Be Careful What You Wish For

What effect will Putin’s war have on Russia? There’s an active trade in historical analogies, but the more I look at those analogies, the more I become convinced that few of them work. They don’t even rhyme.

War in Europe because of an attempted grab by a declining power with no strong allies. It doesn’t fit the Cold War Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap, the objectives of which were never clear – control of West Germany? Disruption of Europe’s prosperity? Perhaps it’s a little like Vietnam, with the technologically favored side being undercut by defenders of the homeland and now a draft of unwilling fighters.

World War I started between major powers who were spoiling for a war and did it very badly. Russia has mobilized three times, I’ve seen more than once on Twitter: World War I, World War II, and now. It went badly for them in World War I.

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Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.

General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.

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Nuclear Weapons And Russia’s War On Ukraine

Would Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? A number of people have approached this question boldly in recent days and have boldly asserted that we don’t know. I join in that conclusion, but it’s always interesting to work through the argument.

Over the past year, I’ve been reading Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon closely. It’s a history of the development of nuclear strategy. A great many of the recent articles have reproduced that development in short form. That’s because, I would argue, there’s not much to nuclear strategy. Clausewitz tells us that it’s easy for war to run out of control. When the weapons of war are potentially world-ending, it is essential that war not run out of control. That limits actions and responses.

The deterrence properties of those weapons have been working in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Part of the reason NATO has not joined the war directly is that its entry would move everything too much closer to a nuclear exchange. Similarly, Russia has not attacked NATO members. Nuclear deterrence limits the geographic scope of the war.

Russia’s stated threshold for nuclear weapons use is “an existential threat to the country.” Given Putin’s rhetoric about the reasons for making war on Ukraine, it is hard to know what he considers an existential threat to Russia. Although he has claimed that Ukraine’s sovereignty poses an existential threat to Russia, he allowed his military to back off from a general conquest of Ukraine when it looked like that would not work. There is evidently some flexibility in Putin’s understanding of that phrase.

What happens if the war starts going very badly for Putin? If it looks, say, like Russian ammunition is running out and Ukrainian troops are pushing Russian troops toward the border? Might Putin consider using a nuclear weapon to change the course of the war?

This article gives a bit of the historical background on nuclear strategy and lays out the options clearly, although leaning toward the military ones. Let’s say Russia drops a small nuclear weapon on, say, the Zaporizhzhye nuclear plant. What are NATO’s response options? I say NATO because they’re the ones with nuclear weapons, not Ukraine.

  • Do not strike back, but proclaim Russian inhumanity in using nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear attack on an equivalent target within Russia
  • Escalate a nuclear attack to a higher-value target
  • Strike with a conventional force

The downsides, respectively, are

  • Russia may take this as having a free hand to attack its neighbors.
  • Could go into a slow-motion tit for tat situation or escalate to more nuclear use.
  • Very likely to escalate.
  • Nuclear escalation possible, but less likely.

The last seems to be the most likely NATO response, although much depends on specifics.

These options add up to everything that is possible in a nuclear war that starts on the battlefield, rather than a transcontinental attack. Even there, the options are similar.

Nuclear strategists have been struggling with the simplicity of this pattern since the first bombs were dropped in 1945. They have not come up with new answers. The edgier among them like to try to game out scenarios involving a few small hits, which involve enormous assumptions as to the fear or good will of the other side. Usually they will lament the American lack of tactical nuclear weapons in contrast to Russia’s two thousand or so. But those “small” weapons might be the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. Too small, and there’s not much difference in destruction from conventional weapons. Larger, and at some point someone is likely to target beyond the battlefield.

The two atom bombs dropped by the US on Japan were the only ones in existence at that time. Nobody could retaliate. But that’s no longer the case. And, just as in any war scenario, much depends on the specifics of the situation and the people involved, perhaps even more so with nuclear weapons. Right now, it looks like we’re a long way from nuclear weapon use.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Putin’s Associates At The Long Table

The old Kremlinology was one thing – whether Khrushchev or Molotov was standing next to Stalin above Lenin’s tomb may have had meaning – but Vladimir Putin’s Kremlinology is something else.

Putin assures us that he is sitting at his long table next to Peter the Great and Alexander Nevsky, and it looks like Ivan the Terrible is there too. But Khrushchev and Molotov had a record we could (more or less) look at in terms of their climb to Kremlin power, and their other public dealings. The Soviet Union, indeed, was obscure in some ways, but what is important about Putin’s associates is what he thinks their roles and identities were. What he thinks is often at odds with what the rest of us know of history.

Most recently, Putin has invoked Peter the Great to justify a land grab against Ukraine but left out Peter’s opening to Europe. It’s clear that Putin is grabbing at the pieces of Russian history that he feels most comfortable with or that help him justify his war. We don’t know to what degree he believes any of this, nor do we know how much the people around him influence him.

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Vladimir Putin’s Red Mercury Scam

Y’all know about red mercury, right? It’s the secret to making nuclear weapons out of something that isn’t uranium or plutonium. Or it makes those fissile materials more fissile. Or it’s in the detonators. If you’re interested, I know a source…

C. J. Chivers wrote the ultimate story on it back in 2015. It’s allegedly been for sale to terrorists in the Middle East, and Russia was buzzing about it in the 1990s, after the Soviet breakup. I recall questions about it circulating at Los Alamos at that time, which was the first I heard of it.

Sergei Dobrynin and Robert Coalson have written about the role of a St. Petersburg official in a red mercury scam of the 1990s, as a part of an RFE/RL series on corruption scandals and scams that swirled around Vladimir Putin and his associates as he began his political ascent.

It’s a complicated story, involving a number of companies whose relationships I leave to the RFE/RL article. The central company, Alkor, actually manufactured mercury pyroantimonate, which is industrially useful but not capable of red mercury’s amazing nuclear feats. But if you sold it that way, you could get hundreds of times what it was worth industrially.

So yeah, that was one of the things Putin did while he was in the St. Petersburg city government. Probably gave him valuable experience in setting up shell companies.

There’s lots more in those articles. If you’re interested in red mercury, read them.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

What Is Putin Thinking?

Vladmir Putin started this war, and he could stop it today if he chose. What he thinks is important. He’s told us what he thinks. The way Russia is conducting the war supports what he’s said.

It’s easy to dismiss Putin’s screeds as historically inaccurate and a bizarre reading of current events. They are. But listing how they’re incorrect misses the point, which is that Putin believes these things: Ukraine was never a separate entity from Russia. Lenin and others made mistakes that separated Ukraine from its appropriate place in the scheme of things. Russia and Ukraine can never fulfil their true destiny apart from each other. Those are the central points.

Also in his belief system is that NATO, the United States, and the EU, which are lumped together as “the West,” are dedicated to undermining Russia’s proper place in the world. It’s less clear that he buys the whole long-standing Pan-Slavic myth that Russia has been specially designated by God to redeem the world. But at least Russia is a superpower that the rest of the world must recognize as such.

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Reading Material On Putin’s War

There are a lot of bad takes coming out on the war. Two documents provide the background necessary to evaluate them.

Masha Gessen talks about how authoritarianism works in Russia in this extended interview by Anand Giridharadas. Gessen has experienced that authoritarianism first hand and now lives in the United States.

What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war. Since his Munich speech in 2007, there has been a constant and open insistence on re-establishing Russia as a great power and a refusal to recognize what’s referred to as the world order.

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Vladimir Putin’s Words

I have not paid enough attention to Vladimir Putin’s writings and speeches. Recent ones seemed extreme, but that could be attributed to propaganda, and I discounted them out of a habit of discounting Soviet propaganda. But I watched his speech on February 21 and changed my mind. Putin displayed extreme emotion during that speech. It was clear that he meant what he was saying.

There’s much speculation about Putin’s mindset and a fair bit of quoting pieces of Putin’s recent speeches. I wanted to see those quotes in context. We can’t know Putin’s mindset. His speeches and an essay are all we have. In this post, I look at Putin’s speech at the Munich Defense Conference in 2007, his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” the February 21 speech, his speech of February 24 declaring war on Ukraine, and the victory announcement that briefly appeared on Russian news websites on February 28. (The Russian Presidential website is currently unreachable.) There are several continuing themes, and the emotional tone increases with time.

My main goal in this post is to summarize major themes in those documents, particularly recurring themes. My attempts at analysis will be minimal.

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The Biden-Putin Summit

What can we expect from the summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?


That is the expectation that Biden is setting. There will be no grand pronouncements, no reset, maybe not even a perfunctory statement of agreement on a minor point. That is part of the reason that Biden plans to hold a press conference by himself. The other part, of course, is in contrast with Donald Trump’s disastrous showing at Helsinki.

But the meeting is necessary and important. Russia is a major country, with a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s. Russia is adjacent to our allies in Europe and supplies energy to many of them. It has a long land border across which untoward things can happen. Those are reason enough for the leaders to meet.

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Russian News

This is a compilation of Russian news you might not have heard. There’s a lot going on in Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is flagging, so much so that his United Russia Party had to resort to shady dealings in recent elections in Russia’s Far East. The retirement age for pensions has been raised, and people are not happy. They’ve just mounted a big military exercise, but probably not as big as they claim. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church will probably split organizationally from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Paul Goble worked in the State Department during the breakup of the Soviet Union. He retired some time ago and has taught in universities in Estonia. He speaks Russian and Estonian. He maintains a blog, Window on Eurasia, where he summarizes news and opinion from Russia and its neighbors in English. I’ll draw on his posts and a few other sources to note recent developments in Russia. This is far from exhaustive, and probably not even indicative of larger trends. Just things that are happening. Read More