Three opinion columns that need to be written about escalation and Ukraine
Aid hawks please take note
As I’ve repeatedly argued:
Putin can’t start a nuclear war unless his subordinates agree it’s right to do so. Therefore, the focus on nuclear (non)escalation should be on those subordinates, not on the possibly unwell megalomaniac himself.
As part of such focus, it would be strongly advisable to make a major speech laying out our Ukraine-assistance policy.
The primary goal of this strategy would be to ensure that all conventional-weapons/no-soldiers aid to Ukraine is, from an escalation standpoint, safe. Multiple-launch rocket systems aren’t an exception, and neither are fighter planes. And neither is targeting assistance, even for attacks east of the Russia-Ukraine border.
These views may not be widely held. But I can offer considerable substance in their support.
Other Implicit Games articles outline those arguments’ applied-game-theory underpinnings.
The first point also has additional support immediately below.
So I’m looking for help in spreading these ideas. Steal them for columns. Tweet out links to my work. Ask me to write the columns themselves. Whatever gets the word out would be an enormous help.
Who controls Russia’s nuclear choices?
There are actually three separate reasons Russia’s military is the core of non-escalation, rather than Putin himself.
1. Formally, Putin can't launch strategic nukes on his own. It is widely believed that Sergei Shoigu and/or Valeri Gerisamov have to agree, and perhaps the “general staff” of the military as well. (Links to all that are in a recent War on the Rocks article.)
Would they obey an order – that they disagreed with – to effectively commit national and global suicide? Why would they, even at gunpoint?
2. More generally, it is common that military instructions from civilian overseers aren't always (promptly) followed, in democracies and autocracies alike. There's massive insubordination in the Russian military anyway, both in the form of corruption and increasingly in battlefield foot-dragging as well.
Use of tactical nuclear weapons is likely no exception. Yes, it’s conceivable that Russia’s officers themselves would look more favorably on tactical nuke use in Ukraine than on yet more drastic options. But if they didn’t, Putin would likely discover that his orders to use them were “impossible”, or would take a very long time to carry out, and/or would be leaked in detail to opposing forces. So again, Russia’s military has power to prevent nuclear escalation.
3. A major risk factor for nuclear war is error: One side wrongly thinks the other side is doing something that calls for drastic escalation in return. But who would make such an error? It would be some collection of Russian military and/or intelligence officers, much more than Putin himself.
So all three scenarios reach the same bottom line: If Russia’s military can be dissuaded from using nuclear weapons, Russia won’t use nukes.