Australian news, and some related international items


WAR ON THE ROCKS, JEREMY SHAPIRO, 12 Oct 22, In war, nothing is inevitable and not much is predictable. But the war in Ukraine has a direction that observers can see and that we should name. What began as a criminal Russian aggression against Ukraine has become a proxy war between Washington and Moscow. The two sides are locked in an escalatory cycle that, along current trends, will eventually bring them into direct conflict and then go nuclear, killing millions of people and destroying much of the world. This is obviously a bold prediction and certainly an unwise one to make — in part because if I’m right, I’m unlikely to be around take credit for it. 

President Joe Biden has named this dangerto great criticism, apparently because he believes that acknowledging the danger increases the chances of avoiding such a terrible outcome. Indeed, much can change the current trajectory, but doing so will require purposeful action by both sides specifically intended to avoid direct confrontation. At the moment, neither side seems willing or politically able to take such steps. On the contrary, in Russia nuclear threats are a prominent part of the Russian war strategy. In the United States, commentators condemn those who even name this danger, fearing that doing so will weaken Western resolve. Any mention of such considerations on Twitter, where it is always 1938, inevitably provokes accusations of appeasement and references to Neville Chamberlain.

Despite the opprobrium, not naming the danger is unlikely to reduce it. Think tank analysts prefer instead to talk in terms of “scenarios,” wherein we can bury the most likely outcome amongst a few other less likely possibilities. Such exercises are useful for planning purposes, and they appropriately reflect our general inability to predict events on the ground. But scenarios also serve to hide the relative likelihood of the various outcomes. Here I present just the central scenario of nuclear escalation. I take as a starting point that, although we may experience long periods of relative stalemate and we may never arrive at such a horrific outcome, uncontrolled escalation is the path that we are currently on.

Testing the Red Lines

No rational or even sane leader plans to start a nuclear war. And for all of the Russian regime’s risk taking, it does not show signs of suicidal tendencies. The essence of the problem is more insidious than mere insanity: Once an escalatory cycle begins, a series of individually rational steps can add up to a world-ending absurdity. In Ukraine, both sides have publicly pledged that they cannot lose this war. They hold that doing so would threaten their very way of life and the values that they hold most dear. In the Russian case particularly, a loss in Ukraine would seem to threaten regime survival and even the territorial integrity of the country. 

As the war has moved against the Russians, they have drawn numerous red lines to warn the West against escalation. The Russians called the provision of long-range rocket systems near the Russian border “intolerable,” warned against the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO, and threatened that any attack on Crimea would “ignite judgment day.” In each case, the crossing of these Russian red lines by Ukraine, the United States, or Europe generated some sort of response but fell well short of Russian threats.  

As Russian red lines have proven very pink, they are increasingly questioned in the West. Numerous Western commentators now assert that Russia is a paper tiger and dismiss Russian nuclear threats as “bluster.” The most recent Russian red line warns against the provision of long-range missile systems to Ukraine. The Russian government says that if the United States crosses this line, it would become “a direct party to the conflict.” Given all of the red lines already crossed, however, it is doubtful that U.S. decision-makers see such threats as very meaningful.

The problem that the Russians have had in their signaling is that their decision to escalate likely revolves around the progress that the Ukrainians make on the ground, not on any discrete action (such as the provision of new weapons systems) that the West might take. The likelihood of escalation, in other words, has stemmed from developments on the battlefield, not from the crossing of some arbitrary red line. Experts on the Russian military have long suspected that Russian nuclear signaling is an elaborate bluff meant to instill fear and caution in a weak-willed Western enemy. But events in Ukraine and the possibility of a catastrophic military loss may have changed that calculation. Nobody really knows. It is likely that the Russians don’t know either.

What is clear is that both sides have consistently escalated in Ukraine when they fear that they might lose. The United States and its European partners have continually upped their military assistance to Ukraine, in both quality and quantity, regardless of red lines. Under the pressure of war, they decided to deliver weapons and intelligence that just a few months ago they believed carried too great an escalation risk to provide. They have similarly incrementally increased economic sanctions to the degree that they now appear intended to permanently weaken Russia and destroy the Russian regime, as Biden has said is necessary to end the war. 

The Russians have consistently responded to battlefield setbacks with their own escalations including energy cut-offs to Europe, increased bombing of civilian targets, and recently through the formal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces and the partial mobilization of Russian manpower reserves. This last step carries obvious risks for the Russian regime, as the multiple protests against it across Russia testify, but the leadership preferred those domestic risks to losing the war.

In taking these escalatory steps, both sides have also increased the domestic and geopolitical costs of compromise, thus increasing the incentive for further escalations. Thus, for example, the Russian annexations are intended to signal to foreign and domestic audiences that the occupied parts of Ukrainian territory will now be defended as if they were Russia itself. But it is not just a signal, it also genuinely reduces Russia’s ability to back down and abandon these provinces. This is essence of an escalatory cycle — it contains a logic of its own wherein previous escalations make future ones more likely.

Of course, wars have often escalated but no war since 1945 has ended in nuclear use. Nuclear powers have at times considered their use for warfighting, notably in Korea in 1953 and in Israel in 1973, but have always stepped back from the brink.  In the current situation, both sides have many more steps to take before direct confrontation: ………………………………………………………………………..

This is only a scenario. None of it is inevitable, of course. But this is the path that we are currently on and the likelihood of it coming to pass grows by the day as one side or the other becomes more desperate. The consequences of this path are deeply ruinous. It should be named.

October 13, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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