Nuclear explosion

Is Prof. Mearsheimer being proven right about nuclear deterrence?

THIRTY YEARS AGO this summer, John L. Mearsheimer, the Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, published an important paper in Foreign Affairs, entitled “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent”. He pointed out that when the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine inherited 1,600 strategic nuclear bombs on its territory, as well as a large number of tactical nuclear devices. But a year later, in 1994, Ukraine agreed to hand them all back to Russia in return for a guarantee from Britain and the United States that Moscow would respect its independence and borders for all time coming.

The aim was to secure peace, but the result has been to provoke the worst war in Europe since 1945. Perhaps Mearsheimer was right?

Prof Mearsheimer is well-known today for arguing that the Ukraine war was provoked by NATO’s eastward expansion in a fit of hubris after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This argument is reflected in the ideas of the Eurasian “philosopher”, Aleksandr Dugin, who is said once to have been very close to President Putin. Perhaps for that reason, few people have bothered since February 2022 to give serious thought to Mearsheimer’s underlying proposition, which is that in certain important circumstances nuclear weapons really can prevent war, or at least the spread of it.

Oddly, the latter is roughly what has happened in Ukraine. Knowledge of Russian nuclear capabilities constrained both the United States and its European allies from intervening too enthusiastically in Putin’s war, especially at the start. Military support has increased, but only in nervously gradual steps. Deterrence has worked, if only against the West.

Helping Ukraine defend itself has been made vastly more difficult, and costly in terms of both blood and treasure, by the wariness of the West about Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Mearsheimer started his article by noting that most Western observers, as well as President Bill Clinton, felt that “Europe would be more stable if Russia were to become ‘the only nuclear-armed successor state to the Soviet Union’… President Clinton is wrong.”

Mearsheimer continued: “Ukraine cannot defend itself against Russia with conventional weaponry.” From that, he concluded: “It is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most.”

Now we know that with much Anglo-Saxon arm-twisting, led mainly by President Clinton, Ukraine agreed to do just that in the Budapest memorandum of 1994. The results are now known to have been catastrophic, so it would seem timely to revisit this line of argument. In doing so, we might come to accept one further, and crucial, implication of Mearsheimer’s paper which is becoming clear from longer experience in Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons may be an excellent deterrent, but they are not a very useful weapon. The problem is that their use cannot be calibrated. They are, of course, weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction, equivalent to the fire-bombing of Dresden only with fall-out to follow. Both sides would be hesitant to use them if the other side possessed the capability to respond.

That is the classic “anti-nukes” argument, and it is valid as far as it goes. But, as Mearsheimer’s essay implies, that does not alter their deterrent value. Putin regularly uses his vast nuclear arsenal to threaten outsiders to his conflict, but he shows no readiness to use any of it. Partly, of course, this must be because he fears retaliation. Either way, he is clearly happier to use nuclear bombs as a deterrent than as a weapon, and we should not ignore this emerging fact.

Realists should use this insight to counter those who say that Britain should leave itself open to being treated like Ukraine by disarming at a nuclear level. The stakes are high – just ask President Zelensky. But the logic is sound, and backed by recent experience. We must not ourselves make the mistake that we forced on Ukraine.

If you If you appreciated this article please share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here. Help support Global Britain publishing these articles by making a donation here.


Weekly Trending

Scroll to Top