When a nuclear power loses a war

A Neokohn főmunkatársa, Izraelben élő biztonságpolitikai szakértő.

The war in Ukraine has greatly disturbed our souls, basking peacefully in the sunshine of the Fukuyama end of history. Tank battles in Europe, energy and food crises, atrocities and refugees. If this is what it looks like when history ends, what might be in store for us when it starts moving again with a bang? But all these worries are dwarfed by the elephant in the room. And this elephant in the room is none other than the Russian nuclear threat. Analysis by Robert C. Castel.

The most worrying thing about all this nuclear saber-rattling is that everyone is aware of the asymmetry in the relationship between the two camps and our consequent powerlessness. During the Cold War, the principle of mutually assured destruction provided a credible deterrent: We are willing to sacrifice New York to avenge Paris. But in the current set-up.

even the most hardened pacifist of yesterday is aware that we will not sacrifice Paris for Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, nor even Pornóapáti.

This fact makes us quite blackmailable and the Russians, who are perfectly aware of this fact, are happy to pull out the nuclear thumbscrew again and again.

Since an anxious electorate is not good for the vote, Western politicians have had to find a way to allay public concerns to some extent. The solution, of course, was to turn to the experts.

Nuclear placebos

Initially, the fact that very few experts have been working on nuclear strategy in recent decades caused some concern. Why should they? As we learned from Francis Fukuyama, history is over anyway and at the end of the film no one goes out for popcorn. Fortunately, TV cameras attract pundits like moths to a lamp, so after a brief search, we managed to populate the studios.

The sedatives prescribed by politicians for the public, concocted in the witch kitchens of well-paid experts, had all the obligatory ingredients of quality placebos:

  • A wrapper with the relevant spells of international law 
  • A moral sugar coating
  • A filler, in place of any active substance

The above-mentioned placebo fillings usually come in two varieties.

The first version is game-theory-based, with mathematical models at its core that propagate a highly original and creative theory that the dog that barks does not bite.

The second version approaches the problem from a historical perspective, pointing out that nuclear powers have lost wars in the past but have never used nuclear weapons. Based on this, experts have said that, given the historical pattern, we can say with a high degree of confidence that there is nothing to worry about. Russia will not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The fact of seven decades of nuclear silence is indisputable, but the relevance of the historical experience is highly debatable. Have we really been in a similar situation in the past, or is this a completely new situation? Is the historical pattern referred to by the experts real, or is it just the embryo of a theory that sounds good but is not empirically proven?

Why is it important to have a well-founded answer to this question? It is because these sedatives also shape our foreign and security policy. Among other things, the level of risk we can take with Russia. If the experts are wrong, then the risk-tolerance indicator of our current policy has been hovering in the red danger zone for a long time without us even knowing it.

The aim of this article is to analyze empirically the nearly 150 wars that nuclear powers have fought since the dawn of the nuclear age, to look more closely at the wars they have lost, and to reflect on the lessons learned from the current Russian nuclear threat.

The one hundred and fifty wars of nuclear powers

To at least try to make some sense out of this approach, all we have to do is collect all the relevant cases: the wars fought by the nuclear powers. If this rather tedious work is not done, we will forever remain at the level of anecdotes and „common knowledge”.

What is common knowledge about the wars of nuclear powers?

  • The fact that they always lose them, because it’s Vietnam, Afghanistan and then Afghanistan again, only this time in the colors of a different team.
  • The Americans are more clumsy than the Russians because they have lost more wars.
  • The guerrilla David always beats the nuclear-armed Goliath.

This is nothing to laugh at, and one should especially not underestimate the power of anecdotal knowledge. Most of the time, experts draw on such anecdotal knowledge when a reporter puts a microphone in their face. Only in a small percentage of cases do we have up-to-date, relevant and verified research findings. For this reason, it is worth treating all expert opinions with a good deal of skepticism, including the arguments of the author of these lines. 

Getting back to the topic at hand, perhaps we should start with who are these nuclear powers?

There are currently eight declared nuclear powers: the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea. These eight states share a significant proportion of the world’s 13,000 or so nuclear warheads. Why have I included “significant” here? Because there are other states that supposedly have their own nuclear arsenals, but because of the uncertainty factor, we will not deal with them here and now.

Since this analysis is limited to the wars of the nuclear powers, only those wars that were fought by states already in possession of nuclear weapons are included. The red line is drawn differently for each state The United States crossed the nuclear threshold in 1945, the Soviet Union in 1949, and the United Kingdom three years later. France joined the club in 1960, China in 1964, India 10 years later and Pakistan in 1998. North Korea closes the list with its first nuclear test in 2006 (Source).

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the world’s nuclear powers have fought 146 wars.

Some of them have not yet been concluded as outstanding conflicts. This means that the current Russo-Ukrainian war, an act of aggression by a nuclear power against a non-nuclear-weapon state, is far from unique and exceptional. It is the kind of conflict that the world has been averaging two a year since the end of the Second World War, even if the vast majority of them have never reached our threshold. Since the number of cases is quite significant, and since the current crisis in Ukraine fits perfectly into the category under consideration, it is worth continuing to ask questions.

The next question worth asking is about the willingness to go to war.

Is it possible that the majority of these wars are fought by a single, global “Erős Pista” (Hungarian chili paste)?

The answer is no. Not even if our politically motivated stereotypes are balking at the tyranny of facts. The figures show that the first place on the podium of belligerence is shared by Russia, the U.S. and France, the pillar of the pacifist EU. On average, this trio goes to war every two years. Second place, also shared, goes to sword-wielding UK, along with India, famous for its Gandhi rejection of violence. They go to war every three years on average. Third place goes to China, with its wars every four years. Pakistan goes to war every six years on average. And North Korea, for all its ballistic noise, is so peaceful, judging by the data, that even a rabbit could be bold enough to poke at it. On average, it goes to war every eight years.

Yes, some will say, but there is a difference between war and war. You cannot lump the current crisis in Ukraine together with a guerrilla war in Southeast Asia.

This is a perfectly valid statement, which is why it makes sense to divide the wars under consideration into two groups:

  1. Conventional wars, as in the former example, and
  2. Low-intensity conflicts, like the latter.

Viewed from this angle, the only identifiable pattern is a marked difference between the former colonial states — including Russia with its domestic „colonies” — and the other states. The former group fights mostly low-intensity wars on its former colonies, the latter mostly conventional wars.

Another interesting question — which follows directly from the previous one — concerns the geographical distribution of wars. Here too, we are in for some surprises. The consternation following the Russian aggression and the lamentation over the lost European peacetime are understandable but not justified.

Europe has never been a continent of peace, not even in the nuclear age.

These wars were not confined to the Balkans and the Caucasus, but were also present in the western part of the continent, just think of the Basque, Corsican and Irish conflicts.

The nuclear powers have fought more than three times as many wars in Europe as in North and South America combined.

Another rather surprising figure shows that nuclear powers have fought almost twice as many wars in Asia as in Africa.

Speaking of geographic variation, it is worth distinguishing between wars at home and expeditionary wars. Not surprisingly, maritime powers, and those that have had extensive overseas colonies in the past, mainly fight expeditionary wars far from their borders. By contrast, land powers mostly fight wars at home, often within their borders. Why is this an important consideration? Because

the calculus of a losing war fought on the other side of the world is very different from a war fought on or within our borders.

Since 1945, the U.S. has fought five wars in the Western Hemisphere, losing only one: an intervention against Cuba in which it was not officially involved. France and the United Kingdom have lost a fair number of expeditionary wars, but have emerged victorious in European conflicts. The most interesting player for us, Russia, has followed a similar pattern.

The USSR/Russia, as a land power, fought most of its wars along or close to its borders.

Only one-third of the wars it fought could be considered expeditionary wars. It has lost a considerable number of them, such as the 1967-1973 intervention against Israel, or only managed a draw, such as the Eritrean adventure. As for the 19 domestic wars fought, the vast majority of them were won by the USSR/Russia. This applies to both conventional wars and low-intensity conflicts.

Here we have reached the point where we can try to draw some conclusions from the historical patterns of the nuclear powers, especially Russia, regarding the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the chances of nuclear escalation.

Pessimistic patterns

After the Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the Russian bear was involved in 28 wars. Of these, 71% were won, and 14% were lost, while the remaining 15% ended in a draw or are still open. Like the other nuclear powers, it has won its wars with very few exceptions, 84% of them.

This is bad news in itself.

At the same time, it is important to remember that there is nothing deterministic about wars and that there is no rear-view mirror or crystal ball. It is entirely possible that the current war in Ukraine will end in a draw or even defeat for Russia. That is why

it is worth examining the historical consequences of Russia’s lost wars at home.

As a consequence of the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation was damaged and a general disintegration became a real threat. The domino effect of the lost war immediately spread to other areas of Russia with secessionist dreams. It is also worth noting that the Chechen Republic’s current status as a constituent republic is a legal fiction that serves as a cover for its de facto independence. This is a fact. With the lost war, not only has a historic territory been lost, but the cohesion of the Federation has been shaken.

The other losing war, the Afghan adventure of 1979-1989, had even more dramatic consequences. The fiasco in Central Asia played a decisive role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of the sphere of influence it had gained in the Second World War. The best indicator of what all this means for the current Russian political elite is President Putin’s speech in 2005 when he described the fall of the Soviet Empire as the greatest political disaster of the century.

What does this mean for the future of the war in Ukraine and a possible nuclear escalation?

It means that it is entirely irrelevant whether or not Russia wants to let go of a lost cause. The real question is whether it will be able to do so without endangering the cohesion of the federation and the survival of the regime, based on the experience of the two lost wars at home. This is the true measure of the application threshold of the Russian nuclear doctrine, and

this threshold can be reached even if no NATO bloc crosses the new Iron Curtain.

If we base our policy not on perceived and empirically justifiable Russian concerns, but on superficial statements such as “nuclear powers have lost wars before and yet have not touched nuclear weapons,” it is not impossible that the drowning man will drag us into the vortex of nuclear escalation.

Nuclear war in Eurograd?

Since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of the Russians using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.