Imagine the world, like our Earth, maybe in late 2020th or 2030th. There is a country, that we will call Plutonia. Plutonia has a lot of nuclear and biological weapons, but a shrinking isolated economy. The government is authoritarian. To ensure its stability, the government explains that all problems in Plutonia are due to the enemies from the West that want to overthrow the government and conquer the country. The people in the government even may partially believe in it. 

Because the economy is shrinking and modern technologies are not coming from the world outside Plutonia, the conventional Plutonian army is unable to win the real war. Thus, in all "gray zone" conflicts, where Plutonia used to won, now the Plutonian neighbors may try to get their territories back. The only way to not lose is to use (limitedly) nuclear weapons. 

Somehow, this particular crisis is solved and is not turning into a full-scale nuclear war. However, the Plutonian government tasted the power of nuclear blackmailing.  To avoid it, other countries plan to develop a system that would protect them from this threat. Being created, this system would leave PLutonia defenseless. The Plutonian government believes that then it will be easy to overthrow them. So, they now blackmail other countries to stop any research in sensitive areas. 

There is a chance that eventually such a situation will be completely resolved peacefully. However, there is a significant chance of eventual catastrophe, especially if the missile launch will be more or less automatized and controlled by the decision of a very small number of people (maybe even one). Notice that such a fragile situation also creates higher risks for bioweapons catastrophe and for misaligned AGI (other countries may try to create AGI as soon as possible to avoid the threat of nuclear war; this rush may lead to neglecting safety protocols). 

What is the probability of such a scenario? Roughly, it is the probability that there will be something like Plutonia times the probability of the catastrophe induced by Plutonia. The latter is very hard to estimate since such an event never happened in history. It should be higher than the probability of the Cold War turning into real WWIII - because the USA and USSR were comparable agents, able to rely on something but nuclear weapons. Plutonia will have nukes as its only power. 

Toby Ord estimates that during the Caribbean crisis the chance of the actual nuclear war was an order of 50%.  Hence, the total risk of eventually transforming the Cold War into WWIII was even higher. Basically, there were only two options - war and peaceful transformation, and the last was chosen. For the Plutonian government, the transformation option might be significantly harder, since they have almost nothing but nuclear weapons. Thus, I would say that the probability of Plutonia induced catastrophe can be higher than 50%.

What about the first probability - the probability of emergence of Plutonia? There are many options, some are more likely, some are less. In my opinion, Russia is seriously likely to turn into Plutonia in the next decade, and it was going in that direction last 20 years. The alternative would be a democratic transformation, and, looking at similar cases, I would estimate the chance less than 50%. The chance of a change of international politics/economical growth without democratic transformation I would estimate as very low, maybe less than 10% (looking at the current modus operandi). This gives the net likelihood to get Plutonia more than 40%, and combining with the previous, more than 20% probability of the catastrophe. 

This is way bigger than was estimated here, and I described just one very particular scenario. It is very likely I am wrong and I strongly overestimated this probability. Thus, I am writing it here, hoping for help from the community. What would be the correct estimation of the probability? If it is indeed large, what can be done to decrease it? 

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Because the economy is shrinking and modern technologies are not coming from the world outside Plutonia, the conventional Plutonian army is unable to win the real war. Thus, in all "gray zone" conflicts, where Plutonia used to won, now the Plutonian neighbors may try to get their territories back. The only way to not lose is to use (limitedly) nuclear weapons.

Does Plutonia use the weapons within its sovereign territory against its own people or outside its own territory against an enemy state? When you say "use" do you mean actually detonating them or just threatening to do so?

When I say use, I mean actually detonating - not necessarily destroying a big city, but initially maybe just something small. 
Within the territory is possible, though I think outside is more realistic (I think the army will be eventually to weak to fight the external enemies with modern technology, but will always be able to fight unarmed citizens).

If Plutonia detonates its weapons outside its own territory offensively then the target is either nuclear-armed or non-nuclear armed.

  • If the target is nuclear-armed then the target state can be expected to retaliate with overwhelming force, thus removing the Plutonian government from power.
  • If the target is not nuclear-armed then nuclear armed states may or may not retaliate with overwhelming force. Exactly what happens here depends on what country Plutonia really is[1], who the target of the nuclear strike is and other geopolitical conditions.

Either way, the danger Plutonia poses to the rest of the world is eliminated before things can snowball.


  1. How the world would respond to a nuclear first strike by Russia is very different from a nuclear first strike by North Korea is very different from a nuclear first strike by Iran. ↩︎

The problem is that retaliation is not immediate (missiles takes few hours to reach the goal). For example, Plutonia can demonstratively destroy one object and declare that any attempt of retaliation will be retaliated in double. As soon as other country launches N missiles, Plutonia launches 2 N.

What about the first probability - the probability of emergence of Plutonia? There are many options, some are more likely, some are less. In my opinion, Russia is seriously likely to turn into Plutonia in the next decade, and it was going in that direction last 20 years. The alternative would be a democratic transformation, and, looking at similar cases, I would estimate the chance less than 50%.

How would "democratic transformation" solve that? Do you think current Russian government is the only reason behind things getting more tense on that front?
Have you considered Russian perspective on that issue?
For example, there's at least one country that has made quite a history invading other countries, for made up reasons. That same country happens to spend almost half of entire Russian GDP on their military every year.
What would happen to Russia in a world without nuclear weapons?
 

For example, there's at least one country that has made quite a history invading other countries, for made up reasons. 

That country also has a history of threating to use nuclear weapons. It also worrisome that it's executive has a history of lying to it's population and it's legislative to make it easier for a generals to lunch nuclear weapons.

It is worrisome indeed. I would say, it definitely does not help and only increases a risk. However, I don't think this country-that-must-not-be-named would start the nuclear war first, simply because it has too much to lose and its non-nuclear opportunities are excellent. This may change in future - so yes, there is some probability as well.

Well, "democratic transition" will not necessarily solve that (like basically it did not completely resolve the problem with the end of the Cold War), you are right, so actually, the probability must be higher than I estimated - even worse news. 
 Is there any other options for decreasing the risk?

From a Russian perspective. Well, I didn't discuss it with officials in the government, only with the friends who support the current government. So I can only say what they think and feel, and of course, it is just anecdotal evidence. When I explicitly discussed with one of them the possibility of the nuclear war, he stated that this possibility is small and as long as the escalation will be beneficial for Russia he will support it. 


 I don't want to go here into politics and discuss what type of government would be better for Russia.  I was more interested to estimate the probability of the nuclear war (or other catastrophes mentioned on the main post).

A lot of what happens in politics is due to domestic considerations. Your analysis ignores domestic considerations within Plutonia completely and is thus unlikely a good model of what Plutunia will do. It basically assumes that Plutonia is a country where corruption has no influence on political decisions.

Game theory says that if there's common knowledge that the only way to stay alive is to use nuclear weapons you can credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons. 

On the other hand you can't credible threaten to use nuclear weapons to shut down research projects in other countries because by the nature of research projects their results in not fully known beforehand. Making bluffs is costly from the side of Plutonia given that it means that future threats will be less believable if they are called.

That is exactly the problem. Suppose the Plutonia government sincerely believes, that as soon as other countries will be protected, they will help people of Plutonia to overthrow the government? And they kind of have reasons for such belief. Then (in their model of the world) the world protected from them is a deadly threat,  basically capital punishment. The nuclear war, however, is horrible, but there are bomb shelters where they can survive and have enough food inside just for themselves to live till natural death. 

I don't think anything is gained by making up a name Plutonia.  I think your model can be vastly simplified by just counting the number of nuclear arsenals with non-dominant political controllership.    

[edit to expand a bit]

The underlying thesis seems to be that political units which are powerful and growing create nuclear arsenals, and then much later become weak and non-dominant in their areas, making that nuclear attack capability much riskier, because they have less to lose (and because they don't see other paths to their former greatness). 

Sorry, I didn't get what do you mean by "non-dominant political controllership", can you rephrase it?

Yes, absolutely, it is the underlying thesis. 

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