So, should Ukraine go MAD? Andrew Kydd vs VoxUkraine.

VoxUkraine has recently argued that Ukraine needs something equivalent to nuclear weapons to deter further Russian encroachments

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Discussion that took place between VoxUkraine and Andrew Kydd from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The article Can Ukraine play MAD with Russia? by the Editorial Board, that was recently published by VoxUkraine, as well as by the well-known Ukrainian outlet, Liga, has gained popularity very quickly. To provide some evidence, more than 73 000 people viewed it on the mentioned Ukrainian resource during the first 3 days after publication. Overall, ideas stated in the article generated quite a hot public debates both among Ukrinian citizens, and among Western academics. Below we are presenting the dialog that took place beween VoxUkraine and Andrew Kydd from the University of Wisconsin.

  • Can Ukraine play MAD with Russia?
  • Initial comment. “Should Ukraine go MAD?” by Andrew Kydd
  • Reply to “Should Ukraine go MAD?” by the Editorial Board of VoxUkraine
  • Reply to the Reply.”It’s a MAD World” by Andrew Kydd

1. Initial comment. “Should Ukraine go MAD?”

By Andrew Kydd (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

VoxUkraine has recently argued that Ukraine needs something equivalent to nuclear weapons to deter further Russian encroachments. Russia would never have dared attack a nuclear armed Ukraine, the argument goes, and something else must be found that can inflict sufficient costs on Russia to get it to leave Ukraine alone. The three candidates are cutting off Russian energy exports to Europe, spilling Russian defense secrets to the West, and cutting of Crimea.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is a prime example of why Ukraine is in the situation it finds itself in today. Ukraine’s security problems are not going to be solved by cheap and easy fixes. Ukraine is next to Russia, Russia is more powerful than Ukraine, and the only potential ally that matters for Ukraine, the US, is far away and does not care enough about Ukraine to oppose Russia militarily. Therefore Ukraine must either accommodate Russian interests or develop an internal ability to counter Russian power.

Would retaining the nuclear weapons inherited in 1991 have solved this problem?   Maybe, but maybe not. Nuclear forces require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated personnel to man them. The Ukrainian military today has been tested by war and found lacking in every respect. The army was incapable even of contesting the Russian takeover of Crimea and has been extremely ineffective in combat against the limited incursions in the eastern provinces. Stories of soldier’s families taking up collections to buy their sons equipment paint a picture of an army riven with corruption. One can only wonder what kind of shape Ukrainian nuclear forces would be in today. Ukrainian nuclear threats might have been ignored, or worse yet, triggered a Russian first strike, confident that Ukrainian missiles could be destroyed in their silos.

In any event, the missiles are long gone. Is there anything else that could take their place? Cutting off Russian energy exports sounds great until you realize that they are going to Europe. Given that Ukraine’s entire geopolitical strategy depends on securing western aid, cutting off European energy imports seems like a losing move. The one thing that will unite Europe and Russia is a unilateral Ukrainian decision to close the spigots.

The second idea is to disclose Russian defense secrets acquired through Ukrainian elements in the old Soviet defense production system. While this might annoy the Russians, it is hardly a nuclear equivalent. In addition, it is completely unsuited to use as a threat, since Ukraine could never prove that it had not already disclosed the information in a bid for western support, and so could not credibly threaten to do so only if Russia did not back off.

The third suggestion is that Ukraine cut off Crimea. As the authors note, this is a non-starter because it punishes innocent Crimeans and makes Ukraine look bad before western audiences. It is also unsafe to bet that Putin cares more about the welfare of Crimeans than the Ukrainian government does, or would be made to by international opinion.

In short, none of these ideas are even close to a nuclear option for Ukraine. Fundamentally, they are not credible and they do not inflict sufficient costs to make Russia back down. Fortunately for Ukraine there is an answer, but unfortunately it is long, difficult and expensive. A Ukrainian army that was well equipped, well trained and motivated to fight could easily raise the level of costs faced by Russian forces beyond what Putin would be willing to pay. The irregular forces currently in the east could be quickly dealt with by a capable professional army. This would leave Putin with the choice to escalate to the level of a serious conventional invasion or to deescalate the situation and negotiate. The prospect of tens of thousands of casualties would probably deter Putin, but it would be costly for Ukraine to generate the forces required to inflict such costs. We are back to the basic question underlying all international negotiations, nuclear and non-nuclear, who cares more about the issue at stake, and who will pay the costs required to prevail?

2. Reply to “Should Ukraine go MAD?”

By the Editorial Board of VoxUkraine

In “Should Ukraine go MAD?” Professor Kydd comments on the earlier post by the editorial board of VoxUkraine about deterrence policy options available to Ukraine in the current situation.

Professor Kydd misunderstood the basic point of our original post. Currently, there is a strong public sentiment in Ukraine that the parties to the Budapest memorandum have not delivered on the promise to guarantee sovereignty of Ukraine. Therefore, in the hindsight, Ukraine should not have given up the nuclear weapons and perhaps it should consider rebuilding its nuclear capacity.

The point of nuclear weapons is to be a tool in Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence policy.

“Mutual assured destruction, or mutually assured destruction (MAD), is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. It is based on the theory of deterrence where the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which neither side, once armed, has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.” Wikipedia

The key point of the policy is that a credible threat of inflicting sufficient damage on the opponent can prevent the opponent from attacking, so that this threat will never actually have to be used.

In our post, we argued that Ukraine has alternatives to nuclear weapons that can be used as a threat in the deterrence policy. We made three suggestions: blowing up pipelines that transfer gas and oil from Russia to the EU, revealing sensitive military information that could damage Russian military capabilities, and destroying infrastructure on the territory of Ukraine which is vital to Crimea.

We never argued that these “weapons” should be used now, only that Ukraine should commit to use them if there is further escalation with Russia or their proxies. We also never argued that this policy can solve all problems of Ukraine. Instead, we have repeatedly stated that policymakers in Ukraine must start thinking more seriously and systematically about the national security policy and change the mindset that the military objectives can be attained only by strictly military tools.

Finally, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the international community has not honored the Budapest memorandum because they do not have incentives to do so. A threat of blowing up supply lines to the EU might serve as a stronger incentive to ensure de-escalation of the situation in the East of Ukraine than any memoranda previously signed by the powers of the world.

We now would like to respond to specific points made by Professor Kydd.

Professor Kydd: Would retaining the nuclear weapons inherited in 1991 have solved this problem?   Maybe, but maybe not. Nuclear forces require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated personnel to man them. The Ukrainian military today has been tested by war and found lacking in every respect. The army was incapable even of contesting the Russian takeover of Crimea and has been extremely ineffective in combat against the limited incursions in the eastern provinces. Stories of soldier’s families taking up collections to buy their sons equipment paint a picture of an army riven with corruption. One can only wonder what kind of shape Ukrainian nuclear forces would be in today. Ukrainian nuclear threats might have been ignored, or worse yet, triggered a Russian first strike, confident that Ukrainian missiles could be destroyed in their silos.

Reply: obviously, morale is important but it is far from clear that an officer in the U.S. or the Soviet Union would have pushed the launch button. Indeed, in several cases when it seemed that the U.S. or the Soviet Union were under attack the officer responsible for a counter-strike did not dare to actually launch it. Prof. Kydd however misses a larger point. This is not a matter of somebody actually pushing the red button. It is a threat that prevents one country to attack another. It is a probability that an aggressor can lose everything that was a bedrock of Mutually Assured Destruction. It is an off-equilibrium path that may never happen if nobody dares to deviate from no-attack equilibrium. Thus, whether somebody would or would not actually push the button is irrelevant.

Professor Kydd: Cutting off Russian energy exports sounds great until you realize that they are going to Europe. Given that Ukraine’s entire geopolitical strategy depends on securing western aid, cutting off European energy imports seems like a losing move. The one thing that will unite Europe and Russia is a unilateral Ukrainian decision to close the spigots.

Reply: This part of the argument again seems to miss the point that under the deterrence doctrine the threat is never carried out. It is sufficient to commit to carry out the threat with some probability if the country is attacked and, consequently, the aggressor has no incentives to attack.

In addition, the Western aid is only relevant if Ukraine remains a country. If it is invaded by Russia, the aid is useless. Furthermore, Europe will have to face enormous dynamic inconsistency. That is, if Ukraine destroys the pipelines, can Europe punish Ukraine by denying aid? To assess the plausibility of such punishment, think about whether governments punish people for not buying disaster insurance or banks for taking excessive risk (the answer is almost never). Next, it puts pressure on Europe to get more serious about Russian aggression. Of course, Europe can pressure Ukraine but if Ukraine is committed to such a strategy, some of the pressure will be shifted onto Russia. Finally, it is a game of chicken. If Ukraine mines pipelines, programs detonation in clearly specified scenarios, and throws away keys from the arming system, what can anyone do about it?

Professor Kydd: The second idea is to disclose Russian defense secrets acquired through Ukrainian elements in the old Soviet defense production system. While this might annoy the Russians, it is hardly a nuclear equivalent. In addition, it is completely unsuited to use as a threat, since Ukraine could never prove that it had not already disclosed the information in a bid for western support, and so could not credibly threaten to do so only if Russia did not back off.

Reply: The cost of developing ICBMs is huge. Russia has been trying to replace Soviet missiles with Angara missiles since early 1990s without much success. A recent report by RAND estimates that the cost of developing new ICBMs in the U.S. is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. If the NATO knows weak spots in Russian ICBMs, then Russia is going to see a stark choice of whether to stay “naked” or spend a fortune on new armaments.

Whether Ukraine reveals secrets publicly or privately may matter too. If the public in Russia knows that the country is “naked,” it can undermine Putin’s regime.

Professor Kydd: The third suggestion is that Ukraine cut off Crimea. As the authors note, this is a non-starter because it punishes innocent Crimeans and makes Ukraine look bad before western audiences. It is also unsafe to bet that Putin cares more about the welfare of Crimeans than the Ukrainian government does, or would be made to by international opinion.

Reply: If Ukraine is under attack, it is going to be unable to spare resources for Russian-controlled Crimea. Again, the point is not that Ukraine has to cut off Crimea now. Ukraine does it in response to an attack. Using the MAD analogy, nobody wants to strike first because it’s morally unacceptable, but it is totally acceptable to strike in reciprocity.

Furthermore, Ukraine is currently engaged in a similar policy – trucks with groceries and other supplies are not allowed to enter Crimea from the territory controlled by Ukraine.

Professor Kydd: In short, none of these ideas are even close to a nuclear option for Ukraine. Fundamentally, they are not credible and they do not inflict sufficient costs to make Russia back down. Fortunately for Ukraine there is an answer, but unfortunately it is long, difficult and expensive. A Ukrainian army that was well equipped, well trained and motivated to fight could easily raise the level of costs faced by Russian forces beyond what Putin would be willing to pay. The irregular forces currently in the east could be quickly dealt with by a capable professional army. This would leave Putin with the choice to escalate to the level of a serious conventional invasion or to deescalate the situation and negotiate. The prospect of tens of thousands of casualties would probably deter Putin, but it would be costly for Ukraine to generate the forces required to inflict such costs. We are back to the basic question underlying all international negotiations, nuclear and non-nuclear, who cares more about the issue at stake, and who will pay the costs required to prevail?

Reply: We agree that the best response is to build a democratic, prosperous state with high standards of living, well-functioning bureaucracy, and a strong army. However, this happy outcome is years if not decades away while the threat is present now. Our argument was about what can be done now to prevent further aggression.

3. Reply to the Reply.”It’s a MAD World”

By Andrew Kydd (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

I appreciate the editors’ response to my response because it clarifies some of the issues in dispute. I have only a few brief responses.

First, I was under the impression that the editors were suggesting that threats to destroy pipelines, spill defense secrets and cut off Crimea could leverage Russia out of eastern Ukraine or even Crimea. Their response makes it clear that these threats would be made only to deter an all out Russian invasion meant to retake Ukraine as a whole. In this role, they could be credible, since the Ukrainian government would have nothing to lose in that circumstance. The only question is whether they would inflict sufficient costs to deter Russia. I would still maintain that the costs inflicted by these actions falls enormously short of even a limited nuclear exchange that targeted Moscow, or any Russian city for that matter. I am not sure they would deter Russia if Ukraine were to make a bid for NATO membership. But they would serve as a limited poison pill that diminishes the value of conquest to some extent.

Second, if indeed the idea that the western powers have violated their pledges in the Budapest memorandum by not coming to Ukraine’s aid in the current crisis is becoming widespread in Ukraine, it would be another example of historical mythmaking as or even more distant from the truth as the firmly held Russian belief that the US promised not to enlarge NATO after the Cold War. A quick glance at the document in question, available on Wikipedia, indicates that the parties pledged to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and if Ukraine were threatened with nuclear weapons, to bring the matter to the UN Security council. The only state that has violated this pledge is Russia. Specifically, the western powers are under no obligations from the Budapest memorandum to intervene on Ukraine’s behalf unless Russia uses nuclear threats against Ukraine.

Third, a minor issue, my point about the present state of a hypothetical Ukrainian nuclear force is not that Ukrainian officers would not be willing to fire their weapons, but that the weapons might not fire. A Ukrainian strategic rocket force subject to the same 20 years of neglect as the rest of the military, would be a questionable deterrent.   As for launching a new nuclear weapons program, nothing (aside from attempting to join NATO) would be more calculated to prompt an immediate and unlimited Russian invasion.

Finally, I doubt that Ukraine possesses technological secrets that would render Russia “naked” if they were spilled to the west. There is unlikely to be any magic key that once obtained can be used to cause Russian ICBMs to self destruct in flight, or be more easily targeted than they already are.

In sum, the overall concept of attempting to destroy things of value to Russia if they invade makes sense. Such threats, because they hurt Ukraine too, are unlikely to be credible against anything short of an all out invasion. Whether they can present sufficient costs to Russia to deter them depends on what Russia is trying to prevent Ukraine from doing. My sense is that it would be extremely risky for Ukraine to think that it could safely launch a nuclear weapons program or apply for NATO membership under the umbrella of such threats. In the absence of such extreme provocations, they could help deter further Russian escalation.


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