Why it isn't happening
The linked video below is a reminder that it is Ukrainians who are doing the fighting and the dying while many of the rest of us stand on the sidelines groaning and shrieking in pseudo-agony while making sure that our groaning and shrieking are loud enough for everyone watching us to see just how much agony we are in.
This soldier has just been told that two of his comrades have been killed. I cannot understand what he is saying, but it is pure extemporaneous poetry.
two of my comrades died
almost a year
we were together.
this news came in a very mundane style:
a trooper came in the evening
kind of thermos
pours a soup
and says they died
so mundane . . .
in front of a bowl of soup
told about the tragedy
about the emptiness
about the abyss
Thank you for this essay. I am educated middle class, but often dumbfounded by politics, and weary of the chaos that appears daily among TV pundits. You have written rationally about one of my biggest fears (among all the other fears political strategists whip up). No doubt this too will be batted around by partisans, but having a thoughtful opinion is extremely important to me.
Today I ignore Putin’s ‘end game’ nuclear threats. I recall stories of when Henry Kissinger, during Nixon’s ‘bad moments’ in 1973, would seek assurance from top military that a Nixon nuclear launch order would be ‘slow walked.’
I am confident that the top Russian military would do the same with Putin, if, in deep despair and humiliation, he sought to press the red button. Our military, in 1973, and Russian military today, are opposed to a tizzy fit nuclear Armageddon.
Meanwhile, we must assure that Ukraine retains its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
(Former Foreign Service Officer and history professor—for 23 years)
In the meantime, the latest about the Shahed Hunter fundraising effort:
THE GOAL is 1 250 000 $
As of February 8, $1,268,196 has been raised.
The goal has been reached and surpassed. Incredible job, everyone. Thank you to all who have contributed and thank you to Professor Snyder for being one of the best ambassadors for Ukraine.
The Chinese "weather" balloon rubbed our noses again in the mere fact that the prevailing winds in the Northern Hemisphere are from WEST to EAST. If Putin uses a nuclear devise in Ukraine, he is the first to get the fallout.
Great essay, Dr. Snyder. I think I'll pass this along to the defeatists (and, admittedly, many of my more principled pacifist-leaning friends) who are concerned about the present war potentially spiraling into a nuclear conflagration. One thing does worry me, though. In several paragraphs, if I understand you, you imply that Russia won't escalate to WMDs due to rational self-interest: " Should Russia break the taboo of nuclear use, its own status as a military power would be dramatically compromised by the military response of others...The use of a battlefield nuclear weapon will not win the war for Russia in Ukraine, but it would be a tremendous blow to Russian status, which is something that Russian leaders do care about...The moment Russia uses a nuclear weapon, other countries, including those with superior economies and scientific establishments, will build their own nuclear arsenals. When that happens, Russia ceases to be a superpower, even in the minds of Russians."
What worries me, though, is whether or not the Russian leadership is capable of this sort of rational assessment of the costs of nuclear escalation. One of the things that struck me, though I don't remember off the top of my head where I heard it, was that even at the outset of the conflict it seemed like a terrible move for Russia. Everything should have warned against an invasion of Ukraine--the poor state of Russia's own military, the existence of a Ukrainian national identity, the populace not actually supporting Russia as much as Putin's intelligence services led him to believe, etc.--yet Putin went ahead with it anyways, with the catastrophic results we now see (the cream of Russia's military lying mouldering in sunflower fields, their economy wrecked by sanctions, etc).
If this is the case, how can we be certain Putin won't make another catastrophic misjudgment a second time? You correctly note exactly why nuclear escalation would be terrible for Russia, but if Putin was listening to you, or was even half as smart himself, this war wouldn't have happened in the first place. When you provide these arguments for why Russia shouldn't escalate, do you think it's likely the Russian leadership itself had wrestled with them, or are they locked away in a prison of their own ignorance and refusal to engage reality, thus increasing the likelihood they'll make another terrible mistake even worse than the first?
Prof Snyder..I think what you say is true: Excellent point about the safety versus consequences of doing and not doing. But once Putin breaks the taboo and uses even tactical nuclear weapons (the big ones would be suicidal) he can no longer wield the threat, use the blackmail, and will also suffer enormous consequences. We all will suffer nuclear proliferation. Putin's nuclear threat will be deflated. "Conventional" warfare is changing too as we go forward. Conventional warfare can be extremely deadly and destructive. I am not happy about the West in effect using Ukrainians as fodder to wear down the Russian threat. Ukrainians must be given the means to prevail if we can possibly do that.
This war is labeled as Ukrainians fighting for their existence and we, the West- NATO and allies-, are aiding them. The reason that we are fighting for our own and the world's security and order is more difficult to get across. Some (including Putin) say this is a proxy war, a US proxy war, or it's a proxy war with the West. So Putin has to defeat Ukraine to defeat the West. The Ukrainians are taking the hit and they are getting devastated, exhausted.
Regarding anxiety you are so right to focus on this. Anxiety has people running scared, aborting their critical thinking. This is a big issue. Causing societal anxiety is a method and a weapon. The Russians are good at this psychological game. And there are so many vulnerable people. Russians have their tentacles in social and other media. People, for their own personal health need to be aware of their anxiety triggers. I find that there are otherwise intelligent and knowledgable people pushing their own anxieties on us that help to form opinions that influence us. We need to keep aware of this.
I agree completely that it would be suicide to give in to nuclear blackmail. It is indicative of the desperate state that Putin finds himself in that he would resort to it. Just think of it! Through the Soviet regimes of Stalin, Khrushchev, and all the others, with people including Richard Nixon and Donald Trump as US presidents, never once has either side previously threatened the other with nuclear weapons. (An exception being Trump's typically irresponsible threat against North Korea, but even that was contextualized as being in response to a North Korean attack.)
People will say that this is not the time to talk about nuclear disarmament, but the sad truth is that in the 78 years since the first atom bomb explosion it has never been the time. I suppose part of the reason is that politicians, as well as most of those who elect them, are not conversant in probability and statistics. According to which, if the probability of an event occurring is nonzero, it will inevitably occur. Just as people talk of Black Swans in the stock market or pandemics, it is true that despite all safeguards put into place, a nuclear war will happen as long as the potential for one exists.
The very least we in the US can do is to offset the $Billions in aid we are giving to Ukraine by equal reductions in the multi-$Trillions nuclear "modernization" program. It would demonstrate moral leadership, and who knows, maybe even give Putin cause to think. (Hawks need not worry: Even if we reduce our megatonage by 80%, we will still have enough to guarantee destruction of civilization along with almost all the life on the planet.)
Agree with you prof Snyder....100%.....
We have the benefit of distance from the war zone so we can think more rationally if we curb anxieties. It seems, listening to Mark Galeotti's excellent if at times boring podcast, In Moscow's Shadows, about the fine points of internal politics in Putin's Russia, that there is a lot of vying for influence and power going on. Occasionally we hear about a "mysterious" death. But it seems that Putin has his generals and other "war lords", criminals all, trying to show how much they each can damage Ukraine in order to rise... this is the incentive. This is what I am getting anyway.
On the other side the US and allies are trying to not get into a full fledged war with Russia. This allows the line that we are supporting Ukraine in its fight for survival. The enormous danger to the rest of us is a harder case to make and it's not being made well enough. Support will wain as this goes on. Ukraine is getting devastated. Soldiers are exhausted. Ukraine does not have an unlimited supply of soldiers, nor the ability to keep functioning as a country I fear. Surely the allied leaders must know this as they hesitate. Biden is trying to get the others to do their part. This is tough and slow going... too slow. Formerly the Euros have depended on us. Biden is actually doing what Trump complained about- getting the Euros to take care of their own security. But democracies move slowly apparently. I don't think Ukraine has the time. It's immoral, imo, to let Ukraine suffer like this for the benefit of the rest of us, for the world.
As far as winning goes, nobody wins. What is worrisome is also what kind of Russia is forming and that we end up with for the foreseeable future. Right now it looks like a gangster state, even a failed state in the making.
Such clarity is extraordinary. Almost unnerving, in fact! But so necessary. I'm going to repost this every time I'm told we must do this or refrain from that, because Putin might go nuclear. Thank you!
This is a tremendously helpful perspective on the war in Ukraine and the risk of wider and/or nuclear war. The one area where I would encourage more focus is on the domestic US impediments to strategic thinking and to countering the “anxiety,” Putin’s threats of nuclear arms use, and the “fantasy of omnipotent submission:” The familiar issues of both US isolationism and exceptionalism.
Robert Kaplan was interviewed recently on the podcast, “The Shield of the Republic.” It’s worth listening to that to get what I believe is a complementary but also revelatory take on this issue of US isolationism, anxiety, etc. Essentially, if I have understood him, he’s basically arguing there (and through his latest book) that the very strong isolationist vein in the US is rooted in pretty much all of our history up until WWII -- that until well into WWII, Americans from the “grass roots” on up to the highest leadership, never imagined America taking the role of or becoming the world’s superpower. Americans were immigrants and progeny of immigrants fleeing world-historic divides and conflicts in (many!) other lands. Americans neither had nor supported US national imperial ambitions (except over indigenous peoples, of course). Americans thought of the nation’s destiny and wellbeing as being built around the US being a strong regional power minding its own business, capable of warding off or beating back invaders or other hegemons, and being “about” people going about their business working to enrich their lives and be left to live and let live (except of course for Black people and a succession of other “others.”).
Being dragged into WWII and becoming the world-historical power (along with Russia) that was determinative in defeating the fascist powers intent on world domination dramatically changed America’s role and “destiny.” As the sole remaining major power not knocked “flat on its back” by the war, our nation and our people were thrust into a new position of power over world affairs and the future of these affairs that we are still working to come to terms with. Luckily, we had perspicacious leaders at the time who saw that the possibility of a world made more stable by NOT isolating and economically devastating the defeated powers, but enabling them to rebuild and to move forward via the Marshall Plan, and then the building of a more integrated system of international relations and institutions of all sorts.
But such massive and monumental commitments abroad created unprecedented new challenges for a nation of people who had built out a national identity centered around a basically isolationist set of ideas, history, and foreseeable trajectory. We are, as a nation, still struggling with this role, even major players in our corporate, military, political and foreign policy establishments have embraced this new role.
I would suggest, in the midst of all of this, that the commitment to America’s heartland working people embodied in the GI Bill and some other similar policies, was absolutely critical to creating the domestic conditions for such a new role. I would also suggest that the past 40 years of essentially reversing middle class gains and the role of such supports in the midst of neoliberal economic globalization, is a major defining factor in the domestic mess we are in right now, which includes a large segment of our working class who have developed great resentment around the fact that public policy has for so long worked against their wellbeing and that our nation seems to have abandoned the very essence of what it had long meant to be as both a refuge and a land of opportunity.
What we have been missing and what I hope Biden means by his SOTU statements about refocusing on good jobs and increased agency for working/middle class people (via support for unions and related policy commitments) is a very big, public, and sustained commitment to the very types of social supports that the GI Bill, etc., brought to working people as we entered this new era and role for our nation. In its absence has risen the voices and forces of a cathartic sort of simplistic, performative, and thuggish authoritarianism that increasingly threatens the very democratic fiber of our nation. We will not be able to sustain our domestic tranquility, let alone our international commitments and roles, unless our leaders explicitly mount the equivalent of a Marshall Plan that “centers” the middle class and can compete for hearts and minds -- and votes -- with the democracy-negating “politics-workaround” methods and messages of the autocrats.
Either we commit to America, the Land of Promise, opportunity and agency for all, or we lose it and all that it might hold for our future, and indeed, the world’s.
I meet twice a week via zoom with a Ukrainian English learner so that he can practice speaking English. It’s a 21st century wonder, of which I feel I reap by far the greater benefits. More than once, we’ve talked about the fact that Ukraine's fight, and the suffering that goes along with it, is protecting the rest of the world. Today, he too spoke about nuclear weapons. His view is that if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons, Russia would not have invaded, and Ukraine would not be suffering the destruction, brutality, and uncountable losses that it is suffering. His evidence is that no nuclear power has been the target of such an invasion.
I’m not sure I’m convinced that the alternate scenario would have been quite so simple. And I’m not clear yet on the next step of my friend's reasoning. I am aware of very few informed and thoughtful people who don’t believe NATO and the US should be giving Ukraine all the equipment and assistance and funds it asks for to bring this war to the swiftest and most decisive end possible: fighter jets, tanks, whatever it takes. Does it follow, then, that Ukraine might need nuclear deterrence back on its soil as well? This may not have been where he was going—it's not easy to communicate complex nuanced ideas over the language barrier, and we ran out of time before he finished his thought.
Russia has been playing the nuclear card by holding the Z Plant hostage. That is Putin's nuclear leverage, and it won't require that the generals drop a bomb.
Thoughts provoking -- as ever. The nuclear arsenal is, above all other things, a strategic tool, so to be effective, the strategy has to be correct. I can only hope yours is there correct strategy, because it aligns with the moral imperative of humanity. But it's difficult to shake the 'what if' question. What if the strategy is wrong; or, what if it's correct must is misapplied or is override by miscalculation? The strongest point, I think, is that Putin's aggression inevitably fosters faster and wider proliferation, and that is probably the most urgent factor threatening actual nuclear war.
I'm just reminded that the Chernobyl disaster was in Ukraine, when a defective and hybrid reactor (used to generate electricity and produce uranium) exploded with the force twice that of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined, I read. The threat of a meltdown of that single reactor will loom over Europe and the world till the end of humanity.
In assuring neither Russia or China won't start a nuclear war over Ukraine, you agree, at least on that point, with Col. Douglas MacGregor, the pro-Russian, racist, Anti-NATO, Trump appointee, who was given a 15 minute platform on right wing talk radio at 1 A.M. to predict the annihilation of Ukraine and the "Zelensky regime" in a war driven by Washington, itself controlled by oligarchs such as George Soros. He called Zelensky "more Stalinist" than Stalin but dismissed the comparison of Putin to Hitler. This is not 1936. it is easy to ignore the fascist rhetoric. But I'm in no position to dispute his facts regarding the number of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine--700,000--and the lack of any Ukrainian victories despite the media hew and cry. Ukraine is finished, its weapons inadequate, its army overpowered; we should stay out of Taiwan because one party is pro-Japanese and the other seeks unification with China. The Right speaks with such authority and audacity that at 1A.M it is hard not to despair. I am 80 and have friends who are holocaust survivors and Hidden Children who do not despair of life. Even Zelensky doesn't despair. I've followed you since Bloodlands and every book since. I thank you for this space.