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The Threat of Nuclear Escalation is Increasing
Like most people at the start of the war, I thought that Russia would militarily crush Ukraine. Less excusably, I still thought Russia would continually advance, or at least hold on to its gains, in mid-March. So although I was correct in thinking the war would happen, my record of forecasting the course of the conflict is not very good, and I should probably refrain from making any more predictions about what’s going to happen on the battlefield. Nonetheless, the main concern that originally motivated my paying close attention to the war was the risk of nuclear Armageddon. And as we have an increasing number of reasons to be optimistic about Ukraine’s battlefield capabilities, we should be becoming more nervous about how all of this will end.
Putin has just announced a partial military mobilization, and four Ukrainian regions under occupation are apparently gearing up to shortly hold referendums on joining Russian. This may be a sign of desperation. More and more, it is becoming necessary to consider the possibility that Russia loses everything it has fought for in this war, including the areas of Ukraine it occupied before February 24.
The paradox of helping Ukraine always was that the only realistic scenario in which nuclear weapons were used on the battlefield was a situation in which Putin got desperate. And Western weaponry and financial aid are, to the credit of the much-maligned foreign policy establishment, having their intended effect. Now the question is whether their policies work so well that Putin comes to believe that his only way to even have a chance of salvaging something out of this conflict is through the use of nuclear weapons.
Partial mobilization is one thing, but the coming referendums in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson seem to be sending a dark signal about his intentions. For Putin to bless these referendums in the same speech where he makes a threat to defend all Russian territory with whatever means he has, while adding that he’s “not bluffing,” indicates that he knows where all this might be going and is willing to live with the consequences.
The question for those who want to continue on the current path is how they imagine Ukraine winning without Putin using nuclear weapons. Assuming Ukrainian advances on the battlefield continue, does he officially annex new regions and then shrug his shoulders when he loses control of them a few weeks or months later? What if Ukraine seeks to liberate some of the pre-February 24 territories and has some success? Does he let himself go down in history as the Russian leader who launched a war that killed tens of thousands of soldiers and isolated his country from the world, only to lose territory in the end? Or does he convince himself that he has one trump card to play, and he has to try using it, no matter the costs? Would he be crazy to think that, although the West has been steadfast and united in its support for Ukraine, if he decides to start a game of nuclear chicken he might be able to get them to back off?
At the Salem Center/CSPI forecasting tournament, since yesterday the estimated probability of nuclear use in the Russian-Ukraine war by the end of July has jumped from 12% to 17%. Metaculus has a mean prediction of 8% that a deliberate nuclear attack by a state somewhere in the world will result in at least one fatality by the end of 2023. These estimates strike me as within the right range, and I would probably lean towards the higher end myself.
To me, it never mattered who controlled the Donbas in the end. I didn’t buy the idea that if Russia wins in Ukraine, a victory would whet its appetite and lead it to continue invading other countries. As with China and Taiwan, I think it is possible for countries to have limited goals that they can satisfy themselves by fulfilling. We remember Hitler as Hitler because his behavior in parlaying every victory or concession into a new gamble was historically unique in the modern era. And as bad as Putin might be, his record does not indicate that he is a Hitler. Ultimately, Ukraine was always important as a humanitarian issue and for its potential to spiral into nuclear war. That is still the main reason to worry about what is happening in that country. And as the position of Russia deteriorates and its leadership responds by escalating further, we are inching ever closer to the nightmare scenario.
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