As the Crimea crisis was beginning, at least a few people made the claim that, if only Ukraine had kept it’s nuclear weapons, then Russia would not have dared to annex Crimea.
The claim seems reasonable enough to start with, the horrifying destructive powers of nuclear weapons are supposed to be a deterrent against engaging in military conflict with anyone who possesses them. If you attack a nuclear armed state then they will launch a nuclear attack in response. If the attacking state is also in possession of nuclear weapons then, assuming that they have a second strike capability, they will retaliate with nuclear weapons and so on until both states have been completely annihilated. The assumption, then, is that any use of force against a state in possession of nuclear weapons will result in mutually assured destruction. This is then taken to be proof that, if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons they would still have control of Crimea.
However, even if we only take a neorealist (roughly the idea that the lack of an effective body which can hold states accountable for their actions means that states have to act to ensure their own security) account of the situation we should be able to see that Ukraine would not have used nuclear weapons to retaliate for Crimea, even if it had them.
There are four key factors which we need to understand
1. Russian naval bases in Crimea
2. Revolution in Ukraine
3. The initial denial of Russian involvement
4. The geography of Crimea
Together, these paint a quite different picture to what those people who believe in the MAD outcome might have in mind.
The Russian naval bases in Sevastopol and Crimea are the main base for the Black Sea Fleet and were planned to be used for at least another 25 years. However, previous Ukrainian governments had threatened to end Russia’s lease. The location of Crimea, and particularly Sevastopol, in the middle of the Black Sea gives it strategic value which Russia would need to hold onto.
The fact that the annexation took place at the same time as the 2014 revolution in Ukraine is no coincidence. Even discounting that the Euromaidan protesters were protesting against stronger ties with Russia the uncertainty that followed would have been both intolerable from the point of view of maintaining the military presence in Sevastopol and an excellent opportunity to do something about it.
The strong pro-Russian movement in Crimea combined with significant political upheaval in the rest of the country provided a perfect cover for Russian intervention. The initial situation appeared to be similar to the situation in the rest of the country, that of people standing up to get what they wanted out of their government. In the rest of Ukraine, this was a government which wanted stronger ties with the EU. In Crimea this was stronger ties with Russia, demanded by the majority of ethnic Russians (58.5% according to the 2001 census) who live in the region.
So, we have a few factors which explain why Russia took action in the way they did. Essentially, they were protecting their security interests in an unstable environment where they had the makings of a cover story to mask the beginnings of their intervention. The fourth factor, the geography of Crimea, is the final piece of the explanation of why nuclear war would have been an unlikely outcome of the conflict even if Ukraine had nuclear weapons. The reason is that the protection of Russia’s naval bases doesn’t require any advancement beyond Crimea.
The fact that Crimea is a peninsula means that by taking the whole area Russia is effectively preventing land attacks with the exception of the small areas where Crimea joins the mainland. Going beyond this would be risky, but so would doing less. Taking less would both widen the potential areas for a land based attack and reduce the plausibility of the annexation actually being initiated by the Russian population of the area. So, we also have a good reason to believe that the annexation of Crimea would involve the whole of Crimea and no more (I’m leaving out an account of the war in Donbass because the direct Russian intervention started later and couldn’t have influenced an initial decision to go nuclear).
So, from the neorealist point of view, where each state has to act to maximise it’s security, would the annexation of Crimea have resulted in nuclear war if it had been an option? I believe not.
As I have shown, the Russian choice would have been between either risking the loss of naval bases and the reduction in their power that would have resulted or taking some action against a nuclear armed state. The Ukrainian choice is then between either accepting a limited loss of territory or escalating the situation to a nuclear war which would result in mutually assured destruction. As the loss of territory would be less disadvantageous to Ukraine than total nuclear annihilation I do not believe that they would have launched a nuclear first strike. Russia, having both superior conventional forces and at the very least the appearance of local support is extremely unlikely to have initiated a nuclear first strike. This, of course, assumes that both states are rational actors interested in maximising their own security and both in possession of an assured second strike capability such as is provided by Russia’s current fleet of nuclear armed submarines.
If some of these issues had been different, in my view particularly if the geography of the region would not have made the limited loss of territory look more likely than an all out invasion, then nuclear war may have been the result. However, with the facts as they were combined with the rather minor assumption that both states would have preferred a limited loss of territory to mutually assured destruction it is extremely unlikely that Ukraine would have decided to go nuclear, even if they could have done.