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Escalating fears that Putin might do something crazy
A brief note on a very strange day
This article is an excerpt of a longer piece that will be posted shortly on Great Power — but given the strange events of the past 18 hours or so, including Putin’s “fifth column” speech from the bunker and a lot of strange flight traffic out of Moscow to points east and south, I wanted to post this section now. Maybe, sitting in Estonia as I write this, it just looks worse from here and will come to nothing. But, something feels … not great. This excerpt examines how to think about what previously seemed unthinkable, and urges us to be prepared for every eventuality. Not to engage in a cycle of escalation — but to decisively end it when the moment comes.
I think there are two points worth dwelling on.
First, there will always be fresh terror from Putin. A show trial. Chernobyl. Chem/bio insinuations. Sometimes I feel we go looking for new terror to control us when there is already terror enough. Until we take control of the pacing and strategy of this war, the fears Putin creates for us are boxing us in. This has been the Russian strategy from the start. I don’t know why we are not more clear on this. It is the clear reason why we have so much intelligence on what they planned to do and what it would look like. Because they wanted the White House to see it, because they knew what the likely reaction would be. And they were right. We put ourselves into the box and took actions off the table that could have changed the outcome. We accepted the stage that Putin set. We still are. I will always believe that this is the wrong course of action. It has led us to this situation where Putin seems to be unraveling and the danger increasing before our eyes.
This fear is absolutely useless. “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself” must be the mandatory attitude of whoever will lead us through this confrontation with Putin.
Second, on nukes and Putin’s nuclear blackmail. Putin is a coward — by which I mean, he is not brave. He plans and acts in ways where he believes he has the greatest advantage and will endure the least costs for the greatest rewards. He does take risks — when there is empty space before him into which he can move before an opponent can. But he is not the type to die bravely and nobly in heroic sacrifice for his nation — as evidenced by his broadcasts from a bunker in the Urals (or wherever).
This matters in particular in relation to his overt nuclear fearmongering — which he is doing exactly to keep the White House penned in and afraid to act, not because he wants to risk his own annihilation. This is one important thing to understand about why Putin keeps raising the nuclear specter. The other is about what he specifically means.
Since all the way back to the 2000 Russian National Security Concept, the first that Putin signed as president, Russia has explicitly discussed the use of smaller/tactical nuclear weapons as a conventional weapon of war for deterring invasion in their own territory — aka, they would conduct a tactical nuclear strike to prevent the loss of territory to an enemy. So in this situation, where Putin has already declared that Ukraine is de facto held territory, what he talking about is nuking Ukraine. If he did this, it would not be as some part of an escalation ladder with the West — it would be explicitly outside it. He would do it to break Ukraine, and he would do it to break us.
A small strike, perhaps muddled with some narrative relating to the nuclear power plants that Russian forces have occupied, or the storytelling about how this is to secure the supposed secret nuclear program that Ukraine may have been developing with US support. Again, his action would be calculated to avoid consequences, and avoid the full salvo response. He would know the West would not risk overt nuclear confrontation with Russia for “one little accident” in Ukraine. But, the strike would deny the use of territory by the enemy. The strike could paralyze everyone — perhaps even the “fifth column” Putin now imagines he faces inside Russia — because we would really be in new territory then.
It is impossible to know what Putin’s personal thinking is versus the military doctrine. But there is nothing to indicate he is a blaze of glory guy. It seems unlikely he would use a nuke in a circumstance when there would be equal retaliation. In one sense, this means that we should stop being hemmed in by this fear and accept that the risks and costs are Ukraine’s to assess and determine. Ukraine is taking all the risk. They are paying all the costs. We should listen to them about what risks they are willing to take and costs incur. This is the minimum amount of respect that we can give to them when they have already shown the soundness of their strategic planning against Russia has far, far surpassed our own.
But we must also be prepared for the unthinkable, and be ready to respond in ways we do not want to think about, and understand that there are some situations in which the only way to avoid worse calamity is overwhelming use of force — which can also mean signaling that we will use overwhelming force to disrupt a typical escalation ladder. We must be ready for this. There is simply too much weird sh*t rattling around in the can today for us not to be prepared for a range of options far beyond what we have comfortably discussed for some time.
We are approaching an end stage where the only possible way out is a military defeat of Putin — a strategic defeat of Putin, before everything unravels too far to stop a worse calamity. Are we ready for that? Not on old paper plans, but in our minds? It is imperative that we stop reacting, and start to set the terms, while this is still possible.
We must stop being afraid of Putin — as the Ukrainians have done. It is the only way ahead.