Russia is a central point of controversy for both the November/December Public Forum tournament and the 2022-3 Policy debate topic. To support debating on this over the next two months, we started a new blog with daily evidence on Russia.
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Negotiations with Russia fail, only military deterrence works
Regeniya Gaber is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY, October 2022, Six Months, twenty-three lessons: What the World Has Learned from Russia’s War in the Ukraine, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/six-months-twenty-three-lessons-what-the-world-has-learned-from-russias-war-in-ukraine/
Six months of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine, as well as years of the Kremlin’s invasions of neighboring states and more recent hybrid warfare against the West, have made it clear that any agreements with Putin’s regime are simply not viable and often counterproductive. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 after having committed to be a guarantor of its sovereignty and territorial integrity under the Budapest Memorandum; in its most recent assault, the Kremlin seized one-fifth of Ukraine’s territories following years of negotiations over the conflict in Ukraine within the Normandy format and the Minsk agreements.
Moscow has been vocal about its disrespect for international law, liberal institutions, and all kinds of international treaties with partners and rivals alike. By committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, violating the basic principle of freedom of navigation, weaponizing food supplies and refugees, and engaging in energy and nuclear blackmail, Putin’s regime has posed existential threats not only to the future of the Ukrainian nation, but also to a rules-based world order. Appeasement, dialogue, and compromises with an aggressor have never worked. Russia escalates when it senses weakness and withdraws when it senses strength. If the world wants a sustainable peace in the region—rather than a tactical pause in Russian assaults—the West must learn the language of power, which is the only language Putin understands.
Economic integration won’t stop Russian aggression
Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and worked at the US Department of the Treasury as a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, October 2022, Six Months, twenty-three lessons: What the World Has Learned from Russia’s War in the Ukraine, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/six-months-twenty-three-lessons-what-the-world-has-learned-from-russias-war-in-ukraine/
In the run-up to invasion, great hope was placed on sanctions as the primary tool with which to deter Russian aggression. Putin, the widespread thinking held, could not possibly want to ruin his economy for the sake of murdering Ukrainians. But rationality is a concept that can be perilously difficult to nail down, and economic rationality was not a factor in Putin’s plans for Ukraine. Sanctions as a deterrent were worth the effort but were ultimately not going to stop the invasion.
This lesson needs to remain front-of-mind during what is likely to be a long war. The inability of the West to use sanctions to prevent war does not mean they are a useless gambit; instead, they should constitute a strategy for longer-term goals. Any tactical advantages that accrue from sanctions should be considered positive externalities, not an explicit end goal. Those policy goals should remain what Biden discussed in late February: that sanctions are meant to isolate Putin and his regime so long as Putinism remains the dominant form of rule in Russia. There is no going back to the pre-war period, in which many in the West clung to the idea that trade could integrate Putin’s Kremlin into a rules-based system. Only after Putinism—the primary driver of Russia’s external aggression—is gone should the West use the leverage of lifting sanctions to allow for Russia’s economic reintegration.
The Russian way of war makes it impossible for them to win in battle
Colonel John “Buss” Barranco was the 2021-22 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, October 2022, Six Months, twenty-three lessons: What the World Has Learned from Russia’s War in the Ukraine, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/six-months-twenty-three-lessons-what-the-world-has-learned-from-russias-war-in-ukraine/
Russia spent around $65 billion on defense in 2021, or more than ten times what Ukraine did that year. If equipment was the deciding factor, Russia would have achieved the overwhelming, lightning-fast victory it sought months ago. But in this war, Ukraine has shown that good leadership and training—of which it has plenty, but Russia has very little—make all the difference. Since both countries share a long military tradition dating back to Imperial Russia, the difference in their respective performances on the battlefield (and the reasons why) are instructive. Since 1993, Ukraine has been part of the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program, in which its armed forces have been trained according to the US model of giving mission-type orders to junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), explaining the commander’s intent, and empowering them to make on-the-spot decisions based on the changing facts on the ground. No one becomes an expert combat decision-maker overnight, so realistic exercises are held and a culture is fostered that encourages individual initiative and demands rigorous assessment. This open and transparent way of operating has resulted in high morale and performance on the battlefield. By contrast, Russia’s armed forces (which rely heavily on conscripts) lack professional NCOs and discourage initiative and feedback. Decision-making authority remains heavily centralized, with only senior officers permitted to act independently. This is why so many Russian generals have been killed in this war; nobody at a lower level had the leadership experience, big-picture understanding, or authority to act decisively when things didn’t go as planned. The Russian way of war has been predictable: battlefield failure and low morale.
Russian hybrid warfare fails
Marc Polymeropoulos is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and worked for twenty-six years at the Central Intelligence Agency, October 2022, Six Months, twenty-three lessons: What the World Has Learned from Russia’s War in the Ukraine, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/six-months-twenty-three-lessons-what-the-world-has-learned-from-russias-war-in-ukraine/
Six months ago, there was a plethora of doom-and-gloom analysis: The notion that the Russian military believed it could take Kyiv in thirty-six hours was reportedly shared not only by Putin but also by Western academic and intelligence-community analysts. Almost everyone got this fantastically wrong. Except, of course, the one entity that mattered most: the Ukrainians, who fought bravely and nearly unanimously believe they’ll win. A quick Russian blitzkrieg turned into a morass that will go down in military history, with 80,000 Russian casualties and no end in sight to Putin’s “special operation.” Now we see that the Russian military is a Potemkin village—corrupt, unfit, and fundamentally lacking in basic principles of logistics.
Equally important, Russian hybrid-warfare efforts in Ukraine—particularly in the information-operations space—have also fallen short. Previous efforts around the world, such as Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, had spooked many (and perhaps for good reason). But Russia succeeded in the past mainly because it operated without pushback. No longer: Ukraine now appears one step ahead at every turn. Consider the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s expert trolling on Twitter after a presumed strike by Ukrainian forces on a Russian airfield deep in occupied Crimea: It showed Russian tourists fleeing the beach to the sound of the 1983 Bananarama track “Cruel Summer.” How times have changed: Ukraine trolling Russia, not vice versa. This is exactly what was needed in the information-operations sphere: an offensive strategy that was proactive instead of reactive.
Nuclear war risk over the Ukraine higher than during the Cuban missile crisis. US anti-Russia policy has provoked Russia
Simes, 10-16, 22, Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher & CEO of the National Interest, How to Avoid Nuclear War Over Ukraine, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-avoid-nuclear-war-over-ukraine-205384?page=0%2C1
President Joe Biden is right to warn about the potential escalation of the Ukraine crisis into Armageddon. There has been no greater danger of nuclear catastrophe since the Cuban Missile Crisis sixty years ago in October 1962. While more dangerous in some respects because key decisions had to be made in a matter of days or even hours, the 1962 crisis was ultimately easier to resolve thanks to the relative simplicity of both sides’ demands. Its resolution required only that the Soviet Union halt the supply of nuclear missiles to Cuba and remove the ones already delivered to the island, while the United States guaranteed that it would not invade Cuba and agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. In today’s crisis, by comparison, both sides aim no less than to shape the world order according to their interests and principles. In Washington, there is even a strong temptation to achieve political change in Moscow, with the hope not only of weakening Russian president Vladimir Putin’s hold on power but of ultimately removing him from office.
A secondary, though no less major, difference is the complicating role of Russian and American protégés at the center of each crisis. Fidel Castro—the beneficiary of the deployment of Soviet missiles—had legitimate concerns over the security of his regime in 1962. The United States had recently orchestrated its failed Bay of Pigs invasion with Cuban exiles, and there were even assassination attempts (or at least plans for them) against Castro himself. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his colleagues in the Politburo nonetheless dismissed Castro’s insistence that the missiles remain in Cuba. The decision poisoned the Soviet-Cuban relationship, but it was a price Moscow easily and willingly paid for the sake of avoiding a direct nuclear confrontation with the United States.
In 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—with no less understandable concerns over his government’s security—has managed to elevate himself into a world figure and a major presence in American politics; the Biden administration even takes the position that Zelensky should wield veto power over any arrangement with Russia involving Ukraine. All this has transpired despite the Zelensky government’s total dependence upon the United States and NATO’s unparalleled military, financial, and political assistance, without which Ukraine could not stand up to Russia for even a month. There are sharply divergent narratives in Washington and Moscow about how the two nuclear powers arrived at this point. The Biden administration is dismissing Russian concerns, deeming the Russian attack on Ukraine completely unprovoked. But whatever President Biden thinks, a majority of Russians—not just President Putin, but most of the Russian elite, according to a variety of public opinion polls, including regime critical ones—feel strongly that Russia had good reason to feel endangered and abused. This view is based on a firm belief that in the final days of the Soviet Union, the West promised Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates there would be no NATO expansion. The fact that these well-documented promises were never formalized in treaty form does not alter Russians’ sentiment that, at a minimum, they were profoundly misled. There is also the belief that NATO—born as a military alliance directed against the Soviet Union—remained essentially unchanged after the end of the Cold War as an alliance directed against Russia. As former Soviet satellites and newly independent post-Soviet states—especially Poland and the Baltic states—began to play an ever-stronger role in NATO, the alliance, in Russian eyes, began treating their country as the ultimate geopolitical threat, one that needed to be deterred and weakened.
Though contemplated for a long time, the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was not well planned and organized. For weeks, Moscow had hoped that its December 2021 demands for assurances on Ukrainian neutrality and the restriction of NATO weapons and infrastructure would elicit a positive response in Washington and Brussels. This did not occur. The demands, to be fair, were formulated in such a way that the United States and its allies could not accept them in their entirety. There remained hope in Moscow, however, that they would nonetheless form the basis for serious negotiations. Instead, Washington and Brussels dismissed the demands, arguing that Russia could have no influence over who was entitled to join the alliance—as if the United States would not be opposed to a neighboring country entering a military alliance with Russia or China. The United States and its key European partners in fact had no intention of bringing Ukraine into the alliance any time soon. Basing its position on a questionable interpretation of NATO policy, the West essentially rebuffed Russia’s key demands and enacted the exact opposite of what Moscow had wanted—namely, making greater commitments of U.S. and NATO military assistance to Ukraine. The Biden administration can certainly argue that NATO’s behavior did not entitle Russia to invade a sovereign state. To claim that the Russian invasion was unprovoked, however, misreads the situation and complicates any future attempt to reach an accommodation.
By the time Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russia had already been subjected to multiple rounds of sanctions, NATO weapons were already flowing into Ukraine, and Zelensky—after being elected on a platform that promised accommodation with Moscow—spoke openly about bringing Ukraine into NATO. He rejected the existing basis for peace, the Minsk agreements, reached with German and French mediation, which provided for the autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Zelensky’s explanation, later embraced by NATO, suggested that the accords could be rejected because a previous Ukrainian government had accepted them under Russian military pressure in 2014 and 2015, when Kyiv was in no position to resist. That such an explanation—similar to Germany’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty—could be seriously accepted by an alliance that professes a commitment to international law is remarkable.
One reason Moscow planned its attack so inadequately—militarily, economically, and politically—was that it was a last-minute decision based on the perception of a threat to Russian security and dignity. Many in the government were not involved in the decision-making process, where the timing was influenced by a need either to deploy Russian forces already positioned on the Ukrainian border for military maneuvers or to simply remove them. This latter option carried the obvious risk of being viewed as a sign of weakness, allowing NATO to conclude that it had called Putin’s bluff and forced Moscow to retreat. Moscow’s reliance on the available forces at Ukraine’s border explains the problems with the initial offensive and the absence of adequate economic preparations, which rendered Russia’s foreign-based hard currency and gold reserves sitting ducks for Western sanctions. Moscow also clearly underestimated the extent to which Ukraine—now deprived of its Russian-speaking provinces in Crimea and the Donbass—had moved in a nationalist and outright anti-Russian direction. What’s more, Moscow failed to appreciate the extent to which NATO assistance had not only upgraded Ukrainian equipment but also changed the very nature of the Ukrainian military into a more modern fighting force than the one Russia first encountered in 2014. Moscow’s mistake is not completely surprising—the United States and NATO themselves did not expect the Ukrainian military to be capable of putting up strong resistance; Washington itself initially offered Zelensky scant help in fighting Russia and instead volunteered to assist in his escape from Kyiv. For his part, Putin aimed to maintain a sense of normalcy at home, without the conflict becoming a major economic hardship that could potentially destabilize Russia itself.
It would be a fundamental miscalculation for the United States and NATO to decide on this basis, however, that Russia can be defeated without moving up the escalatory ladder, all the way to nuclear confrontation. Just as Moscow has underestimated President Biden’s ability to unite the West against Russia’s invasion, the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels has misread Russia’s resolve to absorb setbacks and mobilize despite overwhelming odds. While thousands of young Russian men responded to Putin’s mobilization orders on September 21 by fleeing to neighboring countries, many more have complied with mobilization orders, with thousands even volunteering to join and fight. This group includes many people who did not necessarily support the attack on Ukraine, but who felt the West’s response was out of proportion to Moscow’s actions, requiring that Russians view the military campaign not as a limited operation but as a new patriotic war for Russia’s very survival.
Given the West’s significantly stronger conventional forces and overwhelming economic superiority, how can Russia confront NATO? There is a growing sense among the Russian establishment that fighting on Ukrainian territory, killing Ukrainians, and sacrificing thousands of Russian soldiers in the process carries no promise of victory because Western nations are neither required to sacrifice much nor feel directly threatened. As Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian national security expert who for years directed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia program, recently argued, a key Russian weakness is the dissipating fear around Moscow’s nuclear weapons. NATO leaders seem convinced that Putin, whom President Biden recently described as a “rational actor,” would not dare reach for the nuclear arsenal. The conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels assumes, moreover, that if Moscow has so far failed to deploy other available options—launching cyberattacks, cutting transatlantic cables, sabotaging tankers, and supporting radical anti-Western forces around the globe—it’s unlikely to adopt them. Some leaders even seem to believe that Moscow is now paralyzed by concern over Western retaliation. But the time when Moscow is prepared to use all available options short of strategic nuclear weapons may be much closer than Western leaders and experts seem to think.
Putin and his associates understand that the military dynamics are unfavorable to Russia. They are also aware that domestic opinion has, for the first time, grown critical both of the war’s conduct and more broadly of Russian governance. Most disturbing for the Kremlin is criticism not from the liberal opposition but from Russian nationalists, including war bloggers and patriots who support Putin but are concerned that the government is not doing enough to prevail. Moscow now hopes that partial mobilization will help turn the tide. It also hopes that recent changes introduced in the military command, combined with Russian forces gaining more experience and receiving more sophisticated military hardware, will force the United States and the European Union to change their position on negotiating with the Kremlin, whether Volodymyr Zelensky likes it or not. New advanced missiles would be sufficient to, at a minimum, rebuff the Ukrainian offensive, hold ground during the winter, and meanwhile exacerbate economic difficulties in the West through high energy prices.
But if these aspirations prove futile, any expectation in Washington, Brussels, or Kyiv that Putin will accept an outcome tantamount to surrender is questionable at best. New rounds of missile strikes in response to the attack on the Crimean Bridge are widely regarded in Russia as a weak response compared to what must be done and what its resources will allow. Putin spoke specifically about attacks on the Crimean Bridge, Nord Stream I, and Nord Stream II as terrorist acts, which allow Russia to retaliate in kind. The Russian general staff and security services are apparently preparing options for the Kremlin on what can be done to inflict painful damage on Ukraine’s foreign supporters. It is now a widely accepted view in Russia that the country is not so much fighting Ukraine as it is the collective West; it is the West, in other words, that must be made to suffer in order to meet Moscow’s minimal objectives. Putin has so far hesitated to move in this direction, due in part to his desire to maintain as much normalcy in Russia as possible. There is an increasing sense among the Russian political class, however, that the so-called special military operation cannot finish the job, and what is required now is a broader shift toward a national war footing that will motivate the population—not a war of choice, but something more existential. In such a war, the use of any weapon in the Russian arsenal would be contemplated, with the obvious hope that it would not come to strategic nuclear weapons. As far as tactical nuclear weapons are concerned, the government discourages any public discussion of their use. Moscow does not want to appear internationally as a warmonger, nor does it want to frighten the general population where most Russians believe that once nuclear weapons are used, an eventual catastrophe would be difficult to avoid. According to reliable sources, however, options involving tactical nuclear weapons are simultaneously being developed by the general staff—and not only for use on Ukrainian territory. No one can say exactly under what circumstances these plans would be implemented, but if Ukrainian forces were indeed able to retake Kherson, eliminate Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, destroy the Crimean Bridge, and intensify their already growing air attacks on Russian territory, all bets on Putin’s continued restraint would become a risky proposition indeed.
Responding to warnings from the United States and NATO that any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would lead to a devastating NATO non-nuclear counterattack on Russian military forces and Russian territory, a well-connected, mid-ranking Russian general claimed that Moscow has no plans to use nuclear weapons. Such a scenario would happen only under the direst circumstances in which, according to Russian military doctrine, Russia would be under nuclear attack, face an imminent threat to its deterrent forces, or have the very existence and territorial integrity of the country threatened. But Crimea is today treated as an integral part of Russia. The very purpose of the recent referendums that brought Donetsk and Luhansk and parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia was to have a deterrent effect, permitting Moscow to declare that because they were now a constituent part of Russia, an attack on them would be an attack on the motherland itself. In responding to a threat of the most severe consequence for Russia, the general claimed that they would rely on the orders of the commander-in-chief in dealing with the situation. Any belief that NATO could openly enter the war without expecting massive retaliation, however, would be misplaced. As he put it: “we hope it would never come to something like that, but there are contingency plans to deal with any eventuality, and some of them include striking preemptively at enemy targets if they are about to be used to strike Russia.”
Reporting on a recent Putin press conference in Astana for Kommersant, an independent-minded newspaper, Andrei Kolesnikov, who is also a prominent Putin biographer, observed, “No he does not resemble a man who can decide to use nuclear weapons. Yes, he can make such a decision but he doesn’t actually have it in him to use them.” This is a comfortable evaluation of Putin for Americans. But it would not be prudent for decision-makers to base U.S. foreign policy on it.
For Washington to now rely on Putin’s timidity in Ukraine, with huge stakes for Russia and for the Russian leader personally, would be playing games with America’s very existence. Fortunately, the United States has a credible alternative to experimentation with destiny. With Russian military setbacks in Ukraine and domestic challenges to the war’s conduct—on top of his confrontation with the collective West without the help of allies—Putin may well consider negotiated arrangements which could be acceptable to the West. This includes a ceasefire with some peacekeeping arrangements and rules of the game to make the ceasefire more lasting. Russia would have to give up its current position that all territories of the newly annexed provinces—including those currently under Ukrainian control—should belong to Russia. Russia would also need to relinquish its original demand of the removal of Zelensky’s government. Ukraine in turn would need to accept that those territories controlled by Russia would not be returned until subsequent negotiations. A ceasefire would also prohibit any sabotage or terrorist acts against Russia, something that Ukraine has increasingly practiced with NATO’s not-so-silent consent. The plan would additionally need to address sanctions: no new sanctions could be introduced while the ceasefire was in place, and there could be some relaxation of existing ones. But for most sanctions to be removed, Russia would have to wait until a more comprehensive agreement was negotiated, providing Ukraine and its supporters strong leverage to encourage future Russian flexibility.
Would the Zelensky government—with its new self-confidence and expectation of continual reinforcement from the United States and NATO—entertain such a compromise? Right now, it seems unlikely. But in the coming months, the desire for a negotiated end to the war may grow in both the West and Russia. Kyiv is entitled to make its own decisions, but it is not entitled to dictate what level of support it receives from NATO, or for how long it would get it, particularly when the very survival of NATO members is involved. It would be a grave mistake to maintain that NATO should support Ukraine as long as it takes without pursuing a diplomatic solution to a conflict that could easily spiral out of control. Diplomacy without peace rarely works when combat has already been unleashed. But in dealing with a major nuclear power, military force without diplomacy cannot deliver lasting results and can lead to an unparalleled catastrophe with consequences beyond comprehension. Extremism in the name of a liberal world order is extremism nonetheless. It requires courage and vision to create peace but failing to make the effort would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty.
Concessions to Russia on the Ukraine trigger global prolif
Zagordnyuk, 10-12, 22, ANDRIY ZAGORODNYUK is the chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies. From 2019 to 2020, he was Minister of Defense of Ukraine., Foreign Affairs, Ukraine’s Path to Victory: How the Country Can Take Back All Its Territory, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/ukraines-path-victory
What the West should not and cannot do is be cowed by Russia’s nuclear blackmail. If the West stops aiding Ukraine because it fears the consequences, nuclear states will find it much easier to impose their will on nonnuclear ones in the future. If Russia orders a nuclear strike and gets away with it, nuclear states will have almost automatic permission to invade lesser powers. In either scenario, the result will be widespread proliferation. Even poorer countries will plow their resources into nuclear programs, and for an understandable reason: It will be the only sure way to guarantee their sovereignty.
Putin cornered, may lash out with nukes
Brad Dress, 10-9, 22, The Hill, Former top US military officer says Putin is ‘a cornered animal, https://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/3680173-former-top-us-military-officer-says-putin-is-a-cornered-animal/
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen on Sunday said Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “cornered animal” after mounting losses in Ukraine and is becoming “more and more dangerous” to the world. Mullen told ABC’s “This Week” host Martha Raddatz the U.S. should take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously, saying the Russian leader has “lots of options” available to deploy tactical or smaller-scale nuclear weapons. “He’s a cornered … animal and I think he’s [become] more and more dangerous,” the retired U.S. Navy admiral said. “I think we have to take him seriously and think through what the requirements would be to respond to that. It also speaks to the need to get to the table.” Russian forces are struggling in Ukraine and have been pushed back from some occupied territory after several Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east. Domestically, Russia is also struggling to contain widespread discontent with the war. Putin ordered a partial mobilization to draw up some 300,000 reservists, which led to mass protests and thousands of Russians fleeing the country. Meanwhile, Putin has repeatedly warned of nuclear attacks and last month said Russia’s threats to use a weapon of mass destruction was “not a bluff.” Mullen on Sunday pointed to another setback for Russia that raises the potential threats of a nuclear attack, citing the destruction of the Kerch Strait Bridge, which he said was “logistically critical” and symbolic for Putin. Over the weekend, an explosion decimated the Kerch Bridge, a key crossing to the Crimean Peninsula that is also symbolic for Russia because it connects to the Russian mainland. It’s unclear if Ukraine was behind the attack. The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry estimated the bridge attack was personal for Putin, who drove across the bridge in 2018 to celebrate its opening. Amid the soaring tensions, the U.S. has been sending messages to the Kremlin privately, warning officials that any nuclear attacks would result in a worse outcome for Russia. “We need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get back to the table to resolve this,” the retired admiral said.
Putin is not bluffing, he’ll use nukes if he thinks he’s losing
Rebekkah Koffler, 10, 8, 22, NY Post, Eight reasons Putin may not be bluffing about using nuclear weapons, https://nypost.com/2022/10/08/why-putin-may-not-be-bluffing-about-using-nuclear-weapons/
On Sept. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he could resort to “all available means of destruction” in his war against Ukraine, pointedly adding, “It’s not a bluff.” Days later, he accused the United States of setting the nuclear warfare “precedent,” referring to the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 to end World War II.
On Monday, NATO warned that Russia may have deployed the nuclear powered submarine Belgorod into the Kara Sea to test the Poseidon “doomsday” weapon it has aboard, capable of creating a “radioactive tsunami.”
In the past seven months since Putin invaded Ukraine, Russian forces have lost approximately 80,000 personnel and killed 9,000 Ukrainians. Thousands are wounded and maimed on both sides. Multiple cities are in ruins.
And, as Ukraine keeps fighting back and Russia looks increasingly weak, here are eight reasons why Putin is likely not bluffing, just as he says, about using nuclear weapons.
- Putin is psychologically capable of crossing the nuclear threshold, especially when he feels cornered. According to declassified debriefings of Soviet General Staff officers, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev “trembled” when he was asked to push a button in a hypothetical war against the US during a 1972 command-post exercise. Brezhnev kept asking Soviet defense minister Grechko: Was this “definitely an exercise?” Putin likely held a steady finger, and in fact practiced the routine many times. Several of his life experiences, including being attacked by a rat when he chased it into a corner as a youth, have taught him to fight his way out rather than give up. “I just understood that if you want to win, then you have to fight to the finish,” he is quoted in one of his biographies, “Vladimir Putin. Life History.”
- Putin likely thinks this is his “last and decisive battle.” When he hears calls by Western officials to try him in an international court as a war criminal, he fears he may end up like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, captured by US soldiers in 2003, convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal, and put to death by hanging. He also fears the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was shot in the head by his own people in 2011. Both events had a profound psychological imprint on Putin, convincing him of America’s bad intentions.
- 3. Russia’s post-Cold War doctrine includes a nuclear fallback option designed exactly for the kind of situation Moscow now faces. In the 1990s, the General Staff developed, on Putin’s orders, a limited nuclear war doctrine called “escalate to de-escalate.” The doctrine stipulates that a low-yield nuclear bomb can be detonated to shock an opposing force to abandon a fight and end a war. Russia’s nuclear stockpile is flexible by design, with yields ranging from below one to 1,000 kilotons, allowing Putin to launch a “demonstration” strike in the Black Sea, for example, or to cause some serious damage in Ukraine.
- Putin likely believes that he will use nuclear weapons for the same reason the US did in Japan during WWII — to end the conflict. In August 1945, the US detonated two atomic bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 149,000-225,000 people. The rationale was to hasten victory, while minimizing both US and Japanese casualties. Neither Japanese city became uninhabitable, and both returned to functional levels approximately a year after the bombs were dropped. Many of Russia’s warheads are under one kiloton, with much smaller explosive power than the 15-kiloton bombs used in Japan, and Putin likely theorizes that these weapons are usable on a battlefield.
- The outcome in Ukraine is an existential issue for both Russia and Putin. While it’s not accepted by the West, Russia views former Soviet states like Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence and a strategic security perimeter. With NATO’s admission of the Baltic states, the distance between NATO forces and Russian territory has shrunk from 1,000 to 100 miles. Russia sees the close proximity of this adversarial military alliance as a “red line,” and as Washington supplies Ukraine with more capable weaponry, jittery Putin is likely calculating that he must retain his strategic buffer.
- Putin orchestrated the annexation of the four seized regions of Ukraine, following phony referendums, precisely so he could use the nuclear option. By formally declaring these territories part of Russia, he has cleared the requirement in the Russian military doctrine for the deployment of nuclear weapons. Officially, the unclassified doctrine permits Russia’s Commander in Chief to use these last-resort weapons only in a defensive scenario to protect Russian territory. But the doctrine also allows “first-use” of nuclear weapons even in an existential battle, like the one in Ukraine, in order to stave off defeat and end a conflict.
- Putin is worried about projecting weakness to China. Although Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have formed an anti-US strategic partnership, Russia views China — and the two countries’ shared, indefensible 2,600-mile border — as a long-term security threat. Putin may calculate that launching a nuclear strike in Ukraine will demonstrate Russia’s strength and resolve to Xi.
8. Putin probably estimates that launching a low-yield nuclear strike in Ukraine will not trigger a US response, and certainly not with nuclear weapons. Russian planners believe Americans have a low tolerance for war casualties, especially for nuclear risks. President Obama’s “Global Zero” initiative to eliminate the US nuclear arsenal over time reinforced this belief, along with President Biden’s announcement that US forces would not intervene shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine. While Russia currently holds a 10:1 ratio advantage over the US in tactical nuclear weapons, Biden canceled a program to develop a new low-yield nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile authorized by former President Trump specifically to counter Russia’s “escalate to-de-escalate” strategy.
Bloomberg News, 10-7, 22, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/nato-once-feared-a-putin-victory-now-it-worries-over-his-defeat/ar-AA12IfZ9, NATO Once Feared a Putin Victory. Now It Worries Over His Defeat
In Moscow, some officials hope European and US resolve will weaken under the pressure of energy cutoffs and the growing cost of supporting Ukraine. But behind the public displays of confidence that the mobilization will allow Russian troops to resume the offensive within a month or two, some insiders concede that the most the Kremlin can now aim for is a drawn-out conflict that lasts years with periodic flare-ups. That prospect has fueled the fears on both sides that Putin may decide that he has no alternative but to escalate further, with even-larger strikes on Ukrainian power plants and other civilian installations or use of chemical or nuclear weapons. The sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea has triggered worries that Europe’s energy infrastructure could be targeted as well. Joe Biden brought the tension into the open Thursday, warning that the Russian president’s nuclear threats may not be a bluff as his other options for salvaging his invasion of Ukraine narrow. “We’re trying to figure out what is Putin’s off-ramp? Where does he get off? Where does he find a way out?” the US president said Thursday at a fundraiser in New York City. “Where does he find himself in a position that he does not, not only lose face but lose significant power in Russia?” For the moment, Putin has backed himself further into a corner, effectively ruling out talks with his annexation of occupied Ukrainian lands and redoubling his commitment to fight with the order to call up at least 300,000 reservists despite rising consternation at home. “Putin is effectively putting new conditions on the table,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “There’s virtually no room for maneuver.” One European official likened Putin’s situation to a cornered animal that’s only getting more dangerous as he drives himself further into the trap. At the same time, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has retaken thousands of square kilometers of territory once held by Russia in just a few weeks, fueling Kyiv’s ambitions to push Moscow’s forces back further, possibly even beyond the lines they held before the Feb. 24 invasion. The more progress they make, the greater the pressure for the kind of defeat that would be far more than Putin could accept.
Unless the US steps-back in the Ukraine, Putin will use nukes
Stanovaya, 10-6, 22, TATIANA STANOVAYA is a Nonresident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Founder and CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik., Putin’s Apocalyptic End Game in Ukraine Annexation and Mobilization Make Nuclear War More Likely, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/putin-apocalyptic-end-game-ukraine
On September 30, following a series of sham referendums held in occupied territory in Ukraine, the Russian government declared that four Ukrainian regions are now officially part of Russia. The annexation came amid a “partial” Russian mobilization that is in fact rapidly becoming a large-scale one that has left many Russians aghast and anxious. With these moves, the war in Ukraine has entered a new stage in which the stakes have risen drastically. Russian President Vladimir Putin is explicitly demonstrating that he is going to do whatever it takes to win, even at the risk of undermining his own regime. Blindly believing in his own rectitude, Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if events in Ukraine continue to confound his ambitions. The key question is whether Russia’s elites and broader society are prepared to accompany their president on this journey to hell, or if Putin, in doubling down on his disastrous gamble in Ukraine, has only paved the way for his own end. A NOT-SO-GRAND ULTIMATUM Ukraine’s counterattack, launched at the end of August, has completely changed Putin’s calculations regarding how Russia should fight. His previous plan, based on the idea that Kyiv would not dare to carry out a full-fledged offensive on Russian positions, presumed that the Kremlin had plenty of time to establish itself in the territory it had occupied, while the Ukrainian government, exhausted by the war and with the economy in ruins, would sooner or later have to capitulate. The strategic part of Putin’s plan remains the same. It envisages that Kyiv will fall, since his paramount purpose in this war is still to put an end to what he sees as the “anti-Russia” geopolitical project managed by the West and secure a long-term Russian presence on Ukrainian territory. The tactics Putin will use to achieve this goal, however, have been fundamentally revised. The military threats to Russian positions in Ukraine, based on the Kremlin’s miscalculations, have reached the point where the Kremlin has effectively issued an ultimatum to the world: either Russia wins Ukraine or it will resort to nuclear escalation. This ultimatum has three major parts. The first is declaring stretches of Ukraine to be Russian territory. The annexation of four regions—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—means that Russia has artificially transformed its war to destroy Ukraine as an independent state into a war of self-defense against foreign military forces. The annexation is a form of protest against Western involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. It frames the West’s military aid to Ukraine as tantamount to aggression against Russia. By annexing these territories, Putin is sending a blunt message: continuing to help Kyiv will inevitably lead the West into a direct conflict with Russia, something he believes Western capitals would like to avoid. This move also reflects another important shift in the Kremlin’s understanding of the current situation. Before Kyiv’s counteroffensive, Moscow did not believe that Western aid could drastically change the balance of forces and create conditions in which Ukraine would threaten Russia militarily. Now, it does. NUCLEAR BLACKMAIL Another plank of Putin’s ultimatum is the nuclear option, which is now squarely back on the table. After cooling his rhetoric over the summer, Putin has returned to invoking this ultimate threat as a way to influence Western policy on Ukraine. In April, when Russian forces retreated from failed offensives against Kyiv and Chernihiv, the Kremlin turned to nuclear blackmail, with Putin suggesting that his government was willing to allow the use of nuclear weapons “if necessary” and effectively blaming the West for Russian failures. By May, however, that language had died down; Putin had concluded that even with Western assistance, Ukraine was doomed to lose eventually. With the Russian military struggling, commentators and officials are once again advocating the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. They have filled TV screens and social media with nuclear saber rattling. The pro-Kremlin segment of Telegram, a Russian information-sharing app, is buzzing with hundreds of posts justifying Moscow’s legitimate right to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or trying to convince the world that Putin is seriously ready to resort to nuclear weapons in the event of further escalation. The profusion of posts insisting that “Yes, he can,” “he must,” and “he will” is not only part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate the West, but also a demonstration of the growing determination among the most committed, ambitious pro-war elements of Russia’s elite and society that the war must be won no matter what. Whether or not Putin is bluffing, the threat of using nuclear weapons creates higher expectations among the elites about how far Putin is prepared to go, and it dramatically reduces room for maneuvering in a hypothetical future political bargain over Ukraine. To take the nuclear card off the table, Putin would need to see the successful military advance of Russian forces combined with signals from Washington that the West will shrink its role in the conflict. If these demands are not met—and it is safe to say they will not be—Russia will resort to the nuclear option: such is the new reality that Putin seeks to shape, in effect taking the world hostage. TOTAL WAR Raising the stakes through his annexation of Ukrainian regions and his invocations of nuclear war, Putin has also upped the ante further by making ordinary Russians part of the war. His mobilization order in September caught Russians off-guard. Over the summer and in the first half of September, polls recorded an uptick in the positive mood among Russian society, growing fatigue with military rhetoric, and declining interest in the war in Ukraine. Although the pro-war part of the establishment, together with the military, demanded that Putin announce a mobilization as soon as possible, those in the presidential administration who oversee domestic policy had tried to minimize the war in the minds of the public. They sought to calm the angry jingoists who were advocating for Moscow to take Kyiv. Now, mobilization has irretrievably changed the lives of millions. In the latest Levada Center poll of Russians, 47 percent of respondents said that the partial mobilization made them feel “anxiety, fear, and horror,” 23 percent felt “shock,” and 13 percent felt “anger and indignation.” Only 23 percent said they felt “pride in Russia.” Even if the mobilization has not prompted mass protests, it has undermined the public’s trust in the state and state media. Beyond the question of how the mobilization will affect domestic affairs, this drastic political decision reveals much about Putin’s priorities. The president has dared to announce what looks to be the most unpopular political decision in his 22 years of rule, regardless of how mass conscription will stoke anger, resentment, and social tensions and threaten domestic political stability. This decision puts in doubt any further social consolidation between the authorities and ordinary Russians over the war. Until recently, the majority of Russians accepted the deal offered by the Kremlin: Putin would fight for “historical justice” against Ukrainian “Nazis,” relying on “professionals” and volunteers to avert the strategic threats posed to Russia by the West’s involvement in Ukraine. This goal found significant social support, but on one important condition: that Russia fought without the direct involvement of ordinary Russians, who have been living their lives more or less as usual since the invasion began. Mobilization has ripped up this contract. Having chosen mobilization despite the predictable public anger, Putin has shown that if it comes to a choice between achieving his goals in Ukraine and placating Russian society, Putin will opt for the former, sacrificing popular support at home for geopolitical victory in Ukraine. It is an explicit rebuttal to those who have suggested that Putin’s fear of a collapse in his political support among Russians would stop him from taking risky decisions. In truth, he is single-mindedly driven to turn his gamble in Ukraine into a victory, whatever the cost. THE POISON PILL Putin’s nuclear ultimatum and mobilization order put significant pressure on both Russian society and the increasingly nervous Russian elites, who must decide which losing scenario is less tragic: to accompany the furious leader until the end of the world, to escape both Putin and the retribution of the West, or to wait for Russia to lose. It puts Putin in an unprecedentedly vulnerable position. His obsession with Ukraine has never been shared to the same extent by most of the Russian elite, and his readiness to sacrifice thousands of Russian lives is not shared by much of his own electorate. He appears to be pushing a scenario in which he is the only one who has the capacity to pay whatever price it takes, to fight under the banner of “all or nothing.” The president’s manic course of action carries a distinct and bitter taste of suicidal exasperation. It would be wrong, however, to think that it cannot get any worse. At this stage, however cornered Putin may seem, he still believes he can win. In his eyes, the mobilization should help the Russian army drive out Ukrainian forces from the newly annexed territories and convince the West to step back from Ukraine, leaving Kyiv doomed to surrender and opening the opportunity for the Russian government to establish some facsimile of normal life in the new regions. So what happens when things don’t go to plan once again? What happens when Russian forces fail to defeat the Ukrainians, the West increases its military aid and demonstratively ignores Putin’s blackmail, and people in the new territories continue to resist their Russian occupiers, targeting senior officials and administrative buildings in terrorist attacks? Then the pivotal moment will arrive when the only option Putin sees available to him is the nuclear one. It will also be a decisive moment for the Russian elites who still do not dare to countenance this worst-case scenario, something that many today avoid thinking about. Domestic political conditions may be reaching the point where senior officials would dare to disobey, speak out louder, and fight with each other more resolutely. Ukraine may become a poison pill for Putin: in seeking to swallow it, he is dooming himself to defeat.