Rumors About Nuclear Weapons in Crimea

The news media and private web sites are full of rumors that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea after it invaded the region earlier this year. Many of these rumors are dubious and overly alarmist and ignore that a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead.

Several U.S. lawmakers who oppose nuclear arms control use the Crimean deployment to argue against further reductions of nuclear weapons. NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.

Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said that NATO was “transferring aircraft capable of carrying nuclear arms to the Baltic states,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded that Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including in newly annexed Crimea.

Whether intended or not, non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the new East-West crisis.  Continue reading

Thinking More Clearly About Nuclear Weapons: The Ukrainian Crisis’ Overlooked Nuclear Risk

The destructive potential of nuclear weapons is so great that decisions impacting them should be made in a fully conscious, objective manner. Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that this is not the case. One of my Stanford course handouts1) Available at http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/sts152_03/handout03.pdf lists almost two dozen assumptions which underlie our nuclear posture, but warrant critical re-examination. This column applies that same kind of analysis to the current Ukrainian crisis.

It is surprising and worrisome that almost none of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has mentioned its nuclear risk. With the West feeling that Russia is solely to blame, and Russia having the mirror image perspective, neither side is likely to back down if one of their red lines is crossed. Add in America’s overwhelming conventional military superiority and Russia’s 8,000 nuclear weapons, and there is the potential for nuclear threats. And, where there is the potential for nuclear threats, there is also some potential for nuclear use.

I’m not saying a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis is likely, but given the potential consequences, even a small risk of the Ukrainian crisis escalating to nuclear threats would seem too high.

The frequency with which we find ourselves in such confrontations is also a factor. A low probability nuclear risk that occurs once per century is ten times less likely to explode in our faces than one that occurs once per decade. And the latter hypothesis (confrontations occurring approximately once per decade, instead of once per century) is supported by the empirical evidence, as the Georgian War occurred just six years ago.

While both Russia and the West are wrong that the current crisis is solely the other side’s fault, this article focuses on our mistakes since those are the ones we have the power to correct.

An example of the West’s belief that the crisis is all Russia’s fault appeared in a July 18 editorial 2)“Vladimir Putin Can Stop This War,” New York Times, July 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/malaysia-airlines-plane-ukraine-putin-russia.html?_r=2 in The New York Times which claimed, “There is one man who can stop [the Ukrainian conflict] — President Vladimir Putin of Russia.”

Another example occurred on September 3, when President Obama stated: “It was not the government in Kyiv that destabilized eastern Ukraine; it’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia. And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks. Now, these are the facts. They are provable. They’re not subject to dispute.” (emphasis added)

So what’s the evidence that the New York Times and the president might be wrong? In early February, when the crisis was in its early and much less deadly stages, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, wrote3)Jack Matlock, “Ukraine and the United States,” JackMatlock.com, February 8, 2014. http://jackmatlock.com/2014/02/ukraine-and-the-united-states/: “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.” (emphasis added)

A month later, on March 3, Dmitri Simes, a former adviser to President Nixon, seconded Ambassador Matlock’s perspective when he said in an interview4)Martin Hellman, “Nixon’s Adviser Warns Ukraine Could Have ‘Echoes of 1914,’” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, March 9, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/nixons-adviser-warns-ukraine-could-have-echoes-of-1914/Henry A. Kissinger, “Henry Kissinger: To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End,” Washington Post, March 5, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html[/ref]: “I think it [the Obama administration’s approach to the Ukraine] has contributed to the crisis. … there is no question in my mind that the United States has a responsibility to act. But what Obama is doing is exactly the opposite from what should be done in my view.”

Two days later, on March 5, President Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, wrote:5) “Each [Russia, the West, and the various Ukrainian factions] has made the situation worse.”

A number of other articles by foreign policy experts also question the Times and President Obama placing all the blame for the crisis on Russia, but I hope I’ve made the point that Putin is not the only man who could end the fighting. Indeed, he may not be capable of doing that without us also correcting some of our mistakes.

Further evidence that the New York Times and President Obama might be wrong can be found in an intercepted and leaked phone conversation[ref]Martin Hellman, “Transcript of Estonian FM Bombshell Revelation,” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, June 19, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/transcript-of-estonian-fm-bombshell-revelation/ in which Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet – clearly no friend of Russia’s – stated that the sniper fire on February 20, which killed dozens of Maidan protesters and led to calls for Yanukovych’s head, appeared to have been a false flag operation perpetrated by the most violent elements within the protesters – for example, the ultra-nationalist Right Sektor, which is seen as neo-Nazi in some quarters.

Here is the exact wording of Paet’s key allegation in that phone call: “There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers … it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.” That “new coalition” is now the Ukrainian government.

While this allegation has received little attention in the American mainstream media, German public television sent an investigative reporting team which reached the same conclusion6)Martin Hellman, “Is the Ukrainian Crisis Spiraling Out of Control?” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, April 14, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/is-the-ukrainian-crisis-spiraling-out-of-control/: “The Kiev Prosecutor General’s Office [of the interim government] is confident in their assessment [that Yanukovych’s people are to blame for the sniper fire, but] we are not.”

This is not to say that Paet and the German investigators are correct in their conclusions – just that it is dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear matters not to take those allegations more seriously than we have.

While Putin has exaggerated the risk to ethnic Russians living in Ukraine for his own purposes, the West has overlooked those same risks. For example, on May 2 in Odessa, dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were burned alive when an anti-Russian mob prevented them from fleeing the burning building into which they had been chased. According to the New York Times7)Andrew Kramer, “Ukraine’s Reins Weaken as Chaos Spreads,” New York Times, May 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/05/world/europe/kievs-reins-weaken-as-chaos-spreads.html: “The pro-Russians, outnumbered by the Ukrainians, fell back … [and] sought refuge in the trade union building. Yanus Milteynus, a 42-year-old construction worker and pro-Russian activist, said he watched from the roof as the pro-Ukrainian crowd threw firebombs into the building’s lower windows, while those inside feared being beaten to death by the crowd if they tried to flee.  … As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.”

Adding to the risk, on August 29, Ukraine took steps to move from non-aligned status to seeking NATO membership, and NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he would “fully respect if the Ukrainian parliament decides to change that policy [of  non-alignment].” Somewhat paradoxically, it is extremely dangerous – especially for Ukraine – for Rasmussen to encourage its hopes of joining NATO since Russia would likely respond aggressively to prevent that from occurring.

Also adding to the danger is an escalatory spiral that appears to be in process, with NATO taking actions that are seen as threatening by Russia and Russia responding in kind, with Putin reminding the world8)Greg Bothelho and Laura Smith-Spark, “Putin: You Better Not Come After a Nuclear-Armed Russia,” CNN.com, August 30, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/29/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/index.html?hpt=hp_t1 that, “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.”

We also need to question whether it is in our national security interests to ally ourselves with the Kiev government when, on September 1, its Defense Minister declared that, “A great war has arrived at our doorstep – the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War Two.”9)“Ukraine crisis: Government setbacks in Luhansk and Donetsk,” BBC News Europe, September 1, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29019032

Also on September 1, a group of former CIA intelligence analysts warned10)“Warning Merkel on Russian ‘Invasion’ Intel,” Consortiumnews.com, September 1, 2014.   http://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/01/warning-merkel-on-russian-invasion-intel/that: “Accusations of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence. Rather, the intelligence seems to be of the same dubious, politically fixed kind used 12 years ago to justify the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.” (The group also warned about faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.)

These former intelligence analysts are not saying that our government’s accusation is wrong. But they are reminding us that there is historical evidence indicating that we should be more cautious in assuming that it is correct.

In a September 4 article in Foreign Policy, “Putin’s Nuclear Option,” 11)Jeffrey Taylor, “Putin’s Nuclear Option,” Foreign Policy, September 4, 2014. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/09/04/putins_nuclear_option_russia_weapons Jeffrey Taylor argues that: “Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West – and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what’s left of America’s credibility as the world’s guardian of peace.”

I strongly encourage readers to read the full article. Again, Piotkovsky’s scenario is not likely, but given the consequences, even a small risk could be intolerable.

Defusing the Ukrainian crisis will require a more mature approach on the part of all parties. Focusing on what we need to do, we need to stop seeing Ukraine as a football game that will be won by the West or by Russia, and start being concerned with the safety of all its residents, of all ethnicities. If we do that, we will also reduce the risk that we find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when neither side wanted to stare into the nuclear abyss, but both found themselves doing so.

As noted earlier, our mishandling of the Ukrainian crisis is unfortunately just one instance of a larger problem – dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear weapons. Given that the survival of our homeland is at stake, our government needs to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the assumptions which underlie our current nuclear posture and correct any that are found to be wanting.

 

Dr. Martin E. Hellman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis at FAS. Hellman was at IBM’s Watson Research Center from 1968-69 and an Assistant Professor of EE at MIT from 1969-71. Returning to Stanford in 1971, he served on the regular faculty until becoming Professor Emeritus in 1996. He has authored over seventy technical papers, ten U.S. patents and a number of foreign equivalents.

Along with Diffie and Merkle, Hellman invented public key cryptography, the technology which allows secure transactions on the Internet, including literally trillions of dollars of financial transactions daily. He has also been a long-time contributor to the computer privacy debate, starting with the issue of DES key size in 1975 and culminating with service (1994-96) on the National Research Council’s Committee to Study National Cryptographic Policy, whose main recommendations have since been implemented.

His current project, Defusing the Nuclear Threat, is applying quantitative risk analysis to a potential failure of nuclear deterrence. In addition to illuminating the level of risk inherent in threatening to destroy civilization in an effort to maintain the peace, this approach highlights how small changes, early in the accident chain, can reduce the risk far more than might first appear. This methodology has been endorsed by a number of prominent individuals including a former Director of the National Security Agency, Stanford’s President Emeritus, and two Nobel Laureates.

Notes   [ + ]

1.  Available at http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/sts152_03/handout03.pdf
2. “Vladimir Putin Can Stop This War,” New York Times, July 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/malaysia-airlines-plane-ukraine-putin-russia.html?_r=2
3. Jack Matlock, “Ukraine and the United States,” JackMatlock.com, February 8, 2014. http://jackmatlock.com/2014/02/ukraine-and-the-united-states/
4. Martin Hellman, “Nixon’s Adviser Warns Ukraine Could Have ‘Echoes of 1914,’” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, March 9, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/nixons-adviser-warns-ukraine-could-have-echoes-of-1914/
5.  “Each [Russia, the West, and the various Ukrainian factions] has made the situation worse.”

A number of other articles by foreign policy experts also question the Times and President Obama placing all the blame for the crisis on Russia, but I hope I’ve made the point that Putin is not the only man who could end the fighting. Indeed, he may not be capable of doing that without us also correcting some of our mistakes.

Further evidence that the New York Times and President Obama might be wrong can be found in an intercepted and leaked phone conversation[ref]Martin Hellman, “Transcript of Estonian FM Bombshell Revelation,” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, June 19, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/transcript-of-estonian-fm-bombshell-revelation/

6. Martin Hellman, “Is the Ukrainian Crisis Spiraling Out of Control?” Defusing the Nuclear Threat, April 14, 2014. http://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/is-the-ukrainian-crisis-spiraling-out-of-control/
7. Andrew Kramer, “Ukraine’s Reins Weaken as Chaos Spreads,” New York Times, May 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/05/world/europe/kievs-reins-weaken-as-chaos-spreads.html
8. Greg Bothelho and Laura Smith-Spark, “Putin: You Better Not Come After a Nuclear-Armed Russia,” CNN.com, August 30, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/29/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/index.html?hpt=hp_t1
9. “Ukraine crisis: Government setbacks in Luhansk and Donetsk,” BBC News Europe, September 1, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29019032
10. “Warning Merkel on Russian ‘Invasion’ Intel,” Consortiumnews.com, September 1, 2014.   http://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/01/warning-merkel-on-russian-invasion-intel/
11. Jeffrey Taylor, “Putin’s Nuclear Option,” Foreign Policy, September 4, 2014. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/09/04/putins_nuclear_option_russia_weapons

Nuclear Exercises Amidst Ukrainian Crisis: Time For Cooler Heads

nukeEx-Russia_AS-15
A Russian Tu-95MS long-range bomber drops an AS-15 Kent nuclear-capable cruise missiles from its bomb bay on May 8th. Six AS-15s were dropped from the bomb bay that day as part of a Russian nuclear strike exercise.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Less than a week after Russia carried out a nuclear strike exercise, the United States has begun its own annual nuclear strike exercise.

The exercises conducted by the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states come in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and Russia appear to slide back down into a tit-for-tat posturing not seen since the Cold War.

Military posturing in Russia and NATO threaten to worsen the crisis and return Europe to an “us-and-them” adversarial relationship.

One good thing: the crisis so far has demonstrated the uselessness of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.  Continue reading

Resolving the Crisis in Ukraine: International Crisis Group’s Recommendations

As readers of the FAS Strategic Security Blog know, we have been concerned about the potential of the crisis in Ukraine to escalate, further worsening U.S.-Russian relations and possibly resulting in armed conflict involving NATO and Russia. As the May 25th presidential election in Ukraine is fast approaching, this post draws attention to advice and recommendations from the International Crisis Group, a highly respected non-governmental organization. Here’s the announcement of the major findings from the group’s newest report Ukraine: Running out of Time.

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Is the Ukrainian Crisis Spiraling Out of Control?

Today’s news shows a heightened nuclear risk due to a dangerous feedback process at work in the Ukraine. The New York Times’ page 1 ominous headline was, “Striking Town, Ukraine Forces Defy Warning,” and the Wall Street Journal echoed the danger, “Ukraine Sends Troops East As Pro-Russia Forces Strike.” Is the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, and if so, what might we do to reverse that dangerous process?

The debate has become paralyzed with the West focused on protecting the interim, pro-Western government and its primarily ethnic Ukrainian supporters, while Moscow’s concerns center on protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. With the violence escalating on both sides in what is already a small civil war, the West and Russia each have legitimate concerns, but neither side is taking in the whole picture. Where are the calls for protecting the lives and the rights of both ethnic groups living in the Ukraine?

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FAS Roundup: March 17, 2014

NATO nuclear weapons security costs expected to double, anniversary of Fukushima, crisis in Ukraine and more.

From the Blogs

B61-12 Bomb Integration on NATO Aircraft to Start in 2015: The U.S. Air Force FY15 budget request indicates that  integration of the B61-12 on NATO F-16 and Tornado aircraft will start in 2015 for completion in 2017 and 2018. The integration marks the beginning of a significant enhancement of the military capability of NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe. The integration work includes software upgrades on the legacy aircraft, operational flight tests, and full weapon integration. Development of the guided tail kit is well underway in reparations for operational tests. It estimated that integration efforts will cost more than $1 billion.

Reducing the Risk of Russian-American Standoff: Congress is considering sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Dr. Martin Hellman, Adjunct Fellow for Nuclear Risk, professor at Stanford, and an expert on crisis risk reduction, writes that situation in the Ukraine is deplorable and Russia has made its share of mistakes. But, Russia is not solely to blame and the West needs to take responsibility as well. Dr. Hellman urges the public to contact their Congressional representatives about the crisis in Ukraine.

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More on the Ukraine

With the Crimea voting today on whether to secede from the Ukraine, and early returns indicating strong support for secession, the following perspectives on the crisis are particularly relevant. As before, I am emphasizing unusual perspectives not because the mainstream view (“It’s  Russia’s fault!”) doesn’t have some validity, but because it over-simplifies a complex issue. And, when dealing with a nation capable of destroying us in under an hour, it would be criminally negligent not to look at all the evidence before imposing sanctions or taking other dangerous steps.

In his blog, Russia: Other Points of View, Patrick Armstrong asks, “If, as seems to be generally expected, tomorrow’s [now today’s] referendum in Crimea produces a substantial majority in favour of union with the Russian Federation, what will Moscow’s reaction be?” It will be interesting to assess his answer a week from now, when time will tell if he was right:

I strongly expect that it will be……

Nothing.

There are several reasons why I think this. One is that Moscow is reluctant to break up states. I know that that assertion will bring howls of laughter from the Russophobes who imagine that Putin has geography dreams every night but reflect that Russia only recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Georgia had actually attacked South Ossetia. The reason for recognition was to prevent other Georgian attacks. Behind that was the memory of the chaos caused in the Russian North Caucasus as an aftermath of Tbilisi’s attacks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 1990s. Russia is a profoundly status quo country – largely because it fears change would lead to something worse – and will not move on such matters until it feels it has no other choice. We are not, I believe, quite at that point yet on Crimea let alone eastern Ukraine.

Moscow can afford to do nothing now because time is on its side. The more time passes, the more people in the West will learn who the new rulers of Kiev are.

To show “who the new rulers of Kiev are,” Armstrong then quotes from a Los Angeles Times article, which starts off:

It’s become popular to dismiss Russian President Vladimir Putin as paranoid and out of touch with reality. But his denunciation of “neofascist extremists” within the movement that toppled the old Ukrainian government, and in the ranks of the new one, is worth heeding. The empowerment of extreme Ukrainian nationalists is no less a menace to the country’s future than Putin’s maneuvers in Crimea. These are odious people with a repugnant ideology.

Read the rest of the article to learn more.

And a Reuters dispatch shows how the interim Ukrainian government is making it more likely that Crimea’s desire to secede and re-join Russia will be honored by Russia:

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk vowed on Sunday to track down and bring to justice all those promoting separatism in its Russian-controlled region of Crimea “under the cover of Russian troops”.

“I want to say above all … to the Ukrainian people: Let there be no doubt, the Ukrainian state will find all those ringleaders of separatism and division who now, under the cover of Russian troops, are trying to destroy Ukrainian independence,” he told a cabinet meeting as the region voted in a referendum on becoming a part of Russia.

“We will find all of them – if it takes one year, two years – and bring them to justice and try them in Ukrainian and international courts. The ground will burn beneath their feet.”

Given that the Ukrainian opposition demanded amnesty for even the violent protesters in Kiev, how can the new government possibly expect the more peaceful Crimean opposition not to secede under such threats? It is also worth noting that this new government was installed by force in violation of an agreement worked out between Yanukovych and the political leaders of the Ukrainian opposition.

Reducing the Risk of Russian-American Standoff

Editor’s Note: Dr. Martin Hellman, Adjunct Fellow for Nuclear Risk, professor at Stanford, and an expert on crisis risk reduction, asks that FAS members and others who read this post to consider contacting their elected representatives about the crisis in Ukraine. Dr. Hellman sent the following letter to President Obama and his Congressional representatives. 

I am writing to encourage you to resist the push for sanctioning Russia over its actions in the Ukraine. While the situation in the Ukraine is deplorable and Russia has made its share of mistakes, it is not solely to blame.

Henry Kissinger recognized this: “We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction. Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle.”

So did Pres. Nixon’s Soviet Adviser, Dmitri Simes. When asked, “how do you assess the Obama administration’s performance so far?” he replied, “I think it has contributed to the crisis.”

So did Ronald Reagan’s former ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock: ” 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.”

It is also ancient wisdom: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” If we are going to sanction Russian officials for their actions in Ukraine, what about Pres. Bush, VP Cheney, and others for their actions in Iraq?

Instead of sanctioning perceived evil doers, it would be much more effective to clean up our own act first. That also has the advantage that it would not push Russia to retaliate in some way, for example by selling anti-aircraft missiles to Iran or stopping us from using their territory for our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most importantly, it would reduce the risk of a Russian-American standoff which could lead to nuclear threats, or even nuclear use.

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.

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