The urgent nuclear obstacle to Ukrainian victory
Secretary Blinken can speak it out of existence
Russia’s latest try at nuclear deterrence
There remains one major way that the Russia-Ukraine war could go quickly and terribly wrong. The Institute for the Study of War called it out in mid-May. We did too, then raised the alarm level in June. The New York Times mentioned it on July 30, citing analysts in Russia and Ukraine alike.
This nightmare scenario is:
Russia stages bogus “annexations” of additional territory in Ukraine, for example in the Donetsk, Luhansk and/or Kherson oblasts.
Russia then declares that, as those regions are Russian territory, they must not be attacked with powerful weapons – especially precision rockets – for fear of Russian nuclear response.
Russia’s declarations are generally regarded as credible.
Should all this happen, the main possibilities would be Ukrainian defeat, elevated risk of nuclear war, or both. And the first two bullet points can’t really be stopped. Therefore, it is urgent to prevent the third one.
Framing the challenge
At its heart, this is a challenge in public diplomatic negotiation. To avoid risking catastrophic nuclear war, the US and Russia agree upon rules as to which non-nuclear methods they may or may not use to confront each other. The United States currently has a strong upper hand in such negotiations, for reasons discussed in prior articles and reviewed in this one below.
Indeed, this challenge is a direct sequel to one the US addressed two months ago, when the issue was whether the US would give Ukraine those powerful weapons at all. A May 31 New York Times essay under Joe Biden’s byline declared that:
The US will give Ukraine whatever conventional weapons it pleases.
Those weapons will not be used to attack Russian soil.
Russia quickly agreed.
This generally addressed the need we called out in a May 20 article A speech that could secure Ukraine’s survival, and the world’s. And US-supplied rockets soon started hitting Russian ammunition depots and command centers, to devastating and war-changing effect.
But successful though it was, that round of negotiation was incomplete. As discussed in our June 7 article One strand of US-Russia negotiations has culminated, Biden’s brief essay did not necessarily forestall the annexation gambit. And while Russia initially indicated it wouldn’t rush to claim annexation, those assurances soon proved false.
Indeed, Russian bluster redoubled:
Russia openly declared war aims of annexing much of Ukraine.
Russia made it clear that those annexations could start soon …
… especially in Kherson, which is exactly the part of the country that Ukraine proposes to recapture first.
Thus the present situation, with high-stakes bickering as to what aid NATO may or may not give Ukraine, is very similar to that before the Biden essay.
Specifics of a solution
Our advice now is also similar to what it previously was:
To maintain Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia’s invasion without seriously risking nuclear war, another public declaration like the Biden essay is needed.
The core requirements for such a declaration are:
The source must be a very senior US official.
The declaration must credibly go into sufficient detail.
Last time, I suggested a speech by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, which might have avoided the incompleteness problems of the Biden essay. This time, I recommend a speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, because the central points are more about borders and treaties than about weapons themselves. Alternatively, a statement/press release could have a similar effect.
Whatever the exact form, the declaration’s main theme would be that the United States refuses to recognize Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory in the context of military escalation restraint. Equivalently (and for clarity perhaps both formulations could be used), any inhibition from attacking Russia applies only to undisputed Russian territory, not to Russian conquests in Ukraine.
Of course, such a policy declaration should be accompanied by clear and credible reasons for the stance, strong enough to withstand any Russian bluff and bluster. Notes on that start:
General reasons like “all borders are inviolate” would not suffice, since Ukraine previously was part of the Russian Empire.
Rather, the US needs to explain specifically why it now sees Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders as sacrosanct.
Fortunately, such a reason is available:
The United States was a party to the 1994 Budapest Agreement that assured Ukraine’s territorial integrity, within the borders it had at that time. And the US has not been a party to subsequent agreements – for example “Minsk 1” or “Minsk 2” – that called aspects of the 1994 borders into doubt. So in the United States’ view, Russia and the US joined in calling the 1994 borders inviolate, and Russia’s subsequent aggression is an unacceptable violation of the 1994 promises.
On that basis, Secretary Blinken’s statement could almost write itself.
The Crimean complication
But there’s one hitch -- Crimea. 8 years ago, Russia annexed Crimea, and declared it to be Russian territory, with clear implications that it was under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. Ukraine, the US, and most other countries have remained adamant that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegitimate, and Crimea remains rightful Ukrainian land. Even so, many notable people -- including Presidents Obama and Zelenskyy -- have suggested that recapturing Crimea might not be worth the risk or cost.
So it would seem odd either to fully support Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, or to fully rule them out. Fortunately, there’s a middle course. The US has consistently maintained that military and diplomatic decisions are Ukraine’s to make, without US or other outside dictation. So a US statement could:
Acknowledge the special difficulties of recapturing Crimea.
Recall that Ukraine has acknowledged those difficulties too.
State that if Ukraine decides to proceed despite those difficulties, the US will not stand in its way.
Russia’s reaction would surely be blustery. Even so, Ukraine would be free to recapture all of its territory except perhaps Crimea, without serious fear of nuclear response. And no Crimean options would actually have been ruled out.
Core analysis: Why the US has a such an upper hand in these negotiations
This whole analysis has depended on two key assumptions:
There’s an ongoing public negotiation between the US and Russia as to what aid NATO is allowed to provide to Ukraine. This point was analyzed extensively in earlier articles, and anyway should be almost self-evident. Of course Russia is trying to influence NATO choices --why else would it be making all these nuclear threats?
In that negotiation, the US has a strong upper hand.
Let’s finish up by defending this second claim.
By any measure of non-nuclear coercive power – military, economic, whatever – the US and its allies have a massive advantage vs. Russia. Russia’s presumed willingness to “be more extreme” – murder hostages, endure starvation, whatever – doesn’t come close to offsetting this in any way I can think of.
The West also has a sequencing advantage. If a nuclear exchange is to start because of Western aid to Ukraine, Russia would have to be the initiator. And “madman” kinds of theories don’t apply, because Vladimir Putin lacks the legal or practical power to start a global nuclear war by himself.
Finally, in negotiations where failure is unthinkable on all sides – such as ones where the alternative is risk of Armageddon – rhetoric matters. Here too the advantage sits with the West. Russia violated multiple explicit and tacit agreements, reneging on treaties and smashing established norms. The West – and Russia doesn’t even try to dispute this -- is therefore entitled to deviate from prior obligations as well. The actual violations of prior norms the West is pursuing, such as sending advanced military aid to counter Russian aggression, are vastly smaller than those Russia has committed, such as initiating a war of genocidal conquest.
Russia can spout somewhat coherent theories as to why it may try to reconquer its former empire. But it has nothing to explain why the West may not oppose those efforts. And that’s why, if done with deliberate care, enhanced rights to defend Ukrainian territory can indeed be “spoken into existence”.
Thanks for reading Implicit Games! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.