Sunday, September 6, 2015

The U.S.-Russia war chatter

The amount of chatter about the possibility of a war between the U.S./NATO and Russia increased over this summer.  For one thing, there was a cover piece in The National Interest on the topic; I bought the issue in hard copy, rather predictably I barely glanced at it, and now (even more predictably) I am not sure where the copy of the issue is (yes, I could find it, assuming I didn't throw it out, but it's apparently not in one of the piles on the floor any more).

Just now I glanced at a piece in Vox (h/t) from this past June by Max Fisher summarizing the alarm bells that various experts have been ringing.  The most telling point, based on my skim, appears to be that Putin has lowered the threshold for nuclear use in Russia's official nuclear doctrine.  The official position now is that Russia will use nuclear weapons if a conventional conflict poses an "existential" threat to it; that's what I took from the Vox piece.  The implication is that certain influential Russian strategists, and maybe Putin himself, now think a "limited" nuclear war is possible and "winnable."  As far as I'm aware, no serious strategist in the West has entertained this ludicrous notion since the mid-1950s.  

One can probably see (or at least this is my view) that maintenance of tactical or 'battlefield' nuclear weapons makes no sense for countries that don't see a limited nuclear war as a realistic possibility, i.e., that think any nuclear exchange will likely escalate.  That's one of the reasons why it's pointless and a waste of money for the U.S. to still have 200 'tactical' nuclear weapons (gravity bombs) deployed in Europe.  These weapons have no purpose, nor much of a deterrent effect, unless one thinks that a limited nuclear exchange will stay limited, which Western strategists, as far as I'm aware, don't.

However, recent official statements emanating from Russia suggest that Putin might have adopted the belief that a limited nuclear exchange could stay limited, or even that use of a 'tactical' nuclear weapon would not draw a nuclear response (or a conventional response of high intensity).  Or maybe Putin just wants people to think he believes this.  Yeah, that Putin.  Crazy like a fox.


Peter T said...

I would think it more likely that Putin is signalling that he will not accept NATO or EU moves that, in Russia's view, pose an unacceptable threat. Such as the incorporation of the Ukraine. Or troops in the Caucasus. It's not that he thinks he can "win" a nuclear war, but that he is not prepared to lose a contest of incremental expansion by the US/EU.

LFC said...

That would be one reading, yes, though it does raise the question why Putin felt that changing the nuclear doctrine or making nuclear noises was his most effective means of signaling that. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. I'm not sure.

JS said...

Hi LFC — I didn't mean to suggest that on CT that I'm nearly as up on Kissinger scholarship as I expect you are—I'm not at all up on it! But curious to hear your views, for sure. Cheers, js.

(Very off-topic, this, obviously, but I didn't know how else to take you up on the invitation.)

LFC said...

Hi js.,
Thanks; will try to comment on this briefly later today. (I had written something on it for posting in the CT thread and then decided not to post it there, thinking it was better to do it here.)

LFC said...

Ok, this turns out to be less brief, and more rambling, than is prob. desirable. Oh well.


Have to begin w/ the disclaimer that I actually have not read most of the academic writing about Kissinger, esp the recent work. What I have read about K. was published quite a long time ago -- e.g., M.J. Smith's chapter on K. in Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986) [still worth looking at].

The only *recent* bk I've read that bears on Kissinger is S. Raghavan, 1971, about the birth of Bangladesh. What he says about Nixon and Kissinger in that episode is revealing not only of why they acted as they did w/r/t it, but also of their attitude and approach to for. policy more generally. Their concern was how China would perceive their actions, and they basically didn't care that Yahya Khan was committing genocide, or quasi-genocide, in E. Pakistan. A somewhat similar concern for 'credibility' helps accounts for their v. costly (in terms of lives) and prolonged extrication from Vietnam and widening of the war into Cambodia. To be sure, they shd get credit for the opening to China, but it came w/ a downside in the way it was executed.

Raghavan's biblio lists, inter alia, several of the bks about Kissinger that have appeared in the last 15 or so years (not sure which of those I'd choose to start with; perhaps Suri's prob. unfortunately titled Kissinger and the American Century, tho I'm not quite sure what its slant is).

Part of the reason for the continuing stream of writing on Kissinger is the release in recent years of the full Nixon tapes and also the publication of relevant vols. in the official State Dept primary-source series Foreign Relations of the U.S.. In the tapes of conversations and records of mtgs, one gets to hear Nixon and K. talking (btw I'm not sure K., though he (in)famously wiretapped his own aides at one pt, knew about Nixon's taping of everything in the Oval Office; I think not.)

Despite this new (i.e. in the last 10 or 15 years) source material, it appears, unsurprisingly, that there is a continuing division in attitude toward K. dictated by a writer's own political views. This can be seen in the near-simultaneous publication of the bks on K. by Grandin (very critical) and N. Ferguson (largely, I assume, positive). (The Ferguson will be in 2 vols., and there is an excerpt from the first vol. in the current issue of For. Affairs.)

If you wanted the critical take (which is pretty much my own view), cd look, e.g., at S. Hersh, The Price of Power (1983) or the (openly polemical) Hitchens bk (neither of which I've read) or Grandin. For the more positive take, there are various options, of which Ferguson is the most recent. There are also K.'s own bks, of which the most revealing in some ways might be the long and self-justifying first vol. of his memoirs, White House Years [haven't read]. Memoirists naturally take credit for their successes, but it is rarer to acknowledge failures and mistakes. On this pt, Smith refers to K's "untiring efforts to place the blame for the failures of his policy anywhere but on himself" (Realist Thought, p.216).