How does the war in Ukraine end?

Thinking about the election is depressing and anxiety provoking, so let’s focus on situation in Ukraine.

Progressive Democrats ask Biden to negotiate with Putin

This letter to Biden from some members of the progressive caucus is a big mistake, assuming the progressives want to save lives and prevent a genocidal Russian takeover of Ukraine.  Putin is losing his war and may lose his grip on power and his life; his strategy is to drag the war out and hope that a cold winter in Europe and (especially) a Republican victory in the United States mid-term election reduces support for Ukraine while he rebuilds his battered army.  He is also trying to deter weapons deliveries to Ukraine by threatening nuclear escalation. 

If Putin wanted to negotiate in good faith it would not be hard for him to find willing partners, including the United States.  The problem is that he does not have much reason to negotiate; at most he will agree to a cease fire to buy time to rebuild his army and consolidate his territorial gains. This would be unacceptable to Ukraine and should be unacceptable to us, given the genocide that would follow and the precedent that would be set.  On the other hand, why would Putin agree to withdraw his troops prior to negotiations?

In this context the progressive letter is counterproductive because it signals a lack of resolve.  It suggests that Americans are getting tired of the war.  Having the United States push Ukraine to settle rather than sending them weapons is Putin’s only path to an outcome that is not a clear defeat.

The better approach is to authorize substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine during the lame duck session of Congress.  Given Biden’s commitment to Ukraine, this will signal U.S. resolve to Putin.  The biggest threat to Ukraine for months has been the pro-Putin faction of the Republican party.  So far support for the war has remained relatively bipartisan but this could easily change.

My theory of the case:  the revolution devours its parents

I think the congressional progressives know everything I just said.  My theory is that they are pandering to the utopian blame-America-first segment of the democratic base.  This is the problem with utopian know-it-all politics of the Jacobin sort.  It sets up unrealistic expectations and creates an electorate that can never be satisfied.  Couple that with our two-party political system and open primaries and even solid progressives need to worry about being outflanked on the “left”.

Genocidal talk on Russian state media

A couple of days ago a speaker on Russian state television went on a pro-genocide rant.  (If you haven’t seen the clip, it’s worth taking a look.)  The segment was translated by Julia Davis and went viral; it was so bad that the speaker has apparently been fired.  But the genocidal talk on Russian television continues

This is worrying on multiple levels.  It no doubt encourages war crimes by the Russian army.  It may box Putin in and make a negotiated settlement more difficult.  Even worse, it may reflect or influence Putin’s actual beliefs.  If this is true, the risk of a purely vindictive nuclear attack on Ukraine by a humiliated Putin/Russia rises.  If you hate Ukrainians, and you are going to lose, why not take them down with you?

Will Putin use tactical nuclear weapons?

Most analysts believe that Putin is unlikely to use “tactical” nuclear weapons on Ukrainian targets.  Although it is very difficult to predict how Russians, Ukrainians, and the world community would react to the use of nuclear weapons, there are many reasons to think the costs to Putin of using tactical nuclear weapons would far outweigh the benefits.  There are also obstacles to the use of the weapons (risk of insubordination, delivery challenges, maintenance issues, etc.).  A critical question is what Putin is hearing from China and India.  (I wish they would make clear public statements to box themselves in to serious economic retaliation in response to a nuclear strike.)

Unfortunately, even if these commentators are correct, a low risk that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons is not zero risk, especially if Putin feels that his grip on power is threatened. 

Can the use of tactical nuclear weapons lead to nuclear Armageddon?

Yes.  There is always a risk that things will spin out of control.  Here is one account of how this can happen:

What is clear is that both sides have consistently escalated in Ukraine when they fear that they might lose. . . .

. . .

In taking these escalatory steps, both sides have also increased the domestic and geopolitical costs of compromise, thus increasing the incentive for further escalations. . . .

. . .

It is not hard to imagine how they might be starting from where we are today. If the war continues to move against the Russians, and particularly if the Ukrainians begin to invade Crimea, they will reach ever greater levels of fear that the future of the Russian regime is at stake. Some genius within the Russian leadership will then put forward the idea that they can reverse the momentum and demonstrate their greater willingness to accept Armageddon by a nuclear demonstration. As Michael Kofman and Anya Lukianov Fink have noted, Russian military analysts have long believed in “a demonstrative use of force, and could subsequently include nuclear use for demonstration purposes.” The West, this Russian optimist will argue, doesn’t really care about Ukraine and will recoil at the real prospect of nuclear war. Lacking better options, or really any other options at all beyond surrender, Russian President Vladmir Putin (or his successor) will seize on this deus ex machina. Such thin hopes of turning defeat into victory are the most effective enemies of peace.

. . .

The American equivalent of the Russian genius will argue that a direct, proportionate response aimed at the attack itself will send a signal to the Russian leadership that the United States is seeking to punish the crime of nuclear use, not escalate the war or overthrow the Russian regime. They will see the Russian strategic nuclear alert as a bluff, arguing that to follow through with a strategic nuclear attack would be suicide. Lacking better options, the U.S. leadership will seize on the idea of such a finely calibrated response and launch a conventional NATO attack on Russian troop formations in Ukraine or the military base in Russia where the Russian nuclear strike originated from. As a precaution, they will also put U.S. nuclear forces on alert, put more U.S. nuclear submarines to sea and recommend to the British and French that that they also put their forces on alert — if these two independent powers had not done so already. 

Unfortunately, such a subtle message is likely to be lost on a paranoid Kremlin. . . .

The interests of the United States and Ukraine nonetheless remain imperfectly aligned

The risk of worldwide nuclear conflagration means that the interests of the United States and Ukraine are imperfectly aligned. 

It is true that the risk of the world stumbling into nuclear Armageddon is increased by Ukrainian success on the battlefield.  On the other hand, caving in to nuclear threats is potentially very destabilizing.  It could encourage Russia, China, and perhaps other nuclear powers to invade their neighbors, and it would give many vulnerable countries an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.  This makes the overall effect of supporting Ukraine on the risk of nuclear conflagration ambiguous.

It may come down to Crimea

My guess is that the rubber will hit the road if Ukraine expels Russia from the Donbass and is in a position to invade Crimea.  If there is any red line for Putin, that is likely to be it, and my hunch is that Biden will push Ukraine to leave Crimea (or perhaps just the naval base?) in Russian hands.  My guess is also that Ukraine will cede Crimea to end the war and avoid the risk of a vindictive nuclear attack by Putin.  So even here the conflict of interest between the United States and Ukraine may not be all that great.