I am not supposed to be worried about nuclear war with Russia. With North Korea maybe. I am told Kim Jong Un isn’t rational and can’t be trusted, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps China. It’s ten feet tall, after all. Never mind that our nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds theirs.
But Russia? Nah. Mutually assured destruction, baby. We both have enough nuclear warheads to destroy each other (and the world) several times over. Nuclear war would be MAD. Plus, I have it on good authority that the core insight of the nuclear revolution still holds—nuclear wars are unwinnable—so what would be the point?
And it’s not just the vulgar science of deterrence theory telling me to be unafraid. Big-league opinionmakers are saying that if I sweat nuclear war, I’ll be playing right into Putin’s hands! They say I need to man up. Be a patriot.
So what’s a patriotic man? Someone who invites risk of nuclear war, I suppose. Let’s run through some very mainstream, non-partisan examples of such counsel.
Former NATO Commander Philip Breedlove complained bitterly that the United States has “ceded the initiative to the enemy” and is “fully deterred” by fear of World War III, despite America being fully involved in the war at this point.
MSNBC pundits are warning that we can’t let fear of Russian escalation affect what we do, other than make bigger and bolder threats ourselves. Some scholars are arguing that “The United States cannot continue to allow its nuclear arsenal to deter itself from fighting.” Again, America has been and remains militarily involved.
Others insist that if Russia were to detonate a small nuclear warhead for any reason, the United States should “fire one of the new submarine-launched warheads into the wilds of Siberia or at a military base inside Russia.” That’s vertical and horizontal escalation!
Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal has been running an endless stream of real headlines like “How Putin Exploits America’s Fear of Nuclear War” and “The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War.” So much for the nuclear revolution.
Am I mad? Am I somehow not tough or patriotic enough because I’m worried that this manic insistence on masculine responses only is maybe thrusting us toward nuclear war half-wittingly?
Just after the United States joined World War One, Max Eastman, longtime editor of The Masses, wrote an essay called “The Religion of Patriotism.” In it, he called patriotism “a distraction of men’s minds from the pursuit of truth and from realistic progress. It is the temporary indulgence of a facile emotion.”
What’s notable about the public discourse on Ukraine is that it’s totally within the mainstream of punditry to advise not just ignoring but leaning into risks of nuclear escalation. Is that not jingoism? I fear nuclear patriotism of this sort is substituting emotion for the pursuit of truth in the form of a realistic strategy of least-harm.
The opinions documented above share at least two things in common. First, they want us to make strategically fateful decisions individually, apart from how they fit into a larger context that affects the chances of nuclear war. They’re literally asking us to discount the risk of nuclear war. As such, the arguments are heavier on morality and national role-fulfillment than they are on a strategy of stability.
Second, they share an underlying logic, which is really little more than the Munich analogy. Putin is Hitler (seriously, very credentialed people have made the comparison). He has been emboldened by our “restraint.” And appeasement—which has incorrectly come to mean anything that’s not violence or arms transfers or muscle-flexing—makes the aggressor more aggressive. It therefore follows that only by striking fear into Putin’s heart can we prevent him from escalating the war. Ok, Batman.
Look, you don’t deal with nuclear powers as if the only thing they understand is force. That’s the surest path to deterrence failure. And I’m not convinced that the United States has a theory of nuclear stability at the moment anyway.
In research I published earlier this year, I noted that the Biden administration is composed of a mix of nuclear traditionalists, future-of-war strategists, and arms controllers. Each has a view of nuclear weapons that invites different levels of risk, and god only knows whose views will prevail in a crisis.
It’s also unclear what the Biden administration’s strategy is for Ukraine apart from nukes, which is especially discomfiting because the United States simultaneously appears to be shifting to more ambitious goals. So no theory of nuclear stability, no obvious strategy, but a more expansive set of goals, and a jingo-filled commentariat espousing masculine virtues. Awesome. (looks for the nausea emoji…)
Let’s remind ourselves of the situation we’re facing. Putin has issued thinly veiled nuclear threats. He’s proven himself to be a bad gambler who cares little for human life. And he’s losing the battlefield war…because he’s a bad gambler who cares little for human life. NATO, it seems, is expanding, again. The United States is providing immense amounts of weapons, ammunition, logistics, and intelligence targeting support to Ukraine. And the United States is squeezing Putin’s oligarchs worldwide, and Russia’s economy is in the tank.
Even if Putin is Hitler, it seems to me the last thing we want is for him to do the nuclear equivalent of offing himself in a bunker because he can’t face losing so big.
So yeah, I’m worried. Partly because Biden’s team seems emboldened by Ukraine overperforming expectations. Partly because “patriots” are dominating the nuclear conversation. And partly because I have no idea what Biden’s strategy is or how sensitive to nuclear risk his team is.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Laughter or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do.” If I write with sarcasm or a mocking tone, it’s directly proportional to my worry about the situation. When it comes to nuclear war with Russia, there’s nothing else I can do.
Try this one for size: 2012 to 2014, VP Biden is “in charge” of Ukraine. In 2022, Biden is inaugurated, Nuland et.al. are back, and Zelensky disavows Minsk and declares Ukraine’s intention to reclaim secessionist Donbas and annexed Crimea by military force. Biden either encouraged this escalation, or abetted it after the fact. Russia responds by mobilization in early 2022, and the principals in DC and Kiev call a time-out.
Biden and/or Zelensky realize, before or after, that they have escalation dominance, but the response disconcerted them. Half a year of preparation follows, counting on a repetition of Georgia 2008 – the deployment of Russian military forces into breakaway territories to strike out at artillery deployed to shell the secession-defined “cauldron”. Ukraine moves more military forces to the LOC of the ongoing civil war in the East, fortifies, and sets up firing zones. Once confident in their ability to contain and bleed any “plausible” response from Russia, Ukraine commits to a schedule.
Now the Biden administration begins warning of “imminent” invasion, and Ukraine begins to escalate. At this point, Russia recognizes that they will be in “Zugzwang” – at every step along the escalation path, the “de-escalatory off-ramp” will not end the escalation. Let LDNR be shelled with impunity? Ukraine will move forward to reclaim. Leave LDNR to Ukrainian “reclamation” at gunpoint? Ukraine will isolate Crimea. Concede Crimea? Ukraine will apply for NATO membership now that “hostilities” are ended, NATO moves into the Black Sea, and naval and US intermediate-range conventional and nuclear systems might move forward at any time, while Ukraine “integrates” with NATO all over again – or just with US.
The Putin government then stated clearly that they wanted a fundamental change to the “security architecture” in which this kind of escalation was able to happen, over 8 years, without comment or debate. Moscow also signalled that without a reversal – a “security regime change” – they would perceive themselves forced to take unilateral action. Putin indicated that he expected any decision to originate in DC, but the message was directed at Brussels as well. It was the last appeal to European enlightened self-interest.
That unilateral action was what Biden and Zelensky were counting on. That action was what their policies were trying to provoke. *That* was and remains the US strategy, whether opportunistic (Ukraine’s dysfunctional government is the driver) or premeditated (US dysfunctional government is the driver). Ukraine was confident it had prepared to contain and bleed Russian “peacekeepers” and “humanitarian intervention”, the Biden administration was already pushing and achieving international sanctions against the “invader in being” as scripted, and Russia could see that weapon deliveries and “integration” would accelerate because of US claims of an “imminent invasion” whether or not Russia responded at all. The Russian build-up happened in April 2021, not in October 2021.
The OSCE mission recorded that Ukraine military shelling of Donbas increased by orders of magnitude beginning Feb 16, 2022. My personal guess is that then, and up to 24h before the actual orders, Putin’s government was not committed to the path they chose. Moscow recognized the LDNR republic Feb 21, which was Russia’s first admission of defeat – Minsk was officially dead. Putin however signalled that this step was reversible in negotiations. Russia then signed a treaty, and announced a peacekeeping mission. Even these steps were not really fully prepared and scripted – confusion ensued over what territory exactly Russia had recognized within the Russian government.
The initial confusion in many of the units that invaded Ukrainian territory on Feb 24 indicates that those opening moves were also not well-prepared. It is possible that only after the Feb 21 announcements did not result in an end or abatement of Ukrainian shelling of LDNR territory, Putin resolved that (1) Biden and/or Zelensky were committed to forcing Russia into a military response, (2) nothing Russia could do instead (UNSC, UN377) would find international support, (3) any “peacekeeping mission” or “humantiarian intervetion” would not change an already prepared US escalation, (4) the EU was unwilling to restrain Ukraine or US, and (5) wasting the lives of Russian soldiers by sending them into the trap Ukraine had prepared for a year (and US had facilidated over 8 years) for further “gradual” escalation along the Georgia 2008 precedent could not be justified.
I expected Zelensky and Biden were surprised when Russia’s military jumped several rungs on the escalation ladder and commenced an invasion (with a feint as far as Kiev). Judging from Biden’s hasty sanctions rampage, the response in DC was exultation. But whatever went right or wrong for the principal actors that chose – in 2021, twice – to provoke this war, your claim that Biden has no “strategy” here is dead wrong, and that mistaken assumption affects your ability to judge how “sensitive” Biden and his cabal are to nuclear risks. Biden likely had a strategy from Day One in office in 2021, if not as far back as 2012, and he deliberately pushed it from his end, personally and by proxy, and publicly from Nov 2021 onwards.
If Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland et.al. were “sensitive” to nuclear risk, they would have not decided to encourage Zelensky to proclaim his rejection of Minsk and a military “special operation” of sorts to reclaim Donbas and Crimea, or, if Zelensky conceived of this game of va banque himself, to back him once he “leaned in”. Biden had every opportunity, and many good reasons, to do the opposite, every day since taking office, and her personally both experience and leverage to restrain Zelensky. That he did not, that his predictions of hostilities even triggered Zelensky into attempts at rebuttal, is a clear indicator that Biden chose this escalation, to the point when thousands of artillery shells were fired into Donbass for several days.
The dynamic was clear in Dec 2021, following the repeated US leaks and proclamations regarding an “imminent invasion”, and the moves that were justified by it. So was the Biden strategy, at least as regards the options Biden had – and the lack of options remaining for Putin. My guess is that Moscow and Beijing discussed as early as mid 2021 that Russia could not accept a hostile, eventually INF-armed Ukraine, and both recognized that the Biden administration had escalation dominance to the extent it had any control over the Ukrainian government and military at all.
This war was Zelensky’s to provoke, and Biden’s to stop. That tells us all we need to know about Biden’s strategy – part of those “Great Gambles” the US has pursued since Wilson – and the strategy tells us everything about the Biden administration’s – and Congress’ – sensitivity to nuclear risk.
Now imagine this for a moment: The endless proclamations about how “Putin cannot afford to lose” in Ukraine have a mirror image. Biden is older than Bush (and older still than Bush was when he chose is own war of aggression in the illegal invasion or Iraq), and his prospects for 2024 are bleak. His proxy war is not winning elections, the economic cost – to voters – of his sanctions blowbackjob is mounting. Biden is a vain man, a grandstanding fool that led the Senate into an unconstitutional “authorization” for an illegal war of choice, into a vote that was in itelf a criminal act. Ukraine is his project, his last best shot at entering the history books as somebody who decisively advanced the Great Gamble towards the breakup of Russia that began with Wilson’s AEF. If Putin cannot afford to lose in Ukraine, neither can Biden.
I doubt that Biden would use nukes, but I see no convincing reason to think he is any less likely to do so than e.g. Putin (or Kim Jong Un for that matter). Plus, Arkhipov and Petrov were Russians, whereas we have to look to the likes of Milley, and jackbootlicking contortions over a “unilateral nuclear launch authority” that does not suspend the rule of law and treaty. Only one nation used nuclear bombs against civilians. Twice.
Russia has not yet lost, while Ukraine is still losing, and while Russia might or might not be able to afford losing in Ukraine, or losing Putin, the US Republic and our Constition would likely even be strengthened by a decisive setback for the US agenda in Ukraine, and We The People will certainly have much to gain from Biden’s dismissal along the way.
Especially if Biden has somehow convinced himself he has to “win this war” regardless of the cost.
The OSCE and independent analysts determined the shelling was overwhelmingly coming from separatist-controlled regions. It was part of the effort to goad Ukraine into providing Russia with a pretext for action and, failing that, provide grist for Russian propagandists, useful idiots, and smart people who manage to talk themselves into completely implausible accounts of the crisis. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I suppose it is possible that the impacts mapped here are separatists shelling separatists:
Maybe OSCE got the Line of Contact wrong?
Or maybe the Russians have been shelling the separatists to keep them in line?
Maybe since 2014? That would certainly be consistent with this report of 80% of civilian casualties occuring in separatist territory:
Or maybe it is, overwhelmingly, a Turing Test Fail? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
That said, the two separatist territories certainly are as independent from Moscow as Ukraine is from the US, and it is entirely plausible that it is fools and pretexts all the way down and back to 2013. I am not invested into a particular narrative, especially assuming that the leaders of LDNR might well be cut from the same ragged cloth as Zelensky et.al.
Yet, the undisputed fact that the US is “backing” the latter, vs. the apparently disputed fat that the former did the bulk of the dying over the past 8 years, makes me more interested in narratives that do not please the US establishment. Hic Rhodos, hic Salta, or as I see it, neither the Russian nor the Ukranian government are my responsibility. When it comes to propositions of collective guilt, one has to shit where one eats – unless your livelihood depends on not doing so.
So I’ve dealt with OSCE daily reports in an official capacity, and it’s clear that you don’t know how to read or interpret them. It’s also clear that you don’t understand how Russia manages its proxies in breakaway regions.
I’ll be blunt: your speculative account is pure fantasy.
Maybe the OSCE needs reports that require less interpretation?
Do share your own account (factual or speculative) for comparison, please.
Not being a Russian, nor having been to Ukraine or Russia, I certainly do not know “how Russia manages its proxies”, and I certainly share the suspicion that ignorance and misrepresentation abounds. I do respect your being paid know better, but I see no actual argument that would convince me take your conclusions as given. So it would be irresponsible not to wonder.
I have no comment on your opinion because I really admire your vision, knowledge and analysis of the recent history of the USA and Russian position in this horrible episode of humanity.
For arguments sake, whatever the “veracity” of the narrative I proposed yesterday, it sdoes serve to as a tool – to borrow from Schell, a “lens” – to view the situation.
If Biden does have “escalation dominance”, and if he is indeed set on using it, what does it mean? More better weapons to Ukraine. What does it preclude? Deescalation and negotiation.
The latest trial balloons of the “Not No Fly Zone” varietals are M142 HIMARS, M270 MLRS, with HEMTT or not, and NSM, Harpoon etc. – who can keep track? But whatever acronym is floating up, it is clear that the Biden administration is still intent on finding options to unilaterally escalate. Does this imply confidence that Ukraine is winning? Concern that the war might widen and/or ramp up?
As an aside, Biden is not alone in having “options” – Poland and Romania and Ukraine certainly could act unilaterally e.g. to “go to Transnistria” with or without Biden’s (or Moldova’s) consent, to once more try to force Russia’s hand, all complete with inoculation claims of “imminent” Russian aggression that is, operationally, implausible unless and until the Russian forces are able to move towards Odessa.
Worse, Poland could also unilaterally pursue peacekeeping deployments to West Ukraine. It is indeed fools all the way down, and grievances all the way back. It is fitting that a bloated NATO resembles more and more resembles a “Tripled Entente”, with all that “uncertainty of the alliances’ cohesion”.
Through this lens of “Biden as a driver”, your concerns re: nuclear escalation are warranted and – by me at least – shared. But I don’t see this as a Cuban Missile crisis re-enactment, – the PGM-19 Jupiter and/or Pershing II equivalent of the 21st Century has yet to be deployed. Maybe in a few years, to the Baltics, Finland, or even Ukraine?
What has happened in Ukraine looks uncomfortably like March of Folly heading towards Guns of August, and by then we might have a “winner” complete with an opponent unable to lose – either one. Maybe it is just more comforting to think that Biden did not just stumble into this confrontation, but actually engineered it – which scenario makes it more likely he and his have any clue as to what they are doing?
We’re certainly seeing increasing risk tolerance from the Biden administration with respect to weapons transfers.
FWIW, my sense is that the pattern is more consistent with what officials have been saying: that they expected the conventional phase to result in a quick Russian victory. As Thomas Dolan argues: “novel good news… makes change more likely because it leads to the derogation of risks and obstacles.” (To the extent that they’re also trying to avoid being outflanked from the right, then that’s a convenient view to hold.)