Discover more from Policy Tensor
A Nuclear Zugzwang?
How should the US respond to Russian first use?
We’ve entered a dramatically more fraught and dangerous phase in the Russo-Western struggle over Ukraine. Putin’s recent decisions have two parallel objectives. One goal is to shore up Russia’s tactical position. But that’s a secondary goal. The much more significant Russian goal is to signal resolve — to convince his adversaries in Kyiv and Washington that he will not accept defeat in Ukraine; that he’s prepared to climb the escalation ladder for that goal; and that they’d better sue for peace before things get out of hand. What is brewing is the most dangerous nuclear crisis since Able Archer ‘83.
Not only did he order a mobilization of reserves of some 300,000 troops on paper — the number could get considerably larger — he was almost surely behind the sabotage of the natural gas pipelines reported by the Swedish and Danish authorities. The signal here is not so much to expose the vulnerability of European infrastructure to clandestine Russian sabotage, although that may be a secondary goal of the operation. The signal here is one of “burning one’s bridges.” More precisely, he’s saying in effect: “Fuck you, Berlin, you can forget about the cheap Russian gas forever.”
The “burning one’s bridges” or “resolve-signaling” theory of his recent initiatives is even more compelling for the most important escalation — the annexation of the four occupied regions of south-eastern Ukraine. The referenda and annexations dramatically raise the audience costs of Russian withdrawal from these occupied territories. In the same speech where he announced the reserve mobilization and referenda, Putin also issued very pointed nuclear threats, using the language of published Russian nuclear use policy to describe the Ukraine situation.
Whether or not the annexed territories shall be considered Russian territory is not the important question. At this stage in the conflict, the important question is not even whether Russian elites believe that preventing Ukraine from becoming a Western bulwark is a vital Russian interest; although as CIA Director Burns wrote, it is indeed “the reddest of red lines” for Russian elites. Rather, as often happens in military conflict, the stakes have risen dramatically for Russia. Russia’s entire world position is now at stake. For if Russia cannot avoid military humiliation in Ukraine, it will not survive as a great power.
Indeed, as Defense Secretary Austin spelled out, the United States’s war aim now is to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” That is, American officials believe, not altogether implausibly, that Russia can be cut down to size; and for all practical purposes, kicked out of the ranks of the great powers.
If there was some physical law that forbid Russian escalation to the nuclear level, this might be an attractive goal for US Russia policy. But given that Russia’s entire world position is now at stake in the conflict, this is an unwarranted assumption and an extremely dangerous one to entertain. Russia can and may well introduce nuclear weapons into the Ukraine war. It is extremely important at this conjuncture, then, to think carefully about what Russian nuclear use will entail and how the United States should respond in that scenario.
Suppose that Russian armies in Ukraine are at risk of collapse, so that Putin’s options are to introduce nuclear weapons into the conflict or capitulate. In such a desperate situation, Putin may well find escalation more attractive than capitulation. But what will this look like?
Russian nuclear use at any scale whatsoever, will completely transform the conflict into an entirely different and much more dangerous kind of conflict. Breaking the 76-year-old nuclear taboo would be an extremely dramatic event. We should expect a world-wide panic, of the sort we’ve never seen before; not even in October 1962, which was, “a mild crisis,” as Schelling put it (he was trying to grapple with the full possibility space of contests in risk-taking and pain tolerance).
Consider the least escalatory option, that of a “demonstration detonation”: Russian forces air-burst (to avoid the nuclear fallout that results from a ground detonation) a tactical nuclear weapon with sub-kiloton yield (ie, no bigger than a big conventional weapon) over uninhabited territory somewhere in south-eastern Ukraine. This would be consistent with Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine (although the doctrine is also consistent with limited use of nuclear weapons at much greater scale). What happens then?
Precisely because it is such a dramatic break with precedent, even a demonstration detonation would radically change the character of the Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine. New Yorkers and Berliners etc, are likely to flee the cities. Everywhere, in Europe and America, supermarkets would likely empty within hours. Many local authorities may institute civil defense measures, even as federal governments everywhere urge calm. A widespread breakdown of law and order would be a real possibility; especially in America, where it would be attended by partisan passions and finger-pointing. Under such conditions, keeping the Western alliance together will become extraordinarily difficult. Indeed, it’s possible that even Nato would break under pressure, as anti-war and/or pro-Russian political forces emerge from repression and threaten to break the Western coalition.
In my judgement, the immediate battlefield effect would be to force-freeze the military conflict on the ground. The psychological impact of the detonation alone would force the Ukrainians to halt all military offensives immediately. And if the Ukrainians had such great risk appetite that they wanted to continue the military struggle, the United States would force them to back down on the pain of abandonment. For the diplomatic effect would be just as dramatic. The verbal response of the community of nations will be extremely loud opprobrium over Russian actions, of course. But, even more importantly, the global pressure on the warring parties to stop fighting and start negotiating diplomatically would be considerable.
If this comes to pass, the United States will find itself with only bad options. In effect, Russia would’ve imposed a nuclear Zugzwang on the United States.
Zugzwang: A situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a decisive disadvantage.
A US nuclear response would be out of the question, given the realities of mutually assured destruction. The United States could attempt to impose heavy costs on Russia through even harsher sanctions (although that resource has largely been exhausted in vain) and escalate the supply of offensive long-range weapons and military aid to Ukraine. But these counters, lacking the dramatic effect of a nuclear detonation, are likely to be perceived as pathetically weak by third parties and the most important audience — Russian policymakers. Meanwhile, the pressure on the US to force the Ukrainians to the table will be considerable. This was the meaning of my rhetorical question to the war winners on Twitter.
Paradoxically, the least escalatory first use option for Russia puts the US in the worst bind. If Putin uses nuclear weapons over Ukrainian forces in order to achieve tactical outcomes on the battlefield, or anything further up the escalation ladder, a more muscular US response becomes more credible. This need not include nuclear use by the US itself; although it could, if only to “demonstrate resolve.”
In this scenario, that of large-scale use of tactical nukes by Russia, the United States could “offer” to fight a limited war in Ukraine. The US could, for instance, introduce Western air power into the conflict and directly attack Russian forces on the ground — with or without nukes. Recall that American military officers, likely based in Nevada, are already providing targeting intelligence on Russian assets on the ground to the Ukrainians. But the nationality of combat forces on the ground is an unambiguously clear line that is often used for signaling war limitation. It “should” not matter in some rational sense, but, of course, it does. Russians and Americans in direct combat is a different war from Biddle’s Afghan model being used in the proxy war underway in Ukraine as of writing.
However credible such a US response, it would dramatically raise the risk of strategic nuclear war between Russia and Nato. For the obvious Russian response to a direct Western air intervention in Ukraine would be to target Nato warplanes and the air bases from which they are launched (most efficiently targeted with nuclear weapons as well). In other words, the US “offer” to fight a limited war in Ukraine, whether from the air or on the ground, would likely be “rejected” by the Russians, and the conflict would escalate quickly; at least to the European level, perhaps within days.
And this is where it is really important to think things through. Precisely because Russia is so weak relative to Nato, any Russia-Nato war will eventually escalate into strategic nuclear war, the only level on which the Russia enjoys parity with the United States. So, any counter-escalation by the United States would be fraught with escalation risk and nuclear danger. Bearing this risk could make sense if a vital strategic interest of the United States was at stake — an attack on Western Europe, for instance. But is bearing this escalation risk worth the candle for an extended position all the way out on Russia’s border? And while the US is struggling with this dilemma, the pressure from US allies and third parties to terminate the war and initiate diplomatic negotiations would be relentless.
The underlying weakness of the US position is that, while the stakes are virtually existential for the Russians, they’re quite peripheral to the United States. For if Russia loses, it loses its entire world position. But if Ukraine loses, or the war ends in a stalemate, the United States’s world position will hardly be affected. So the balance of resolve is extremely unfavorable to the United States.
In my judgement, if Russia is at serious risk of getting pushed out of Ukraine, the Kremlin will attempt to “escalate-to-deescalate” by ordering a “demonstration detonation” that will put the United States in a nuclear Zugzwang. The United States is better off preventing such catastrophic success of the Ukrainians. If the Ukrainians are indeed becoming so strong that a collapse of the Russian war effort, and therefore nuclear escalation, is becoming likely, then the US must seek to thwart such a dangerous and risky scenario. Of course, the United States cannot throw Ukraine under the bus. Now is therefore the time to get the Russians to the table; well before any of the nightmare scenarios that I have painted for you threaten to obtain.
A dovish pivot in US Ukraine policy — a Western peace initiative — also makes sense from a temporal optimization perspective. The Ukrainian position on the battlefield may yet deteriorate, perhaps for unforeseeable reasons; Europe might still break this winter; etc. Kyiv and Washington are in a good position to suggest the negotiating table at this time. By waiting, they would run the risk that either Russia’s fortunes in war take a turn for the better (reducing the West’s bargaining power) or that they turn for the worse (leading to a nuclear Zugzwang).