Until now in this blog I’ve been pressing my views, for what little they’re worth, on what’s happening in the world, but I’ve assiduously avoided touting myself as some kind of expert in the matters on which I’ve opined. But on the matter at hand, that being nuclear warfare, I’m compelled to admit I do know whereof I speak. I know whereof I speak because before I specialised in the philosophy of war – in fact before I imagined I could be a professional philosopher – I spent a goodly portion of my misspent youth formally studying the science of war, and more particularly nuclear war. So in what follows I’m not so much blogging as, well, educating. To wit:
There’s a myth, a myth masquerading as self-evident truth, that since 1949 when the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons, it’s been the existence of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that’s prevented American and Soviet steel from meeting on the battlefield. This is because, or so it’s been argued, if one side was on the verge of being decisively bested by the other, it would see itself as having no choice but to resort to a nuclear first strike. The other would then respond in kind, the exchanges would escalate, and within hours the world would be no more. It follows – or so it seemed – that if American and Soviet steel were to meet, neither could allow the other to be decisively bested. And so, since victory could only be Pyrrhic, there’d be no point in sending steel against steel in the first place.
If you’ve been following the news, this is precisely the putative rationale behind the refusal of NATO to meet Russian steel with steel in Ukraine. I say ‘putative’ because it’s nonsense. If it were true, then after Ukraine the same would hold for not sending steel to meet steel in one of the Baltic states, or in Poland or Slovakia or Hungary or Romania, notwithstanding NATO’s much-touted Article Five.
So it’s not a matter of geopolitics, it’s a matter of simple logic, that fear of nuclear war is not what’s holding the West back from rescuing Ukraine. It’s just a straightforward Trolley Problem. The governments of NATO’s eastern flank are hoping they can get away with sacrificing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, to avoid exposing their own populations to a wider conflagration.
And they may well be right. Or would be, were the threat of a wider war turning nuclear real. But it’s not. If Putin fired a strategic nuclear weapon Moscow would cease to exist in less than an hour. And he knows it. If he fired a tactical nuclear weapon Belgorod would cease to exist in less than an hour. And he knows it. But a tactical exchange won’t be initiated by Moscow because there’s no concentration of Ukrainian forces west of Belgorod that would make such a strike worthwhile, whereas there is such a target across the border from Kharkiv, namely the tank yards and barracks outside Belgorod, which is the main mustering and resupply site for the Russian campaign in Ukraine. So if anyone has cause to fear a tactical first strike, it’s the Russians. And they know it.
Would a full-on air and ground war in eastern Europe escalate? It would have to. To the Baltic and the Black Seas certainly. To the north Pacific and the Stans possibly. The pundits will no doubt want to call this a Third World War. It would be a costly war. But as I say, thanks to MAD it wouldn’t be a nuclear one.
In the long run the West would prevail. So what’s holding it back?
That long run.
That long run coupled with what would have to be the Deputinization of Russia, a process that could prove as challenging as the Denazification of Germany after WWII. So if all of this is to be avoided, the West is counting on Zelenskyy, and his beleaguered but surprisingly adept Ukrainian army, to perform a military miracle. Or the equally beleaguered Russian conscript to turn on his commander, or for his commander to turn on his commander, not unlike he did in 1917.
For all my expertise – which I’ve just claimed to be considerable – I have no crystal ball. I’m not on the ground, and even if I were, I’m not privy to the ordnance available to each of the sides. I do think, however – as von Clausewitz would surely put it – steel has to meet steel at some point. Otherwise steel loses its credibility.
The longer that point is put off, the better for the solider nearing the end of his tour of duty. But the worse for those he’s been paid to protect.