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The Enemy Gets A Vote

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Aftermath of a Russian missile strike in Kostiantynivka. Photograph: Reuters

It’s easy to get down in the weeds of getting Leopard tanks to Ukraine or when the spring offensive will come, but I want to draw back to a bigger picture.

Vladimir Putin, or Russia, depending on how you look at it, is determined to bring Ukraine back into their sway. The shelling of civilians, a war crime, makes that point clear. The concern about NATO is not entirely rhetorical.

Putin and his cronies, particularly Dmitri Medvedev, dragged out the nuclear threats early. They have damped them down recently. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, has consistently clarified to something like “existential threats to Russia itself,” a phrase from Russian doctrine that has been parsed over the years. It is now more unclear with Putin’s ceremonial welcome of four Ukrainian districts in which the war continues.

Europe and the United States have escalated their provision of arms to Ukraine. The gradual ramping-up has been accepted by Russia, although their bombing of civilians often correlates with decisions on providing arms, an escalation in response.

Is it the type of arms that will be unacceptable to Russia? Will F-16s be too much? Or is it what the Ukrainians do with the arms? Would losing Crimea and their base on the Black Sea be a step too far?

We don’t know, of course. American and European intelligence has been excellent. So the governments may be well-informed in their decisions.

We also need to consider what would constitute Russia’s losing the war. Ukraine would lose the war by sustaining enough damage to be unable to continue. Ukraine is a smaller country, and Russia can probably accomplish that, although at a significant cost to itself. How Russia would lose is less obvious. It would require a decision in Moscow that the war was too costly and must be ended, followed by a withdrawal. A revolt by the military against the war would also be a loss, but that is unlikely.

The most dangerous situation will be when Moscow begins to recognize it is losing. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Concern grew about Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons as the republics seceded in 1991. Likewise, seeing a loss ahead could provoke nuclear use. But we don’t know how that plays in Putin’s mind.

Tactical nuclear weapons would have little military use. Their use would be a political statement for Ukraine and its supporters to go no further. Use against a NATO country, like Poland, which serves as the jumping-off point for weapons deliveries, seems highly unlikely, use of strategic nuclear weapons less likely than that.

Yes, it is essential to stop Russia’s imperialism. But we must keep in mind the enemy gets a vote.

Update: This just arrived.

https://twitter.com/ABarbashin/status/1620066840558080000

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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