Ukraine: The Value of Risk Analysis in Foreseeing Crises

The quantitative risk analysis approach to nuclear deterrence not only allows a more objective estimate of how much risk we face, but also highlights otherwise unforeseen ways to reduce that risk. The current crisis in Ukraine provides a good example.

Last Fall, I met Daniel Altman, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, who is visiting Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) this academic year. When I told him of my interest in risk analysis of nuclear deterrence, he said that I should pay attention to what might happen in Sevastopol in 2017, something that had been totally off my radar screen.

Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and along with the rest of the Crimea, was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev arbitrarily “gave” it to the Ukraine. With Russia and Ukraine both parts of the Soviet Union, such a transfer of territory seemed to make no real difference. But, when the USSR broke up in 1991, a good case can be made that the Crimea, with its largely Russian population, should have been returned to Russia.

That did not happen, and with Sevastopol now part of an independent Ukraine, Russia had to negotiate a lease on what, for centuries, had been its own naval base. That lease runs out in 2017. Back in 2010, when she was Prime Minister and a presidential candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko ruled out any extension of the lease. If that were to happen, the ethnic Russians in the Crimea, and especially those in Sevastopol – many of whom depend on the Black Sea Fleet for employment – would likely petition to be reincorporated back into Russia. This would be likely to create an extremely dangerous crisis, since Russia would see this as righting an historical mistake, while the West would see it as Russia stealing part of the Ukraine.

The potential for such a crisis was reduced after 2010’s presidential election, when the more Russian-friendly government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych extended the lease on Sevastopol for 25 years. But even before the current crisis, there was a risk that a new, Russo-phobic government could come to power and annul the lease extension. Now that Yanukovych has been deposed and anti-Russian Ukrainian elements are part of the interim government, that is an even greater concern.

Given Altman’s alerting me to the risk of “Sevastopol 2017,” I was less surprised, but more concerned than most Americans when the current crisis developed in Ukraine. My concern escalated yesterday (Saturday, March 1, 2014) when Putin requested and received authorization “in connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine … to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of  Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.” The resultant actions by Russian troops are seen as an invasion by some elements of the interim Ukrainian government.

Ronald Reagan’s former ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, has a more nuanced take on the situation, starting with a February 8 article which argues that whichever side (Russia or the EU) wins the economic tug of war over Ukraine would lose:

So what if President Yanukovych had signed the EC association agreement? The money available from the IMF would not have staved off bankruptcy very long and would have required unpopular austerity measures … The upshot would be that, most likely, in a year to 18 months, and maybe even sooner, most Ukrainians would blame the EU and the West for their misery.

And if the Russian promise of a loan and cheap gas is renewed to some Ukrainian government, that too would do nothing to promote the reform and modernization the Ukrainian government and economy desperately need. …  Ukrainians, even those in the East, would begin to blame Russia for their misery. “If only we had signed that EU association agreement…!”

In sum, I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake – by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S. – to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. … In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work.

Ambassador Matlock posted another article yesterday (Saturday, March 1), which elaborated (emphasis added):

If I were Ukrainian I would echo the immortal words of the late Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The fact is, Ukraine is a state but not yet a nation. … The current territory of the Ukrainian state was assembled, not by Ukrainians themselves but by outsiders … To think of it as a traditional or primordial whole is absurd.

… there is no way Ukraine will ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic) relationship with Russia. [But the the West is resisting that kind of government.] … 

So far, Ukrainian nationalists in the west have been willing to concede none of these conditions [needed for stability], and the United States has, by its policies, either encouraged or condoned attitudes and policies that have made them anathema to Moscow. … 

Obama’s “warning” to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe. … 

Ukraine is already shattered de facto, with different groups in command of the various provinces. If there is any hope of putting it together again, there must be cooperation of all parties in forming a coalition at least minimally acceptable to Russia and the Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South.

Ambassador Matlock added another post today (Sunday, March 2) which is also well worth reading, and I’ll end with a few additional thoughts of my own:

Last October and again last November, I quoted Russian international relations expert, Fyodor Lukyanov, as warning that America’s penchant for regime change “will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia.”

It’s hard for most Americans to see how our helping to overthrow regimes in Iraq, Libya, and the Arab world could produce fears that we also are bent on regime change in a nation as powerful as Russia. But what’s happening in Ukraine brings that fear into sharper focus.

As corrupt and unpopular as Yanukovych was, he was the elected president, and the current interim government can be viewed as the result of mob rule. It doesn’t take 51% of a population to overthrow a government, and some of the groups which overthrew Yanukovych appear to have anti-Russian, anti-Semitic, and possibly even Fascist elements.

It seems reasonable  for Putin to fear that, if an economic or other crisis were to produce large-scale protests against him, the US would again support regime change. How would we have responded if the Soviet Union had sent support to the Watts rioters in 1965?

It also needs to be recognized that, while Russia’s interests in Ukraine are primarily geopolitical, it also has some legitimate human rights concerns. Under the earlier Ukrainian government, Russian language films imported into Ukraine had to be dubbed into Ukrainian and subtitles added for ethnic Russians. To understand how this felt to them, imagine how we would feel if we were barred by law from watching Hollywood movies in their original English language versions, and instead forced to watch them dubbed into French, with English subtitles.

There is a danger of Russia subjugating Ukraine, but there also is a history of Ukraine subjugating its own Russian minority. A solution is needed which recognizes the legitimate rights of all residents of Ukraine, and right now my nation is not supporting that approach. I hope it will recognize and correct its mistake. That would shorten the suffering of Ukrainian residents of all ethnicities and reduce the risk of a Russian-American crisis – as well as its attendant nuclear risk.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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3 Responses to Ukraine: The Value of Risk Analysis in Foreseeing Crises

  1. yousaf says:

    Marty — brilliant overview.

    Please also see how NATO exacerbated the situation by trying to take advantage of Ukrainian citizens’ poverty:

  2. theferalfinancier says:

    Excellent analysis! The level headed approach of neutrality on both sides seems like the wisest course…unfortunately history doesn’t seem to play out that way.

    Can you recommend additional reading for anyone would like to learn about the history of Ukraine and Russia’s relationship?


  3. Michael says:

    Lived and worked in Odessa for four years and no Russian-speaking Ukrainian I know was particularly worked up about having to watch Russian films in Ukrainian. Many Russian speakers are extremely comfortable using Ukrainian. It was petty, true, but hardly the biggest of human rights violations. The movie analogy would be better applied to Canada.

    In the same vein, the recent moves on the language law were misguided and extremely poorly timed but hardly evidence of genocide or fascism. There are many Russian speakers who feel Ukrainian not Russian. You’re right to say that all communities need to be respected. I just don’t see mass human rights violations (or any danger of them unless the situation with Russia completely spirals out of control, which is not in Putin’s interests any more than it is the Ukrainian government’s).

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