Endgame

September 25, 2022

The war in Ukraine is fast approaching the moment of truth — the series of events that will tell us what the eventual outcome is likely to be.

Putin’s situation is desperate, and is getting worse by the hour:

  • while the mobilization didn’t create the social explosion many analysts were predicting, it is going exactly as anyone familiar with Putin’s “administration” would have expected — it’s dragging in people with least resistance, without much care about their qualifications or eligibility — training and equipping them is not going to work, and the Kremlin will have to throw them into combat earlier than planned, possibly in just a couple of weeks: there will be vast numbers of casualties, and their already shaky morale will collapse
  • despite the rains, which have turned the countryside into mud and compelled the Ukrainians to advance along roads in the north/east (this makes it easier for weaker Russian units to defend, as you might recall from the spring when the situation was reverseed), ZSU is continuing its methodical drive east; it has crossed the Oskil River in yet another place, moved on Lyman from north and south, and are probably going to take the city soon, which means the key point to the Russian Donbas operations will collapse — it’s not clear how the Russians will be able to prevent this despite apparently moving mercenaries from the Bakhmut LOC to Severodonetsk.
  • even though the Russians managed to find a way to supply their forces in Kherson Oblast (they essentially built a land bridge at Novaya Kahovka — and this is nearly impossible to destroy without endangering the dam), ZSU is pushing south anyway, enlarging the platzdarm south of Davydiv Bryd and around Kherson, while destroying depots and command centers
  • I don’t know what China and India told Russia behind closed doors in Samarkand but can make an educated guess that both told Putin to end the war asap, and might have threatened to cut the support they are still providing now
  • I don’t know what Patrushev went to Beijing to discuss on the eve of the mobilization, but I can make an educated guess that it was tell the Chinese how Putin has decided to end the war asap, and ensure their support for this (I don’t really buy the claims by insider sources that he was there to provide reassurances for a regime change in Moscow — that’s just wishful thinking — and at any rate we will know soon enough)

So, what do I think the plan is?

Russia will annex the four regions within days of the “referenda”, and will issue an ultimatum to Ukraine: stop military operations there (including in areas currently under Ukrainian control) and clear out, or else we will use any means at our disposal to defend our “homeland.”

The call will serve to legitimize the mobilization not merely as something necessary to protect the people of Donbas (which is what Putin said when he decreed it) but to defend the motherland. Vast numbers of Russians will buy this, do not for a moment doubt that. This is going to make the continuing mobilization easier to carry out. Any remaining dissent will be mercilessly stamped out. A state of emergency / martial law will be declared in the border regions in Russia (but may expand to the entire federation if there are snags in the mobilization or significant economic disruptions), and movement of eligible men will be restricted.

The Ukrainians will ignore the ultimatum and continue their attacks.

This is where things get dicey. It could be that the Kremlin actually believes that the mobilization will be able to provide enough strength to stop ZSU (defending does not require as much training and expertise as attacking). The idea would be to hold the territories currently occupied, and by adding vast numbers of people and an apparent iron-clad commitment to defend them, to convince the Ukrainians (but mostly the West) that there’s no point in continuing. Moscow may not be able to conquer Ukraine, the thinking goes, but it will never relinquish Russian lands it holds. You can hear this in “Russia has never lost a defensive war” slogans that are making their ways online.

Putin essentially is hoping to recast the SMO into a defensive war.

The problem is that even if this “freezing the conflict” strategy works — and I don’t think it will — it would not end the war asap. Another push is necessary.

This push will take the form of nuclear and/or ecological blackmail. This is also probably what the Kremlin will do if ZSU continue its advances despite the new forces thrown against it.

The Russians could try to stem the Ukrainian advance by destroying the dams (I’ve written about this) and using tactical nuclear weapons against ZSU positions. Yesterday AFP published a story about what these weapons are and said Russia is likely to use something up to 100KT but this strikes me as highly unlikely. (This would be five times greater than the bombs used on Japan in 1945.) This is too dramatic an escalation and NATO’s response is unpredictable. Instead, I expect them to use something under 1KT (you can fire this with artillery or any of the multiple dual-use rockets and missiles they got). They can hope that this will destroy ZSU’s offense, and — again — freeze the conflict.

Putin may have decided on this but I’m not sure the Chinese will have approved. Instead, I think that as soon as the nuclear threats begin in earnest, the international calls for an immediate ceasefire will proliferate. Even countries that might have supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity in principle might start saying that it is not worth having a nuclear war over it. After all, a nuclear war threatens all of humanity.

Will those be enough to compel Kyiv to negotiate and surrender 20% of Ukraine?

No, unless the US abandons Ukraine.

Our options are not great if Putin has resolved to do what political scientists call “gambling for resurrection.” This gamble is something that a leader threatened with a bad outcome in a war might resort to: an escalation of the conflict that could well make the bad outcome a lot worse for him and everyone else, but that also promises some chance of a decent enough outcome that would enable him to survive. It’s a strategy that expands the variance of the possible outcomes and which is, in its very essence, highly unpredictable as to which of this outcomes will be realized.

One thing, however, is clear — Putin has backed himself (and quite possibly his regime) into a corner and has no other options left. If the military plan to stop ZSU fails, there’s nowhere for him to go but order the use of nuclear weapons.

I don’t know if such orders will be carried out. Not everyone in the chain of command is loyal and suicidal. If people refuse, they would also have to execute a coup or else resistance is meaningless (they would simply be replaced and killed). It could be that his top lieutenants (like Patrushev or Bortnikov) decide that this is too much and act to remove Putin before he can order it. Indeed, they might have agreed with mobilization — recall that insider sources earlier claimed there had been strong opposition to it — precisely in the hope that it could avoid a nuclear escalation.

All these things are possible… but we cannot rely on them. Planning here must proceed under the assumption that the orders will be followed.

Here I have to tell you that I don’t know what our contingency plans are. I’m sure we have them. My understanding is that NATO’s response to (small) tactical nuclear strikes will not be nuclear. Instead we could use conventional weapons to destroy military targets, probably the installations from where the nukes were launched but also something larger, symbolic, and valuable to Russia (like its Black Sea fleet). I’d expect we will then put out strategic nuclear forces on high alert and threaten that further uses.of nukes will be met with a nuclear response. The Russians will doubtless also have their nuclear forces on high alert. And then?

Our initial response could work in one of two scenarios. The first is that the Russians don’t believe we would dare to resist nuclear strikes but our response persuades them otherwise. The other is that their strikes achieve the goal of stopping ZSU, and so they can pretend to want peace again.

The thing is, when one studies the nuclear confrontations of the Cold War — and there really were only two, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — one thing becomes clear: for all the outward bluster, both sides were straining to pull away from a nuclear escalation and in the process forced their protégés to accept settlements they did not want (the USSR forced Cuba in 1962 and the Arab states in 1973, and the US forced Israel in 1973).

Moreover, the closer analogy is 1962, and this is troubling for us.

You might wonder why that should be so; after all, the US won this confrontation hands down. The answer is two-fold.

First, we won, in part, through ignorance. We had not found out something that the Soviet leadership knew — the Russian had already installed nukes in Cuba, had given Soviet coastal defenses there tactical nukes, and had moved tens of thousands of combat troops to Cuba. Our plans were based on the assumptions that there are no operational nukes or combat troops in Cuba. So when JFK ordered the ground invasion in the belief that the blockade had successfully thwarted their delivery, he was running enormous risks without being aware of them. Khrushchev knew that the Americans would go on with the plan to invade Cuba (we had already mustered the force in Florida) and that he might lose control of Soviet commanders there, who could well end up using nuclear weapons in a desperate defense. After this, all nuclear bets would be off. And so he had to act to pull the plug even though the outcome would be a disaster for the USSR. Notice that JFK’s ignorance of the actual situation played to US advantage: he was able to impose an unacceptable risk on Khrushchev, and do it credibly because he just didn’t realize what kind of risks he was taking himself.

There is no such asymmetry of information here. We are very well aware of the risks, and so our threats necessarily remain in doubt.

Second, Soviet missiles in Cuba could’ve conceivably endangered the US, but the USSR didn’t drive huge benefits from having them or not having them there. (The first is arguable, at least in military terms, but the second not so — Cuba remained a loyal Soviet ally even after the fiasco.) And so you had a strong motivation to act in Washington while the resolve to resist that in Moscow was not great.

The situation in Ukraine is reversed. Putin sees an existential threat in failing to secure his gains there. I’m not taking about the stupid “NATO made me do it,” but the very real prospect that losing these gains will result in him being removed from power. Conversely, Ukraine’s fate is a lot less direct for us.

As I’ve argued before, our concern is with possible consequences of a Russian victory: that it might continue its imperialism and quickly threaten NATO countries — which will then test our entire security framework — and embolden other potential adversaries, of whom China is the most important. It could also lead to global loss of influence. These are all plausible and valid but they are also expectations about longer term trends and events, and people find it easy to disagree about them. When the prospect of a nuclear war looms large, many people will find reasons to disagree with them.

Bottom line here is that the previous nuclear confrontations do not inspire lots of confidence in me. I’m genuinely worried that we might crack.

We shouldn’t. As I said when the war began, this is the defining moment for the 21st century, and we cannot afford to submit to Putin’s threats or even actual use of nukes. What’s the point of having the most formidable military in the world if it fails to defend our way of life? Because I happen to think that the bad predictions about the consequences of a Russian victory are correct. And if Putin gets away with this, we will not be able to draw any red lines to him or others. More instability and annexations will follow, and our world will rapidly shrink.

This is it now. It’s for all the marbles.

24 thoughts on “Endgame

  1. This makes for grim reading. I worry about our side’s lack of resolve, too. Biden has been good on this so far, but would he really risk going up the ladder of escalation with Putin’s use of “just a little” nuke? I really can’t quite convince myself he (or anyone else in his position) would.

    He has stated the consequences would be severe. What is the least severe thing he could order that might work without putting everyone on the path to maximal trigger of the big war?

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  2. Thank you for this – I am really worried too. I have become really distracted by it all and it is consuming my thoughts – that we are on the brink of apocalypse. Any suggestions how to possibly help with this?

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  3. I can’t really see a way out of this without it going nuclear. The Russian leading politicians and generals won’t accept a total defeat, it would be the end of their careers and the end of any illusions of Russia as a super power. The problem is that the US and NATO can’t anymore abandon Ukraine and would have to respond to a Russian strike. If the West strikes back with conventional weapons it would not matter, Russia would have to concede a defeat and not retaliate for it to work. I don’t think that is likely. My guess is that Russia would then hit the Baltic states with nukes and that would be that for the civilization.

    I hope I’m totally wrong but I can see this escalating to full on nuclear war. In fact I see this as the inevitable outcome of where we are at the moment because nor Putin or the West can pull back without losing face. There is no room left to compromise. It’s the same as with all modern wars fought by nation states. It’s total victory or total defeat and with the 12000 nuclear warheads between the warring parties, there is only total defeat for everyone.

    The only hope is if a leading politician in the west or in the east would sacrifice his career or even his life and pull back from the edge like Hrutsev did in the 60’s.

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