Nuclear strategy podcast
I recommend this podcast on nuclear strategy and Ukraine from 538.
Why caution about escalation?
It appears that President Biden and his team have done a masterful job rallying our allies and Americans to the Ukrainian cause, countering Putin’s propaganda efforts, putting in place a strong sanctions regime, etc. He also (rightly) resisted actions he viewed as potentially dangerous escalation, especially calls for a no-fly zone and the Polish MiG deal.
But what’s the logic behind the caution about escalation? I can think of three theories, but I’m wondering if there are others.
One is a marginal deterrence theory. If we impose maximal sanctions now, we have no room to escalate sanctions in response to intransigence or escalation from Putin. This is one reason not to execute people for unarmed robbery – more robbers would decide to use weapons.
Another reason to hold off on maximal sanctions is to avoid creating a situation where Putin feels so trapped that nuclear escalation becomes an appealing (or less unappealing) option.
Finally, avoiding direct military conflict with Russia is a strong reason to reject a no-fly zone.
But I don’t know anything about war strategy. What am I missing?
Is face-saving important for Putin? If so, why?
People understandably talk about the importance of giving Putin an “off-ramp” from conflict. But what is an off-ramp? If an off-ramp is just an outcome that is better than continued war in Ukraine, giving Putin an off-ramp doesn’t seem so difficult. We can always agree to lift sanctions, to restrict NATO expansion, etc. (Making these commitments credible might be difficult, and they may not be popular with western publics, but that’s life.)
But when people talk about an off-ramp, they seem to have in mind face-saving for Russia/Putin as well as a willingness to negotiate an end to the conflict. Why is face-saving important to Putin? I can imagine face-saving being very important to Trump for personal psychological reasons. He just needs the adulation. Is this true of Putin? Or is face-saving important just to help Putin maintain power?
If maintaining power is Putin’s main goal, negotiating an end to an unpopular war might be in his interest even if it’s not face-saving in some absolute sense (and it could be more face-saving than continuing a quagmire). And Putin can always claim victory and suppress countervailing narratives domestically. If he gets sanctions lifted and controls the popular narrative, what else does he need? Crimea and eastern Ukraine? Ukrainian neutrality? How much do ordinary Russians care about these things? What else can we give him? What control do we have over domestic opinion in Russia, anyway? It seems like public opinion will be more of a constraint on President Biden and NATO leaders, especially when it comes to lifting economic sanctions.
Besides negotiating an end to the conflict – and being willing to lift economic sanctions – what else do we need to do? Does it matter if Biden and NATO leaders say face-saving things in public?
How does our negotiating strategy change if Putin is strongly motivated by a desire to restore Russian empire? Does that mean that we – and Ukraine – need to be willing to put Ukrainian neutrality and territorial concessions on the table?
Updating my (uninformed) priors
I still think the war will continue to be a catastrophe for Ukrainians, but I am a bit less pessimistic than I was a few days ago. The case for pessimism: Logistical and supply problems for the Ukrainians will get worse as the Russians advance; they may lose large numbers of troops. The Russians will overcome their logistical problems or just destroy Ukrainian cities from a distance or starve people into submission. The case for (not optimism but) somewhat less pessimism: The Russian military continues to underperform, there are faint glimmers of discontent on the Russian home front and interest in a negotiated end to the conflict.
To be clear, I don’t put much stock in my thoughts on Ukraine, and neither should anyone else. I’m just putting this out there.