How not to reason about the war — Allison in The Washington Post

February 28, 2023

Graham Allison, one of the most cited political scientists and respected analyst, has published an op-ed in the Washington Post that has one scratching one’s head in bewilderment. It is a mashup of unexplained and unsupportable assumptions presented as fact, and sloppy reasoning that hides its shortcomings behind rhetorical flourishes. I am utterly befuddled as to why this was written, but since the arguments it shares seem to appear ad nauseum everywhere, it will be useful to unpack them a bit.

Allison begins by presenting as fact something that has not happened yet — something that might not happen if his own advice is followed:

“As we end the first year of war in Ukraine, no one can doubt who the big winner is — and who the loser.”

Of course, in his telling, Ukraine is the big winner, and Putin is the big loser. Now, many of us really, really want to believe that but the fact is, the war is ongoing, shows no signs of abating, and while I do think that Ukraine will eventually win (in a sense I will define shortly), it has not happened yet, and it is not a foregone conclusion that it will. Ukraine is very dependent on military and financial support from the West, and if this evaporates — which it has to if Allison’s line of thinking is to be followed — then the war will turn into a gruesome guerilla war, with Russians in control of vast chunks of Ukraine. This would hardly be describable as victory.

Allison’s main fear is the risk of nuclear war. He immediately brings up the fact that Russia has 6,000 nuclear weapons “that could kill us all” and the recent suspension of participation in START. Correspondingly, the first of four “inconvenient questions” is about the nukes. I will cite it fully because its logic might not be straightforward for people like me to grasp:

“First: If what is at stake is not just Ukraine’s survival but the future of Europe and even the global order, why are there no American troops fighting on the battlefield alongside brave Ukrainians? Answer: President Biden determined from the outset that the United States “will not fight World War III for Ukraine.” If the United States sent American troops to the battlefield to kill Russian troops, it would quickly become a war between the United States and Russia and could escalate to a nuclear war.

As surely as the leaders of the “evil empire” ever did, Putin commands a nuclear arsenal fully capable of destroying the United States. Serious students of national security know that in this MAD (mutual assured destruction) world, Ronald Reagan’s incandescent insight remains a foundational truth: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” As certainly as it did during nearly half a century of Cold War, America’s own survival requires finding ways to defend and advance our interests without engaging in a direct conflict with Russia.”

First, this is not an “inconvenient question” — it’s a fundamental aspect of our policy that has been debated and that appears — at least for now — settled. The US does not intend to send troops (which means no NATO country would) to fight Russia in Ukraine. This is as it should be. The fear of nuclear escalation is part of this logic, but it’s not even necessary for it — a direct participation by the US/NATO in this war would mean a very real drastic escalation that could well bring in China with military support to the Russians, that would weaken the Western coalition, and that would destroy the moral support Ukraine enjoys worldwide. No nukes are necessary to see that this is going to make the war much worse.

While Biden & others do mention nukes, it’s always in response to perceived Russian threats to use them. But Putin has not actually threatened to use them. If one reads his statements carefully, one cannot fail to notice that he always hints or mentions them as defense in case the West uses nukes or tries to threaten the existence of Russia. All other nuclear threats — tactical, strategic, accidental — come from hotheads on Russian state TV and from Medvedev, who nobody takes seriously. They are as much for internal consumption (to reassure Russians that the can wage this war with impunity because they, themselves, cannot be threatened by it) as for potential political gains in the West when people panic and start clamoring to just let Russia have what Putin wants it to have.

There was a time where I believed there was a serious risk of a tactical nuke used somewhere for demonstration purposes — I have written about this — but even then, the idea was that such use would split the West instantly, and make it impossible to aid Ukraine in a sustained and massive way that is necessary for it to have a chance of victory. Such strikes would not have had any military value at all. I happen to think that the window of opportunity for such a terrorist use of nukes has closed, mostly because the West has now overcome some of the major stumbling blocks that prevented fuller cooperation (energy dependence on Russia, German inability to move beyond its long-held policy, belief — in France & Germany, among others — that Putin can be negotiated with, etc.) and has committed to Ukraine in ways that were not evident 6 months ago. A demonstrative use of a nuclear weapon is more likely to frighten the West into deeper cooperation with the US than splinter it. It would signal debilitating weakness for Russia, and would be seen as an act of desperation whereas an earlier use would have been seen as flexing muscles to warn off the Americans.

In being vaguely ominous about nukes, Allison relies on scare-mongering rather than argument. As a serious student of national security, he should know that while the Americans talked about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the Soviets never really subscribed to it, and that Soviet foreign policy was predicated on the possibility on prevailing in nuclear war with acceptable casualties. Now, whether they actually believed it or not, I can’t tell. What we can tell is that their behavior was consistent with not wanting to risk a nuclear confrontation with the US any more than the US was willing to risk one with them. The closest we got to a high risk of nuclear war was in 1962, when the Americans pressed forward with plans to invade Cuba not realizing that the Soviets had already operational nuclear weapons there that Moscow had no control over. Allison is among the preeminent scholars of this crisis, so he should know that one of the main reasons Khrushchev backed down is because he realized that the Americans are running risks they did not understand, and could trigger a nuclear exchange, which he — apparently — wanted to avoid. Remember his warning about “tying the knot of war” in the first letter he sent JFK?

Allison commits a very serious error that actually undermines the premise of MAD — he grants credibility to the Russians using nukes but not us. MAD depends, entirely, on the idea that neither side would want to use nuclear weapons when both have second-strike capability. The Russians have never looked eager to use nukes, and I do not understand why Allison believes that this is different now. At the very least, he needs to provide some evidence for what would be an astonishing turn of events. The Russians are afraid of American nukes just as much as we are afraid of Russian nukes. This makes nuclear use extraordinarily unlikely (modulo the demonstrative use I mentioned above).

I am not even going to discuss the START suspension since Russia’s Foreign Ministry immediately walked back Putin’s remarks by clarifying that they intended to comply with its provisions. What this means, I do not know, but it’s clearly not the bold renunciation that Allison seems to portray it as.

The second “inconvenient truth” is meant to reinforce the first: since Russians are unlikely to see an existential threat to their country that would warrant the use of nuclear weapons, then perhaps Putin could see such a threat and order their use anyway:

“Second: Is CIA Director William J. Burns right when he asserts that Ukraine is a war that Putin “doesn’t believe he can afford to lose”? Yes: If conditions on the battlefield force Putin to choose between a humiliating loss, on the one hand, and escalating the level of destruction, on the other, odds are that he chooses the latter. As he has demonstrated in the campaign of missile strikes destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure, he is able and willing to move up this ladder. The outcome of this war is not existential for Russia. But it is for Putin.

If Putin’s only alternative is decisive defeat, he might believe he has no choice but to conduct tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine.”

This is an “argument” by assumption and vagueness, not data and logic. It starts, reasonably enough, with something that is supported by facts: if Putin has to choose between a “humiliating loss… and escalating,” he would choose the latter. This is true, Putin’s modus operandi is to double down, and he has done so in this war as well. When the Blitzkrieg failed, he switched to grinding conquest. When this did not work, he ordered mobilization. Now he is in an attritional phase of the war, and shows no signs of letting up. (I am not sure whether the campaign to destroy the Ukrainian infrastructure was moving “up” a ladder of escalation — this was always part of the Russian military plans, they had hoped to avoid it with the Blitzkrieg.)

What follows, however, is manifestly neither obvious nor inherent in the logic/evidence so far: “The outcome of this war is not existential for Russia. But it is for Putin. If Putin’s only alternative is decisive defeat, he might believe he has no choice but to conduct tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine.

But the outcome of this war is not existential for Putin — where does that assertion come from? Yes, there are Western pundits that believe that, but no serious scholar of Russia thinks that Putin’s regime would be threatened by a loss in Ukraine. The ones that do talk about such a possibility invariably talk about a process that would take many years, possibly a decade or more. The fact is, Putin has built a formidable and reliable internal security apparatus that has been untouched by the war (Rossgvardiya losses are tiny compared to the military). The elites are dependent on the balance within the regime with Putin at its apex. Russian society has been atomized and rendered politically inert after 20 years of deliberate policies to achieve precisely that. There is no popular pressure on the regime to either continue the war or stop it. There was only passive resistance to the mobilization, and even that took the form of people fleeing the country. Since these are people with the means to do so, they also happen to be the ones that a regime worried about internal security would be glad to let go. Elites cannot move against Putin because he enjoys widespread popular support, and because there is no clear alternative to replace him. They are looking at what Russians call “smuta” (Time of Troubles), which is characterized by vicious internecine struggle for succession. Nobody wants that yet — Putin would have to threaten the elites a whole lot more before this alternative becomes palatable. And he’s clearly not doing any of that. There is no popular discontent about the losses in Ukraine either because Putin’s regime moved very early on to destroy the civic organizations that could have encouraged it. Even in the Afghanistan War, where such a movement emerged, it was slow in forming and not really the main reason for the withdrawal. Moreover, its success hinged on the Soviet regime’s reluctance to suppress it — a reluctance that Putin has not shown at all.

Bottom line is that Putin is not threatened by whatever happens in Ukraine. If he lost Donbas, Russians could not care less. Even if he lost Crimea, they would probably shrug it off, relieved that they would not have to send relatives to die to defend it. Putin’s popularity over the annexation of Crimea spiked in large part because it was bloodless. It was a monumental foreign policy achievement for the Russians, akin to Hitler’s takeover of the Rhineland or the Anschluss with Austria. No such spike in popular support is evident even in the flawed surveys after the annexations of four Ukrainian oblasti last year. This tells me that while Russians enjoy foreign policy triumphs as much as the next nation, they may be less than thrilled when these come with a significant price tag attached. They may shout “Crimea is Russia” but not add “at any cost.”

The elites would probably also welcome an end to the fighting that is cramping their lavish lifestyles. Nobody is going to take Putin down over it — what would be the point? Would they go and fight to regain “lost territories”? The more likely scenario is that Putin is going to find scapegoats to blame for the failure, would promise reforms, and will spend the last years of his life in office getting ready for a revanche by yet another campaign to rebuild the military. It’s going to be a “stab in the back” story all over again.

If there is any risk to Putin, it would be from a “palace coup,” and it would be in order to stop the war because it’s ruinous to the Russian economy (or at least the personal fortunes of the plotters). While we may all hope for something like this, the likelihood is quite small, and not worth planning for.

The other problem with Allison’s reasoning is that he takes the willingness of engaging in one form of escalation (mobilization, strikes on infrastructure) as evidence of willingness to engage in a qualitatively different one (nuclear). I am not aware of any such logical connection. US policy clearly shows a discontinuous break in our willingness to help Ukraine, and this break occurs at putting boots on the ground. This may or may not change, but it’s clearly there. Another such break would be using nuclear weapons. We might do a whole lot of things the Russians would consider escalatory without getting anywhere near either direct involvement or nuclear use. The same is true of the Russians. They could bomb “decision centers” or just lob missiles at Kyiv. They are not actually doing that — yes, I know that they are hitting civilians, but there is no evidence to believe they are wasting their missiles on apartment blocks (they are, however, showing wanton disregard for civilians by attempting to hit infrastructure in or close to populated areas with missiles that are notoriously unreliable). Putin’s decision to start what many believed — himself likely too — would be a vastly unpopular policy, mobilization, showed that he would rather risk domestic discontent than escalate with a nuclear strike, demonstrative or not. The muted public response to this policy would have encouraged him to continue on that course, which would also lessen the risk of nuclear use.

In other words, the way Putin has chosen to double down is making it less likely that he would resort to nuclear weapons.

The third “inconvenient question” is a sleight-of-hand wishful thinking based on facts not in evidence:

“Third: If the fighting somehow ended today, would anyone have a doubt about who won and who lost? Whatever tactical territorial gains Putin might hold when this phase of intense war stops, no one will have any doubt about the fact that Putin’s war was a grave strategic blunder. He succeeded in achieving precisely the opposite of what he intended. Ukrainians’ sense of identity and confidence that they can build a viable modern nation has never been stronger. NATO has never been more unified and its European members far more willing to invest in their own military capabilities than in a generation or more. By re-creating a vivid Russian threat, Putin has condemned his country to a new Cold War against a united transatlantic adversary whose combined economy is more than 20 times its size.”

If the war were to end today, with Russia in control of the territories it illegally annexed, I very much doubt that anyone would consider it a defeat for Putin. I do not know why Allison thinks otherwise. Here’s how the alternative narrative would go: The combined forces of the West threw everything but the kitchen sink into trying to prop their puppet state of Ukraine, but mighty Russia — alone against forces 20 times its size — prevailed, and not only liberated millions of Russians from the control of the genocidal Kyiv junta, but restored territories lost in the demise of the Soviet Union, thereby rectifying an historical injustice.” Nobody would care that rump Western Ukraine would be “a viable modern nation” in this scenario. The fact that the West was unable to prevent Russia from gobbling up a third of its neighbor — the largest country in Europe after Russia — would be a strong signal to its other neighbors not to count on the tender mercies of fickle Western support. Whether they turn to China for protection, as Kazakhstan is doing, or return to coerced cooperation with Moscow would depend on circumstances, but either one would be bad for us, and bad for them.

NATO is presently unified because everyone is afraid of what Russia might do next. The consequences of the war stopping now are unpredictable (for me). One the one hand, the fear of Russia would unquestionably grow. Countries like Poland and the Baltics would push for strengthening NATO as their last best hope to avoid falling under Moscow’s sway. On the other hand, the failure to save Ukraine would raise serious doubts about the Western ability to resist Russia, which would mean voices clamoring for “accommodation” and finding some “modus vivendi” with Moscow would grow louder. Countries like Bulgaria and Hungary might well pull out of NATO over this. I can’t even begin to speculate what Turkey would do. The triumphalist scenario that Allison assumes is predicated on success: thus far, Western help has thwarted Russian designs on Ukraine, which gives reason to wavering countries to put their faith in it. Nothing motivates like success, and nothing discourages like failure. The West won in Berlin in 1948-49 because it demonstrated that it could stand up to the Russians, and that it would do so, despite the cost. This is what led to the creation of NATO in the first place. If the West fails in Ukraine, the circumstances might not at all be as Allison imagines.

The final “inconvenient question” is just rhetorical hand-waving:

“Fourth: If we imagine a map of Europe in 2030 and weigh the factors that could shape Ukraine’s place on it, how much would it matter whether the killing stopped 100 miles to the east or west of the current line of control? Ukrainians will never give up their goal of liberating every inch of Ukrainian territory — nor should they. But as Zelensky and his supporters in the West consider options on the road ahead, they should review the postwar history of West Germany. By building a vibrant free-market democracy within larger European institutions secured by a U.S.-led NATO, West Germany created conditions in which the recovery of the country’s Soviet-occupied eastern third was just a matter of time. Could Ukraine become the West Germany of the 21st century?”

Here, Allison imagines that the “killing” could just stop “100 miles to the east or west of the current line of control” and that in the long run it would not matter where. The analogy he offers is Germany.

The first problem is that the dividing line in Germany was not determined by the Germans but by the victorious allies, who imposed it on Germany. Moreover, they themselves did not determine this line by duking it out to decide whether it would be “100 miles to the east or west” but by mutual agreement. Nothing about the German question is remotely analogous to what’s happening now in Ukraine.

In this war, Ukrainians are fighting for their land and their people, and it might matter to them where the line is drawn. Moreover, as Allison himself admits, they would not give up on the goal of liberating any lost territory. But then, how does he imagine the killings would stop? This would require the West to somehow “restrain” the Ukrainians — this was not an issue with the Germans because their armed forces had been destroyed. But here, the Ukrainians have a formidable competent military and a population unified behind the political leadership — how, exactly, does Allison imagine we would impose a solution they do not accept? Our only leverage in this matter is the aid — we could threaten to cut it off or reduce it.

Setting aside whether this is credible (since our interests also dictate that Russia should not win), imagine what this would do. The Ukrainian ability to fight the Russians would be severely degraded but not eliminated. They would switch to different tactics, they would lose more territory, they would end up fighting savage urban warfare in their larger cities. The Russians would be encouraged to press on to “pacify” the country the way they did in Chechnya. There will be partisan warfare on a large scale, which would result in mass atrocities by the Russians to deal with it. We have seen this scenario before.

Using aid as leverage will embolden the Russians, which will make peace less likely. This is the second problem with Allison’s reasoning: he fails to consider the implications of our actions for the other side. In the German analogy, doubts about Western resolve led Stalin to try to “kick the Americans out” of West Berlin, as he put it at the time. Only the resolute stand with the Berlin Airlift (which involved no direct confrontation between American and Soviet soldiers, and did not escalate) and the concomitant economic mini-blockade of the USSR persuaded Stalin to give up on that attempt. For some reason, Allison seems to think that if we stop supporting the Ukrainians, Putin would also stop pressing with his dreams of restoring Russia’s greatness. This assumption is inconsistent with the portrait of Putin Allison himself provided in the earlier paragraphs of his op-ed.

There is no way to magically “stop the killing” at some line of control, not while both sides believe they achieve more by fighting. Ukraine has agency here that we cannot control, only influence, and we have very limited ability to do so. Russia has agency as well that we can also influence with our actions toward Ukraine. Allison ignores all of that strategic interaction, which is an astonishing lapse of reasoning for a scholar of international relations.

The closer analogy that Allison could have reached for is the division of Korea, which is a solution that the Russians are very likely to propose in the form of “we take all the territories we annexed and a demilitarized zone is established east of the Dnipro River on Ukrainian territory.” I do not know whether this is workable — surely not the way things are going right now for the Russians on the battlefield — but this “frozen conflict” alternative is what Allison can hope for at most. This will give him the things he imagines (stopping the killing, independent Western Ukraine, etc.) but one can see why he did not provide that analogy: (1) more than half a century later, Korea remains divided, unlike Germany; (2) the North Korean army — and much of the South Korean army — had been destroyed before such a solution could be imposed, unlike the Ukrainian army; (3) the fighting was mostly between the United States and China, and neither side wanted to fight the other, unlike here where both are willing to continue; and (4) only Stalin’s death, which yanked Soviet support for China, caused Mao to agree to end the war in 1953, which I guess is what Allison proposes we do to Ukraine — the problem here is that Russia is not the United States, and so is unlikely to reciprocate for the reasons I described above.

The four “inconvenient questions” turn out to be the old wine of “let’s settle with Russia” packaged in somewhat newer bottles labeled after a prominent American academic, which is supposed to give improved flavor to the gruel inside. This is an “argument from authority” if there ever was one. As all such arguments, this one falls apart on closer look because if it had any substance to it, it would not have to be argued from authority but on its merits. On its merits, this is just another call for Ukraine to surrender.

Stopping the killing means Putin must want to abandon his aggression in Ukraine or the Ukrainians have to abandon resisting that aggression. Ukrainian victory here would mean that Putin is denied his territorial ambitions, Ukraine emerges from the war with a large army built on NATO standards and armed with Western weapons, and Ukraine becomes a member of NATO or a similar alliance with US participation and security guarantees equivalent to Article V. The Russians are nowhere near conceding any of this, and it’s difficult to imagine how Allison would create a peaceful postwar world without it. In the German (and Korean) cases, deterrence rested on firm Western military commitment to it, as well as rebuilding the countries. It’s hard for me to see how we can demonstrate such commitment by abandoning Ukraine.

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