How Likely Is (Nuclear) War Between the United States and Russia?

Last week, Vox ran a long piece by Max Fisher claiming that “the prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, [experts] warn, even plausible.” Without ever clarifying what “thinkable” or “plausible” mean in this context, Fisher seems to be arguing that, while still unlikely, the probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is no longer small and is rising.

I finished Fisher’s piece and wondered: Is that true? As someone who’s worked on a couple of projects (here and here) that use “wisdom of crowds” methods to make educated guesses about how likely various geopolitical events are, I know that one way to try to answer that question is to ask a bunch of informed people for their best estimates and then average them.

So, on Thursday morning, I went to SurveyMonkey and set up a two-question survey that asks respondents to assess the likelihood of war between the United States and Russia before 2020 and, if war were to happen, the likelihood that one or both sides would use nuclear weapons. To elicit responses, I tweeted the link once and posted it to the Conflict Research Group on Facebook and the IRstudies subreddit. The survey is still running [UPDATE: It’s now closed, because Survey Monkey won’t show me more than the first 100 responses without a paid subscription], but 100 people have taken it so far, and here are the results—first, on the risk of war:

wwiii.warrisk

And then on the risk that one or both sides would nuclear weapons, conditional on the occurrence of war:

wwiii.nukerisk

These results come from a convenience sample, so we shouldn’t put too much stock in them. Still, my confidence in their reliability got a boost when I learned yesterday that a recent survey of international-relations experts around the world asked an almost-identical question about the risk of a war and obtained similar results. In its 2014 survey, the TRIP project asked: “How likely is war between the United States and Russia over the next decade? Please use the 0–10 scale with 10 indicating that war will definitely occur.” They got 2,040 valid responses to that question, and here’s how they were distributed:

trip.warrisk

Those results are centered a little further to the right than the ones from my survey, but TRIP asked about a longer time period (“next decade” vs. “before 2020”), and those additional five years could explain the difference. It’s also important to note that the scales aren’t directly comparable; where the TRIP survey’s bins implicitly lie on a linear scale, mine were labeled to give respondents more options toward the extremes (e.g., “Certainly not” and “Almost certainly not”).

In light of that corroborating evidence, let’s assume for the moment that the responses to my survey are not junk. So then, how likely is a US/Russia war in the next several years, and how likely is it that such a war would go nuclear if it happened? To get to estimated probabilities of those events, I did two things:

  1. Assuming that the likelihoods implicit my survey’s labels follow a logistic curve, I converted them to predicted probabilities as follows: p(war) = exp(response – 5)/(1 + exp(response – 5)). That rule produces the following sequence for the 0–10 bins: 0.007, 0.018, 0.047, 0.119, 0.269, 0.500, 0.731, 0.881, 0.953, 0.982, 0.993.

  2. I calculated the unweighted average of those predicted probabilities.

Here are the estimates that process produced, rounded up to the nearest whole percentage point:

  • Probability of war: 11%
  • Probability that one or both sides will use nuclear weapons, conditional on war: 18%

To translate those figures into a single number representing the crowd’s estimate of the probability of nuclear war between the US and Russia before 2020, we take their product: 2%.

Is that number different from what Max Fisher had in mind when he wrote that a nuclear war between the US and Russia is now “thinkable,” “plausible,” and “more likely than you think”? I don’t know. To me, “thinkable” and “plausible” seem about as specific as “possible,” a descriptor that applies to almost any geopolitical event you can imagine. I think Max’s chief concern in writing that piece was to draw attention to a risk that he believes to be dangerously under-appreciated, but it would be nice if he had asked his sources to be more specific about just how likely they think this calamity is.

More important, is that estimate “true”? As Ralph Atkins argued in a recent Financial Times piece about estimating the odds of Grexit, it’s impossible to say. For unprecedented and at least partially unique events like these—an exit from the euro zone, or a nuclear war between major powers—we can never know the event-generating process well enough to estimate their probabilities with high confidence. What we get instead are summaries of peoples’ current beliefs about those events’ likelihood. That’s highly imperfect, but it’s still informative in its own way.

Leave a comment

13 Comments

  1. Abubakar

     /  July 3, 2015

    I agree with you that there is something absurd in the recent struggle for influence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and I’m as little disposed to join in, in your thinking as there could be war breaking out as a result between Russia and the United States. But there is a great difference between wanting more allies and fighting over it. In which both nations would be endangered as well as the entire world. They’re both struggling to defend their nation’s honors-from possible defilement by each other. I therefore, subscribe to your concluding remarks that, the results does not represent the reality, but informative. Keep the additional results coming.

    Reply
  2. Kyle

     /  July 3, 2015

    I believe that Fisher’s article was very sobering and sound summary. It is a more dangerous situation between Russia and the U.S. (I would argue NATO more than the U.S.). Fisher adroitly pointed to the lack of a “buffer zone” that existed during the Cold War, e.g., The Eastern Block, and a large presence of American troops in western Europe. I lived in West Germany in the 1980s; at no time during that decade was there a situation as potentially explosive as in the Ukraine and the Baltics. Sorry to say, but I don’t believe that numbers, chances, odds, stats, etc have much level of significance in these untested waters. To add fuel to the fire, the powers that be (including NATO) appear to believe in a limited/controllable nuclear strike. As Fisher adroitly stresses, NATO/U.S. and Russian armed forces are increasingly in closer physical proximity to each other as close as yards and feet – as that occurs, chances of an accident scenario such as a aircraft collision or crash also add an element of sparking chaos and conflict. In this age of the Internet and social media, there is also the unpredictable element of intentional or unintentional misinformation
    These are indeed dangerous times. I felt more at ease in West Germany in 1985 that I do in the Midwest USA in 2015. Pray for peace.

    Reply
    • A dangerous factor is the US interest in developing systems which might give it a nuclear monopoly. Under Obama it’s all been slowed down and scaled down, but under Clinton and Bush there was a push in the direction of “Prompt Global Strike”, which could destroy nuclear weapons on the ground using conventional weapons. Also the missile defence shield which could pick off any surviving weapons. It seems likely that a future President will press the development of these new technologies according to the argument that it protects the US homeland. However it also deprives Russia and China of a nuclear deterrent and could precipitate a crisis.

      Reply
      • Kyle

         /  June 3, 2016

        @anniepani Thanks for your reply. Speaking of nuclear deterrent and crises, what is your opinion about President Putin’s recent comments about NATO’s anti-missile defense in Poland? Does he have solid ground that it could circumvent Russia’s nuclear deterrent? NATO command says that it isn’t designed to counteract Russia’s ICBM’s only potential launches from “rogue” nations, but how about Russia’s tactical arms? It seems plausible that the system could be a deterrent against those. On a related note, some of Putin and Prime Minister Mededev’s bluster about Russian nuclear arms updates present that they believe they have a reactionary advantage over the West. What do you think? To me the Russian leadership comments strike me as the “mad man” that was part of President Nixon’s philosophy – if other leaders think we are crazy enough to use them, they wouldn’t dare attack. That being written, there certainly is enough madness around to make “Dr. Strangelove” raise his hand in salute.:-[

      • Kyle

         /  June 3, 2016

        self-correction to my follow up: Medvedev

  3. Grant

     /  July 3, 2015

    The question of nuclear weapons would depend heavily on exactly what the circumstances were. I would think that Russia would be more likely to use them than the United States simply because of the imbalance of power for conventional forces, however would Russia use nuclear weapons, and in doing so risk an American counterattack, if the scenario were that United States had forced Russian soldiers out of Ukraine after Russia invaded? What about the Crimean part of Ukraine? What if American soldiers invaded Russia itself?

    The answer will be different in each of those three scenarios. Now perhaps there may be some Russian general so passionate that he would order nuclear weapons used no matter what the situation and he would be able to have that order carried out without any interference from the Russian government, but I suspect not. And the United States, likely knowing this, might decide to not invade Russia.

    Reply
  4. I am curious whether there is any correlation between beliefs about the likelihood of war and beliefs about the likelihood of nuclear war, if there is a war. If there is no correlation, then the average opinion 11% x 18% = 2.0% as you figure above. However, if there is a positive correlation, then the average opinion about nuclear war would be higher. Is there any correlation in the two sets of beliefs? Is the correlation statistically significant? Does the correlation (if any) have a significant impact on the average opinion?

    Reply
  5. Hello, interesting article. One of the main thrusts of my own blog here is to elaborate the numerous reasons why I think war between Nato and Russia is a probable event if we don’t find new ways of looking at our relationship with a rapidly changing world. One relevant point here is the danger of a war with Russia, which could start small, turning nuclear.

    The fact which no one in the west seems ready to accept, is that Russia, is not the USSR, it is much weaker than Nato in conventional terms. I would go as far as to say that Russia is incapable of defending itself with conventional forces if a full scale war erupts with Nato. Thus Russia is painfully dependent on its nuclear deterrent, and the Russian polity and military are hypersensitive about anything which undermines it.

    Reply
  6. OttoDog

     /  August 24, 2015

    Recent economic turmoil, not least of which is the sudden collapse of oil/nat gas, combined wirth Putin’s dependence on resurgent nationalism, makes me think that the US and Russia will be in a hot war in the Baltics, Ukraine and Iran beginning about May/June 2016.

    Reply
  7. Potato

     /  February 18, 2016

    I think that an outbreak of nuclear war after the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, I think them at there is more than a 18% chance of nuclear war if a war were to start in the next decade.

    Reply
  8. Randall Benoit

     /  June 1, 2016

    I think that study is bullshit and, that war will take place! a nuclear war! On or before the year 2040. The only question for me is. Is it going to be between Russia and United States, or the Taliban and United States, or North Korea and United States, or! China, United States, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, the Taliban, they all have nuclear weapons! Ask yourself why would Russia want to nuclear war with the United States. Maybe because of political differences. Ask yourself why would China want a nuclear war with the United States. Maybe because we owe them trillions of dollars that we cannot even pay the interest on! Now ask yourself why would North Korea want a nuclear war with the United States. Maybe because Kim Jong-Un is a self-absorbed asshole communistic dictastor! Who still wants to invade South Korea! Not to mention his nuclear testing, and ICBM’s being tested, or genocide! Why would Kim Jong-Un hate the United States? Ha ha! So many countries hate US it’s hard to count them all!!!

    Reply
  1. How would a nuclear war with Russia? - Cool Stuff and More

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: