The US and Russia keep nearly 2000 strategic nuclear weapons deployed and ready to launch. Modern strategic nuclear weapons generally have much larger yields than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single nuclear warhead has easily enough explosive power to destroy a city and kill millions. An exchange of 100 of these weapons—which would be devastating in itself—would kick enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt the global climate and cause a worldwide famine. A more total conflict between the US and Russia could threaten the survival of the human race and of life on Earth more generally.
No country wants to fight a nuclear war over Ukraine. Nor is it very likely that Russian intervention in Crimea will lead to a nuclear war. But it's not just the lives and futures of the 46 million people who live in Ukraine—as if that weren't enough—that are at stake. Ukraine is central to Russia's conception of itself as a civilization and as an empire, as well as to Vladimir Putin's plans to enlarge Russia's sphere of political and economic influence. But Ukraine is also a European country. Four of its neighbors are European Union members and Ukraine itself has more or less been invited to join the European Union. Ukraine's neighbors—like many Ukrainians—fought hard for democracy and their independence from Russia.
Any time Russia and the US are at odds, the chance of nuclear Armageddon goes up. Just a little bit maybe, but still too much. Although war itself is in neither side's interest, it may be in each side's interest to threaten to go to war. The US and Russia—to borrow an analogy from the game theorist Thomas Schelling—are like two people in a canoe. Neither can swim, so if the canoe tips over, they both drown. And if they fight over something, the canoe might tip over, killing them both. Neither person wants that. But if one of them does want something else badly enough, they could threaten to start a fight in the canoe—risking everyone's lives—in order to get their way.
Schelling called this a "threat that leaves something to chance". Neither the US nor Russia would actually choose to go to war over Ukraine. But both sides use the possibility that a conflict between them could escalate—whether because of an accidental launch or a poor choice—to deter the other. It's a game of nuclear chicken: the country that is willing to go closest to the brink gets its way. Either country, of course, could simply choose to back down whenever the other country rocks the canoe. But that would mean effectively becoming the hostage of the other country.
Russia cares more about Ukraine than the US and is willing to risk more to get its way. That's why I suspect the US won't—and probably shouldn't—respond in kind to Russian intervention in Crimea even though Ukrainians deserve better. The chances are that this particular crisis won't escalate. With luck, both sides will appeal to reason rather than to force. But the course of war never did run smooth. Russian intervention in Ukraine will certainly rock the canoe.
What we really need to do is to avoid crises like this in the first place. We need, in other words, to make the canoe more stable. That means, first of all, eliminating nuclear weapons or at least making them even harder to use. It means, second, keeping everyone on the boat as happy as possible. And it means, third, finding better ways of resolving disputes than threatening to capsize the boat we all live on. Of course, keeping the peace between nations is easier said than done. But the crisis in Ukraine should remind us that what's at stake is the fate of the human race.
This post is cross-posted from Anthropocene.
Robert de Neufville is a professional associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.