Ameliorating Russia's Existential Crisis
Putin is gonna Putin, but the rest of the world can take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons being used.
As previously noted in this space, Vladimir Putin has responded with reverses on the battlefield in Ukraine with a three-part strategy:
A partial mobilization of Russian reservists;
Sham referendums in four Ukrainian oblasts that led to Russia illegally annexing Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhye, and Kherson;
Some loose talk about nuclear weapons.
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The first two prongs of that response have gone horribly. The partial mobilization has turned Russian public opinion from “apathetic” to “WTF are you doing Vlad?” and contributed to a mass emigration of Russian men. The videos of Russian draftees not looking their best has not helped.
The annexation of the territories has not worked out well either. The Armed Forces of Ukraine has since achieved military breakthroughs in the east and south. Kherson looks increasingly vulnerable to encirclement, while in the east Ukraine’s capture of Lyman has scrambled Russia’s ability to defend all of Luhansk. The situation on the ground is so fluid that Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov had to admit he was not entirely sure where the precise borders of Russia’s annexation were.
The nuclear threats, however, are another story. In annexing Ukrainian territory and then stating that all necessary means would be used to defend it, Putin is trying to signal that the use of nuclear weapons is be on the table. In his bizarre speech announcing the annexation, he said, “the United States is the only country in the world that has twice used nuclear weapons, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and setting a precedent.”
That sounds real bad. U.S. officials have downplayed the likelihood of Putin going that route. Still, the worse the conventional war goes for Russia, the more tempted Putin will be to use nukes in an effort to gamble for resurrection.
There have been a lot of stories in the press about how the Biden administration is thinking about this issue, and what it has signaled to Russia about the consequences of nuclear weapons use. This in turn has led some foreign policy analysts to argue that the U.S. should urge Ukraine to halt its military advances — or that the United States should not escalate even if Putin does opt for nuclear weapons use:
Now on the one hand, the nuclear weapons taboo is one of the best things to have emerged in the last 75 years and I strongly support keeping that norm around. On the other hand, I am flummoxed by both of the arguments tweeted above. Ruger’s position hinges entirely on what is meant by the term “bad corner.” Most accounts of the facts on the ground suggest that Putin is already in a bad corner. Nothing that happens on the battlefield from here on in changes that except Ukraine’s surrender of those four provinces, and that ain’t happening.
I am equally puzzled by Porter’s argument. The reason nuclear weapons use is a game-changer is that if Putin could either threaten or use those weapons and convert a defeat into a victory, other holders of nuclear weapons would be incentivized to use them when attempting similar territorial gambits. Porter suggests later in his Twitter thread that given the costs Russia has incurred to date, this is not the attractive precedent experts are claiming. But the obvious rejoinder is that the lesson of Russia’s successful use of nuclear coercion would be to bypass all the messiness of conventional war and go straight to the nuclear card when threatening countries without a nuclear umbrella. That is a bad precedent to set.
Rather than worry about whether Putin will carry out his threat, I think Lawrence Freedman’s framing of the issue is a more constructive one.
Now we’re talking. Are there ways to make a Russian retreat from Ukraine the incentive-compatible choice over escalation to tactical nuclear weapons?
I’ll be honest — I am not sure. With his nuclear threats, unpopular mobilization, and non-negotiable annexation, Putin really has backed himself into a corner. As the New York Times story about his unhinged annexation speech noted, “[Putin’s] claims of an existential conflict appeared designed to prepare his populace for more trying times ahead.” Furthermore, the Associated Press suggests that Russian commentators are rationalizing their failures on the battlefield by telling themselves they are losing to NATO rather than Ukraine.
This leads me to David Welch’s excellent point:
This. This all day. Seriously, this is a clear statement of what I was trying to say at Chatham House a few weeks ago:
I am not saying that Joe Biden or Olaf Scholz delivering speeches pledging not to destroy Russia will magically solve this conundrum. But speeches by Western leaders articulating Russia’s pathway back to a pre-2022 existence (and not saying that the goal of the war is to weaken Russia) seem are an intrinsically good idea.
Such speeches should make it clear that borders cannot be redrawn with gunpowder. No one will recognize Russia’s 2022 annexations of Ukrainian territory, just as no major country recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At the same time, the West should make it clear that it will not support Ukrainian annexation of any Russian territory. This might sound like a silly statement, but the point is that Russia’s worst-case scenario still leaves it a nuclear power with a U.N. Security Council veto, the largest country in the world by geography, and the potential to reform itself and become the great power it wants to be.
If the message is, “We oppose Russia in Ukraine; we do not oppose Russia’s existence,” it takes the sting out of Putin’s hyperbole. It should be something that is said as part of the daily discourse of Westerners opposing Russia in Ukraine.
Will this work? At a minimum, it might create a wedge between Putin and the rest of Russia’s national security community. For all the loose talk about how Russia views the war in Ukraine as an existential conflict, the objective reality is that this is not true. It’s an existential conflict only in the mind of Vladimir Putin. That is an important fact, but if Russia’s selectorate sees a way out of this conflict without the use of nuclear weapons, that makes it that much harder for Putin to escalate. And if one goal of Western policymakers is to not reward nuclear blackmail, another is to make it as politically difficult as possible for ay leader to even consider that route.