November 17, 2022
It really does not matter what happens in this war, Walt and his ilk just want Putin to have Ukraine. The Russians invade (see? we told you! NATO is to blame), Russia captures nearly a third of Ukraine (Kyiv in 3 days, let Putin have it!), Russia stalls (don’t help Ukraine, we are prolonging the war), Ukraine goes on the counter-offensive (Putin is being backed into a corner! let him have Ukraine or else… NUKES!), Russia annexes Ukrainian territory (Putin is now committed and will never back down, let’s not escalate this), Russia mobilizes (see! escalation! we warned you! Ukraine will lose!), Ukraine liberates Kherson (Putin is losing, and therefore is even more dangerous now than ever, let him have Ukraine), Ukrainian missile accidentally strays into Poland (there it is, the escalation is here! risks! we must be careful… and let Putin have Ukraine).
From the moment this war started, this coterie of “Realists” — defensive (as in, impervious to logic), offensive (mainly to reason), or whatever else they style themselves these days — have been sticking to the tattered printout handed to them by the Kremlin: Russia must, under any circumstances, be allowed to take as big a slice of Ukraine as it wants. It is becoming tiresome to respond to this drivel — I just cannot characterize it in any other way — as it ignores facts, ignores evidence, ignores history, ignores logic, basically ignores everything in the service of the CONCLUSION, which is that Putin must be given his slice of Ukraine. Because if not, “bad things will happen.”
Since I do like my facts & evidence & logic, let’s take a look at Walt’s latest salvo from these fifth columnists (I can’t even call them useful idiots anymore since they are not that useful, just infuriating). For the record, yeah, I am angry — I am angry that over the past several days all major Western outlets have decided to publish the same thing over and over again: vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post, Kupchan in the New York Times, or Lieven in Foreign Policy, all the while all of them adamantly refusing to publish any hint of the view that Putin is gearing for a long war that he intends to win (I have sent a piece arguing this to WaPo, NYT, LA Times, Newsweek, and Foreign Policy, and all instantly rejected it). It’s as if our press is just intend to let Putin have his slice of Ukraine no matter what as well.
Let’s take a look at Walt.
“If you think the risks of escalation in the Ukraine war are trivial, the tragic deaths of two Polish citizens from an errant Ukrainian air defense missile on Tuesday should give you some pause.”
First, nobody trivializes the war or the death. I am, however, trivializing the posturing that we see here. What, exactly, is the escalation that Walt has in mind? Oh, it’s “the potential for accidental or inadvertent escalation.” This sounds serious, but what is it? Well, for someone who spends a lot of time chastising IR theorists for not knowing anything, Walt surely has picked a strange hill to die on. You see, the idea of “inadvertent war” was very popular among academics during the Cold War, but that’s only because many were fond of sitting in their offices imagining how some weapon malfunction or hot-headed general “causes” nuclear war without the governments of the superpowers really intending it. The odd thing about this that history has plenty of examples of accidents like the one in Poland, of weapon malfunctions, of hot-headed generals who do something without orders (or even against orders) of their superiors, of unforeseen circumstances (e.g., launching interceptors without realizing that they are armed with nukes due to changed DEFCON), and such. Plenty of such examples. But do you know what we do not have? We do not have a single instance of an inadvertent war. Not one case where policymakers were like, “Yeah, let’s go ahead and attack” and then an hour later go, “Oh, crap! If we had only known this was a computer tape and not an actual nuke, we would never have done it!” (Yes, this is a reference to a real case: in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, NORAD received a signal of Cuban-launched nuke going toward Florida. They decided to wait for the explosion — it turned out that somebody had mistakenly put a simulation tape in the computer.)
I am just not aware of a single historical instance where the decision for war had escaped the political control of the principal policy-makers or when they were “forced” into bad decisions because of some misunderstanding of the type the Polish incident is. It’s a red herring designed to scare people into “deep thoughts” about “crisis stability” or into at least publishing some article in Foreign Policy.
The fact of the matter is that because policy-makers are quite aware of the potential for mishaps and unauthorized behavior by local commanders, they are always very conservative in their estimates, and always tend to wait for verification or additional evidence before making drastic (but rash) decisions. In every crisis that I’ve studied, you can see this dynamic very clearly — instead of boldly looking the opponent in the eye and escalating, leaders want more information and desperately try to pull back as much as circumstances permit. The Cuban Missile Crisis furnish yet another example here: when the Russians shot down the US U-2 spy plane, the Executive Committee resolved to treat it as an unauthorized action of the local commander (which it was) rather than an escalation ordered by Khrushchev. It really does not matter what the initial rhetoric about that incident was (it was not just Zelenskyy and Polish officials who talked Article IV or V of NATO), what matters is that the official reaction was immediately the predictable one: let’s wait and see. Within hours, Biden had signaled that US intel suggests it was not a Russian attack, Poland’s Duda was careful to say that the missile was “Russian made” but also talked of a possible accident, and then shortly thereafter the Western allies said that the information strongly suggests it was an Ukrainian defensive strike that must have missed the intended Russian missile target. Instead of “escalating”, this incident demonstrated precisely the opposite — the careful steps that potential war participants would take before making any decisions or, indeed, official statements. Soon President Zelenskyy himself was back-pedaling and said that he could not be 100% sure the missile was not Ukrainian (earlier, he professed he was).
Since the reality of this incident totally undermined the stern warning that Walt wished to make, he decided to go ahead with an imaginary one: “Imagine what might have happened had it been a Russian missile that had gone off course and struck Polish territory, killing two people in the process.”
OK, let’s imagine it. Let’s grant that the Russians would deny it was theirs. Let’s imagine we prove conclusively that it was. Heck, let’s even imagine we can prove it did not veer off course or something, and so the strike was deliberate. What then?
Walt says that “a chorus of voices would have argued that NATO had to retaliate against Russia to ‘restore deterrence’.” I’m sure that there would be such a chorus, just as it was one now even before anyone knew anything about the origins of the missile.
Walt does not say. He dramatically ends the paragraph with the chorus, and we are clearly meant to connect the dots to NATO attacking Russia. Except in reality, things do not work that way. Walt — and all those proponents of inadvertent escalation — have never actually explained the last step in their escalatory logic. No theory of this sort of escalation exists for the simple reason that the “last step’ — the one where a political leader must order the initiation of an attack — is always conspicuously missing from the argument. It’s the same with the so-called “Spiral Model” where mutual suspicions feed on each other and eventually, somehow, war begins. The problem with these sort of incomplete arguments is that the last step is very important. A political leader has to make the fateful decision, and when it is not “optimal” (that is, not in their interests) given a set of circumstances where they might be uncertain about, these leaders prefer to wait for clarification. (Sure, time might be of the essence, although in a world of secure second-strike capabilities, that’s not really a factor.) The IR “theory” of inadvertent escalation is set of elegant-looking arguments about how fears and suspicions might arise, and even feed off each other, but it’s woefully underequipped in explaining how they result in an incorrect decision to start a war. Maybe the reason for that is simply that they cannot.
I can tell you what would happen in the extreme scenario with a Russian missile that does not look like it had veered off course. Poland would invoke Article IV, and everyone would consult. If Putin was “probing” something or whatever the hotheads think was going on, the prevailing argument would be that a single missile strike like that means nothing. They would almost certainly chalk it off to mistaken programming or some hothead commander launching where he was not supposed to. There will be movement of NATO troops to “strengthen defenses”, maybe closure or skies over the Polish-Ukrainian border, and that’s probably where it would end. I actually doubt NATO would fire on a Russian target — maybe the Poles could hit some military thing or something, but maybe not.
The issue with the incident is that it was just one missile that went into an area of no military or symbolic value. If it had hit something more substantial — an apartment building perhaps — then it could be more serious. But even then it would not result in an escalation to war. Let me give you another example: on October 8 1950, the US attacked the airfield Sukhaya Rechka, which was fully 100km inside the Soviet Union, with not one but two jet fighters. They destroyed one and damaged six Soviet fighters on the ground but killed no one. The Soviet Air Force went on high alert but the Kremlin was puzzled — was it a mistake? So instead of escalating with a military response, the USSR lodged a complaint with the United Nations. The US response was to admit the error (which it had been, a navigation error), and the Soviets accepted the explanation (some historians claim they did not believe it, but then they sure did not act that way). In September 1950, the Chinese government also filed a complaint with the UN about US causing damage on Chinese territory (this was before their intervention).
The most likely course of action with a single missile would have been a complaint to the United Nations, where the Russians would have had to face the very unpleasant choice of admitting that it was a mistake or else risking that Poland might interpret it as a deliberate act. At this point, this would no longer be “inadvertent escalation” but a deliberate one, and if the Kremlin resolves to take that step, then NATO’s response would be proportional (most likely a single shot at some military facility that is not in Russia). At any rate, no “inadvertent escalation” would happen in this extreme scenario either.
Walt seems vaguely aware of this because he abandons even the imagined scenario to warn the readers that “accidental or inadvertent escalation is neither the only nor the most likely way this war could expand and get more deadly.” Never to let a small incident go to waste, Walt opines that “States at war typically escalate not because some critical threshold is breached by the other side or because they misread something the other side has done, but because they are losing” (italics in the original).
And so we are back to the “Putin is cornered” nonsense. I knew that it would have to come to that, and since I’ve already dealt with it, I will not belabor it here (just check out the links to my critiques above).
I do, however, wan to to take issue with the word “typically.” Walt makes it sound like this thing happens all the time, but it does not. Now, it’s true that it can happen, and that it did happen in several cases, although not the ones Walt cites. In World War I, the German government did take a desperate gamble with a last-ditch attempt to win, as Hein Goemans has written about, but the World War II example with the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the kamikaze attacks were not escalations — they were just the desperate acts of a regime that was just hoping for some Wunderwaffe to win the war for it. They had nothing else left, and so they tried with what they got. It’s difficult to see how sending some kamikaze waves on a one-way mission is an escalation over, say, a mass aerial attack on Perl Harbor. Or how the V-1 and V-2 attacks were more threatening than Luftwaffe at the Battle of England. Escalation is a wonderfully protean concept, but we have to have some agreement on what it means, either geographically, or in terms of forces committed. If I add 5 gallons of gas to a car whose tank has gone empty, I do not suddenly get to travel the distance allowed by a 15-gallon tank even when it had been initially full. Similarly, adding 300,000 untrained newly mobilized men does not somehow magically create a more threatening army than the 200,000 trained contract soldiers that invaded Ukraine in February.
Walt’s definition of “escalation” is another person’s definition of “Russia is losing the war”. According to him, “what began as a ‘special military operation’ expected to last a few days or weeks has become a major war of attrition with no end in sight.” Oh, how I despise the passive voice: expected by whom? I, for one, always thought that Russia started a new version of Afghanistan, and that it would eventually lose. Even many of the “Kyiv in 3 days” analysts in the West believed that Russia would be unable to secure Ukraine and is looking at protracted guerilla war, which the US would doubtless have supported as well. The only people who thought this would last a few days or weeks were the idiots who planned it that way and the Kremlin stooges in the West who never fail to disappoint with their rapid convergence on Moscow talking points. Even in March, I was saying this was going to be a war of attrition that Ukraine would have to win on the ground with our help. This was when the Russians were at the gates of Kyiv, and I have been saying this as the war developed in precisely that way. So I don’t know what Walt was thinking when it began, but it was obviously very, very wrong.
From my perspective, the war has not escalated. From Walt’s perspective it has — because he thinks that the Russians should have won it already. Of course, we have “ramped up” our support for Ukraine — how else could it withstand the onslaught of such a behemoth — but to call this “escalation” is a bit pointless. The alternative is called “surrender” or maybe “capitulation”. Maybe the right word that Walt is looking for is “resistance”.
Walt then whips out the canard that we just don’t understand Putin: “because Americans are accustomed to blaming the world’s problems on the evil nature of autocratic leaders, they have more trouble recognizing that Putin and his associates believe that their vital interests are at stake as well.” This is so patronizing, it truly is worthy of a Harvard dean. I mean, the Americans are just so naïve, how can they be possibly be expected to understand the nuance of… well, something. Said nuance is a map of Europe that Walt and his coterie of fellow travelers like to ponder on their free time. This is where the deep “vital” interests that Putin has are to be recognized. In the old “vulnerability to NATO expansion” or some “spheres of influence” or whatever. Repeating these assertions ad nauseam does not give them validity though.
The problem here is that for all the bravado about deep insights that average Americans cannot grasp, Walt & Co. really only have a map and, from what I can see, almost no insight in how the Kremlin operates or what motives “Putin and his associates” might have. If I were an FSB operative, these types of Westerns would be my prime target: arrogant to the point of hubris, and easily swayed by a little bit of history (but just a little bit) and some impressive-sounding military “strategy” — they would then arrive at the conclusions I would want them to (and which I will helpfully confirm periodically so they get a sense of being right), and then I will let them do my dirty work for me — hence “NATO made the Russians do it” and “Russia has vital interests.”
The reality is, I am afraid, a whole lot less grand strategy and a lot more old fashioned imperialism, with its attendant territorial aggrandizement and glory (so Putin would be remembered in history as the Great Re-Assembler of Russia). The reality of Russian rule is also not what Walt & Co. believe: some calculating Master Strategist who, for some reason, after 31 years of peace with NATO, suddenly decided that the threat it poses is intolerable, and must be dealt with. Who, after stealing billions from the Russian people and enabling his mafia cronies to do the same, has the temerity to charge the West with plundering Russia. As if NATO is the reason your car gets stuck in mud 2 miles outside Moscow or why a quarter of the Russians do not have indoor plumbing. The West/NATO was, is, and always has been the convenient excuse for these types of regimes to “explain” to their people why they don’t get to live like the Westerners they all seem to both despise and want to imitate. Always the external threat, always someone to mobilize against, and forget that your life expectancy is on par with Africa’s. These are the kinds of people that are supposed to understand that Ukraine is winning and they are “backed into a corner”.
But there is no “corner” for authoritarians like Putin to be backed into. He retains his popularity — you can see tons of videos of Russian people appealing to the Tsar for help against the local boyars — he retains the loyalty of his lieutenants (many of whom will probably not be for this world shortly after he goes), he retains the massive, and effective, repressive apparatus. And, judging by how willingly Russians are going to the slaughter (the emigration wave will probably not be repeated, and if there’s a danger that it would, the regime will just close the borders), he can keep making up the losses in Ukraine. As I have pointed out, he needs time, which is why we are hearing all these noises about talks. This will not end until the Ukrainians push the Russians back to the pre-invasion borders (and even then we’ll only have a chance for peace, not a certainty), he goes and some successor proves less willing to spill Russian blood in Ukraine for the imperial dream, or the Russian state implodes like the Soviet one did and simply ceases to function, which would end the war by default.
Walt, at least, has the integrity to admit that negotiated peace is not possible at this point (unlike some of the other “give diplomacy a chance” folks). But it’s not the list of issues that is daunting, it’s the fact that the Kremlin is not reconciled with the idea that it has been defeated. Until the Russians (or the Ukrainians) admit that, at least to themselves, the war must continue. The silver lining is not, however, that the missile incident “reminds everyone that wars tend to escalate the longer they go on” (what does this even mean?) but that the participants kept their cool when it mattered. This is reassuring, and means that the war can be kept conventional without widening its scope (escalating) unless one of the sides decides that it really wants to do it. But if that side is Russia, it would simply confirm what some already suspect — it is bent on trying to take something that we simply cannot give it, even if it means war.
Putin’s Russia delenda est.