Optimism about the threat of nuclear war

From an email from Trey Howard, I won’t impose further double-indent on it:

“I recently came across the pessimistic Edward Luce column you retweeted, and wanted to offer some trends that I think point in the opposite direction. I offer these as someone who was much more worried about nuclear war in the first 2 weeks of the war, before the factors below became apparent.

  1. Putin has been willing to revise his objectives. The Russian army fell back from Kyiv, did not launch an amphibious assault on Odessa, and has not attempted to storm the Azovstal steelworks. All of these indicate that Putin is receiving some objective information about the poor performance of his military, and is revising his plans accordingly.
  2. Putin’s objectives are amorphous. What does it mean to de-nazify Ukraine? What does control of “the Donbass” mean exactly? These kinds of objectives are susceptible to BS-ing for the domestic audience. They are not like “Kill Zelensky” or “Capture Kyiv”. They permit Putin an off-ramp at any time he wants to declare victory.
  3. NATO is unwilling to intervene directly. If anything, I have heard less chatter about no fly zones since the first two weeks of the war.
  4. Putin has not escalated to chemical weapons, despite having an opportunity to use them effectively on the Azovstal works.
  5. NATO has limited the supply of weapons to short range weapons that a) do not require a complex supply chain of trainers and contractors close to Ukraine or b) are unlikely to cause mass casualties in Russia itself (airplanes, tactical ballistic missiles). This seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For all the breathless talk of “heavy weapons” being shipped to Ukraine, it is hard for me to imagine that Russia sees T-72 tanks, towed howitzers, or M113 personnel carriers from the 1970s as tilting the balance. They have thousands of comparable weapons in storage.
  6. Russia has not attempted to interdict the flow of weapons inside NATO countries. Not even “plausibly deniable” things like train derailments or warehouse fires. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the GRU committed attacks in NATO countries in the years before the war started.
  7. Putin is not threatened at home. If anything, support for the invasion seems to have increased. The Russian economy has not collapsed as some predicted, and this will bolster support for him.
  8. Russia continues to make payments on its foreign debt. To me this indicates a long-term outlook and is not the kind of thing one would do if contemplating murder-suicide at a national level.
  9. Russia has not increased the readiness of its strategic nuclear forces (like putting SSBNs to sea).
  10. Russia is actively recruiting foreign mercenaries and seems likely to order a general mobilization soon. Some people see this as a sign of escalation, but I think it is more likely that Putin realizes that he needs more bodies to garrison captured territory. Additional conscripts will eventually allow some of the BTGs in action to rotate away from the front lines. It will increase his perception that time is on his side. More troops will make it less likely that Ukraine can inflict a decisive defeat on Russian forces in the Donbass (which might really precipitate tactical nuclear weapon use).
  11. Russia is taking over administration of infrastructure in captured territory, and is preparing residents to switch to the ruble. These are long-term thinking measures consistent with a power planning to occupy and administer new territory (which they would not want to irradiate).
  12. Putin thinks that the political winds are on his side. Viktor Orban being re-elected, Le Pen performing better than her prior showing, and the coming midterms in the USA all point to populations becoming impatient at the high inflation and constant drumbeat of scary news coming out of Ukraine. Of course, the biggest break for him would be Trump 2024…

I disregard all public statements from Russia (whether from state TV, Putin himself, or lesser officials). There is never going to be a situation where the Russians say “relax, we aren’t going to use the nukes”. They want to keep us guessing. I look at the trends above instead.

Many of these trends are bad news for Ukraine and the west in general, but they are factors that make nuclear war less likely. As you said on a recent podcast “things are never as bad or as good as you might think.””

TC again: That’s it, have a cheery day!

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