Should America Go All In on Ukraine?
Cavalier dismissals of Putin’s nuclear threat are a dangerous misread of Russian seriousness.
The same media sources who have been telling us that Putin is a madman now assure us, without any sense of contradiction, that he would never use tactical nuclear weapons to avoid total defeat in Ukraine. “Don’t let Putin bluff us” exhorted Max Boot, an exemplar of hawkish neocon wrongthink ever since he urged us into the Iraq War with lies about WMD and Saddam’s connection to 9/11. Having been wrong about so much over the past twenty years, one would expect more humility and less certainty from Boot as he confidently waves away Putin’s nuclear threat. But in Washington, neoconservatism means never having to say you’re sorry.
Neocons aren’t the only voices in media and academic circles blithely assuring us that Putin is bluffing. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, now Stanford professor, Michael McFaul, giddy with the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, declared that this is the moment for the U.S. “to go all in” on Ukraine, with “more and better weapons and more and better sanctions.” Clearly, he too dismisses the nuclear threat.
Charles Pierce mocked Putin in Esquire, saying “he has decided to butch it up quite seriously for the public” and “his speech reeks of a monumental bluff.” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin shrugged off the threat while calling for the West to escalate its support for Ukraine, writing that “Putin and his circle have made nuclear threats frequently in recent years – and they have always been a bluff.” Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at King’s College London, told NBC News that Putin “is doubling down politically because he is losing militarily… He says, ‘This is not a bluff,’ which shows that it is.”
Cloistered within the high walls of the media, academy, or government bureaucracy, most of these commentators have never held a job that required serious risk-taking. They have not conducted a cost-benefit analysis or even played a hand of high-stakes poker. Yet they claim to know exactly what cards Putin is holding and how he will play them. Smart poker players understand that they can’t precisely know their opponent’s hand, so they seek to put them on a range of possibilities and then evaluate whether their previous actions tell a story more consistent with a credible hand or a bluff.
What story is Putin telling about Ukraine? Since 2008, Moscow has warned that the admission of Ukraine into NATO was an unacceptable red line for Russian security because it meant American troops, weapons, and bases directly on their most vulnerable border. Current CIA director Bill Burns, who was our emissary to Moscow at the time, conveyed these concerns back to Washington in his now-famous memo Nyet Means Nyet. Since then, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have warned repeatedly that Moscow regards NATO weapons inside Ukraine, most particularly American missile systems that could hit Moscow in minutes, as an existential threat. Putin repeatedly warned that he would invade Ukraine if his security concerns weren’t addressed, and indeed he did when they weren’t. This decision was immoral, criminal, and barbaric, but it was not the act of a bluffer.
Putin has proved himself a ruthless, calculating killer when threatened, as the number of Putin opponents and former allies who have mysteriously died falling down stairs, or out of windows, or by the inadvertent ingestion of rare poisons attests. As Biden and the West ratchet up the pressure, Putin only faces greater threats to his survival. Hardliners in Russia already think he has fought this war with insufficient troops, weaponry, and ferocity, and consider the partial mobilization of 300,000 troops to be a half-measure. A total Russian defeat in Ukraine, as the West sees it, means not only returning to the February 23 borders, but also giving back Crimea, which is home to the massive Russian naval base at Sevastopol and its Black Sea fleet. Putin would likely face a violent coup if he accepted such a defeat and therefore would have an incentive to use every weapon at his disposal to prevent it.
But perhaps the best reason to think the unthinkable about nuclear use in Ukraine is that our own leaders have used these weapons or been willing to use them on at least three separate occasions. We are still the only country in the world to deploy nuclear weapons in the midst of a war. Faced with the alternative of a bloody land invasion that could have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, President Truman decided to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. That’s a choice I’m sure haunted him to his dying day, but nevertheless is one that we saw as rational and even defensible under the circumstances.
Five years later, General Douglas MacArthur advocated the use of twenty to thirty atomic bombs to win the Korean War. He planned to prevent China from re-invading from the North by irradiating the border so thoroughly that an invading army could not cross it safely for a half century or more. Some might argue that MacArthur had lost the plot, but he was the most admired man in America when Truman fired him. As a result, Truman’s approval ratings fell so low that he could not run for re-election in 1952. Clearly, not everyone thought MacArthur’s ideas were crazy.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, our generals presented President Kennedy with plans for strikes on Russian missile installations in Cuba, and broader plans for nuclear war with Russia should they retaliate. Fortunately, JFK possessed a sly and cool temperament and, realizing the terrible implications of what they were proposing, resisted them. Instead, he sent his brother Bobby to open back-channel negotiations with the Soviets. Bobby cut a secret deal whereby we pulled our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey in exchange for the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba. JFK denied the quid pro quo when confronted by military and Congressional hotheads, but he saved the world from possible annihilation.
If our generals were willing to use nukes to win wars, save the lives of our soldiers, and prevent a neighbor from joining a hostile military alliance, is it really so unthinkable that Putin could reach similar conclusions, especially if backed into a corner?
It’s not the most likely scenario – Putin has other options, as the partial mobilization shows, and there are more intermediate steps on the escalatory ladder before one reaches doomsday. Still, nuclear use is within the range of possible outcomes if this conflict keeps escalating. Paradoxically, the more the West succeeds in weakening Putin and Russia in Ukraine through conventional arms, the higher the risk that the Russians will resort to unconventional arms.
Why would war hawks and their media allies want to downplay the nuclear threat? Because if the risks were fully articulated, the American people would surely question why the United States has effectively become a co-belligerent in a proxy war against Russia. We may not be pulling the triggers, but we have armed and trained the Ukrainian military, have commandos on the ground coordinating the flow of weaponry and intelligence, provided the artillery-spotting to kill Russian generals and sink the Russian flagship Moskva, and conducted the planning for the latest Ukrainian counteroffensive. And rather than doing this covertly under Cold War rules, administration officials keep bragging about what they’re doing even as they provide tighter oversight of operations and increasingly advanced weapon systems.
Putin is seeing all of this, and drawing the not altogether unfounded conclusion that the West is already at war with Russia. We should at least be clear-eyed about the potential consequences. In poker terminology, this is not a free-roll.
Max Boot has a point about nuclear blackmail: “If the West were to give in to his nuclear blackmail, what would stop him from announcing tomorrow that Kyiv is also Russian territory (which he clearly believes)? Or Tallinn? Or Tbilisi? Or even Warsaw or Helsinki? We cannot live in a world where an evil dictator can redraw international borders at will with threats of nuclear annihilation.”
Aside from his ridiculous neocon domino theory (if anything, the Ukraine War proves that Putin’s army can barely function beyond its immediate supply lines in Russia), Boot is correct that we can’t cower before Putin’s threats. However, war and appeasement are not our only options. Putin left a crack of daylight open in his speech for a diplomatic solution by praising the Turkish peace effort that seemed to be bearing fruit before Boris Johnson thwarted it. The U.S. could revive a similar deal: Ukrainian neutrality in exchange for Western weapons and security guarantees, and a referendum held under the auspices of U.N. peacekeepers and election monitors to determine the fate of Crimea and the Donbas.
Putin claims that the sham referenda he’s holding in four occupied regions of Ukraine are to uphold the principle of self-rule. That’s a joke, but why not use his words against him by proposing free and fair referenda under U.N. auspices and daring him to object? Such a diplomatic offer would not represent appeasement but rather the principle of self-determination. If the U.S. is truly waging a Global Struggle Between Democracy and Autocracy, as the administration is constantly telling us, how can we deny democracy for the people of Crimea or the Donbas?
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It’s deeply irresponsible not to try for diplomacy when the stakes are so high. As Max Boot’s Washington Post colleague David Ignatius urges in his latest column, the administration should “study the Cuban missile crisis” for lessons on Ukraine. But as we have discussed, the key lesson of that crisis was to eschew hawkish military advice and pursue a compromise behind the scenes. Rather than attempting that, we keep dismissing Moscow’s security concerns as overblown, invalid, or a mere pretext for military aggression. Russia was similarly dismissive of our security concerns at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, our leaders in 1962 kept trying for a diplomatic solution and found a creative way to make a deal.
Washington is playing high-stakes poker against an adversary who has just declared his willingness to go all in. Are we prepared to do the same, as Professor McFaul encourages? Strong poker players know to control the size of the pot in order to avoid getting pushed into an unwanted decision for all their chips. All-in moments create unnecessary variance for a superior player who is well positioned to win over time. We are that superior player, and time is on our side. If we faced an existential threat to our own security, we might be willing to assume more risk, but we face no such threat.
It makes no sense for the U.S. to play for all the chips over a Donbas region that no American president has ever before claimed is a vital interest. Risking World War III with a desperate nuclear-armed opponent, with no vital security interests at stake, without having exhausted every diplomatic option, is not good pot control. In fact, it’s not even poker. It's Russian roulette.