Trey Howard, arguing nuclear risk is low

From my email:

“Recent headlines prompted me to revisit the list I sent earlier this year. The situation is grim but unlikely to lead to nuclear weapons.

  1. Ukrainian military power is over-rated. It still seems like we are giving Ukraine 1/10th of the equipment they would need to actually eject the Russians. Entire categories of weapons are missing: fixed wing aircraft, modern tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. This is reflected in limited battlefield gains. Ukraine can make regional moves like Kharkiv, or bite off salients like Lyman but can’t make the kinds of sustained maneuvers hundreds of miles deep that have ended prior wars. It’s telling how many of their troops are still riding in civilian vehicles. Without huge improvements in airpower and mobility, I think future gains will continue to be incremental. This is still bad news for Russia, but slower gains provide more time for Putin to adjust plans and expectations.
  2. Russian military power is under-rated. The dominant narrative is that Russia’s shambolic mobilization will fail. It’s still too early to tell.  It’s possible that many of the reservists are truck-drivers and stevedores that will actually improve Russia’s supply chain issues. Commentators scoff at the tactical benefits of mobilization, but that’s not really how to interpret this move. Putin assumed a huge political risk in a bid that shows he still believes the war can be won conventionally.
  3. No one is crossing red lines. The Russians have staked out a red line on the provision of long range missiles, and Biden has not budged on that. You don’t hear talk about a NATO no fly zone like we did at the start of the war. Russia has avoided NATO borders in strikes to interdict the flow of weapons (which are infrequent now).
  4. Russia has not used chemical weapons. There have been ample opportunities to use them, and these weapons are perceived as carrying a lower penalty to use than nukes.
  5. Russia has more non-nuclear “compellence” options. The mysterious Nordstream sabotage was a reminder that Russia has abundant non-nuclear dirty tricks. These include flinging more old anti ship missiles at Ukrainian cities and striking grain haulers in the Black Sea. Watch those Iranian drones.
  6. Russia believes it will win the energy war. It seems obvious that this will leave both Russia and the EU poorer than they started before the war. Who will cry uncle in the next 6-9 months? Russia thinks Germany.
  7. International political trends still favor Russia. Meloni is not a Putin admirer, but her victory still sends a message that Western publics are skeptical of a pro-Ukraine elite consensus. Elections in Sweden also show this. Let’s see what happens in the US congressional elections. India and China are still buying Russian oil, and they abstained from Friday’s security council vote.
  8. Putin’s reign at home remains secure. This is one where Twitter will really lead you astray. Choosing my words carefully…certain people in our media see populations everywhere as perennially on the cusp of radical change. I see thousands of gloomy men shuffling obediently onto troop transports. Their economy has not collapsed; we have consistently underrated the Russian population’s support (or indifference) to this war, and after 8 months no popular generalissimo has emerged from the battlefield who could rival Putin.
  9. Russian nuclear threats are rational. It is obvious that a) NATO will not launch a first strike and b) NATO has a decisive conventional advantage over Russia. Neither of those things were true in the Cold War, so Russian nuclear threats today seem jarring. We should continue to see them as warnings not to intervene directly rather than foreshadowing imminent use.

I worry more about fast-moving problems for Putin. A Ukrainian victory that threatens his control over the entire theater would raise the risks (but see point 1). I thought he might make some kind of outrageous, short term ultimatum this week (“you have 2 weeks to leave our land”), but he did not.

I think often of your column earlier this year about our bad habit of doom-scrolling. The surest way to escalate this war would be for us to do it ourselves. I think Putin is willing to wait this out for a very long time. Are we?


PS – So many dramatic things have happened over the past eight months. Ukraine has launched air raids on Russia itself. Biden made several unprecedented gaffes about regime change. Lithuania briefly embargoed Kaliningrad. Nothing came of them, but at the time each seemed very dangerous. Is it possible that the standard metaphors of nuclear war are not capturing this new reality? I hear about 100-sided die where one face is nuclear war, or Herman Kahn’s ladder. Steadily increasing levels of risk.

Maybe there is something more like Taleb’s notion of “anti fragility” here? Below a certain threshold each provocation actually makes nuclear war *less* likely the next time around? Leaders have time to adjust to situations that would previously have been intolerable…etc. Something to consider the next time you read an article that says “dramatic escalation” or “heightening tensions.””

TC again: There you go! My apologies to Trey if a nuke has been dropped between putting this on auto-publish, going to bed, and actual publication.


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