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Our commitment to Ukraine should be balanced by a commitment to independent European defense
The war in Ukraine, and the larger conflict between the West and Russia that Russia’s invasion spawned, has entered a new phase. It’s a shift reflected in Finland’s decision to ask for membership in NATO, in the Biden Administration’s request for a $40 billion package of assistance to Kyiv, and in additional battlefield setbacks for Russia around Kharkiv, on the Donets river, and elsewhere. It looks increasingly plausible, though of course far from certain, that with Western help but without Western troops, Ukraine could win its war outright and all these moves reflect that reality.
That might not seem obvious in the case of Finland (and like Sweden), so it’s worth articulating why Finland’s accession to NATO makes sense specifically in terms of Russia’s failure in Ukraine. Finland’s neutrality was forged in the context of Soviet strength in the wake of World War II. It was a classic (and successful) act of appeasement that gave the Soviet Union what it wanted most (substantial control over Finland’s foreign policy) and thereby preserved what Finland wanted most (freedom from interference in its domestic affairs). It achieved its success in the context of a largely frozen conflict between East and West in which both sides, notwithstanding flash points like Berlin or the Greek Civil War, saw one predominant goal to be avoiding all-out war.
None of those circumstances still obtain. Russia is vastly weaker now, but has also proven recklessly revisionist. Finland is already integrated into Western Europe economically through the EU, and it has strong cultural, economic and political ties to the Baltic states, Estonia in particular, which are also EU and NATO members and which are potential targets for further Russian revisionist adventurism. Joining NATO is less about NATO committing to Finland’s defense than about Finland (and Sweden, if and when it joins) committing to the Baltic states’ defense, and providing their territory for other NATO forces to do the same. Given NATO’s existing commitment to the Baltics and Finland’s powerful national interest in their defense, bringing Finland into NATO just makes sense. It makes all the more sense as Russia has faltered in Ukraine, since one possible response Russia could make to its poor fortunes there would be to expand its revisionism to other fronts, of which Georgia (where South Ossetia plans a vote to join the Russian Federation), Moldova (where Transnistria has been drifting the other way) and Estonia (whose third largest city, Narva is largely Russian-speaking and divided over the war in Ukraine) are the most plausible.
The scale of proposed American aid more obviously reflects Ukraine’s battlefield successes, but it’s worth dwelling on that fact for a moment. Had Ukraine fallen quickly to the Russian invaders, I doubt either America or our NATO allies would simply have accepted the fact—but any investment we made in supporting, say, an insurgency in Western Ukraine would have been vastly smaller than our current support for Ukraine. By the same token, if Ukraine had held out and fought the Russians to a standstill around Kyiv, the rational next move for that government would have been to seek Finlandization as an alternative to permanent dismemberment (and President Zelenskyy offered something rather like that early in the war for that very reason).
America’s behavior, Ukraine’s behavior and even Finland’s behavior, then, all reflect a conviction that Ukraine could possibly achieve battlefield victories sufficient to force Russia to come to terms. Is that plausible? And if it is, is it wise?
Those are the questions that Ross Douthat moots in an excellent column this weekend. As he rightly points out, if victory is not at hand then both Ukraine and its supporters face a difficult choice in the coming months of either a negotiated peace that rewards Russian aggression or a grinding ongoing conflict that keeps Ukraine a permanent ward of the West. But that choice looks far less ominous when compared with the risks of victory:
We know that Russian military doctrine envisions using tactical nuclear weapons defensively, to turn the tide in a losing war. We should assume that Putin and his circle regard total defeat in Ukraine as a regime-threatening scenario. Combine those realities with a world where the Russians are suddenly being routed, their territorial gains evaporating, and you have the most nuclear-shadowed military situation since our naval blockade of Cuba in 1962.
I’ve been turning over these dilemmas since I moderated a recent panel at the Catholic University of America with three right-of-center foreign policy thinkers — Elbridge Colby, Rebeccah Heinrichs and Jakub Grygiel. On the wisdom of our support for Ukraine up till now, the panel was basically united. On the question of the war’s endgame and the nuclear peril, however, you could see our challenges distilled — with Grygiel emphasizing the importance of Ukraine’s recovering territory in the east and along the Black Sea coastline in order to be plausibly self-sufficient in the future, but then the more hawkish Heinrichs and the more cautious Colby sparring over what our posture should be in the event that rapid Ukrainian advances are met with a Russian tactical nuclear strike.
That question isn’t the one immediately before us; it will only become an issue if Ukraine begins to make substantial gains. But since we are arming the Ukrainians on a scale that seems intended to make a counteroffensive possible, I sincerely hope a version of the Colby-Heinrichs back-and-forth is happening at the highest reaches of our government — before an issue that matters now on academic panels becomes the most important question in the world.
This is not a risk anyone should wave away, and because I think it’s worth taking seriously, it’s also worth taking seriously those conservatives who have expressed extreme reservations about our current course of action. It does a disservice to them and, even more so, to any serious analysis of the situation to dismiss their concerns as phony because they’re really just on Russia’s payroll or see Russia as an ideological ally or just want to oppose whatever President Biden does.
But it’s worth also thinking the nuclear possibility through rather than treating it as a conversation-ender. Could Russia actually alter the outcome of the war by the use of tactical nuclear weapons? And what would be the consequences for it if it did?
It’s not obvious to me that a truly tactical use of nuclear weapons could do so in this case. The doctrine of nuclear first use is a common one for nuclear powers facing a more powerful conventional foe. It was part of American warfighting plans during the Cold War, where we intended to use tactical nuclear weapons against Russian armor in East Germany and Poland (and quite possibly West Germany too), and broadcast that intention as a way of deterring a Russian attack. It remains part of Pakistan’s plan for stopping a hypothetical Indian invasion of their country. But Ukraine has not been driving Russian forces off by winning massive tank battles; they are obliterating Russian armor using cheap drones. If we are to imagine Russia turning the tide of battle through tactical use of nuclear weapons, what is the imagined target?
Various people I’ve asked this question of have suggested that Russia might explode a tactical nuclear weapon first for a demonstration effect. But what would be demonstrated thereby? All sides already know Russia has such weapons and their incredible destructive power. The question is where and how they might use them—which a demonstration would not clarify. When I make this point, I’m told they might threaten to and then actually use them to target Ukrainian air defense systems which have been bolstered by gifts from NATO countries, or to target Ukraine’s rail transportation system by which such systems are moved around, or even NATO military bases near the Ukrainian border. It’s hard for me to see how Russia’s leadership, however removed from battlefield reality, could contemplate the scale of escalation thus described as a tactical move to turn the tide of battle.
The right way to describe these kinds of scenarios is as a variety of nuclear terrorism, threatening to use nuclear weapons in order to win an aggressive war, not to deny an aggressor victory. While I don’t think we can discount them I also don’t think there’s an obvious way to counter them. A general nuclear exchange is so horrific to contemplate that literally any action is justified to prevent it, so once you assume the other side is irrational enough to be willing to risk it, you can readily make the case for preemptive surrender of, well, everything.
Moreover, it’s a mistake to assume that America is solely responsible for calling the shots in the current conflict, notwithstanding our substantial investment in it, or that the alternative to that investment is a stable negotiated solution. Russia would have little reason to negotiate if, in the wake of Ukraine’s battlefield success, we pulled the rug out from under them. Meanwhile, if we’re worried primarily about nuclear risk, we have to ask ourselves whether it goes up or down if a host of vulnerable small powers like Poland, Taiwan and South Korea decide—rationally—that since America’s nuclear umbrella is not credible they had better get their own deterrents.
The diplomatic challenge in the current moment is how to avoid boxing Russia in to a situation where they decide to go for broke on an even more spectacular nuclear scale, while also forcing them to accept the battlefield losses they have incurred and all the consequences that flow naturally therefrom. We’re looking, in other words, for the equivalent of the NATO missiles that we quietly removed from Turkey after the Soviet Union removed theirs from Cuba, thereby ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the risk of being too “now more than ever,” I think the contemporary equivalent lies in America’s role within NATO, which is long overdue for transformation. Europe is wealthy and powerful enough to provide for its own continental defense, and now, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is a rare moment when numerous nations in Europe see the practical importance of putting real money behind such a project. The United States should shift, as we should have long ago, from discouraging a common European defense under the umbrella of the EU to encouraging one, even if it means that Europe becomes more independent-minded. Bringing EU members Finland and Sweden into NATO should make easier, not harder, to initiate a transition whereby the EU takes more and more responsibility for European defense, with the United States increasingly playing a supporting rather than a leading role. The best way to balance America’s large commitment to Ukraine in the present is to simultaneously set the diplomatic wheels in motion for a larger transformation that would make such a commitment unnecessary in a decade or two.
Abortion Won’t Wrap Either
I didn’t write a wrap last week, in part because I had no new pieces published anywhere but here. So this week’s wrap covers the last two week’s posts on this website.
Last week, I had two pieces On Here about the prospect of Roe’s repeal, one about how neither party’s base will contemplate a compromise or federalist solution (and therefore the abortion wars will continue post-Roe) and the other looking specifically at Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s behavior as evidence of that thesis.
There’s been a running argument on Twitter and in longer pieces about whether the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot electorally by not staking out more moderate ground on abortion, and a lot of mockery of this messaging in particular, which seems designed to confuse and potentially alienate mainstream abortion rights supporters:
I’m going to write more about that messaging sheet in the week to come, but I think it’s important for people who actually are in the middle, and for people who see the only rational outcome as being some kind of compromise, to recognize that wars rarely end because it is rational to end them. (See, e.g., Ukraine.) Rather, it is frequently the case that both sides rationally see more risk in peacemaking than in fighting to win, and therefore persist in a negative-sum enterprise.
Meanwhile, just because it looks from polls like there’s some middle-of-the-road majority to be seized doesn’t mean that either party is actually capable of seizing it. The thing about those people in the middle is the they have the least intensity on the subject of abortion. It makes a great deal of sense to cater to median-voter views on subjects they care about a lot—like inflation and crime. It makes much less sense to cater to them on subjects that they care about much less; that’s precisely where it’s rational to cater to the extremes so as to boost intensity for your side. Since that dynamic applies to both parties, I don’t think the abortion wars are going to cool off any time soon.
Of course, if you spend a lot of time talking about what the extremists want you to talk about, then you will likely convince more median voters that you are out of touch with their concerns. For that reason, I’m highly skeptical that turning up the heat on abortion will actually salvage Democrats’ midterm hopes. And longer term, I think the Democrats’ electoral hopes really do depend on ending the disastrous geographic and educational polarization that defines our era, which likely means coming to terms with the fact that in some places where they want and need to win, anti-abortion sentiment is too powerful to be countered.
But that’s a longer-term project. For right now, I think both sides are rational in continuing with a strategy of extreme polarization on abortion. God help us.
Wrapping the China Put
My other piece On Here was about the Fed’s behavior in the 1990s and 2000s and whether it is correct to talk about a “Greenspan Put” or whether, in reality, the Fed just had a really easy time doing its job because of the disinflationary effects of China’s growth, integration into the world economy, and savings glut. That “China Put” is gone now, and perhaps that’s why the Fed’s job has gotten notably harder.
Of course, the war in Ukraine doesn’t exactly make it easier either.