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Go Ahead And Bluff, They Said. They Won’t Shoot Back, They Said

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From the film “The Road”

A number of people want to up the ante on Vladimir Putin. He made nuclear threats, so let’s threaten him back. He won’t escalate.

They leave out a lot.

What they leave out is a serious consideration, based on Putin’s words and actions, of his likely response. Assuming that one’s own side will always take the last action is as common a misapprehension in war as the idea that an invading army will be greeted as liberators, and just as dangerous.

Some of the authors of recent articles imply or state that they are not advocating escalation, but their bottom line is that Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons must be met with similarly warlike responses. They criticize President Joe Biden for stating clearly that the United States will not meet Russia with a military response because those statements eliminate some of the steps they would like to take.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union took care to avoid direct confrontation because they recognized that they had come to the brink of nuclear war. Avoiding a direct confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers remains essential. Paul Poast, in one of his instructive Twitter threads, buries the lead on the purpose of the UN. It is to assure that the five permanent members never again go to war against each other.

World War I began as a regional war. A web of treaty commitments spread the war to all of Europe. Biden’s clarity is designed to avoid assumed commitments that could do something similar. A confrontation between the United States and Russia carries the risk of escalating to a nuclear war.

Several articles, written before the horrors of Bucha became known, list actions that the authors feel might have deterred Putin before Russia attacked Ukraine. As we gain information about what Putin does, it may be necessary to revise assumptions about what he is willing to do. Here are suggestions from the articles:

  • Staging a NATO training exercise on Ukrainian territory (Alexander Vershbow)
  • Rotating more NATO battalions through Poland and Ukraine’s other neighbors (Alexander Vershbow)
  • The White House could have reminded Putin that NATO is a “nuclear-armed alliance” and that “we could respond in kind.” (James Mattis)
  • The administration could have announced that NATO would conduct a nuclear exercise in Europe (John Herbst)
  • Refute Putin’s narrative, which includes the idea that the invasion of Ukraine was undertaken to pre-empt NATO aggression against Russia staged from Ukraine. (Simon and Stevenson)
  • The United States should reassert confidence in conventional deterrence by emphasizing its adherence to the established framework. (Simon and Stevenson)
  • NATO must make clear that the introduction of nuclear weapons into the conflict by Russia would entail diplomatic, economic and military costs that dwarf any seen in its entire history. (Alberque and Hoffmann)
  • Leaders must state that nuclear use would risk a military response by NATO. (Alberque and Hoffmann)

The articles do little to analyze Putin’s thinking and what actions he might take in response. One argument, attributed to James Mattis, is that the memory of “‘mutual assured destruction’ so deeply ingrained in the DNA of a former KGB officer would have helped ensure that the logic of deterrence would prevail.”

Two other articles make different arguments. Limor Simhony argues that the US and NATO can be bold because Russia is too weak to respond. The Russian military’s performance in Ukraine, the economic damage being done by sanctions, and Russia’s lack of a close ally all make it unlikely that escalation could lead to World War III. She brushes off Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons: “[I]t is more likely that nuclear deterrence—albeit different to Cold War deterrence—will hold.” Liberal democracies are held back by their “sensitivity to casualties,” which is much less in Russia.

This argument is incoherent. A state that is conventionally weak is more likely to use nuclear weapons, as is a state that devalues life. She goes on:

Intervention will not turn this local conflict into World War III. It runs the risk of causing a tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine, but this risk is limited given what any retaliation could mean for Russia. The West must therefore decide how long it will refrain from engagement and allow Russia to sow devastation in pursuing expansionist ambitions for fear of casualties or the bomb.

Amy Nelson and Alexander Montgomery see the prevention of violent conflict between NATO and Russia as creating the perception “that NATO policy is driven by ‘escalation aversion,’ a bias in which careful weighing of multiple risks has been abandoned in favor of avoidance of a single worst-case outcome: nuclear war.” They criticize Biden’s statements as examples of “escalation aversion.” They feel that Biden’s ruling out American military action in Ukraine cedes the initiative to Russia. They advocate setting red lines instead, although they are not specific in where those red lines should be or the penalties for crossing them.

The articles impute fear and hesitation as the motives for a strategy of restraint, rather than analysis that results in a decision to avoid escalation. It’s not clear that these authors are aware of Herman Kahn’s 44-step escalation ladder. All of their proposed responses are steps on this ladder. Reification of phrases like escalation aversion, sensitivity to casualties, and nuclear blackmail substitutes for analysis of specific situations.

Some of the authors are concerned about losing the initiative. Declaring redlines is a way to do that; the adversary then has the choice to cross them or not. Explicitly refusing a particular escalation route, as Biden has done, puts the onus on an adversary who chooses to escalate. The fact that Putin has accused the US and NATO of involvement in Ukraine as part of his runup to war suggests that he would like a confrontation; Biden is denying him that.

Here’s an alternative view of the dangers of escalation.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner

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