Nuclear survival

See updates through October 4, 2022, at end of post.



Fig. 1. “The atomic cloud over Nagasaki 1945.” Photograph from Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch, New York Office, News and Features Bureau, (12/17/1942 – 09/15/1945), by Charles Levy, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, I am increasingly persuaded that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions are not limited to Ukraine.[1] The failure of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to alter Putin’s behavior[2] combine with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s desperate attempt to avoid a likely nuclear World War III[3] to reinforce Putin’s view of the West as weak.

As this war widens, it becomes increasingly likely that NATO will indeed be drawn in, whether because the attacks in neighboring countries become intolerable or because a NATO country is itself attacked. And so, today, I’ve ordered Geiger counters and ham radios. I hope it all arrives before the mushroom clouds.

All but the eldest among us have lived with the threat of nuclear war our entire lives. But the fear of and attention paid to the possibility diminished dramatically with the fall of the Berlin Wall and so the younger among us have had little reason to consider or prepare the possibility of a nuclear attack. This post will offer the distillation of advice I’ve absorbed over the decades, a distillation I wouldn’t know how to find elsewhere. I also don’t know what my sources are; I am drawing all this from memory.

My final caution here before I begin is that I am not an expert and this is well outside my field as a human scientist. But I’ve been on this planet now for over six decades. I’ve learned a lot in that time.

First, there is the possibility of an all-out nuclear attack and counterattack. In this event, the advice I can offer here will be largely moot. Few, if any, corners of the planet will escape the fallout. So I am tailoring my advice here for an intermediate attack aimed at specific targets.

The safest place to be during a nuclear attack is in a deep canyon in the mountains. You do not want in any way to see the highly radioactive flash from the initial detonation of a nuclear weapon. Mountains will absorb much of that radiation.

You also want to be outside a certain radius from the explosion. The area within this radius will be inundated with radioactive fallout. Figuring out what the targets will be is going to be tricky; my mother was thinking that the Russians may launch a limited strike aimed at demoralizing the population. If she’s right, remember also that the Russian understanding of our society is largely a caricature. If you doubt that, consider a map developed by a prominent Russian professor, Igor Panarin, who, in 1998, forecast a break-up of the United States by 2010 (figure 1).

Fig. 2. Map of a balkanized United States attributed to Igor Panarin, via the Atlantic, June 29, 2010, fair use.[4]

I’ll certainly grant the possibility of a U.S. break-up, but first, it didn’t happen by 2010; and second, I can just about guarantee to you that a broken-up U.S. will look nothing like that map (figure 2). I can’t even imagine the caricature that Panarin would have relied upon to produce this map. It makes absolutely zero sense to me.

From managing to stay outside an unknown radius, dependent upon the power of the weapons used, from unknown targets, it gets even more difficult. A nuclear blast produces enormous heat; the rush of air away from the explosion will, I expect, be followed almost immediately by an even greater rush back in as rising air leaves a void to be filled. That will make it harder to figure out which way will be downwind from the blast. You don’t want to be downwind; fallout will ride the winds and fall out downwind, likely for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Expect to be cut off from normal sources of information. Your Internet dependence will not be your friend as you’re trying to figure out where not to go so you won’t be downwind. Also, your devices and your fancy computerized cars may be disabled due to—yes, it’s a real threat—an electromagnetic pulse.[5]

Finally, consider that anything you say to your friends and loved ones may be the last thing they hear from you. And vice versa. A lot of people will die even in a limited exchange. Of these, those who die in the initial explosions may well be the lucky ones; the others will die more slowly and painfully.


Update, March 20, 2022: Volodymyr Zelensky keeps warning about World War III,[6] we certainly see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bending over backwards to avoid World War III,[7] and Vladimir Putin has already threatened nuclear war,[8] which obviously and certainly merits NATO caution, but I never see Zelensky’s logic, how he infers this possibility. The logic I do see here is my own, in short that I see no real limit or even a logic for a limit to Putin’s ambition short of utter defeat and abject humiliation.[9]

Barring Putin’s defeat and humiliation, I see the West being drawn into war much as it was in World War II, with appeasement (in the modern form, allowing Putin to grind Ukraine to dust, then to take Moldava) failing, a dawning realization that Putin must be confronted, just as Adolf Hitler had to be confronted. How such a conflict fails to go nuclear escapes me.

Locally, I am counting on Pittsburgh not actually being a target. The steel industry here is all but gone; high technology remains centered in Silicon Valley, much closer, I’m afraid, to my mother. But the chaos that follows a nuclear strike, perhaps on Washington, D.C., or New York City, all well within a day’s drive of here, should not be underestimated.

Throughout my life, so-called ‘preppers’ and survivalists, who prepare for armageddon, have always been considered wackos on the fringe. I no longer feel we have the luxury of complacency. The ham radios I ordered have all arrived but the Geiger counters are, annoyingly, taking a while. I am also ordering a sleeping bag and emergency water filter. Thanks to COVID-19, Uber passengers are still not permitted in my car’s front seat, so I can keep all this there.


Update, March 22, 2022: The huge question raised in Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Dmitry Peskov, reported by Luke McGee and Claire Calzonetti, is whether Vladimir Putin regards the setbacks his invasion forces have faced in Ukraine as an existential threat, in Peskov’s light, rationalizing the use of nuclear weapons.[10] I think the answer, given that all talk of nuclear weapons has originated on the Russian side and in the context of Ukraine,[11] has to be ‘yes:’

Dmitry Kiselyev, a longtime Kremlin propagandist who is known as one of the most sulfurous personalities on Russian television, opened his state television program on Sunday with a rundown of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “In total our submarines are capable of launching over five hundred nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot,” he said. “That’s according to the principle, ‘Why do we need a world if Russia’s not in it?’ ” He went on, “We’re not even going to talk about the strategic rocket forces. . . .Putin warned them. Don’t try to frighten Russia.”[12]

Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Andrei Soldatov[13] is the second I’ve seen in which the subject doubts that Vladimir Putin is indeed a madman.[14] But Soldatov also points to 1) Putin’s seemingly psychopathic reaction when questioned about deaths he is responsible for; 2) Putin’s increasingly small circle of people he trusts, suggesting paranoia; 3) a hierarchy of power in which underlings are afraid to report truthfully to their superiors; and 4) Putin’s apparent conviction that he knows better than anyone else,[15] something also observed by Stephen Kotkin in David Remnick’s interview.[16] I’m not a psychologist but neither are these otherwise extremely well-informed folks affirming Putin’s sanity, and I think there are definitely questions here to be asked of a psychologist.

Read the interviews anyway; both are extremely insightful. And yes, I think it’s quite obvious that Putin is stark raving mad; indeed, anyone who threatens nuclear war ought to be regarded as such.[17]

Speaking of interviews, Julia Ioffe interviews a Russian kid, now out of the country, battling Putin’s propaganda. His mother has blocked him, promised to report him for “fake news,” and refuses any communication.[18]


Update, March 26, 2022: Russian authorities have reaffirmed their “right” to use nuclear weapons.[19] They keep bringing this up. No one else started this conversation.[20]

And the fourth case [in which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons] is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardised the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.[21]

Vladimir Putin has rationalized his invasion of Ukraine on precisely these grounds, that the “expansion” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, really countries joining NATO because they fear Russia, constitutes an aggression against Russia, indeed a mortal threat.[22] And the simple fact is that, thanks to so-called “strategic ambiguity,” really meaning NATO leaders want to sound threatening without actually being threatening and certainly without actually promising to do anything, we don’t know how NATO would respond.[23] But I continue to believe that at some point NATO leadership will accept that Putin must be confronted, just as Adolf Hitler had to be.[24]

That Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone well[25] really only raises this risk: If Russian leadership indeed conceives of Ukraine as an existential threat,[26] then it must be subdued by any means necessary, including, it would seem, by nuclear obliteration.[27]

Further, we must understand that regardless of what Putin really thinks about Ukraine as a threat, if his ambition is indeed the restoration of the Russian empire to whatever boundaries he deems fitting,[28] and it is clear that his military is incapable even of subjugating Ukraine by conventional means, then to fulfill that aim, he will need to resort to unconventional means, including, quite possibly nuclear means.


Update, March 30, 2022: It is, if anything, a bit surprising that Russia has not already used tactical (“battlefield”) nuclear weapons in its invasion of Ukraine:

“Russian statements, when combined with military exercises that seemed to simulate the use of nuclear weapons against NATO members, led many to believe that Russia might threaten to use its nonstrategic nuclear weapons to coerce or intimidate its neighbors,” the [Congressional Research Service] report stated.[29]

It appears that Russia’s surprisingly poor performance with conventional forces,[30] leading already to an increased reliance on atrocities and threatened atrocities against civilians,[31] could reflect a emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons stemming from “the late 1990s, [when Russia] fac[ed] economic problems that left their traditional army in tatters and the humiliating military stalemate with separatist leaders in Chechnya.”[32]

It is possible that the only thing holding Vladimir Putin back is a “nuclear taboo” to which the U.S. has threatened a strategic response:[33]

In 2017, then-Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten took exception to the idea that tactical nuclear weapons were really anything different than a strategic nuclear weapon. Hyten, who was at that point overseeing U.S. nuclear weapons as the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, described how the United States could respond if another country used them.

“It’s not a tactical effect, and if somebody employs what is a nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapon, the United States will respond strategically, not tactically, because they have now crossed a line, a line that has not been crossed since 1945,” Hyten said.[34]


Update, April 6, 2022: Suffice it to say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone well.[35] I return to the theme of idiocy[36] in a new blog post entitled, “A self-defeating idiocy.” A portion of this new post was initially published as an update to two previous blog posts, including this one.[37] The text in the new post has been revised and extended from the earlier updates.


Update, April 11, 2022: I obviously disagree with Serhiy Leshchenko, whom Julia Ioffe interviews, about the possibility that Vladimir Putin will launch a nuclear war. Even if he is right that one man cannot do this alone,[38] Putin has plenty of sycophants at the Kremlin.[39] Surely, he can count on some of them being in the right place to help push that metaphorical red button.[40]

Leshchenko argues in favor of further U.S. support. Diminishing the risk of a nuclear World War III is part of that argument.[41]

But I would argue differently. I would argue that U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization dithering does not diminish the risk of World War III. You can argue that Putin needs a victory and that failure to achieve it in Ukraine will result in escalation.[42] You can argue that Putin’s ambitions extend far beyond Ukraine and onto NATO territory and that a Russian victory in Ukraine would merely whet Putin’s appetite for more. Neither argument diminishes the risk. And I still do not see a way that that risk is diminished short of Putin’s removal from power, which still seems wildly improbable.[43]

When war is inevitable, we might as well get on with it. And I think it’s inevitable.


Update, April 17, 2020: The fallacy should be immediately apparent:

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the first European leader to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in person since the invasion began, said he thinks the Russian president believes the war is necessary for his country’s security.

“I think he is now in his own war logic,” Nehammer said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press”, portions of which were released Saturday.

“I think he believes he is winning the war.”[44]

Let us stipulate that Vladimir Putin is indeed “winning the war.” Let us stipulate that he succeeds, against all odds and a determined resistance,[45] in pacifying Ukraine. If you conquer a country for your own security, then you have to defend that country in order to preserve that security; its security becomes your security. If you view countries surrounding that country as a threat, hello North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, then you must conquer them as well. And so it goes, in an ever widening circle, all to preserve the security that Putin perceives essential.

As I have previously said, repeatedly,

Fundamentally, imperialist logic exists on a slippery slope. There is always a necessity, indeed, an existential necessity, to expand; such is, in fact, intrinsic to our system of social organization and a fundamental reason it is unsustainable, for at some point, even after all the wars of expansion that can be fought have been fought, there is nothing on earth left to expand into.[46]

So if indeed Ukraine is existential for Russia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union is catastrophic,[47] then by what logic does Putin satisfy himself merely with Ukraine? Why not the entire former Soviet Union, including NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania[48] and non-members Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldava, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan?[49] Why not all of the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, including Poland, East Germany (now united with the west), Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia and the Czech Republic), Hungary, Yugoslavia (now several countries), Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania?[50] Where does Putin stop? By what logic?[51]

We still have zero reason to accept that the war ends with Ukraine.[52] And if, more probably, Putin cannot fully subjugate Ukraine, then, particularly as more countries join NATO, worsening his security situation as he perceives it,[53] he still must have “something,” whatever that “something” may be in the context of his imperial ambition,[54] in the context of not only his but Kremlin ego.[55]

And because it is so manifestly apparent that Putin’s conventional forces are not up to the job,[56] that whatever he may tell Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer about “winning the war,”[57] he must know that the only way forward will be nuclear.[58]


Update, April 20, 2022: A coup[59] or popular uprising[60] remain wildly improbable.[61] The sense I have is that those expressing doubts, privately, for fear of repercussions,[62] are not among the hard-liners Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with.[63] They are not in a position to seize power.

Almost eight weeks after Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine, with military losses mounting and Russia facing unprecedented international isolation, a small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders are quietly questioning his decision to go to war. . . .

So far, these people see no chance the Russian president will change course and no prospect of any challenge to him at home. More and more reliant on a narrowing circle of hardline advisers, Putin has dismissed attempts by other officials to warn him of the crippling economic and political cost, they said.

Some said they increasingly share the fear voiced by U.S. intelligence officials that Putin could turn to a limited use of nuclear weapons if faced with failure in a campaign he views as his historic mission. . . .

The president remains confident that the public is behind him, with Russians ready to endure years of sacrifice for his vision of national greatness, they said. With the help of tough capital controls, the ruble has recovered most of its initial losses and while inflation has spiked, economic disruption remains relatively limited so far.[64]

The Bloomberg article[65] seems to me a little inconsistent. If we speak of a “historic mission,” can this be limited to Ukraine, let alone the Donbas region? Yet, we speak of the Donbas now as if it alone is Putin’s goal. Count me very much among skeptics who doubt this is the case.[66]


Update, April 21, 2022: I have stumbled across a bit more on the threat of an electromagnetic pulse, which threatens any electric circuit. It seems car manufacturers have to guard against natural events, such as lightning or solar flares, that can also produce electromagnetic pulses and so there is some resilience built in. But we don’t know the upper limit of that resilience. And there is a range of failure from temporary to permanent, mildly annoying to fatal. Distance, of course, will help, but one scenario includes the detonation of an EMP device meant to affect the entire North American continent;[67] we can extrapolate from this to potential attacks on other areas as well.


Update #2, April 21, 2022: Vladimir Putin’s missile test[68] is a blatant effort to further[69] rattle the nuclear sabre.[70]

In fact, the [the nuclear-capable Sarmat] missile, if deployed, would add only marginally to Russia’s capabilities. But the launch was about timing and symbolism: It came amid the recent public warnings, including by Mr. Burns, that there was a small but growing chance that Mr. Putin might turn to chemical weapons attacks, or even a demonstration nuclear detonation.[71]

So, on the one hand, we have Putin threatening the use of nuclear weapons if Russia feels its existence is threatened,[72] which is also his rationale for invading Ukraine in the first place.[73] And we have that while he has invaded Ukraine, he has not yet used nuclear weapons.

We also have a history in which Ronald Reagan intentionally appeared to be crazy to gain negotiating leverage with the Soviet Union,[74] a history Putin is surely aware of. But even if, as seems reasonable to believe, Putin is applying that precedent here, we cannot infer, at least from this, one way or another whether Putin will, in the end, use nuclear weapons. We can only say what the Russians themselves say: They have not ruled this out.[75]

Speaking at the Georgia Institute of Technology last week, Mr. [William J.] Burns, [Central Intelligence Agency director and] a former American ambassador to Moscow, said Mr. [Vladimir] Putin was “an apostle of payback” who believes the West “took advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness in the 1990s.” He added that Mr. Putin’s small circle of advisers would hesitate to “question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s sphere of influence.”[76]

We can argue about what, precisely, that means. But if we’re going to call a belief “almost mystical,” surely it means more than this:

That means getting the West to back away from Russia’s borders. And it means stopping NATO’s expansion, which may soon spread to Finland and Sweden, where a senior American defense official was visiting this week to discuss possible accession to the Western alliance.[77]

Rather, it much more likely means this (figure 3):

Fig. 3. Historic Russian empire, from the New York Times, possibly March 6, 2014, fair use.[78]

Certainly, such a “historic mission”[79] must entail more than the Donbas,[80] and, given the underwhelming performance of Russian conventional forces to date,[81] he must turn to unconventional means, including the nuclear.[82]


Update, April 26, 2022: The question that is now before us is, if you think you are already at war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,[83] and you are warning of World War III,[84] how long before you start acting accordingly?

“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III,” [Sergeĭ Lavrov] said in a Russian television interview.

Lavrov said he would not want to see risks of a nuclear confrontation “artificially inflated now, when the risks are rather significant.”

“The danger is serious,” he said. “It is real. It should not be underestimated.”[85]

Such talk is variously dismissed as ‘bravado’ or as a concession of weakness or defeat.[86]

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said he too regarded Russia’s scaremongering as a sign of weakness.

Russia has lost its “last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” he wrote on Twitter after Mr [Sergeĭ] Lavrov’s interview, adding: “This only means Moscow senses defeat.”[87]

But we must not forget that the Kremlin has repeatedly said it views its invasion of Ukraine as responding to an existential threat.[88] If the Kremlin indeed feels it has nothing to lose, then it might well act accordingly.

So now the question really is, do the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin really believe the nonsense that they have peddled? Or is this really just imperial ambition? Or are the two somehow confounded, as Russian empire seen as existentially essential to Russia’s survival? So far as I know, no one knows the answer to these questions.


Update, May 10, 2022: I had associated Max Boot with neoconservatism, so it’s more than a little surprising to me that he wrote this:

[Vladimir] Putin is now in a strategic quandary that should be familiar to Americans after our misbegotten wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — only many times worse. Russia has launched a “war of choice” based on bad intelligence (such as the assumption that Ukrainians would welcome the Russians as liberators). The war is going badly, but once troops are committed, emotions run high and national prestige is on the line. Both escalation and withdrawal are too painful to contemplate. The easiest thing to do is to continue doing what you’ve been doing, even if there is scant hope that the results will get any better.[89]

Afghanistan and Iraq were, or are, flatly, wars of neoconservative ambition, imperialism, if you will; neoconservatism arose as a reaction to, among other things, the antiwar movement that sought to get the U.S. out of southeast Asia.[90] Boot’s argument is that it required a change of U.S. leadership to get the country out of each of those wars (it took Richard Nixon more than one term to extract us from Vietnam, so I think I’m unlikely to be alone in doubting this example) and that the same is required, even if unlikely, in Russia.[91]

Boot doubts that Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons because “that would be the action of a madman who fears that the end is near. Putin’s troops are carrying out unspeakable war crimes, but he is far from Hitler-in-the-bunker territory.” And Boot sees in a relatively subdued (read, less bellicose) Victory Day celebration, where Putin did not escalate the war on Ukraine, signs of recognition of reality rather than insanity, as Boot puts it, that “while Putin is isolated [but apparently not in Hitler-in-the-bunker territory] and prone to miscalculation, he is not insane.” Boot’s claim that Putin “far from Hitler-in-the-bunker territory” must stand against evidence, evidence that Boot recognizes,[92] that the Kremlin sees or at least portrays the war in Ukraine hysterically in existential terms.[93] We can certainly hope that Boot is right at the same time we recognize that this chain of reasoning seems tenuous.

Boot’s assessment of Putin rests on Putin’s apparent recognition that a general “mobilization [with a declaration of war rather than a ‘special military operation’] would bring more problems than it would solve” and that “the war is not going his way.”[94] That’s two data points against a boatload (the Moskva, perhaps?) of delusional crap[95] that Putin continues to justify his war with,[96] even if we set aside Putin’s simultaneously ludicrous and terrifying hubris of a “historic mission.”[97] Again, we can certainly hope Boot is right, even if we think his evidence is selective.


Update, May 11, 2022: I am, by no means, doing justice to Lawrence Freedman’s article[98] with this passage:

Using nuclear weapons in these circumstances would not solve any military or political problems for Russia in its war against Ukraine and would create many new ones. It would turn the world into an even more hazardous place, including for Russia. Against this is the objection that this analysis is too rational. Putin appears unhinged and capable of anything (although he would still need underlings to carry out the orders to launch). He certainly does not want us to forget that Russia is a great nuclear power and has had missile tests to prove the point.[99]

Freedman offers substantial insight into escalation. Frankly, I’m still thinking about this article, but he juxtaposes two possibilities, the first being escalation as a calculated, rational decision that wins an advantage for the escalating side, even if it compels their opponent to escalate further, and the second being that U.S. strategic theorist Herman Kahn’s “escalation ladder,” which Freedman is exploring in the context of the Ukraine war, is “too mechanistic and too optimistic about the rationality of the decision-makers.”[100]

Those possibilities might be taken in binary, mutually exclusive form, as rational or not rational, with no gradation between the two, no possibility that the two might occur simultaneously. This would surely be a mistake. Remember instead what I’ve said about social theories: While you might find one that offers post hoc explanatory value, they usually do not offer predictive value.


Update, May 16, 2022 (revised May 17): More and more, the story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become what was, at its outset, dismissed as hopelessly delusional, about a Russian defeat and potential humiliation,[101] potentially leading Vladimir Putin to go nuclear.[102] The trouble isn’t just that a face-saving solution for Putin would, in effect, reward him, but that it will fail to convey the message that he and Russia must never do this again.[103] Humiliation will be the one and only thing that Putin understands.[104]

And this isn’t just about Putin, as serious as his case is. It is also about those toxically masculine right-wingers who celebrate Putin’s example, who elect the likes of Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán to high offices, who embrace the notion that “might makes right.” Bullying must be defeated by abjectly and undeniably humiliating force; it is the only thing that works.

An example of this can be seen with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s objections[105] to Finland and Sweden seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to the invasion,[106] in which Sweden in particular has been insufficiently cooperative in Turkey’s efforts to repress separatist Kurds and both countries have restricted arms sales to Turkey in response to those efforts. Erdoğan likes his empire and wants to keep bullying Kurds to keep it. It follows that Erdoğan has also been much friendlier to Russia than much of the rest of NATO, resisting pressure, for example, and like his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Mihály Orbán, to join sanctions against Russia.[107] Bullies like bullies, which is also why India won’t even condemn the Russian invasion,[108] and they are intractable. There’s no way to persuade them to behave except through the one thing they respect: sheer, brute force.


Update, May 18, 2022: With her use of a “wood chipper” analogy, Julia Ioffe sets up a binary between two possibilities: The first is Ukrainian victory over dismally-performing Russian troops. The second is a slow grinding away of Ukraine, which apparently Russia can (in quantitative terms) sustain indefinitely, slowly feeding the country to “[Vladimir] Putin’s Wood Chipper.” My sense of this article[109] is that Ioffe, while brilliant and indispensable in understanding Kremlin psychology and in offering insight into the Russian people, is perhaps overreaching in military matters.

It remains the case that the Russian military has performed astonishingly abysmally, failing even at basic tasks of warcraft.[110] And it remains the case that Putin has declined any “off-ramp” and is now boxed in, unwilling to admit defeat, unable to claim victory, unwilling to declare war (as opposed to a “special military operation”), unable to make significant gains without doing so and potentially facing serious consequences if he does.[111] It’s important not to give an incompetent and delusional madman more credit than he deserves. His failure remains a failure. His calculation remains, to put it ludicrously mildly, a miscalculation. His persistence is nothing even remotely like victory. He is, in fact and as I have been saying since January, an idiot and he fucked the hell up.[112]

All that said, there are at least two fallacies in play here: First, binaries are often false dichotomies. And second, as this war has amply demonstrated, quantitative capability is not qualitative capability. I doubt as a practical and political matter that Russia can hold out as long as Ioffe’s experts imply. But it also remains the case that the West’s response has failed to dissuade Putin. There is some question, even if there is as yet no sign of the West relenting in its support for Ukraine, whether the West will in fact relent. There is also no sign that Ukraine will be able to dislodge Russia from Ukrainian territory.[113] Putin’s persistence could yet pay off. I think it is more likely, not necessarily probable, but more likely that Ukraine prevails after a long and horribly destructive war.

The difficulty here remains that where Russia’s conventional forces may be stymied, its unconventional—I continue to think nuclear—forces are untested. If the Kremlin really sees that this war, whether it chooses to call it one or not, as existential, whether really for Kremlin political survival or Russia’s survival, Putin may very well decide he has nothing to lose by pushing that big red button.[114] It might be difficult, again in quantitative terms, to see how going nuclear improves Russia’s military situation,[115] but it might, indeed, be a desperate Putin’s only hope, however slender and even at the cost of however many lives, for a face-saving way out.


Update, June 10, 2022:
Fig. 3 (repeated). Historic Russian empire, from the New York Times, possibly March 6, 2014, fair use.[116]

There can no longer be any doubt that Vladimir Putin’s intentions will extend far beyond Ukraine as he “has compared the war in Ukraine to Peter the Great’s conquests in the Baltic, arguing that in both conflicts Russia was recovering its own territory.”[117] This historical analog Putin points to is a war Pyotr Alekséyevich waged against Sweden; this particular conquest includes Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.[118] Though there are certainly other arguments, such as those Julia Ioffe correctly[119] offers,[120] the map (figure 3) alone[121] refutes those who are so desperate to appease Putin,[122] leaving little doubt that any intention to recover lost territory entails a vast claim.[123]

You may ridicule the Russian military’s underwhelming performance so far in Ukraine, as undermining any prospect of wider ambition, but Putin has nuclear weapons and a lot of them.[124]


Update, August 29, 2022: We might be seeing an answer to the question of “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?[125] And it might not be the answer Putin anticipated.[126] So ultimately the question becomes, just how ‘existential,’ really, is Russian success in Ukraine?[127]

Russia’s president keeps understandably schtum about his “special military operation”. But indefinite stalemate is not what he expected. He didn’t expect car bombs in Moscow and humiliating attacks on fortress Crimea, either.

Least of all did [Vladimir] Putin anticipate 80,000 Russian soldiers dead or wounded. Dying with them is his Peter the Great pipe dream of a “greater Russia”. Extinct already is his reputation as anything other than a killer and a crook.

An endless military quagmire is not a scenario Putin can afford as slow-burn western sanctions corrode his economy and his military’s manpower and materiel are steadily depleted.[128]

Probably the only way Putin can even save face is by undermining western support for Ukraine. Simon Tisdall points out a great many fissure points Putin can exploit and, in some cases, already is. Tisdall doesn’t actually use the old trope of a cornered, wounded animal as being the most dangerous in reference to Putin, but his analysis certainly follows it.[129] Which is why I still worry, albeit a little less urgently, about this escalating to nuclear war.[130]


Update, September 18, 2022: It’s starting to look a bit like overreach. Russia seems unable even to defend its own territory, raising more[131] questions about its leadership.[132] It’s quite a different picture, at least for the moment, from that when I originally asked where Vladimir Putin would stop.[133]

“As Ukraine succeeds on the battlefield, Vladimir Putin is becoming embarrassed and pushed into a corner,” [Scott] Pelley said to President [Joe] Biden. “And I wonder, Mr. President, what you would say to him if he is considering using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons.”

“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Mr. Biden said.

When Pelley asked what the consequences would be if Putin crossed that line, the president wouldn’t say.[134]


Update, September 21, 2022: In the wake of stunning military setbacks for Russia in its war on Ukraine,[135] which call into question even Vladimir Putin’s hold on power,[136]

Prominent Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of [Russia Today], who is among the hawks cheerleading for a tougher approach to Ukraine, hinted Tuesday that the planned referendums [in regions which would be annexed to Russia] were a sign of more dramatic actions to come.

“Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war,” Simonyan wrote on Twitter. “I can’t see any third option.”

Russian officials and pundits on state television have asserted for months that the war it initiated against Ukraine is actually part of a larger existential fight against [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization].[137]

“Imminent victory” seems far more likely, which isn’t very, for Ukraine than it does for Russia and Margarita Simonyan warning of nuclear war, a warning more subtly echoed by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the country’s Security Council,[138] and by Putin himself,[139] and a threat acknowledged by Joe Biden,[140] is what I have worried about all along.[141]

“To defend Russia and our people, we doubtlessly will use all resources at our disposal,” [Vladimir] Putin said. “This is not a bluff.”

Putin also said Russia would “do everything to provide a safe environment” for Kremlin-installed proxies in four Ukrainian regions that on Tuesday pledged to hold referendums this week to join the Russian Federation.[142]

This quite frankly is one place where my optimism of yesterday[143] could yet prove misplaced.


Update, September 26, 2022: It seems it isn’t just Russia that can rattle a nuclear sabre:[144]

We have communicated directly, privately and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the US and our allies will respond decisively, and we have been clear and specific about what that will entail.[145]

But with extreme right-wing parties’ electoral gains in Sweden and Italy,[146] Vladimir Putin’s gamble that western conservatives would undermine support for Ukraine[147] may be about to pay off. At least some Republicans in the U.S. would cut aid to Ukraine[148] but with Donald Trump’s legal troubles undermining Republicans’ formerly rosy electoral prospects,[149] I’m now skeptical they’ll get the chance.[150] The balance of power in Europe, however, may be swinging against Ukraine.[151]


Update, September 28, 2022: The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has warned U.S. citizens to leave Russia. This might be just what the embassy says it is for the reasons the embassy says they are.[152] But it’s very much the kind of warning that gets my attention, especially when Russia is suspected of sabotaging natural gas pipelines supplying the rest of Europe and European ministers are promising to make culprits pay,[153] especially when Russia is doubling down on nuclear threats and dismissing the possibility that the west would respond in kind,[154] and especially when it appears that Vladimir Putin’s not-so-partial mobilization is a complete fiasco,[155] leaving Putin with little alternative but a resort to nonconventional weapons, including the nuclear sort I have worried about all along.[156] Yeah, about those hairs on the back of my neck . . .


Update, October 2, 2022:

Russia said Saturday it has withdrawn its troops from the once-occupied city of Lyman [a key transportation hub, which had been an important site in the Russian front line for ground communications and logistics], as Ukraine’s eastern counteroffensive recaptures more territory.
Russia’s Tass and RIA news agencies, citing the Russian defense ministry, made the announcement.[157]

In a severe embarrassment for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ministry of defence admitted its soldiers had retreated [from Lyman]. They had been “withdrawn to more advantageous lines”, the ministry said, following their encirclement by Ukrainian forces.

The debacle comes hours after Putin declared on Friday that the city, which is in the Donetsk region, was Russia’s “for ever”. In a ceremony in the Kremlin he announced the province’s annexation, together with the territories of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.[158]

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that its troops withdrew from the town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces surrounded it. The retreat marks a major embarrassment for Moscow, a day after it claimed swaths of eastern Ukraine as its own — in the face of widespread international condemnation.

It is also a strategic loss for Russia. Lyman is a key supply hub on the western edge of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has concentrated its military campaign for months. Russian forces have used it to supply operations to the east since capturing Lyman in the spring.

Ukrainian forces advanced on the city overnight even as Russia put on a grand ceremony and a pop concert in Moscow’s Red Square celebrating the annexation. The Ukrainian victory poses a test for [Vladimir] Putin, who has vowed to treat attacks in the annexed regions as attacks on Russia. . . .

Although the loss of Lyman presents “serious damage to the reputation of the Russian Federation,” wrote a prominent Russian military blogger who uses the pseudonym Rybar, the fact that the accession treaties have yet to be rubber-stamped and ratified by Russia’s parliament leaves the situation unclear. . . .

[Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov’s call to use a nuclear weapon follows Russia’s illegal seizure of territories in Donbas, with the Russian parliament due to rubber-stamp so-called treaties formalizing annexation on Monday and Tuesday.

Putin has warned that from that point, the territories will be defended with “all military means” at Russia’s disposal, while the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has suggested Russia could use a nuclear weapon to that end.[159]

U.S. and Western officials say they still think it unlikely that [Vladimir] Putin will carry out his [nuclear] threats. Most probably, they say, he is hoping to deter the West from providing ever more sophisticated military assistance to Ukraine while the mobilization of an additional 300,000 troops allows Russia to reverse or at least halt its military setbacks on the battlefield.

But the threats appear only to have strengthened Western resolve to continue sending weapons to Ukraine and the Ukrainian military is continuing to advance into Russian-occupied territory. On Saturday, the Ukrainian army seized control of the eastern city of Lyman in an area ostensibly annexed by Russia on Saturday.

The collapse of another Russian front line was greeted by calls for nuclear strikes by some military bloggers and political figures in Russia, including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin. “More drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov wrote in a comment on his Telegram channel. . . .

The West had been hoping that Ukrainian successes would force Putin to back down, but instead he is doubling down. “Time and again we are seeing that Vladimir Putin sees this as a big existential war and he’s ready to up the stakes if he is losing on the battlefield,” [Alexander] Gabuev said.[160]

This is pretty close to precisely the scenario I have worried about nearly from the beginning of the most recent Russian incursion into Ukraine. If indeed Vladimir Putin sees victory in Ukraine as an existential necessity—the Russians have said so consistently—then the prospect of defeat compels the use of nuclear weapons.[161] The best reason for believing that Putin is bluffing is that he insists he is not,[162] which is to suggest that Putin is a very bad poker player, a conclusion one might also arrive at from the failure of the Russian invasion.

For his part, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy expresses uncertainty as to whether Putin is bluffing[163] and the real problem now is that Ukraine and the West are calling Putin’s bluff. If it is a bluff, Putin will lose even more credibility than he already has, but given the state of his evident delusion, one might also wonder whether he will understand that this is the case.


Update, October 4, 2022:

“The Ukrainian armed forces commanders in the south and east are throwing problems at the Russian chain of command faster than the Russians can effectively respond,” said a Western official who requested anonymity to brief reporters about sensitive security information. “And this is compounding the existing dysfunction within the Russian invasion force.”[164]

I get Telegraph newsletters. I have access because, yes, I subscribe. And despite their cringeworthy—somehow not nearly a strong enough word—early embrace of Liz Truss (the shine has come off now and, yeah, that was fast), they often have coverage I haven’t found elsewhere. I wish I could reproduce more of their newsletters for you; one of them includes “dispatches” from Ukraine, which tell something of what’s happening on the ground there.

It’s safe to say that Vladimir Putin has well and truly fucked himself. His conventional forces are largely helpless, lacking the leadership to respond effectively to Ukrainian strategy, tactics, and maneuver.[165] Even his nuclear threats are really rather hollow.[166] He makes decisions and gives orders from desperation and delusion.[167]

This is not by any means the picture of a winner. The only remaining question is how ugly a loser he is.

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  26. [26]Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
  27. [27]Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin; Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s New Iron Curtain,” Puck News, February 24, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-new-iron-curtain/; Yuras Karmanau, “Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions,” Associated Press, February 27, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-kyiv-business-europe-moscow-2e4e1cf784f22b6afbe5a2f936725550; Tom Nichols, “How Should the U.S. Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Provocation?” Atlantic, February 27, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/02/how-the-west-should-respond-to-putins-nuclear-provocation/622943/; Jordan Michael Smith, “Would Putin Really Go Nuclear? Well …,” New Republic, March 7, 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/165634/putin-nuclear-weapons-ukraine-us-response; Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
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