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“How does the Russo-Ukrainian War end?”

The title is a quotation of a title taken from substack. I like it because it helps to focus on the thing that most people don’t seem to be debating, which is how we’re going to get out of this war. The author, Timothy Snyder, suggests that the war may end with a power struggle in Russia, where leaders may need troops to enforce their claims, or at least to defend themselves. Many people have been hoping that the war would result in Putin’s ouster, and a power struggle backed by military forces is certainly one possibility. The author seems to think that this would be a relatively benign outcome: “the line of development I discuss here is not only far better, but also far more likely, than the doomsday scenarios we fear.” Certainly, anything is preferable to a global nuclear war. On the other hand, the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of the nuclear threat.

The kind of people who are in a position to use military force to oust Putin are the kind of people who believe in the use of force. They may end the Ukraine war during the power struggle, but they do not seem likely to be peaceful rulers in the future. They might restart the war in Ukraine after further Russian buildup — perhaps years later — or they may start another war elsewhere that they calculate they can win. In any case, I doubt they will be less likely to use nuclear weapons in a future crisis than Putin is. (You never know, of course. I just want to emphasize that expecting a peaceful leader to emerge from a violent power struggle is wishful thinking.)

I would love for Putin to be replaced as Russian leader, but I would prefer it happen by political manoeuvring rather than by a military coup, still less by a civil war, however brief. Putin gives me about as little confidence as a leader can that he will think international co-operation is the best way forward for Russia. But let’s not assume that he is the worst possible leader. As a friend of mine used to say, “Nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse.”

The author makes the case that Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons; and, anyway, giving in to the threat only makes them more likely to be threatened in the future. I’m not sure what exactly is entailed in “[m]aking concessions to a nuclear blackmailer.” So far, it looks to me like we (and Europe as well) have taken about as firm a line against the Russian invasion as we could have. If it is a concession not to use U.S. planes to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, that is a concession that I’m willing to make. Getting the U.S. involved in the war is exactly the sort of thing that could turn potential use of tactical nuclear weapons into a global nuclear war. I don’t believe in negotiating with terrorists, but I do believe in common sense, and my common sense tells me not to threaten a power who is capable of destroying me. I might oppose that power in other ways, but direct conflict seems unwise.

The Ukrainians, says the author, “have been resisting nuclear blackmail for seven months; and if they can do it, surely we can too.” The Ukrainians, however, are in a vastly different position. They are literally fighting for their freedom. Russian conquest would surely mean the end of any semblance of democracy in Ukraine, and death for any political leaders who opposed Putin. They have more incentive to resist nuclear blackmail. They also have the advantage of being right next to Russia, so any nuclear weapons detonated on their territory might well mean nuclear fallout in Russia. Don’t get me wrong: I definitely would not want to be in their situation. However, their calculations are vastly different from the sort we are making in the United States.

The author says that Putin would fear using nuclear weapons in Ukraine because some might be intercepted and used by Ukraine against Russia in return. I don’t know that much about the recoverability of nuclear warheads or Ukraine’s ability to deliver them to Russian territory, but this seems a relatively small issue. If Russia shoots 100 warheads into Ukraine and 99 explode while 1 is shot back at Russia, would Putin find that acceptable? I’ll bet it would. Maybe not if it could get to Moscow, but I don’t think that’s much of a threat. What if it were 90 to 10 instead of 99 to 1? I don’t know, but I don’t think Putin would calculate on such a poor exchange rate.

The author argues that the use of one nuclear warhead “would make no decisive military difference.” No doubt, but why are we limiting ourselves to a single warhead? I think that Putin would try to use enough to make a difference, which I think he could. Moreover, I don’t think for a minute that he would hesitate to use nuclear weapons against non-military targets. They might not make a decisive military difference, but they might be decisive against some aspect of Ukraine’s infrastructure; or they might be used to obliterate Kharkiv, for instance. It is possible that Ukraine would continue to fight under those circumstances, but surely their morale would suffer and Putin would appear more powerful than he does today.

“Putin wants us to sympathize with his situation,” writes the author. Sure, but the fact that he invaded Ukraine shows that he is not too concerned with world opinion. Using nuclear weapons would alienate others even further, but there are always the friendless and power-hungry who would be willing to embrace a nuclear active Russia. Moreover, I don’t say that using nuclear weapons would be good for Putin in the long run. I’m just not sure that he is so concerned about the long run compared to the present state of the war that he might not be willing to make that tradeoff.

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