Yes, Max Fisher, the world has become more dangerous since Vladimir Putin started violating norms like not annexing pieces of neighbor states. He’s also started rattling nukes. What should we make of this? Fisher and I approach that question differently.
Fisher argues that we are on the edge of nuclear war. His language in the article I linked is highly emotive and he seems to be upset that few in Washington share his hair-on-fire approach. He takes the words of a few Russian experts and Vladimir Putin at face value.
If you read all the way to the end, he admits that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is of low-probability. But he still wants you to be worried about it.
I’ll agree that Russia’s heightened activity with military planes and ships poses a danger of accident that could escalate. I’ll agree that the rattling of nukes by several Kremlin actors adds to tensions. I’ll agree that Russia’s conventional military weakness has a lot to do with that nuke-rattling. I don’t agree that Fisher knows what Vladimir Putin or “Russia” is thinking, on which much of the article is based.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
An enormous amount of noise is coming out of the Kremlin – NATO is a danger, the United States wants to squash Russia, fascists are everywhere, and don’t forget the chemtrails and flying saucers, which probably are a CIA plot! The purpose of the noise is to confuse and distract from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s also like a cat’s fur standing out to make the cat look bigger and more frightening.
The interviews with Russian experts are useful. We don’t hear enough of the Russian viewpoint from US media. But we also have to consider the noise. Here is a podcast of a group of Russia-watchers trying to figure out how much people in the Kremlin believe what they say. Nonetheless, Fisher confidently reads Putin’s mind and Moscow’s intentions from his conversations with those experts. If they are close enough to the Kremlin to have useful information, they are close enough to adhere to the propaganda line.
Beyond the words, Russia’s actions can be read in many ways: a response to NATO encroachment, a desire to reconstitute the Soviet Union, an attempt to influence Ukraine through a frozen conflict. These motivations are not mutually exclusive, and they can be supported by Moscow’s words. Nailing it down to Putin’s desire to overcome Russia’s weakness by assertive action, as Fisher does, is too narrow.
Is Putin driven by fear of NATO attack, desire to damp down internal dissent, making more money through corruption, reaching for a rebirth of the Soviet Union, or recognition as the equal of the United States? Again, these are not mutually exclusive and probably all play a role, although we do not know the balance of factors. That balance makes a difference: to the extent Putin is interested in his own wealth and domestic ambitions, war may be less desirable, the threat of war more so.
Nor do we fully understand how decisions are made in Moscow. Putin has claimed enormous power for himself, but he is not alone in the government. Others may have different priorities and ambitions. They are careful in what they say or may have drunk the Kool-Aid. Russia lacks a prying news media that might find out.
The West is a little easier to figure out, because it has not thrown up a curtain of propaganda. Nonetheless, it would be foolish for Western governments to respond completely transparently. If Russia wants to convince us that they are twelve feet tall with fangs, it may make sense to ignore that. Fisher may be reading “no feeling of looming catastrophe” in Washington rather than a canny poker face.
He notes that there is much more vocal concern in Poland and the Baltics. The fact that NATO has sent air support and is considering pre-positioning equipment in the Baltic states indicates that Washington and Brussels are listening to those concerns of NATO’s easternmost members.
Other Russian experts have different analyses from those Fisher interviewed for this piece, one example here. It’s fair enough for him to present one side, less so to extrapolate that side to “what Russia/Putin is thinking.”
Fisher gives two scenarios that could escalate to nuclear war: Russia attacks the Baltics or decides to take all of Ukraine. He is not alone in omitting any mention of military ability to mount such attacks; most reporters don’t consider that. But whether they can mount such attacks is an essential question. Numbers for the Russian military are available. Some of us (Nuclear Diner, RUSI) have added them up and compared them to Russia’s other military needs, like the boundary with China and the Arctic. The Ukrainian army and the NATO presence in the Baltics have improved since those estimates were done.
Invading the Baltics or all of Ukraine would require a much larger number of Russian troops than are now in the area, probably 100,000 or more. Those troops would have to be moved from other places where they are needed. Additionally, invading the Baltics would open a second front with NATO; two bad ideas in one. An invasion of Ukraine would require an occupation afterwards and probably more troops.
Would Putin do that? He might; national leaders have made bad choices in the past, and they will continue to in the future. The fact that NATO games these scenarios out is not frightening; it’s what militaries do. The US military has plans for an invasion of Canada, but I doubt that Ottawa pays them much attention.
Fisher uncritically takes Russia’s claim the Russian ethnics in the Baltics are what Putin likes to call compatriots. American reporters have stenographed that claim since 1991. Having spent some time in northeastern Estonia, I marvel that they have not yet realized they are wrong. And wrong. And wrong.
We all know about the “little green men” now. You can do surprise once, maybe twice. An Estonian defense official has said that little green men will be shot on sight. Even Russia’s friend Belarus has warned against them. Even if the Estonian threat is exaggerated, the usefulness of that scenario has ended.
Red Lines, OMG Red Lines
Please, reporters, no more “red lines.” They substitute for careful thinking and make situations sound much more precarious than they may be. Shockingly, they may even change from time to time, as circumstances change. Just not a useful concept.
No, there weren’t “clear red lines” in the Cold War. No, we can’t come to a nice understanding of each other’s red lines, never to be crossed. Russia wants to dominate Ukraine. Europe and the United States want autonomy for Ukraine. Tell me how to put that into “red lines.” Whatever Fisher is trying to call “red lines” will always be, in his word, murky.
During the Cold War, some stability was established, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis and after arms control talks started. There were semi-reliable ways both to interpret Soviet propaganda stream and to communicate between governments. There were rules, but there were also attempts to push those rules. There were people on both sides of the Cold War who believed nuclear war was winnable. That’s the point of the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”
Good leaders practice flexibility and don’t see “red lines” everywhere. Fisher’s “red lines” are indeed the kind of thing that led to World War I. Barack Obama has already shown flexibility in accepting the chemical weapons deal with Syria. Harder to say about Putin, although if he has been as concerned about NATO expansion as he says, he’s exhibited some too.
Fisher’s comparison to the period before World War I has some flaws, too. For one, intelligence is much better today. Satellite photos show Russian military buildup in and around Ukraine. Both sides are listening to each other. All this can be misinterpreted, of course, and telephone conversations can be taken out of context and used to divide allies. The open nature of some of it contributes to public and allied understanding of the situation, so that heads of government must think out their moves in ways that the European monarchs didn’t in 1914.
Russian Nuclear Doctrine
Russian nuclear doctrine smacks of desperation. The United States and NATO were in a similar position during the early days of the Cold War: overmatched in conventional strength by the Soviet Union and looking to nuclear weapons as a backup. That resulted in technical decisions that seem crazy from today’s position of strength: an atomic cannon, nuclear landmines. But the US military built up and Russia never came through the Fulda Gap. We’ve been here before, with the sides reversed.
The Russian nuclear doctrine of de-escalation, using a single nuclear strike to warn off NATO if fighting starts, is dangerous. The doctrine itself uses the words “existential threat” for the provocation, which should mean a threat to Russia’s very existence. Part of the danger is that Russia’s noise obscures what they may consider as such a threat. Fisher’s conclusion is too glib:
There are yet more worrying implications to this Russian doctrine. Its logical conclusion is that Russia sees itself as able to fight a war with the conventionally superior United States without losing, and that it can do this by using battlefield nuclear weapons.
The Russian military is one of the players in Kremlin decision-making. Militaries are often more conservative about war-fighting than the politicans’ bombast. If Putin overextends there is a danger he would feel a need to resort to nuclear weapons, but the nuke-rattling may well be a bluff. Famously, Richard Nixon asserted the “Crazy Nixon” tactic designed to make others believe that you are crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Not a bad tactic in the face of one’s own weakness.
The Most Frightening Side
Fisher has taken the most frightening aspects of Russia’s position and blown them up into what looks like the whole story.
Although we lack much detail on Russia’s position, it’s clear that it is not a monolith with the single priority of saving itself from perceived annihilation by a hostile West. Focusing on a single priority makes war look more inevitable and less avoidable. That narrow focus eliminates the mental agility necessary to respond to Russian surprises. Good analysis takes into account the uncertainty of the available information, which is high.
What would convince Fisher that the West is taking the threat of war, possibly nuclear, with Russia seriously? Statements about the seriousness of the situation come regularly from NATO, which has dispatched units to areas of concern. Undue attention to what Fisher admits is a low-probability event removes resources from more immediate threats.
Part of what Russia wants is recognition as a first-rate world power. Giving that to them by exaggerating their nuclear claim to status is likely to embolden them to risk Fisher’s scenarios. Minimizing the threat publicly may slow them down enough that they can consider their real capabilities. NATO provides the military strength, and the civil governments stay calm. Looks like a good strategy to me.
Photo: Hermann Castle in Narva, Estonia, on left and Ivangorod Fortress, Russia, on right. Fortresses have faced off across the Narva River since the thirteenth century.