Swedish scientist estimates probability of global nuclear war at 17%

16 October 2022, 12:11 PM
Putin could drag the world into a global nuclear war, warns Max Tegmark (Photo:twindesigner / depositphotos)

Putin could drag the world into a global nuclear war, warns Max Tegmark (Photo:twindesigner / depositphotos)

Swedish-American astrophysicist Max Tegmark has estimated the probability of the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine and a global nuclear war – and the numbers he has come up with are not reassuring.

The world has been facing increased likelihood of the use of a nuclear weapon for several months, ever since it became clear that Russia’s military would not be able to effect regime change in Ukraine, and that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin would not come out of the war victorious.

Because of this, many experts fear that the Russian dictator may once again raise the stakes as high as he can. The use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) will not give a serious advantage on the battlefield but may be the last trump card in Putin’s eyes to break the resistance of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

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The probability of a nuclear strike has increased many times in recent weeks. The Armed Forces of Ukraine managed to conduct several successful counter-offensive operations at once, one of which, in the Kherson area, is still underway.

The announcement of the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson oblasts allegedly paves the way for Putin to use TNW: according to Russian military doctrine, the military can strike with a nuclear bomb to defend territories it considers its own.

The opinions of experts differ here: there are those who believe that Putin is bluffing by threatening the world with a nuclear strike, while others believe that sooner or later the dictator may issue such an order.

“Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine won’t lead to the achievement of any military goal,” says Nina Srinivasan Rathbun, Professor (Teaching) of International Relations at the University of Southern California, the United States.

“It will pollute the territory that Russia considers part of its historical empire and will probably cause damage to the Russian territory. It will also increase the possibility of direct intervention by NATO and will ultimately destroy Russia’s image in the world.”

However, almost all researchers agree on one thing: the use of nuclear weapons will multiply the probability of a global war in which everyone will suffer. Especially Ukraine, as it has been Putin’s main goal for many years.

Many publications have analyzed what a TNW strike at Ukraine might lead to, but what is the probability of such an escalation? How will the West respond? And what are our world’s chances of avoiding a global nuclear war?

Swedish scientist and president of the Future of Life Institute Max Tegmark has now tried to answer these questions.

He suggests the probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is equal to losing in Russian roulette: one in six, or 16.66%.

Picture "Formula" of Tegmark's calculations. Red arrows lead to nuclear escalation: 30% x 80% x 70% ~ 1/6 / Photo: MaxTegmark

The researcher’s calculations are all based on the probabilities of the occurrence of certain events.

The victory of David (Ukraine) or the victory of Goliath (Russia) are relatively short-lived events: the initiative in the war was initially held by Russia, now it has been seized by Ukraine. The victory of Goliath (i.e. Russia) tentatively leads to an outcome called “Kosovo,” a scenario that is considered unacceptable for Ukraine, while David’s victory leads to the “Vietnam” scenario, which is unacceptable for Russia.

Because of this, the sides do not give in and try to strengthen their positions in every possible way (terrorist attacks against the civilian population, mobilization and nuclear blackmail against new sanctions, supply of weapons, training of soldiers, etc.). Russia cannot compete with the United States and Europe due to its dependence on them and the impossibility of such a long game, Tegmark believes.

Therefore, the only way out for the Russians to prevent the “Vietnam” scenario is a qualitative escalation (such as, for example, the mass missile strikes on Oct. 10), whose most extreme form takes the use of nuclear weapons.

Attempting to annex territories and start negotiations is only a way to grab at least some “victory” in the war and get out of it, Tegmark says.

“I find it extremely unlikely (less than 10%) that Putin will accept the ‘Vietnam’ scenario without first using nuclear weapons, because that would almost certainly lead to his overthrow, imprisonment, or assassination,” the professor writes.

“On the other hand, I also consider it extremely unlikely (less than 10%) that the West will accept the ‘Kosovo’ scenario.”

This means that there is a very high (more than 80%) probability that the battle of David and Goliath will end either with the intermediate de-escalation scenarios such as Libya/Korea/Finland (“smoldering” war, frozen war, and peace agreement, respectively), or, on the contrary, with another increase in the stakes – a TNW strike at Ukraine.

Given the general consensus of Ukrainian society, leaders and the West against peace talks that would allow Putin to come out as the “winner,” as well as the general understanding that the Russian dictator is highly unlikely to accept the “Vietnam” scenario, Tegmark believes the probability of the “Kaboom” scenario (a TNW strike at Ukraine) is 30%.

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The other 70% are various options for de-escalation or further continuation of active war and Russian terrorist attacks.

Further developments depend on the West’s reaction. Given the rhetoric of NATO allies, there is a high probability (80%) of a non-nuclear but strong response. Options discussed include, for example, the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but very little information has leaked into the public domain about what actions are being considered in the United States and Europe in response to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons.

“It’s hard to imagine that Russia wouldn’t consider this (NATO strikes at the Russian territory) as a declaration of war,” Tegmark says.

“The most likely scenario (70%) I see after this is Russian attempted retaliatory strikes followed by rapid escalation on both sides. This figure is based on the world’s long history of dealing with nuclear weapons – both the United States and Russia are far less competent at de-escalation than at escalation.”

In his opinion, such a scenario could lead to a full-scale nuclear war. Otherwise, such an increase in rates will leave almost no options to return to intermediate scenarios – with a 30% chance that things will revert to the “Kosovo/Vietnam” scenario depending on the winners of this game.

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