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The Nuclear Threat and How to Avoid It

After a period of relative calm during the summer, the threat of a nuclear exchange coming out of the Russia-Ukraine war seems to have increased drastically in the last few weeks. How serious is it, and how can we avoid it?

Someone commented to me recently that dictators such as Putin enjoy a lot of privileges that they are unlikely to want to give up. This is true, but it is only part of the story. For one thing, Putin is 70 years old, and therefore has less time to enjoy his privileged position in the future than he did 20 years ago when he came to power. For another thing, people value other things besides material comforts and prestige. In Putin’s case, he clearly values a powerful Russia, and he does not want to preside over a reduction in that power or over a major embarrassment to Russian prestige. That doesn’t mean he wants to annihilate the world in order to preserve Russian prestige. A leader would have to be pushed far into a corner indeed, or else be mad, to think that global annihilation is a desirable outcome. The problem, though, is that no one has to want global annihilation. All that has to happen is that leaders make a series of miscalculations about the escalation of a conflict, and they can find themselves in a situation where annihilation seems the only honourable action.

What does Putin want from the war with Ukraine? The only thing we can be relatively sure he would be satisfied with is conquest of Ukraine and its incorporation into Russia. That is not an option in the present configuration of forces, and it is hard to imagine how it could become one without some sort of nuclear escalation. Since Putin has not resorted to nuclear weapons yet, it would seem that there is some other outcome that he is hoping for. The possibility that Russia’s armed forces will turn things around and conquer Ukraine seems, at this point, to be so far from possible that it is hard to believe that Putin could be holding out hope for it — although some of his actions, such as intervening in tactical military decisions, do cause one to worry if his understanding of the situation is warped by optimistic thinking. But let’s assume for the moment that he is realistic enough to see that the war is not suddenly going to turn in his favour.

What is he fighting for? With the recent annexations of the Donbas, Zaporizhia, and the Kherson Oblast, it seems clear that these now constitute minimum goals. Presumably the point of annexation was to demonstrate that they are now part of Russia, which, as Putin has recently said, he is prepared to defend with all means at his disposal. Another goal is probably the prevention of Ukraine’s joining NATO. Although I’m not aware that Russia has made that explicit demand, it seems likely that the stated goal of “de-Nazification” of Ukraine really meant the removal of any politicians pursuing a pro-Western policy. It may be preferable for Russia to continue to phrase its demands in terms of removing unacceptable Ukrainian officials rather than preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, but we can probably operate from the assumption that the real goal is keeping Ukraine out of a hostile military alliance.

There was a time, in March, when it seemed like Russia had all but achieved its goals. Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered to accept the result of referenda in Crimea and the Donbas and to agree not to join NATO, in exchange for some international guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I don’t know why negotiations on this basis broke down, but now they would run into the additional problem of Zaporizhia and Kherson. Besides, Ukraine seems emboldened by its military successes, and recent statements make it appear that Zelenskyy would not even accept the terms that he was willing to settle on 6 months ago.

If the war were in a prolonged stalemate, like the Iran-Iraq war, this might not be too much of a problem. The two sides could engage in low-level warfare, wearing each other down but not risking escalation by departing from the status quo. If Russia, on the other hand, were ascendant militarily, they might eventually conquer Ukraine — a bitter pill for the West to swallow, and even worse for Ukrainians, but not something that would be likely to lead to nuclear war.

Instead, it is Ukraine that appears to be in the better position militarily. The fact that Russia has had to mobilize reserves is an indication that its military operations are failing. How much of Ukraine’s success depends on foreign military aid is impossible for me to guess. I also can’t get a firm grasp on exactly how military operations are developing. My impression is that Russia was making gains in the south while Ukraine was reconquering territories in the north; now, Ukraine’s effort has shifted to the south, and they seem to be pushing Russia back, although I haven’t heard of any drastic changes of territorial control.

What happens if Ukrainian troops reach the border? Would they dare cross into Russia? I’m inclined to think not, mainly because such an invasion might serve to galvanize Russian opinion against them. As for the newly Russian territories in southern and eastern Ukraine, I suspect these are already being fought for (the moreso since neither Kherson nor Zaporizhia was fully under Russian control at the time of annexation, and there could hardly have been time to set up Russian administration in territory that was disputed militarily). Is there a point at which Putin would feel justified in using nuclear weapons to defend “Russian” territory?

It seems likely to me — and I will qualify that I am not an expert on Russia — that such a time could come. Maybe not in the first push of a Ukrainian attack, but when Russia has been pushed back for a ways and it became evident that they are not able to hold the territory. There is only so much humiliation, one suspects, that Putin would be willing to tolerate before resorting to escalation.

That escalation might not be nuclear, and it might not be directly in the threatened territories. One of the problems with nuclear weapons is that they destroy indiscriminately, so firing them in defense of one’s own territory is somewhat self-defeating: it may slow or prevent further territorial losses, but at the cost of killing people of the territory one is defending and destroying its infrastructure. Therefore, tactical nuclear weapons may be used elsewhere against Ukrainian forces even if the trigger for their usage comes in Russia’s recently annexed lands. Putin has other alternatives for escalation as well. He could use chemical weapons; but they require a trained military that knows how to operate in a chemically-contaminated environment, and Russia’s army has not demonstrated a high level of training, not to mention that none of them will have any actual experience with chemical weapons. Such an experiment could be an embarrassing failure, although it would undoubtedly lead to increased casualties. Russia may have biological weapons, although they are notoriously difficult to confine to hostile populations. There are also large conventional bombs that Russia was testing 5 years ago and which might be tempting to use, since they don’t carry the same stigma as NBC weapons. Escalation might also take other forms, such as international sabotage (e.g. of oil pipelines or other critical infrastructure) or targeted assassinations. Such actions could give plausible deniability to Russian agency while still passing a clear message about how serious Russia regarded the state of the war.

It doesn’t matter if the first escalation comes by means of tactical nuclear weapons or some other form; they would all be dangerous by virtue of raising international tensions and inviting some sort of retaliation. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear what kind of options are available to the West to punish such escalation. Russia has already been sanctioned to a great extent by most world governments such that there would not seem to be much room for further tightening. Since Russia has already described the sanctions as “…a kind of financial nuclear bomb that is falling on Russia,” and since the sanctions have already had serious consequences for the Russian economy, more sanctions, if successful, might invite even more escalation from an increasingly desperate Russia.

One other option would be for the West to threaten Putin personally by charging him with war crimes. Unfortunately, this option has already been taken (at least in principle) by several officials, including the U.S. president, who called Putin a war criminal within weeks of the invasion. No doubt starting an aggressive war is a sort of criminal action, but making these accusations while the leader in question is still in power and before he has committed grosser violations of international law seems both ineffective and even counter-productive, since it leaves little to threaten with in the case of further malfeasance. Putin the war criminal has less reason to avoid NBC weapons than Putin the statesman would have.

No doubt there are other creative options that Western leaders will find to punish Russia and/or Putin in the case of escalation, but it’s hard to see what they can do that will actually have an effect without triggering a further round of escalation. To prevent this from happening, I would think some pre-emptive negotiations would be in order. If a prudent statesman could identify Russia’s goals for the war — short of conquest of Ukraine — we might be able to reach a settlement without waiting for the war to continue its precarious and unpredictable course. I do not expect this to be easy. At the Congress of Westphalia, France did everything possible to avoid stating its war aims. The reason is that, once you stake out a position, you have set your maximum demands; how much better to get your opponents to make you an offer, creating a minimum gain, and work from there?

But surely Putin has an incentive to make peace. The financial and economic strain on Russia is obvious, and the war does not look promising in the long run. If a third party were to step in and propose a solution that would satisfy a significant portion of Russian war aims, it may give Putin an opportunity to negotiate graciously in the interests of peace without seeming to be desperate or having to make the first move. Considering the importance of the conflict and the density of diplomatic officials and talks all around the world about so many topics, it actually surprises me that no one has volunteered to step into this role. I think the issue is that the most likely to negotiate are from the West, and they seem to be too attached to the Ukrainian perspective to want to propose the kinds of concessions that Russia might be willing to accept. In fact, the West might not be the best source of a peace proposal. I wonder if a more neutral party, such as China or India (or both), might not want to step in. They are both more friendly to Russia than the rest of the world, but are also not happy with the continuation of the war. If they were to offer to mediate, there is at least a chance that Putin would accept. Certainly, in refusing he would be risking losing his last big supporters on the international scene.

There is still a major role for the West, and the U.S. in particular, however. We need to support such a mediation offer and work to convince Ukraine to accept it, as unpleasant as it must be. I would even say that the U.S. would be well to discuss potential solutions with China and India prior to the offer to mediate so that we could begin with some common ground. It might not be opportune for the U.S. or NATO to appear too enthusiastic about third party mediation. I was surprised to find how often France in the 1640’s regarded anything with suspicion that Spain seemed to support, figuring that it could not possibly be good for France if it was good for Spain. Rather, a grudging encouragement for talks might have a better effect than active cheerleading in the current situation.

I am an outsider in international politics, not only because I have no official position, but also because I don’t spend large amounts of my time reading about current affairs. Therefore, I may be missing some crucial developments that are occurring even as I write this. But my impression is that there is a shocking lack of negotiation going on in any international forum regarding the Ukraine war. It is fine to say that the invasion is bad and even to sanction Russia for it, but that is no way to achieve peace, especially not with a nuclear power. This is not a domestic conflict that can be settled by a judge who rules in favour of the plaintiff that Russia’s invasion is illegal and Putin must go to jail. No, this is international politics, where a solution has to come by mutual consent of the aggrieved parties. Sanctions can make Russia more willing to settle, and to settle for less, than they would otherwise, but sanctions will not by themselves achieve peace. Considering that we have the most developed network of international relations that the world has ever known, it is almost beyond belief that no one has offered to step in between the warring parties to figure out what could be the basis for a peace.

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