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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
1 October 2022: Impossible things before breakfast, plus texts and tunes
We are all getting some practice, I suppose, at being the Queen of Hearts — she who was accustomed to believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Things keep happening that aren’t meant to: things that don’t make sense, that could not possibly fit into any rational calculation. If I’m honest (and I try to be), Vladimir Putin announcing on Friday the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts he doesn’t even militarily control — and of which he is controlling less by the day — is the least impossible thing we are now forced to believe, even though it is entirely nonsensical.
Even more nonsensical, of course, was last week’s announcement of a “partial mobilization”, a military draft that appears to have sent more Russians into exile than into the army. In other circumstances, I might have been tempted to write something saying that such a call-up was unlikely, given the potential social and political consequences. But then, back in December I did write that I thought the war itself was unlikely, for precisely the same reason. I’ve learned from the Queen of Hearts since then.
What I’m thinking about
The problem with believing impossible things is knowing where — or whether — to stop. Obviously, once you adjust your analytical perspective to account for the fact of a nonsensical war, it is not hard to see the logic in a nonsensical draft. In fact, once you account for the war, it should become possible to discern a logic that might lead inexorably to a draft, reckless as it might be. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but my point — and the thought that’s been bothering me all week — is this: What other previously implausible eventualities need to be accounted for?
The use of nuclear weapons is the obvious one.
Putin, of course, has been threatening to use nuclear weapons since this war began. That was, very clearly, what he meant when he said in his declaration of hostilities that any country that tried to intervene would face “consequences unlikely anything they had ever seen before”. It’s what he meant when he warned the West not to supply Ukraine with weapons, and when he warned Ukraine not to strike Russian territory. The same threat is implied in Russia’s illegal annexation of the four Ukrainian oblasts.
Up until now, the nuclear threat was relatively easy to dismiss. For one thing, as Boris Yeltsin’s former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev argued way back in March, while Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling sounded crazy, it was actually kind of rational: it served as a deterrent against Western intervention in Ukraine, and it was reasonably effective in that role. While Western governments provided unprecedented amounts of military aid to Kyiv, they did so in a way that was carefully calibrated to avoid an uncontrollable escalation of the war, either in terms of geography, or in terms of the scale of casualties. Actually using nuclear weapons, on the other hand, would have escalated the war beyond anything that Putin could ever hope to win — if only because no one wins a nuclear war.
The other reason to dismiss the nuclear threat was that the use of nuclear weapons to win a war fought entirely on the territory of another country would have run counter to Russia’s own strategic doctrine. According to that doctrine, nuclear weapons are reserved for use when the existence of Russia itself is at stake. To be clear, this self-limitation is not altruism on Moscow’s part. Because the use of nuclear weapons brings with it the risk of catastrophic retaliation, the risk of not using nuclear weapons has to be commensurate. The potential of losing Russia itself would, thus, warrant a nuclear strike; the potential of not gaining an extra chunk of Ukraine, clearly, would not.
That second point (the one about nuclear doctrine) may no longer be on our side, however. The “annexation” of the four Ukrainian oblasts allows Moscow to convince itself — if no one else — that any further Ukrainian liberation of those oblasts is a threat to Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity. That, by most readings, could be enough to cross Russia’s nuclear threshold. It would be irresponsible not to take that seriously.
My thinking about this was shaped by Polina Sinovets, a professor of international relations at Odesa Mechnikov University and probably Ukraine’s leading academic expert on nuclear security, who spoke at the autumn PONARS Eurasia policy conference here in Washington. Drawing on a policy memo she published last week, Polina noted reasons both for calm and for concern.
The reasons for calm are significant. For one thing, she reminded us, while Russia’s strategic and nuclear doctrines allow for the first use of nuclear weapons when the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are threatened, that does not mean that nuclear weapons are automatically the first option. In fact, because the nuclear card can really only be played once, the incentive is to play it only after all other options have been exhausted. Russia still has other ways of turning up the ferocity of this war without resorting to a nuclear strike, and we should expect it to try those first.
Nonetheless, Polina argued that the risk of a nuclear conflict is greater than at any time in the nuclear age — even outstripping the Cuban missile crisis — because of the unpredictable escalatory dynamics involved in the war. As we have seen in recent weeks, the tides can turn quickly. Rapidly shifting front lines could potentially lead to a situation in which Putin would feel that he no longer has time for conventional means of war fighting, thus accelerating the decision to deploy nuclear weapons.
I don’t envy policymakers in Kyiv, Washington, London, Brussels or elsewhere who have to navigate this situation. On the one hand, as has been reiterated by Western leaders again and again, giving in to nuclear blackmail in order to zero out the risk of a nuclear strike in Ukraine gives Putin and any other nuclear state carte blanche to rewrite borders and terrorize populations — and in the process, probably makes large-scale nuclear war more likely in the long run. On the other hand, pursuing a policy that acknowledges the possibility of nuclear escalation, even if the probability remains low, seems, well, hard to stomach.
To be clear, the responsibility for getting us anywhere near the brink of nuclear war lies entirely on Vladimir Putin. Whether or not this is what he intended, he made a decision in February that put us on this path. He then made a series of further decisions — about how to fight, about what resources to marshal, and about what territories to claim — at various stages along the way. He will, no doubt, continue to make more decisions, and we will have to respond to them. More to the point, we will have to anticipate them — and that brings me back to Lewis Carroll.
The trick to believing six impossible things before breakfast, it seems to me, is to start by understanding the new logic that comes into play after the advent of the most recent impossible thing. We don’t know — and may never know — what the logic was that led Putin to declare war. To understand what comes next, however, we don’t need to know that logic: it remains buried in the period before the war started. After the war started, the second impossible thing will emerge as a response to the logic created by the first impossible thing, i.e. the war itself. And the second impossible thing will set in motion a new logic, which will make the third impossible thing not only possible, but perhaps even inevitable.
This may remind long-time readers of contingency theory, which I wrote about back in mid-August. There’s a reason for that. Understanding that events are contingent — at least, certain kinds of events — frees us from the necessity of finding overarching, grand explanations for everything, and allows us to focus on the narrower and more analytically accessible logics that lead to specific events. The decision to go to war was made sometime before 24 February 2022. The decision to call up 300,000 extra troops was not. Neither was the decision to “annex” four Ukrainian oblasts. Those things came later, and in response to events that were themselves contingent. None of this was inevitable. Neither is nuclear war.
What I’m reading
In addition to Polina Sinovets’ policy memo on Russian nuclear doctrine (to which I gave a link earlier, but I’m happy to repeat it here), I highly recommend two other memos from this week’s PONARS Eurasia policy conference.
Emil Kamalov, Veronika Kostenko, Ivetta Sergeeva and Margarita Zavadskaya have a memo reporting data from a series of surveys they have been running on the new Russian diaspora. There are lots of fascinating nuggets, but the key takeaway for me was that exiles — with the partial exception of male IT specialists — become more politically active when they leave, and that the degree of repression they face in Russia also increases their commitment to the cause. These findings in particular, I think, provide a useful corrective to the seriously glum interview by Meduza earlier in the week with the Russian political scientist Vladimir Gel’man.
Susanne Wengle and Vitalii Dankevych have an excellent memo — published in July, but which I managed to miss — on the impact of the war on Ukrainian agriculture. While I think we’re all aware in broad terms of the destruction that Russia has wrought on Ukrainian farms and agro-export infrastructure, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone catalogue this systematically the scale and scope of the damage. Reading the report and listening to Susanne present it on Friday, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is deliberate.
Lastly, lest you think that catastrophic contingency is purely a Russian phenomenon, take a look at the FT’s deep dive into the despair that Liz Truss has wrought on the United Kingdom in less than a month in office.
What I’m listening to
Apropos of nothing in particular, I heard this song three times this week — in two different Ubers, and in a hotel lobby — so I see no reason why it shouldn’t be stuck in your head, too.
More seriously, though, the St. Petersburg rapper Oxxxymiron — who has been touring outside Russia to raise money for Ukrainian refugees — dropped his latest single, Cделано в России (Made in Russia). Among the lyrics, poorly translated, are a few lines about a guy walking home after making out with his girlfriend:
And when you walked home through the center of town
crossing Bankovsky Bridge on the way
You smiled and thought it was serious between you
Not noticing it was a cloudy Tuesday.
But now you’re lying on the hill with grass in your teeth
And you watch the sun in the endless fields.
The sunset fades — and there’s a hole in the back of your head.
It sounds better rapped, and in Russian.