Paradoxes that are essential to understanding Russia/Ukraine
Why Ukraine hawks are more correct than one otherwise might think
"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." – Winston Churchill
Russia, run by a secretive and amoral dictator, is famously hard to assess. But even what is known can be so paradoxical as to be disbelieved, ignored, or otherwise dismissed. Five paradoxes in particular are central to making good decisions about the Russia-Ukraine War:
Russia is sane and responsible about strategic nuclear weapons, even as it is reckless and evil about so much else.
Russia is truthful about nuclear weapons, even as it lies about so much else.
Russia strives to mislead about nuclear weapons, even as it tells the literal truth.
The dictator Vladimir Putin doesn’t dictate everything in Russia.
In some important ways, what’s good for Putin is bad for Russia, and vice-versa.
Ignoring these paradoxes might make one a fearful Ukraine dove … and that would be wrong.
I’ve argued most of these points before, but haven’t really collected them into a single article. So let’s dive in.
Russia is sane and responsible about nuclear weapons
The USSR was apparently scared straight by the Cuban Missile Crisis, because it was quite responsible about strategic nuclear weapons from 1963 onward. Its Russian successor has continued this trend. There is negligible risk of Russia ever starting a nuclear war.
I laid out arguments for these points in the article “Putin” does not equal “Russia”.
Russia is truthful about nuclear weapons, but tries to mislead on the subject even so
It is consistently correct to take Russian statements about nuclear weapons literally. Taking them seriously, however, is often a mistake.
Russia tries to create the impression it is making reckless nuclear threats – but if you parse those statements carefully, they don’t threaten anything substantive at all. Indeed, Russia repeatedly assures the world that it has no intention of ever using nukes, except under extreme circumstances that nobody is planning to risk bringing about.
The “be scary” part of Russia’s strategy was laid out in detail in War on the Rocks’ recent analysis of Russia’s nuclear escalation doctrine. The “don’t make any specific threats” part is confirmed any time you look at an actual Russian statement.
Putin doesn’t control everything in Russia
The head of a government can’t do anything without the assistance and acquiescence of his subordinates. Limitations on Putin’s power include:
Russian armed forces are incapable of carrying out many of Putin’s orders. This has been one of the main stories of the war.
Putin’s nuclear orders would not necessarily be obeyed. I’ve argued that point in multiple articles already, for example in Most Russian nuclear threats are nonsense.
A long, destructive war is better for Putin than a reasonable peace
Further, notwithstanding all his coercive power, Putin can’t suppress all politics.
Pundits seem generally to agree that:
If Russians perceive Putin as having lost his war in Ukraine, he is likely to lose power.
But if they see the war as ongoing, they’re likely to keep backing him.
As Sam Freedman put it:
So long as the war continues Putin is protected to a degree by patriotic urges to support the motherland when it is in peril, and also the opportunities war provides for censorship and tight control of all dissent.
I’d further observe:
Russia prides itself on underdog, sacrifice-heavy defensive wars, notably the “Patriotic War” (1812 vs. Napoleon) and “The Great Patriotic War” (World War 2).
Current Russian propaganda plays into that trope, by claiming that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is somehow a defensive war against the US and NATO.
Much of this was argued in a previous article.
The Ukraine hawks are correct
Putting all that together supports the hawkish views:
There’s no such thing as an acceptable negotiated peace with Putin-led Russia.
Russia’s nuclear deterrent against arms supplies to Ukraine is a sham.
Of course, hawkish Ukraine-related policies have plenty of costs and risks, which should be minimized as much as possible. Efforts that seem to be working well in those respects include:
US-led private negotiations to persuade key Russians that, even in the face of strong Western support for Ukraine, nuclear and other drastic escalation would be a horrible idea.
US-led bullhorn bargaining to persuade many more Russians of the same thing.
Turkey-led bargaining to minimize Russian naval shenanigans, especially with respect to food and fertilizer shipments.
Combined Western efforts to minimize the impact of Russian energy export reductions.
Two recent dovish takes might give one pause. First, General Mark Milley suggested that it will be a fine time for peace negotiations after Ukraine’s advances stall in the upcoming winter. However, knowledgeable commentators who have been consistently correct about this war, such as retired generals Ben Hodges and Mark Hertling, believe there will be no such stall. We’ll see who’s right – and despite Milley’s superior access to current intelligence, I’m betting on the hawks
Second, Thomas Pickering and George Beebe argue that Russia/Ukraine negotiations of some kind are surely warranted. They’re actually pretty convincing, precisely because they point out that negotiations can lead to benefits other than peace, namely:
Agreements on secondary issues.
Preparation for more difficult talks that might occur in the future.
But when it comes to pushing Russian forces entirely out of Ukraine, they don’t give any convincing reasons to hold back.
A follow-on post covers some surprising aspects of the negotiation terrain.