)
ammunition stored in conditions that increase the probability of failure
inventory numbers exaggerated because corruption and black market sales
My opinion: Metaculus is better gauge of nuclear danger than the OP post, people did a good job there predicting that the the war will start in February 2022.
Max’s post is still too emotional and his probabilities are mostly influenced by that
Unfortunately, the weaknesses of modern Russia, especially with regard to conventional warfare, work to increase the chance of nuclear weapons use as an ultima ratio. And the scenario of triggering first against Ukraine almost automatically involves the following triggering against NATO.
Have you “mentally wargamed” the CIA/MI6 option? Who would replace him? Would they be better or worse? How would Russian citizens respond? Is there anything like an automated event that is suppressed daily by Putin while he is alive but that would be triggered if he dies?
Since you seem to have thought a lot of this through:
Do you have thoughts on the possibility of pre-existing weapons caches in the US or Europe that could be activated remotely by Russia? (Nuclear, chemical, biological, etc)?
Similarly, it seems that every few years we discover Russians spies in the US, so the probability is high there’s some in the US active now. In the event of a war, would they act like a sleeper cell? Would kinds of things might they do?
Another thing that could be interesting with spies is what they can do before a US/NATO-Russian war. If the Russian had one or more top level spies in the US security establishment or in NATO (as they, or their East German satellite, had during the cold war), then it could increase or decrease the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons.
If Russia got signals from inside US/NATO that the West was really willing to retaliate militarily in the case of a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine, then this information could decrease Russia’s willingness to escalate. If, however, Russia got signals from inside US/NATO that the West was not willing to use military force as an answer to a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine, then this information could increase Russia’s will to escalate.
These are interesting thoughts.
I know this is CNN, but the source (Robert Baer) seems solid. https://youtu.be/7ZgBSYZb-gk
He says putin used information from Russian spy in the CIA to blackmail Yeltsin.
If we discovered any of them currently active, I wonder if we could deliberately feed them bits of misinformation to steer Putin one way or another?
Or maybe if the undiscovered spies could become something like ironic double agents on their own if the spies are against escalation? On their own imitative they steer things towards de-escalation? Or maybe defect at the last moment to try and stop escalation?
Careful about assigning anything a 100% probability.
Good point, thanks. I’ve edited my comment.
Lol. Somehow 1:100000000 made it more clear that it was meant as a hyperbole than 1:∞ did.
They are escalating now
I don’t think their bombing of civilian infrastructure can be considered a military escalation.
An official declaration of war and martial law in Russia would be an escalation (albeit not scary).
Nuclear weapons testing would be an escalation (slightly scary, but still very far from an actual attack).
Ordinary terrorism, by contrast, is just the default response, exactly the type of revenge for his favorite bridge that everyone expected from this particular dictator.
Thank you for this post, Max.
My background here:
I’ve watched the Ukraine war very closely since it started.
I’m not at all familiar with nuclear risk estimations.
Summary: I wouldn’t give 70% for WW3/KABOOM from conventional NATO retaliation. I would give that 2-5% in this moment (I spent little time thinking about the precise number).
Motivation: I think conventional responses from NATO will cause Russia to generally back down. I think Putin wants to use the threat of nukes, not actually use them.
Even when cornered yet further, I expect Putin to assess that firing off nukes will make his situation even worse. Nuclear conflict would be an immense direct threat against himself and Russia, and the threat of nuclear conflict also increases the risk of people on the inside targeting him (because they don’t want to die). Authoritarians respect force. A NATO response would be a show of force.
Putin has told the Russian public in the past that Russia couldn’t win against NATO directly. Losing against NATO actually gives him a more palatable excuse: NATO is too powerful. Losing against Ukraine though, their little sibling, would be very humiliating. Losing in a contest of strength against someone supposedly weaker is almost unacceptable to authoritarians.
I think the most likely outcome is that Putin is deterred from firing a tactical nuke. And if he does fire one, NATO will respond conventionally (such as taking out the Black sea fleet), and this will cause Russia to back down in some manner.
Putin is old and losing the war and might go “fuck it, might as well take most of the world with me.” I feel like you’re not including in your analysis that some people are spiteful and hate losing.
Putin has at least two children, and he seems to care about them. For example, he gave one of his daughters Katerina Tikhonova several high-profile positions. According to the same source, Katerina reportedly gave him a grandchild.
Unless he is sure that his children will survive a nuclear apocalypse (which is unlikely), this could be a major factor for him.
From the character assessments I’ve read, I agree that it’s unlikely he wants to kamikaze himself or his family. However on the children point I would be careful not to over-index on that.
Putin is not “normal”. It’s very conceivable that he likes his children, but likes not losing control even more. If Putin loses the war badly and subsequently gets ousted, likelihood of death/imprisonment for him and his family is high. Hitler probably liked his wife, kids and dog, but when it came to the end game we all know how that went. I expect many such examples exist with similar characters driven by control-fetish, such as serial killers and the like.
Putting family members in office isn’t necessarily an indication of deep care or love. Trust is rare and valuable for Putin, and blood relatives come with instant trust points.
Upvoted because I think it’s a relevant consideration, just not enough to conclude much by itself.
Hitler never wanted kids and most historians say he didn’t have any although there are claims he had a son out of wedlock. (The claimed son survived WWII as did Hitler’s sister.) He did marry once -- 40 hours before committing suicide at the end of WWII.
Stalin married and had a kid, then his wife died of TB or typhus, then he married someone else and had more kids. He had control over nukes during the final 4 years of his rule, but never used them.
Can Putin actually fire Russian nuclear weapons unilateraly though? I don’t think a vote in the Russian parliament or anything is needed, but I suspect it takes more than just Putin by himself. (Maybe it needs the prime minister or head of the armed forces to also agree). Not knowing these exact processes is a big source of uncertainty in how this would turn out. Especially as the process-in-practice might deviate from the process-in-theory. (Eg. in theory Putin says fire, the head of Russian nuclear forces fires. In practice, Putin says fire, the head of Russian nuclear forces rings the Russian prime minister and says “so, like the president says .. but like .. what do you think...”
Formally, it needs to be approved by 3 people: the President, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff. Then (I think) it doesn’t launch rockets. It unlocks them and sends a signal to other people to actually launch them.
Also, it is speculated to be some way to launch them without confirmation from all 3 people in case some of them cannot technically approve (e.g. briefcase doesn’t work/the person is dead/communication problems), but the details of how exactly it works are unknown.
If Putin says, fire it goes to the General Staff of the Armed Forces who are then supposed to carry out the orders. Putin’s orders do not directly go to the head of Russian nuclear forces.
In practice, I expect that the General Staff then needs to decide to either carry out the order or start a coup d’état.
If someone has a plan to overthrow Putin, but waits because it is too dangerous, the command to launch the nukes might be the very thing to convince them that not acting is even more dangerous.
(But this of course assumes that the person would learn about the command and have enough time to react, which is too optimistic. Unless they are already prepared for this, which assumes too much competence, which doesn’t exactly seem to be a frequent trait in Russia’s military.)
Another possibility is that the command is executed (meaning we are in the kaboom scenario), and the US does not escalate immediately but says that there will be a respond at a time and place of their choosing. This could give time for someone to overthrow Putin to prevent escalation.
My probability of Putin’s going “fuck it” is about 17 times lower than it would be if Putin didn’t have living children and grandchildren.
The part of the US government that decides the details of US economic sanctions believes that Putin’s relationships with his children is warm enough that substantial parts of his wealth might be held in their names.
Yes, that’s most of the 2-5%.
You think it is likely/possible that a nuclear war kills almost everyone in the US and Europe. Since you estimate the chance of this happening to 1 in 6, are you moving to South America or Australia for a year or two?
I also want to know Tegmark’s answer to this question.
Should we wait for reply to this question?
I’m typing this from New Zealand.
Thanks, that makes sense given your assumptions and results.
I strongly disagree with this post but I think it’s well written conditional on the views of the author, so now I’m divided between whether I should upvote or downvote it.
If only we had agreement karma at the post level, not just the comment level...
Ege, if you find the framework helpful, I’d love to hear your estimates for the factor probabilities 30%, 70%, 80%. I’d also be very interested in seeing alternative endpoint classifications and alternative frameworks. I sense that we both agree that it’s valuable to estimate the nuclear war risk, and basing the estimate on a model that decomposes into pieces that can be debated separately rather than basing it on just gazing into our belly-buttons and tossing out a single probability that feels right.
I’d probably estimate the three factors at ~ 10%, ~ 50% and ~ 10% respectively, so my probability of all out nuclear war between Russia and the US is like ~ 0.5%. Overall, I think I still roughly endorse my reasoning in the following Metaculus comment I wrote in early March:
The military situation changing substantially means (1) is now more likely than I had thought in March, so maybe I would now update it to something closer to 5%, but even in this situation I can’t really endorse a risk of all out nuclear war that’s significantly greater than 1%.
I think your middle number is clearly too low. The risk scenario does not require that NATO trigger article 5 necessarily, but just that they carry out a strategically significant military response, like eliminating Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, nuking, or creating a no-fly zone. And Max’s 80% makes more sense than your 50% for he union of these possibilities, because it is hard to imagine that the US would stand down without penalising the use of nukes.
I would be at maybe .2*.8*.15=.024 for this particular chain of events leading to major US-Russia nuclear war.
I don’t think it’s hard to imagine, I can imagine it quite easily. 80% just seems overconfident to me on this question. NATO has no actual obligation to respond to any nuclear use in Ukraine, and I don’t see why you’re so confident that NATO would respond to Russian use of e.g. tactical nukes in Ukraine by attacking Russia directly. It’s not that I think this is unlikely, but in my opinion 80% is just too high of a confidence in what NATO would do in such an unprecedented situation.
That said, this is the part of Tegmark’s forecast that I disagree with the least, because the difference between 50% and 80% is quite small for the purposes of this calculation. I think it’s much more important for him to justify his 30% and 70%, and I assume you would agree with me about that.
The reasoning is that retaliating is US doctrine—they generally respond to hostile actions in-kind, to deter them. If Ukraine got nuked, the level of outrage would place intense pressure on Biden to do something, and the hawks would become a lot louder than the doves, similar to after the 9/11 attacks. In the case of Russia, the US has exhausted most non-military avenues already. And US is a very militaristic country—they have many times bombed countries (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) for much less. So military action just seems very likely. (Involving all of NATO or not, as michel says.)
“A Russian nuclear strike would change the course of the conflict and almost certainly provoke a “physical response” from Ukraine’s allies and potentially from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a senior NATO official said on Wednesday.
Any use of nuclear weapons by Moscow would have “unprecedented consequences” for Russia, the official said on the eve of a closed-door meeting of NATO’s nuclear planning group on Thursday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said a nuclear strike by Moscow would “almost certainly be drawing a physical response from many allies, and potentially from NATO itself”. “-Reuters
I have heard of talk that the US might instead arm Ukraine with tactical nukes of its own, although I think that would be at least comparably risky as military retaliation.
There is a non zero probability that even if NATO can’t come to a decision, the US would just respond unilaterally, so while it’s likely not 80% I would say the probability of significant retaliation is probably quite high?
If you think it’s higher than 50% but lower than 80%, it seems like there isn’t much room there to me?
50% vs 80% is a huge difference, 4x in odds terms.
Not for the purposes of Tegmark’s calculation. Did you check how he uses this number?
My point is that a forecaster can have the level of precision where they say 50% is much too low and 80% is much too high. I agree that 50% vs 80% only makes a 1.6x difference in the final number, which is fairly small when you and Tegmark differ by 30x.
I agree with this, but for the reason you specified I think that precision would be of greater utility elsewhere.
Why are you saying “almost certain” instead of giving a probability?
Many people who have power in Russia have power because they were over decades loyal to Putin. They are likely going to lose power if Putin would be overthrown.
I recently heard from a Ukrainian that part of the demands of the EU for what Ukraine would need to do in terms of minority protection of Russian speakers is pro-Russian propaganda. The Ukrainians pretend that Elon Musk that spends gifted them ~80 million worth of StarLink is anti-Ukrainian.
One interesting aspect of the reaction to Musk’s proposal in German media, is the absence of citing anyone from the German government. As winter progresses the pain from lack of Russian gas will rise in Europe, moving troops in Winter in the Ukraine is harder. That shifts the politics into making a peace deal more likely.
It’s quite clear why it’s worth suffering when Russland attacks parts of Ukraine that don’t want to be Russian. On the other hand, the case for why European should suffer to support Ukraine to retake Crimea when Crimeans don’t want to be part of Ukraine is much harder.
This months leak that they admonished an Ukrainian operation for assassinating a Russian citizen in Moscow. That suggests that even the US is not willing to let the Ukrainians just do whatever they want.
Russia asked for more than just NATO expansion. They also asked for decentralization of power to protect the Russian minority. It would be easy for the West to agree not to expand NATO but not to get Ukraine to provide decentralization.
Russia also wanted to withdraw of US troops from the baltic states which is also a nonstarter.
Yeah, that was clearly a non-starter, and perhaps a deliberate one they could drop later to save face and claim they’d won a compromise. My point was simply that since the West didn’t even offer a promise not to let Ukraine into NATO, I don’t think they’d ever agree to a “Kosovo”.
Huge concessions are usually not publically announced, so it’s hard to know what was actually on offer.
The West would easily agree with giving Russian speakers in those Ukrainian regions with a majority that identifies as primarily Russian speakers the kind of minority rights that the French population of Quebec has. On the other hand, Ukraine does not want to give its Russian speakers those kinds of rights.
I don’t believe that Ukraine would have the votes in parliament to change the Ukrainian constitution in the necessary way as it seems even unwilling to give Russian speakers the rights for which the EU asks as a precondition to joining the EU.
The population of Russia believed that the minority rights of the populations of Russians in Ukraine got violated and that the Russian government needed to act on that front. Getting a concession on NATO but not on minority rights just wouldn’t have been enough domestically.
>I view it as highly unlikely (<10%) that Putin would accept “Vietnam” without first going nuclear, because it would almost certainly result in him being overthrown and jailed or killed.
Not obvious to me that this is true. If it was, I would have expected more escalation/effort from Russia already by this point.
Much of the analysis hinges on this, so I think it needs to thought through more deeply. I would argue that the odds of Putin “being overthrown and jailed or killed” are higher if he gives the order to use nukes, than if he accepts “Vietnam”.
The NATO response to nukes would be catastrophic. Any remaining support from China/India would disappear. Further, the war is becoming less popular within Russia. Russia escalating to nukes and the possibility of all out war weakens Putins position both internally and externally.
My guess is that withdrawal would also be met with a certain degree of “relief” from a significant portion of the Russian population.
There is a long history of Goliaths accepting and surviving embarrassing defeats. The level of control Putin exerts internally makes it more likely he would survive and spin “Vietnam” into something not too embarrassing for him personally, instead pinning the blame on an incompetent and corrupt military. Much of the Russian news media is already taking this approach.
You haven’t factored in the possibility Putin gets deposed by forces inside Russia who might be worried about a nuclear war and conditional on use of tactical nukes, intuitively that seems likely enough to materially lower p(kaboom).
EDIT: Removed “nuclear arsenal not working because Russia didn’t bother to maintain them” as I don’t find that especially likely on reflection.
An aside on the level of destruction we can anticipate: Nuclear war is not an existential threat. Fears of nuclear winter, which may be an existential threat, are likely overblown as the well known soot production model is based on poor research. Soot production in the high atmosphere is like 1-2 orders of magnitude below what the original studies suggested.
Strategy suggests that military targets, ports and sites of industrial production would serve as far better targets than highly populated regions or areas with large amount of flammable material which could create soot. Some important military bases, like missile silos, are hardened against nuclear weapons and would require two consecutive strikes to confidently take down. Which reduces the number of war heads available for non-military targets.
Nuclear warheads are shrinking in number, and are quite difficult to maintain so there are fewer usable warheads than you might expect. Moreover, the most famours soot production studies make a wide variety of errors, which later simulations didn’t bear out. The amount of suit produced by nuclear war is much lower due to strategic reasons, the difference between usable nuclear weapons and ones which could theoretically be used, an incorrect scaling law for the burn area-nuclear yield relationship, improperly accounting for oxygen starvation and the low likelihood of foot reaching the upper troposphere which is crucial to the nuclear winter mechanism.
That said, there hasn’t been enough research on the topic and we can’t be too sure of what would happen if there was all out nuclear war. Maybe some exotic effects would occur and instead of hundreds of millions of deaths it would be billions. Or perhaps the damage to logistic chains and global norms would be enough to cripple our civilization. But the soot production thing? Probably not going to kill us all.
They’re by Bean, a commentator on ACX and datasecretslox. The thread he started on nuclear winter has some good discussion on the topic.
Bostrom, “Existential Risks” v.3, 1.1.1
What reflection changed your probability here? The probability here seems non-zero to me, and maybe likely.
EDIT: not sure what the down votes are about. Curious as to what made you change your mind.
That wasn’t something I’ve put actual thought into, or was something that came from an expert I trusted. Maybe it is true, but I’d need to think more about it before I was OK with claiming it was so. And I just didn’t feel like doing that.
Algon, please provide references to peer-reviewed journals supporting your claims that smoke predictions are overblown, etc. Since there’s a steady stream of peer-reviewed papers quantifying nuclear winter in serious science journals, I find myself unconvinced by criticism that appears only on blogs and without the detailed data, GitHub code, etc. that tends to accompany peer-reviewed research. Thanks!
The Reisner et al paper (and the back and forth between Robock’s group and Reisner’s group) casts doubt on this:
Uh, the blog posts I linked to do reference peer reviewed journals which criticize soot production models or the evidence for them. Here is a post on the EA forum that does provide a model and the data they used to generate it, along with plenty of references, and has incorporated the critiques of one researcher who studies nuclear winter. The article’s conclusion is in the same direction as the blog posts I linked to.
I was just presenting the gist of it for people who don’t like clicking on links.
I’m confused, the EA Forum post you linked seems to roughly agree with the nuclear winter doomers like Xia et al, not with the more optimistic datasecretlox thread you linked earlier. Quote from the EA Forum post:
Mostly I was talking about the soot production. I think it is less doomy than normal for nuclear winter doomers, which is why I said directionally. But yeah, it is a lot more doomy than Bean is. I should have noted that in my comment.
Thanks for this. The Bean thread reassures me somewhat.
I don’t know what it said pre-edit but your description sounds like it was directionally accurate (depending on how strongly it was worded).
Here, my estimate is much lower (about 25%). Talk is cheap, so strongly worded statements in itself are only weak evidence for future intentions if carrying out those threats poses threats on this level (and I do think it to be likely that the relevant players in NATO are aware of the level of risk).
I would put it differently: there is a good reason for western leaders to threaten a strong response, whether or not they intend to carry it out. The reason is to deter Putin from launching nukes in the first place.
However I haven’t heard any threats against Russian territory and I’d like a link/citation for this.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine says it can use nukes if the existence of the Russian state is under threat, so if NATO attacks Russia, they would need to use a very carefully measured response, and they would have to somehow clearly communicate that the incoming missiles are non-nuclear… I’m guessing such strikes would be limited to targets that are near the Ukrainian border and which threaten Ukraine (e.g. fuel depos, missile launchers, staging areas). I don’t see any basis for a probability as high as 70% for Putin starting a nuclear WW3 just because NATO hits a few military targets in Russia.
I notice I am most confused on the Expansion → KABOOM 70%.
I have been in a model that Expansion would be limited within Ukraine, annexed territories including Crimea included. Therefore I have (completely subjectively) estimated Expansion → KABOOM to 1/1000 or lower?
It seems to me that as Russia has moved its nuclear weapon submarines from Crimea to Russian mainland port, that this could be a shared model also in Russia.
Why do you see Expansion to include attacks on Russian mainland?
If no attacks on Russian mainland, does this alter your previous estimation of 70% of Expansion → KABOOM?
One question in the back of my mind regarding the likelihoods here about Russia’s demonstrated maintenance performance in its military. Yes, strategic systems will have to have both a higher priority and, one might think, higher quality professionals performing all the tasks and management. But is that really a safe assumption?
Is there really any reason to believe that the corruption that has hamstrung a the Russian military in general is not also pervasive in strategic weapons? Seems to me that would be driven by the underlying culture of autocratic regimes which seem poorly suited to maintaining high quality and honest assessments of actual state.
Had this same thought. Seems worthy of discussion.
Interesting blog post that some of Russia’s most recent nuclear tech may not work well and may be motivated more to bargain with than to use.
EDIT: Similar points made here: https://www.sandboxx.us/blog/russias-massively-powerful-nukes-are-strategic-duds/
both posts are prior to Ukraine invasion.
I think it would be a mistake to believe that everything in Russia’s nuclear arsenal is 100% working order.
Sounds there’s some amount of Potemkin bombs.
This is why Biden is looking for an “offramp” for Putin. Is this included in your “<10%” figure?
If Putin wants to avoid being jailed or killed, a nuclear attack that by your own logic leads to a 56% chance of WWIII seems worse for him. Would ordering his military to escalate in this way be more likely to result in compliance, or a coup?
I would like to see stronger argumentation for that 10% figure, explicitly factoring in the likelihood of an “offramp,” the threat of a coup if Putin attempts to go nuclear, and justifying why Putin couldn’t halt the invasion while still hanging onto power.
Who’d be doing the jailing? Whoever replaces him in Russia? Whatever powers in Russia are likely to effect Putin’s replacement can’t accomplish this if Putin ignites WWIII, and so they are incentivized to offer him an offramp into peaceful retirement, or even simply an end to the war with Putin still in power.
Obama said that if Assad used chemical weapons in Syria, that would be a “red line” that would lead to US military involvement. That’s a strongly worded statement that didn’t happen. If we didn’t invade Syria, a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, then why do you think it’s so likely that we’d take a military action leading to such a high probability of WWIII? Ukraine isn’t in NATO.
You frame your 70% probability of escalation from expansion to to WWIII as having two components:
Global freakout causes de-escalation
I think you are lacking a third option:
Delay tactics. The US and Russia look for the minimal “retaliations” that appease hawks while avoiding progression toward WWIII. More sanctions, cyberattacks, proxy fighting, weapons in Ukraine, spying, providing incentives for Russians to flee the country.
If anything, the list should make you feel relaxed. Consider the pattern:
Peace → tension → nuclear brinksmanship → nuclear war
At any step, successful de-escalation brings you to an earlier one.
Items on the list you cite are pre-selected for being escalated. So far, only in WWII has a nuclear attack actually occurred. And this was in the unique historical context of the USA being the only country to have nukes.
In every other case, de-escalation successfully moved the conflict toward a lower level, and ultimately back to peace.
The more items on the list of nuclear near-misses, the more convinced you should be that de-escalation works, no matter how close we get to nuclear war.
You should, however, increase your likelihood of nuclear war the more escalated we become in the current situation.
That’s an interesting argument, but it ignores the selection effect of survivor bias. If you play Russian roulette many times and survive, that doesn’t mean that the risk you took was small. Similarly, if you go with the Xia et al estimate that nuclear winter kills 99% of Americans and Europeans, the fact that we find ourself being in that demographic in 2022 doesn’t mean that the past risks we took were small: if you do the Bayesean calculation, you’d find the most likely world for a surviving Americans or European in 2022 would be a world where no nuclear winter had occurred, even if the ab initio risk was quite large.
You can also make direct risk estimates. For example, JFK estimated that the risk of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis was about 33%. And he said that not knowing about the Arkhipov incident. If Orlov’s account is accurate, then there was a 75% chance of a nuclear attack on the US that day, since there was only a 25% probability that Arkhipov would have been on that particular one of the four nuclear-armed subs.
If we live to 2080 and, in that time, double the total number of nuclear near-misses, would you feel like that was evidence that baseline nuclear risk in any single incident is on average higher or lower than you currently think?
Where is the 99 % coming from? I can’t see it in the paper.
I’m not at all well-calibrated enough to evaluate your probabilities. They feel sensible to me, but good forecasters seem to give much lower probabilities, so I think they might be right. A naive alternative would be to just evenly spread it out by the number of options, so maybe 1⁄6 for transitioning to kaboom, 1⁄5 for transitioning to expansion, and 1⁄5 for transitioning to KABOOM, leading to 0.7% probability.
On the other hand, there’s probably a ton of correlations in the probabilities for each step. If the nations involved are more inclined to escalations, then all of the steps become more likely. The sort of probabilities I gave above become terribly inaccurate in reductionistic models if the correlations are not correctly modelled. So I would wonder what effects the correlations have; presumably they would raise the probability a lot up from 0.7%.
Overall I would like to see more evaluation of the risk of imminent global nuclear war.
Perhaps a nuclear war today would reduce the possibility of human extinction within this century. It appears that AGI is close, without substantial progress in AI Safety. A nuclear war, would, I believe cause a major slowdown in AI progress, increasing the probability of getting an aligned AI at the end.
I enjoyed reading this silver-lining comment. :)
I think this modeling assumes Russia can escalate conventionally and that the conventional NATO response would be perceived as escalatory by Russia even if it destroyed their army. Russia can’t escalate conventionally: they have run out of tanks and men.
Ukraine is already doing a great job of destroying Russia’s army with NATO weapons, and Russia hasn’t used nukes to stop it. In the aftermath of usage, increasing the rate of that destruction is just more of the same. Even if Russia would like to escalate more, they need to actually stop the army from liberating Ukraine, and nukes are not good at that. Jumping up the ladder to attacking NATO territory is unlikely, especially if NATO views edge cases as reasonable self-defense not worth starting something over (e.g. firing on a radar targeting a Russian airplane from Poland). The threat to nuke NATO isn’t credible, and Russia has downplayed its threats as Ukraine succeeds more, saying things like it doesn’t know yet where the border it is defending is.
I think there are a great many actions NATO could take that would hurt Russia to the point of quick victory and are unlikely to be worth war, without loosing essential credibility that would force Russia into nuclear escalation.
Smashing stuff up in Syria
Sending Ukraine even better weapons: GMLRS are nice and all, but we’ve not broken out the CBU-97′s for them, or clustered artillery, or the fun new warhead for the HIMARS.
Bombing Russian ground forces in Ukraine semicovertly
Sending MBTs to Ukraine
Giving Ukraine cruise missiles
Sending in ground reinforcements, with very clear “we are not going further then the deliniated boundary” signalling
While these all go beyond what has happened so far, they aren’t the kind of provocation that invites more nukes, and Russia can’t really use nuclear weapons to stop them because nuclear weapons are not good at stopping these things. There’s a reason we don’t have tactical nukes in the US, and that’s because conventional smart weapons can do the same job better.
Ultimately I think Russia is attempting to use the nuclear threat because they can’t use nukes to get what they want, and I don’t think they can threaten to stop Ukraine and assistence credibly.
If Putin uses a nuke in Ukraine, NATO will respond by decimating the Russian invasion force in Ukraine (probably excluding Crimea) with conventional air power. That should be seen as de-escalating, since 1) only a nuclear response can really be an escalation to a nuclear provocation, and 2) Russia’s pre-war border is not violated. It will allow the Ukrainians to take back their land to pre-war boundaries (“Vietnam”). Putin knows this (it’s probably been “explained” to him by Western leaders), so the likelihood he would choose that path is small. Even if he does, I think the likelihood he would opt for further nuclear escalation with a first strike beyond Ukraine is much smaller than you claim. The West would never opt for a nuclear first strike, because of their clear conventional advantage.
In other words, both the kaboom and the KABOOM must be initiated by Putin and have no upsides for him. That’s two huge hurdles to Armageddon, and I find your probability estimates overly pessimistic.
I think we need to view it from Putin’s angle. What will keep him in office (because if he loses office, he might very well lose his life, certainly his freedom)?
One possibility is that by dropping a small nuke, that hopefully will only be met with a conventional weapons response, Russia will then be isolated from the world, and Putin imagines he can survive in power, ‘forever’ raging against the West, much like North Korea, or Iran to some extent.
Other options are that Russians themselves remove Putin before he can drop a bomb, or that somehow he negotiates a withdrawal, but I don’t see other Russians allowing that, but maybe there’s more resistance within Russia than I realise.
Scary times indeed!
What % are the 70% that Ukraine doesn’t get nuked composed of?
I think Russia has already suffered quite a lot of embarrassment and hasn’t nuked yet. According to your model, why not?
Of the 4 NS pipelines ( 2 NS1, 2 NS2), 3 are off line, one is still operational, hence I think we shouldn’t rule out the scenario where gas flow from Russia to Germany would resume
You are absolutely right. I missed this point in Max’s post.
If Putin is lucky and the winter in Germany turns out to be especially cold, or if some of their gas storage facilities suddenly explode for some strange reason (I really hope they guard them better than their railways), Germany might have to make serious concessions and lift some of the sanctions in order to start using NS2. Putin will announce this as a huge victory, since launching NS2 was doubtful even before the war.
That is exactly why Putin destroyed the other 3 pipelines. A simple resumption of the gas supply on NS1 would not have made it a big victory, because he himself had stopped it and it would not have been necessary to lift any sanctions to resume operation.
I will return with thoughts on adjusting Max’s assigned probabilities, but prefer to start with two more ‘qualitative’ arguments. First, I am not persuaded by statements and events to date that Russia is experiencing severe setbacks in the last 1-2 weeks. I noted a Ukrainian boast—hard to credit it with a milder term—that it has recovered 900 square kilometers of Russian-annexed territory. If true, that amounts to roughly 18 by 18 miles, a rather insignificant amount of steppe. Eventual negotiations can be expected to haggle over much larger chunks of territory, and in the half-forgotten lexicon of European great power competition, such adjustments do not throw possible outcomes into either the ‘Vietnam’ or the ‘Kosovo’ bin—more like Alsace-Lorraine.
Second, it is very important to look closely at the actual correlation of forces. Even before it crossed into Ukraine, Russian military capability was inferior to NATO’s, and Russia’s GDP and demographics promise no chance of significantly altering that imbalance. The only exceptions are in the near parity of nuclear forces, and in minor advantages in the numbers of certain conventional ground combat systems such as field artillery that do not translate into significant offensive military power. Russia does not dare (and has not, since February 2022, dared) to provoke direct war with NATO. Hence, by the way, their very real concern since the mid-90s with NATO eastern expansion.
In that context, Putin’s recent references to nuclear weapons are simply restatements of Russia’s national strategic doctrine since before he came to power in 1999 - and both represent weakness, not power. Russia can, quite demonstrably, barely prosecute one regional war against a third-rate contiguous neighbor. The prospect of direct NATO intervention—a prospect heightened logically not by Ukrainian success but by Ukrainian weakness and exhaustion well-concealed by Western media and leaders—is very frightening to Putin. Hence what I call the ‘Blazing Saddles’ ploy of holding a gun to his own head. Putin cannot fight NATO conventionally, and cannot prevail in a nuclear war either. He can only hope to engender the response that Cleavon Little got in the movie: “Don’t move, men—he might be crazy enough to do it!” Hence, I reject the notion that Putin would see any advantage in any form of nuclear weapons use in Ukraine. As another commenter noted, talk is cheap. Putin’s “threats” are no worse than those of Biden and other senior NATO leaders and spokesmen.
The unspoken rule since 1949 has been that nuclear powers do not engage in direct combat with one another, proxy wars, insurgency/counterinsugency, bluffs and bluster notwithstanding. That rule is an important firebreak holding nuclear war at bay, needs to be maintained, and in my estimation will be.
The outcome I consider most likely—unless the US and NATO continue to prevent it—is a negotiated solution that will involve considerable compromise on both sides.
This analysis assumes that if Russia uses nuclear weapons:
Military response from NATO is the worst outcome and largest deterrent, and
China, India and the rest of the world don’t have interest in the nuclear issue and their relations with Russia would not change.
For Russian nuclear brinkmanship to be effective, atomic weapon use would need an outcome without complete isolation and regime collapse after a military win. Becoming another North Korea would be huge loss for Russia and put the Putin’s regime in danger.
Putin’s regime wants to frame the war as NATO-Russia military conflict. Refusing to play the game and communicating that the response for Kaboom would be maximum pain and no gain is more likely 
WH is working trough China and India to communicate that using nuclear weapons would result a crippling unified economic and diplomatic response, even from Russia’s friends and neutral parties.
China has already signaled and messaged to everyone that China will consider the use of nuclear weapons unacceptable.
Dangers of giving up to nuclear blackmail:
Russia can use the same tactic again to get some other thing.
It sets global precedent (North Korea and others are watching).
: During Obama’s presidency NSC wargamed against Russia’s new nuclear strategy. Russia invades Baltics and uses low-yield nuclear weapon against German weapons storage. Principals level wargame chose not to use nuclear response. source: “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War” (2020) by Fred Kaplan.
I think there is one scenario you have left out, where the shooting war sort of stagnates, but is still fairly intense, and Russia bleeds itself out economically and socially maintaining the war. So, neither escalation nor de-escalation. I don’t consider it to be a deescalation (Ie. “Libya”), because it’s a form of loss for Russia, but it’s slow enough that it doesn’t necessarily register immediately as a “Vietnam” and there’s time for internal unrest. At some point they will implode internally (coup/revolution/whatever), or they will escalate, or both. No idea of probabilities.
The global elites and media either think that nuclear war is impossible, or they are strongly influenced by the current environmentalist zeitgeist that considers humans to be overpopulated parasites on Mother Earth. I think this makes nuclear war much more likely, as they are disconnected enough from reality that they think bad things won’t happen, or they are deluded that the bads things are good in some way.
Nice post Mr. Tegmark, ty! Regarding your statement
would you (or can anyone else?) kindly supply direct quotes (please not merely citations of news articles that paraphrase or that quote less than complete sentences) of some such statements? For the ones not cited or quoted, maybe Mr. Tegmark will clarify whether he means key current NATO officials or merely key current officials of NATO member countries, or whether perhaps retired former officials is what was instead meant? Fwiw the reason for my request, besides the obvious one that the claim is a key one in the analysis, is that the only people from whom I’ve read the claimed statements are current couch-sitters and not even “NATO leader” ones. At most they are former nonmilitary govt officials. Have retired generals such as Hodges or Hertling said NATO direct military response is highly likely? If the only such opinions that could be found were of this “armchair” variety, I’d say they’d give some grounding to Mr. Tegmark’s remarkably high “80%” estimate. (So far I see a quote from Hodges that characterizes his probability estimate as US “could well” do this or that direct military action”, which is laughably different to the “WILL” (no kidding, all-caps) stated in the headline of the newspaper article in which the actual quote is sort of eventually dribbled out.)
Edited to add: [Here’s a retired general] (https://mobile.twitter.com/mccaffreyr3/status/1568769530658435072) whose probability estimate seems to go a bit higher than Hodges’ “could well...”. I’m really starting to think that such couch surfers (no offense to couch surfers) are actually who Mr. Tegmark rather slyly means by “key NATO leaders” but if he did mean actual NATO officials then I’d consider that to be a huge difference.
I agree with the underlying logic of your argument, but see the percentages as quite arbitrary. What would you consider the margin of error (perhaps “error” is the wrong word here) for your percentage estimates? Surely you are not professing to be certain on the exact numbers.
What are your market positions? What bets have you made in response to this knowledge?
There’s potential paths that this model doesn’t include. I have to believe that the Five Eyes have done some amount of work to find ways to hamstring Russias nuclear capabilities (I recall stories that “we” were able to sabotage chips in in the supply chain for Iraq’s missiles, for example). Meaning, there’s a chance Russia does some kind of nuclear launch and it’s horribly botched for one reason or another. Their own incompetence, supply chain sabotage, etc. They may, then, be reluctant to launch another.
I don’t know what a reasonable prior is to set on this. Much has been made of the out-dated technology the US has to manage our own nuclear arsenal, and we spend an awful lot more on our military than Russia does. Who really knows what they’re capable of here? So far, they haven’t accurately estimated their own military strength.
There are probably other outcomes we haven’t thought of. 1⁄6 seems high, but I take the point that we could be underestimating the threat here.
EDIT: Will take that this is an unpopular opinion, but not sure why?
From the current numbers (-3 and −4) your post does not seem to be heavily downvoted. I believe there may be some users here who see any arguments for a smaller threat as dangerous. As long as there are not many upvotes, even a very small number of users with this attitude could lead to those numbers. We have seen a similar dynamic with the public health authorities during the Covid crisis (prioritizing message control over epistemic rationality).
Thanks. Was feeling crazy for a moment.
What are the numbers based on, especially 30% of Ukraine winning? So far, the retired US and NATO generals have voiced that Ukraine has achieved “irrevesible momentum” of winning.
Any evidence you can counter argue that with?
It feels less irreversible today.
If you mean the massive strikes on civilian infrastructure, then no, even the complete destruction of said Ukrainian infrastructure will not significantly improve Russia’s chances in this war. This only creates hardship for the civilian population and increases the overall cost of aid to Ukraine for Western countries.
The Russian army has proven time and time again that it is incapable of attacking. Even in June, when the Russian army greatly outnumbered the Ukrainian army in artillery, and Ukraine was losing 300–500 soldiers a day, Russian troops advanced slowly and with huge losses.
One of the reasons is their complete inability to coordinate between artillery and infantry. The correct approach is to hit enemy defenses with artillery and attack immediately after the hit. They managed to repeatedly fail even this simple coordination exercise.
Recently, the Russian army even proved that it was not capable of organizing an effective defense. Yes, the mobilization will probably help with defense (with huge casualties), but it will hardly help with attack.
Even if only the military remain in Ukraine and the entire civilian population is killed or flees the destroyed cities, the Russian army will not be able to win.
I wouldn’t say that Ukraine has “irreversible momentum”, although it has an effective army that functions as it should. But it looks more like a complete lack of ability to achieve any momentum on the Russian side.
Even with massive air strikes? Couldn’t they just carpet bomb any Ukrainian military position?
In the past, we’ve often seen that officers in charge of nukes don’t launch them (Archipov, the Generals in the Trump admin seemed minded to ensure they got a look in before launch). What probability do you assign that when told to launch a nuke, the Russian officers don’t?
Putin can throw officers that don’t obey into prison, Trump couldn’t.
I doubt France & Germany, let alone Hungary or Turkey are going to consent to a NATO retaliation. So I think the relevant question is whether US/UK/Eastern Europe are going to go it alone.
Marginally Compelling had a great podcast episode with Josh Centers back in March of this year on surviving a nuclear attack. https://polimath.substack.com/p/get-ready-for-nuclear-war-with-josh#details
I haven’t seen it mentioned, so I’m mentioning it.
Dear Max Tegmark,
I read your risk assessment with an abstract mathematical scenario model with great interest, but was also very worrying, because your result does not bode well and gives no prospect of a possible happy ending.
However, I see a number of errors in the approach or better it does not reflect our current world situation. There’s just a bunch of undisclosed facts that put everything in a different light. In your statement, dear Max Tegmark, these developments in the world have not been taken into account. Your model turns out to be like a model for the Cuban Missile Crisis. So it’s stuck with a look back at the sixties. It’s like Hans Rosling’s book “Factfulness”: we always have to learn that the world is different today than it was in the past.
I believe that, on the one hand, we a r e already in the midst of a war between East and West; only the war is conducted differently today. And furthermore, both sides have a “new general” sitting at the war map tables today: I consider the development of artificial intelligence to be so advanced that it is definitely used for tactical consultation and strategic planning, and if that is not the case yet, it will shortly be involved in war planning and decisions.
Of course, Russia has similar support, only they are in a far weaker position as the US leads by miles in AI development. Alpha-Zero, the super chess-playing, self-learning system, like Alpha-Star, is ideal for transferring to “similar problems”. And a constantly changing war situation poses similar problems. Here, too, it’s basically about the best use of matter, space and time; and about tactics and strategies. The self-learning system is fed with data from space surveillance, the news from Ukraine and Russia and learns extremely quickly how wars are waged and won by absorbing all previous wars and battles in history, recorded on the Internet and in literature, and uses millions of battle simulations against itself for achieving highest levels to the point that his tactics and strategy are largely invincible, at least bringing Russia to the edge of defeat. At the same time, all measures and recommendations must be dosed in such a way that a psychological system component keeps Putin’s potential decision on a nuclear strike as low as possible.
I think that’s how warfare works today. And it is real, no SF.
And we saw the first results recently, with everyone wondering how Ukraine managed to launch such a successful counteroffensive.
Of course, a nuclear escalation by Russia cannot be ruled out 100%, but the probability is well below your 1:6 model.
If that were to happen, the possible consequences would be Armageddon, perhaps like Harlan Ellison’s 1968 Hugo-winning story “I have no mouth and I must scream” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_No_Mouth, _and_I_Must_Scream) described. The status of today’s AI leads not only to the best game players, whether chess, go or video games, the best medical scientists or chemical, biological inventors and future predectors, but also to the best war advisors, which the Pentagon has likely just integrated into the General Staff. Only with AI the Ukraine problem can and will be solved. And we will see that soon. At least in 2023 you will remember my words.
Rudolph Angeli, Hamburg
What are your candidates for targets for a tactical nuclear use, and your estimate of the yield of the strike?
What is the specific military need that will be met by setting off a nuclear weapon on the current battlefield which would be unmet by precision conventional strikes or massed fires from artillery or aviation?
A professional would have an answer to these questions.
I know this is an estimate for imminent global nuclear war (for which I’d give a lower estimate, but even if it were 100x lower, 0.17% -- and it isn’t—that would be wholly unacceptable) but I don’t want global nuclear war in my lifetime.
So it’s necessary to also consider how various outcomes of the current war may have on the liklihood of global nuclear war in the next decades. In this vein, the best argument for ensuring that Ukraine wins in spite of Russian nuclear threats, is that allowing Russia to achieve a relatively favorable outcome on the basis of its nuclear threats incentives proliferation—of nukes, and of nuke threats. This would surely increase the liklihood of global nuclear war in the next decades, whether through error or escalation.
The best outcome of the war in my opinion would be a restart of global nuclear weapon elimination. It’s even conceivable (though I’m not wishing for it!) that escalation to use of nukes in Ukraine is the insult that the world needs to eliminate nukes, and any leader who makes any move toward getting them.
To be honest I would like to understand a little bit more on why and how the parameters of this little model were “tuned”. I mean, I am not saying that the model is wrong (because the outcomes are forcibly those) but I would like to understand more on how those probabilities were tuned or at least estimated.
Let’s put in this way: to possibly have an hint to calculate and have a reasonable estimate I think we should consider the chicken game scenario. Because at the moment we are in a stage of the war that is a “chicken game”, in which neither Ukraine, neither Russia wants to divert from the road that leads to the brink. In addition we should consider one thing (this is not a position that says that NATO is wrong or so, but is a matter of fact), both the opponents want to keep going in the war, based on game theory: if they will sit down to a peace agreement both will earn less than they can earn winning the war, and this scenario was possible only with the western armaments. At the beginning of the invasion, who was more determined for sitting down on a peace table was Ukraine, because Ukr could still take back some territories that were invaded with a negotiated peace agreement.
So my suggestion to try to understand the closeness of the probabilities to the reality is to understand in human behavior the “chicken game” outcomes in other situations, because the human reasoning probably is the same and to understand how much the mankind would go to the brink (or, in Italian “Muoia Sansone e tutti i filistei”, from biblic tales of Sanson) avoiding to be a “chicken”.
On the impact of WW3, I think that the scenario depends on how extended will be the war. If you consider the seminal studies of Turco and Sagan, I think that the nuclear winter would be far more dangerous, leading the human race to the brink of extinction.
Second remark: I would love to see some percentages also on those scenarios, one that could lead to kaboom, one that could potentially lead to a de-escalation or a kaboom:
What if the internal political dynamics could lead to a coup that will take the hardliners on power? That could be a likely scenario, that resembles the attempted August coup of 1991.
What if another military defeat could lead to mass demonstration as Argentina losing in Falklands in 1982? Do you think that this would lead to Putin political end or to a bloody repression and a worsening in the war?
Another point that could potentially lead to kaboom:
What if the west crosses one of the red lines placed by Putin? Because the actual kaboom scenario is based on the assumption that Russia uses the nuke on Ukraine, but what if the west will “escalate” with more powerful armaments? What are the probabilities for you that Russia would nuke (or use conventional weapons on) Poland distribution centers or NATO bases rather than Ukraine?
Lots of interesting opinions in the comments—these days it is rare to read comments about this war without lots of emotional stuff.
However, I must point out that many of the points are based on what people think about Putin as a person. And their opinions are heavily based on what western media want them to think.
I think in the grand scheme it is not important what Putin’s personal traits are. The most important is who are the parties in this war and what are their interests. Putin is just a figure that some internal russian parties agreed on, its not like he’s on his own.
As it happened before, world capitalism tries to solve a huge number of unsolved problems through the war.
Major parties(of course, just my personal view) in this war are(and when I mention country, I don’t mean people, I mean capital in the first place):
US. Sky-high debt and endless dollar printing finally got to the point when the internal economy is starting to crack under pressure. EU has become too much of a competition and needs to be weakened. Huge numbers of refugees from the countries devastated by US did the first step. Second step was “green energy”. And third step is removing cheap russian energy. As a result—some of the european industry players have already moved factories to US, some are preparing to do the same. Does US want a nuclear conflict? No, I don’t think so. There’s no gain from that for them, and lots of potential losses. They have lots of interest in keeping Ukraine on fire, but that fire don’t have to be nuclear.
EU. Decades of using cheap energy allowed european industry to thrive. But this age has finished, and there seems to be no going back from that. Large capitals are about to be moved out from Europe in different directions, mostly to the US. But while there, they’re not interested in keeping the war going. And obviously, they don’t have any interest in nuclear war starting out—the US have chances at least to survive it, the EU doesn’t.
UK. They didn’t have such a big dependency on energy from russia, but lots of cheap gas in Europe kept other gas sellers from raising prices. So UK is losing cheap energy too, but as far as I know, they have much more sustainable economics foundation(this doesn’t mean regular people won’t suffer). And they made wise move with the Brexit—first rat out of the sinking ship. Do they want nuclear war? I think not, but I also think that they don’t care about it on the same level as other europe does. Unless the Island is targeted directly, they have lots of chances to survive through that—and thrive afterwards, major competitors being kicked to the stone age. But the risks are enormous and the prize is very ghostly.
Russia. Last 10+ years I saw increasing number of links with the western world being cut. When I speak to my friends colleagues in Europe, US and UK, it seems that they’re always imagining picture somewhat like Biff’s Future from BTtF2 or something like that. But the life is going on normally—roads are getting better, houses are being built. People are going to work. People discuss the war a lot, and there’s lots of different opinions. Nobody is being jailed just because of their point. Usually, it happens when expression of the point takes extreme measures—but if you do that in any “free and democratic” country—one will face the same or even worse consequences. People are getting tired of war. People are getting tired of constant lies—both by russian government and and western media. The war has been started by oligarchs and its being kept on by them. Do they want nuclear war? No, this would be the end of the world as we know it.
So, out of four major actors, not a single one, as far as I can see, will benefit from nuclear war. Almost nobody will gain nothing useful from it, and the losses are incredibly high. The “regular” war effort, however is very handy for everyone (except Ukraine). This makes me think nuclear strikes are very unlikely to happen. I wouldn’t even give it 5%, not to say 30%.
If it were up to regular people to decide—the Earth would’ve been perished already.
There’s an implicit assumption in this line of reasoning that military response is inherently escalatory but you are demonstrating with this line of reasoning that fear of military response is de-escalatory!
The assumption beneath that is that you are rational but your counterparty is unlike you and cannot be trusted to be rational—but if this is the case then you are trapped in a room with a madman with a knife and the only rational move is first strike.
If true, this seems to strongly undermine the credibility of the U.S. in the eyes of most world leaders.
Especially the leaders of India, Africa, Brazil, etc., who would almost certainly share fears of being next on the chopping block.
I can’t see how this is possibly advantageous for the US government to suggest.
That map is from 1956. It has absolutely no relevance to the current US attitude toward China.
Why have some other contemporaneous documents been kept secret?
200X to 201X US government regularly decided 195X to 196X US government files weren’t suitable for release.
(And it obviously didn’t jump out from the secret archives by random chance. Folks must have physically sorted it, approved it, etc.)
If you mean that governments 50 years later don’t need to worry about how people perceive past documents, that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny since there are files relating to nuclear weapons policy made by governments long past that are known to be actively kept secret much longer than this one.
As in reviewers looked at them and decided to keep them secret for another 25 years because some subset of nuclear weapons policy files from the 1950s would be too damaging to the present day US and its foreign allies to release.
Clearly then it’s understood that people can perceive past documents to have a relation to current US attitudes, and that declassification officials have such a fear for some other contemporaneous documents.
EDIT: In other words, it doesn’t seem credible that some parts of 1956 policy are considered so potentially damaging to the present US by experts that they’re still secret today, while this part supposedly has no relevance at all.
Because it was irrelevant to their 2006 targeting strategy (and their current one), and they had reason to know that the people who mattered were aware of that, so they had no national security reason to keep it secret. Classification isn’t (supposed to be) a public relations tool.
Or because they screwed up and didn’t think it was a big enough screwup to try to claw it back.
Or because the stuff they keep secret is of an entirely different kind. We don’t know what that stuff is.
Or because they were playing 18-dimensional chess and trying to send some kind of message with the map… and that message could as easily be a lie as the truth. And for that matter, 2006 was 15 years ago and they might want to send a different (true or false) message if they were doing it now.
The bottom line is that the information content of a now-65-year-old map is nil. It would be more convincing to just speculate that they might hit China to avoid Chinese postwar dominance, than to treat that map as evidence one way or the other.
If Putin values his life more than victory, then he will, at each time, follow the path which minimizes the probability of his death as outcome, as estimated by him.
For the time being he can follow any of 3 possible paths: Withdrawal_before_Ukr, Conv_War_on_Ukr, and Tac_nukes_on_Ukr (kaboom).
The Conv_War_on_Ukr path has 2 possible outcomes: Victory or Defeat_by_Ukr.
The Tac_nukes_on_Ukr path has 2 possible outcomes: Victory or Conv_NATO_strike. After Conv_NATO_strike, Putin can follow any of 3 possible subpaths:
Conv_war_on_NATO (plus ongoing Tac_nukes_on_Ukr), with 2 possible outcomes: Victory (close to 0) or Defeat_by_NATO_Conv (close to 1),
Tac_nukes_on_NATO (plus ongoing Tac_nukes_on_Ukr), with 2 possible outcomes: Victory (if NATO folds) or Strat_NATO_strike (KABOOM).
The Withdrawal and Defeat paths/outcomes have Putin’s death as a possible outcome. KABOOM implies everyone’s death with certainty.
The probabilities of Putin dying in each path are:
Conv_War_on_Ukr: P(Defeat_by_Ukr/Conv_War_on_Ukr) x P(I_die/Defeat_by_Ukr)
Tac_nukes_on_Ukr: P(Conv_NATO_strike/Tac_Nukes_on_Ukr) x
P(Defeat_by_NATO_Conv/Conv_War_on_NATO) x P(I_die/Defeat_by_NATO_Conv),
If Putin values victory more than his life, then he will, at each time, follow the path which minimizes the probability of Russian defeat as outcome, as estimated by him. In this case the Withdrawal paths vanish and the probabilities of Russian defeat in each path are:
Tac_nukes_on_Ukr: P(Conv_NATO_strike/Tac_Nukes_on_Ukr) x
The above assumes that Putin perceives the KABOOM outcome as defeat. But if he perceives it as victory, then the Tac_nukes_on_NATO subpath leads always to victory, so that, as soon as Putin perceives that a Russian defeat by Ukraine in a conventional war has become likely, it is certain that he will follow the Tac_nukes_on_Ukr path, and that if NATO strikes Russian targets in response, he will then follow the Tac_nukes_on_NATO subpath.
The officially stated position of Russia is not to get involved in a conventional war with NATO (that Russia knows it can’t win) and immediately escalate to a “limited” nuclear war (that they believe they can win). It appears that (from the Russian standpoint) the nuclear “escalation ladder” looks as this:
- Tactical nuclear strike against a single (non-nuclear) NATO state in Western Europe
-Massive tactical nuclear strikes against (non-nuclear) NATO state(s) in Western Europe
-Tactical nuclear strike(s) against nuclear NATO states, but outside the territory of US, GB and France
and, from Russia’s standpoint, an advance from one step of the ladder to the next are not automatic.
On the other hand, from the US military planner’s standpoint, the movements from one step of the ladder to the next are also not automatic, but even the second step of the ladder poses such a huge problem that a non-military response to “kaboom”, e.g. an attempt to persuade India and China to join sanctions and further isolate Russia, seems more likely than a direct military response.
In addition, the process can be deescalated at any step of the ladder, at least in theory. It follows that the probability of moving from “kaboom” to “KABOOM” is (much) lower than you assume.
Max is clearly a highly intelligent person, who’s highly respected with a great track record. I believe we all should be taking his arguments seriously and discussing how we can create better outcomes through action, rather than focusing our intellects on breaking apart his logic and trying to convince ourselves that everything is fine.
And as a good rationalist he explicitly asked:
Max has a great track record as a hedgehog. I’m not aware of him having any superforcasting credentials or expertise that’s relevant to predicting Russian politics. His arguments deserve to be taken seriously but there’s no reason to unquestioningly accept them.
WW3 is a suicide pact. The #1 thing that defines modern Russia is cynical self-interest. Putin won’t die for his professed ideals(which he does not believe in anyway). If he gives the order the people around him won’t be willing to die and they’ll just kill him. I view this all as extreme brinksmanship that will ultimately lead nowhere.
Russia’s oligarch billionaires aren’t incinerating their Swiss mansions over some dead proles on the Ukrainian front.
How about turning off Moscow’s lights for a few hours? Or wider-scale?
Or seizing ALL Russian assets in the West?
Seize all children of Putin & Russian generals & elite who reside or school or vacation in the West?
That’s probably really bad from a propaganda standpoint. Those court cases are not what you would like to see in US or European courts.
Without a doubt, it’s not how democracies would want to be seen or what they would want to have to defend in courts or justify to their public. However, it just might bring much closer to the homes of the decision makers the price of launching nukes & help ratchet down that existential risk of global thermonuclear war. —OS
Humans have maintained a compulsion dubbed in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat as ” The Spirit of Perverseness” or something better known as Sin. Whereas in almost every major science fiction story that our world goes through a catastrophe, either we abandon all hope, and become dedicated toward anarchy, in some others we strive toward peace, through either a better sense of community and a proper rebuild, or, a means of peace through government control. Our most recent test was Covid. I asked myself “Where is the War?” And now we have not one major War, but many, across the world. From China and Taiwan, N. Korea, Russia and the U.S., but also so many other conflicts, and then more mainstay crisis upon crisis upon crisis upon crisis. This is what it boils down to—Ascension. We humans are addicted to Repentance into Sin, Peace into Chaos. We, as a species, refuse to stop this cycle, unified, ready to ascend to the next major purpose of our species. We are a cancer to this planet, or the proper balance/test Nature itself needs to survive the next asteroid. There are no longer any major icons (Susan B. Anthony, Galileo, Gandhi, MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Vera Lynn). No more hunger strikes, and in the U.S. - There is no longer a need to amend our Constitution, which in turn, by default, is a relinquishment of “rights”. We slave ourselves to debt with Money (This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private), to give ourselves a unified “pat on the back” that we are not “poor” (poverty/lack of abundance; wealth/overabundance). Simply put, if we cannot get ourselves as a species to defy this monotonous cycle of the status quo, then human behavior itself is the key to the answer to such subject matters as nuclear war. It is imminent and necessary, to possibly get this species to the next ascended step. Nietzsche explains that Confrontation produces Genius. This seems to be a very unfortunate truth.
Thousands of people in the West understand all this but the population in kept blind by most of the media. If we think our population can’t handle the truth then we effectively claim democracy failed. I already hear Xi laughing in the background.
I don’t know how someone can claim to know with what likelihood an event will occur when we have no historical precedent for Russia using nuclear weapons. We have never seen their doctrine in action. In fact, the only examples we have regarding Russia and nukes are two events where Soviet soldiers REFUSED to launch nukes. So you should actually have a 0% chance for your kaboom scenario.
So now, we have 0% 80% * 70% = 0%
Also, it’s incredibly disingenuous coming from a person that supposedly knows science to not include error bars and not mention the fact that even a slightly different number for each of the scenarios would drastically decrease the total likelihood. You could have chosen whichever number you liked and made the total likelihood any number you like.
In reality, the likelihood of total nuclear war is somewhere between 0% and 100% and you claiming to know what the number is shows how ignorant you truly are.