“Why Vladimir Putin Would Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine” (The New Yorker) is a disturbing but, I think, convincing argument that Westerners are fooling ourselves with arguments why Putin would not use nuclear weapons. It includes disturbing information, such as the fact that Russian television keeps repeating Putin’s nuclear threats, or this quotation:
“We are not calling for nuclear war,” Margarita Simonyan, the chief of the RT propaganda consortium, said, shortly after Putin ordered the draft in September. “We are telling you that we have no other choice.”
(My usual Russian news source, Izvestiya, rarely mentions nuclear war, but I don’t know if many Russians read it.)
People keep coming up with reasons why using nuclear weapons would be bad for Putin, but they all assume he is a “rational actor.” The question of acting rationally is an interesting one. People pursue things they value; that is a tautology. But they may make poor choices about how to pursue them, and they may value things that other people do not. I think about this often in the context of economics, because there is a school of thought that argues that consumers are “irrational” in their choices. But consumers who do things that are bad for them in the long term are not necessarily irrational. I wrote at length about this on my blog so I won’t dwell on this question, but I think it is important for understanding statesmen. This article frames Putin as a paranoid, out-of-touch autocrat, but it also explains how some of his choices could be rational given his frame of mind. The important thing is to understand what his frame of mind is, and not just assume that it is the same as ours.
(This reminds me of an exhibit in the Spy Museum, which I visited last week, on the Cuban Missile Crisis. It includes detailed contemporary psychological analyses of Kennedy and Khrushchev from the opposing intelligence services. The fact that we are currently dealing with a potential nuclear crisis underscores the importance of understanding the primary actors as a fundamental precondition of making good policy choices.)
The other article is “Is Putin scaling down his war aims?” (unherd.com), which argues that, in attacking Ukraine’s infrastructure, Putin is acknowledging that he won’t conquer Ukraine so he doesn’t mind doing damage to the land. This is an interesting point, but I think it fails to consider Putin’s attitude toward the Ukraine. Sure, he would like to conquer the country intact, but I’m pretty sure he would rather conquer a ruined Ukraine than not conquer it at all. The fact that he is destroying the infrastructure may mean he has given up on his initial goal of a “clean” conquest, but I don’t think it means he has dialed back his territorial ambitions at all.
(Addendum: What I wondered about the first article is, why hasn’t Putin used nuclear weapons yet? If it’s inevitable that he will, it seems like it would be better to go ahead and use them, since he’s not having any success with conventional weapons. I suspect that the reasons against his using them do weigh on him, if not as much as analysts suppose. It may also be a case of a “hostage” situation, in which they are more valuable as a threat. If someone holds a hostage, the last thing he wants to do is to kill his hostage, because then he has no leverage whatsoever.)
Written by dcroxton
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