A speech that could secure Ukraine's survival, and the world's
Dissuading Russia's military from escalating to nuclear war
NATO is arming Ukraine generously, but working hard to limit the risk of nuclear escalation even so. In a recent article, I highlighted a missing piece from these efforts: a public address about military policy, visible and credible to a broad swath of Russian military leadership.
Its goals, in bluntest terms, should be:
To state what the West will do for Ukraine.
To persuade Russians, especially Russian officers, that these actions won’t rise to a level that calls for nuclear opposition or retaliation.
To ensure that Russian political leaders don’t successfully draw any red lines that these actions would cross.
Notes on speech design start:
Establishing which nonnuclear tactics do or don’t carry significant risk of nuclear escalation is in essence a bargaining game.
The essence of non-escalation is paradoxical: You want to cooperate with your enemy (to avoid blowing each other up). The most difficult part of non-escalation messaging is to navigate paradoxes.
In bargaining situations you want to operate from general principles whenever possible, ideally ones with a moral element.
Some of my specific suggestions for speech elements invoke history. It’s a convenient coincidence that Russian propaganda about the Ukraine invasion is heavily based on history too.
Paradoxes made clear
To be clear and credible, the speech needs to tackle the core paradox(es) head-on. One tactful and expedient way to frame that might be:
1. (Historical credibility) We want to continue a great track record, namely that:
While the USSR and Russia have been the US’ adversaries since shortly after World War 2, ...
..., the adversaries have cooperated, in a professional manner and with mutual respect, to avoid the horrors of nuclear war.
2. (Historical credibility, with specifics) In particular:
The adversarial relationship has led to quite a bit of combat. Historical examples could be cited to flesh that out. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Syria come to mind.
But the adversaries have been really good at avoiding direct confrontation. Historical notes are even more important to this point, including mention of how any minor exceptions have quickly been controlled.
3. (The message on which all else hinges) Current events should not change that, because:
While we are working very hard to ensure that Russia loses in Ukraine, ...
… we have no interest in actually attacking Russia.
Credibility is generally enhanced if one can make persuasive reference to principles. This is true for any kind of messaging, but especially in bargaining situations, such as the tacit bargaining of escalation avoidance. Indeed, the previous section is based on principles the US and Russia presumably share, such as the undesirability of nuclear war.
Other Western principles may not be so widely shared. Important ones to spell out in this case include:
Ukraine was granted independence from the USSR and Russia three decades ago. Its borders should have been inviolate from then on.
Ukraine had done nothing to attack or threaten Russia, except in the ordinary course of conducting a Russia-started war. This is a key point, and cannot be emphasized enough.
Russia has been criminally barbaric in the areas of Ukraine it has attacked or occupied. It is important to show that we believe this strongly, based on massive evidence, any obscuring propaganda notwithstanding.
Each of these points supports the theme “Russia has in our opinion gravely violated important norms, and in response we feel free to do a few military things that previously were taboo.”
One powerful approach to “selling” these messages would be a major address by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, ostensibly to a domestic US audience with military expertise. For starters:
This is one of the best ways to reach the true target audience. Russians surely pay close attention to US statements of military doctrine, just as the US does to theirs.
This choice could be a good start on credibility. Secretary Austin is obviously one of the two or three most authoritative speakers on US defense policy. And he’s less likely than President Biden to be undercut domestically by partisan politics.
Secretary Austin needs to say something detailed about Russia-Ukraine policy anyway. A couple of his recent pithy remarks have called for clarification.
Blocking Putin’s possible moves
To date, official Russian rhetoric about the Ukraine invasion has featured:
Wild factual falsehoods, to support claims that somehow Russia hasn’t violated general international norms. (E.g.: Ukraine effectively attacked first, and the atrocities didn’t really happen.)
Relatively obvious and unobjectionable statements of combat principles. (E.g., Russia will attack weapons movements inside Ukraine without stopping to ask the nationality of any truck drivers.)
Vague nuclear saber-rattling (e.g., complaints that Western actions are raising the risk of presumably inadvertent nuclear escalation.)
Also, more extreme things are said by deniable unofficial spokespeople such as scholars and TV hosts.
None of that is effective at resetting the rules of conventional conflict. But Putin does have some more powerful moves available, via some version of:
Claiming territory in the Donetsk, Luhansk and/or Kherson oblasts, as he clearly is taking steps toward doing.
Declaring that an attack to recapture these would be an attack on Russia.
Declaring that such an attack would be an “existential” threat.
By such means, Putin could declare new “red lines” that the West would prefer to ignore.
So the West should do its best to head such rhetorical tactics off. Good options for doing so essentially boil down to:
“Come on, now. You know that we don’t agree with that nonsense, and we’re going to keep acting as if you hadn’t said that.”
“Even if that nonsense were true, we already said we’re fully supportive of Ukraine attacking Russian territory as long as this conflict is hot.”
So the speech contemplated in this article should reinforce those points in every possible way.
Getting the messages out
The speech contemplated here would surely get wide consumption in Russia’s intelligence and foreign policy establishments, as well as reasonable coverage in general global news. That alone makes it likely to reach a good fraction of Russia’s military decision-makers. Further effort to craft soundbites and summaries, and to seed them into online channels, could expand the reach further yet.
An article, or a speech with a speaker/venue choice that expends less in the way of “ceremonial capital”, would likely have lesser reach. But it could also be simpler and more flexible to produce, and should be considered as an alternative if a high-profile speech is not pursued.