One year of Western escalation submission in Ukraine: what lessons?
The power of nuclear weapons lies not in their use, but in their possession, provided you maintain escalation dominance. Conceding escalation dominance reduces you to one of two states: ineffective nuclear weapons; or nuclear war. Unless you are a nihilist, your nuclear weapons become useless.
One of the more maddening aspects of the Russian war in Ukraine has been Western journalists, politicians and the public’s obsession, especially early on, with whether Vladimir Putin would use a nuclear weapon, thereby stoking reasonable concern into escalation paralysis and thus handing Putin escalation dominance. No one who could do so wanted to give Ukraine weapons that would really hurt the Russians, for fear that the man openly intent on destroying Ukraine, gaining a veto over NATO membership and reducing Europe to serfdom might escalate a war that he started. The first escalation was his: from peace to war, without anyone having given Ukraine a single empty beer bottle.
By obsessing over not escalating, we have guaranteed Putin’s escalation. Western spokespersons were even too timid to countenance the thought of Ukraine restoring its territorial integrity, talking unashamedly of Ukraine ceding Crimea to Russia, as if, one, that would stop the war, and two, it were their call to make. Western politicians had to get together to have a special safety-in-numbers conference to “send Putin the message” that Crimea is Ukraine, yet made sure not even to hint at how Ukraine might restore its sovereignty over the territory.
Putin says exactly what scares the West the most. All the topics that can scare the heck out of Western people, are made public by Russians, and they specifically use it as their informational warfare. Putin doesn’t need any kind of justification regarding his nukes. He doesn’t need any justification to invade other countries. My biggest advice is just stop listening to what they say. It makes no sense and it makes no sense.
Now that, in the Western mind, Crimea is finally Ukrainian again, politicians, diplomats and media pundits still take it as given that peace means Russia withdrawing to its internationally recognised borders. Vladimir Putin now knows that however this all turns out in the end, the borders of Russia are secure. From his point of view, the race is on to destroy as much of Ukraine as possible before withdrawing to his own borders, if it should come to that.
Putin has almost the entire Russian population to throw into this fight, regardless of the death toll, for they understand themselves to be at his disposal. All they can do is beg that he grants them some relief and hope that he hears their pleas. Treating Putin as if he were a Western statesman rather than an ex-KGB thug, means forever giving him the benefit of the doubt. In this light, the West recoils from escalation dominance as something that renders them, i.e., the West, thugs.
Western escalation dominance right from the start would have kept Putin uncertain of Western responses to his escalation, thereby driving the war to an end. Instead, we’ve seen awe and relief all round when President Biden, reportedly, made the Russian leader understand “in no uncertain terms” what would happen if he were to use a nuclear weapon. Well that’s just dandy. Putin now had an exact measure of the Western stomach for escalation. He really could do whatever he wanted, short of using a nuclear weapon. The West had conceded escalation dominance to Putin right at the outset and continually reaffirmed that they would never try to seize it from him.
By the first anniversary of the invasion, Russia had racked up so spectacular a list of war crimes that it conveyed only one message: we can do whatever we want in Ukraine, we do not care one jot and there is absolutely nothing that anyone on earth can do about it. This, too, is escalation dominance, right from the outset. Be as contemptuous as possible of international law and everyone else will be too stunned and cowered to even think of doing anything about it. Amid all the talk of war crimes and tribunals, and all the gathering of evidence, none of which was escalatory, the Russian regime indulged in an escalating war crimes orgy, taunting the world.
On 17 March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and one of his officials, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for war crimes relating to the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. This time, though, rather than the crass dismissals we have come to expect, the Russian authorities were rattled, but tried to put a brave face on it. “The decisions of the International Criminal Court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view.” They maintain the same fantastic narrative about Nazis in Kyiv and America waging war against Russia, yet the swagger is gone.
The claim that the invaders were rescuing the children from an active war zone is, of course, risible. But to see only the ludicrousness of the claim is to miss its most important point. This claim is not the usual totalitarian contempt for all reactions to their utterances. This claim, factually ridiculous as it is, is Russia explaining itself, justifying its actions. The Russian regime, including Vladimir Putin, is on the back foot. Beyond this point, Russian braggadocio will ring hollow. The words and the body language will no longer correspond. Even Putin’s Saturday night visit to an empty children’s playground in Mariupol the very next night had all the feel of an emergency face rescue gone wrong: creepy old dude hangs out in empty kiddies’ playground on a Saturday night to counter accusations of abducting children!
The ICC cannot simply be written off as “the collective West,” as the Russian ambassador to the UN tried to do. Over eighty of the ICC’s 123 members cannot, by any criterion, be counted as part of the West, collective or otherwise, while the leader of the West, the United States, the only adversary Russia deigns to talk to, is not a member of the ICC. Whatever one might think of the ICC, the issuing of an arrest warrant for a Tzar is a humiliation that stings much more than Volodymyr Zelenskyy describing Putin as “a nobody.” From this point on, the image of Vladimir Putin is unavoidable tied to that of Slobodan Milosevic in the dock fighting hard to salvage what was left of his pride, only to end up killing himself. There is no way of escalating over the top of that.
It shakes the sense of self of every Russian who finds personal affirmation in their stumbling state and crippled society, in other words, in their strong leader. That the leader of the biggest country on earth should be regarded so low that he can be arrested by any police officer or border guard in any one of 123 countries, including more than eighty Third World countries, even African countries, not so long ago dismissed by a major Russian politician as worthy of annihilation, is hard for Russians to compute. Russians value themselves through their leader’s ability to do to anyone, including themselves, whatever he likes. The self-negation of the underling is the flip-side of the totalitarian coin. Their own political impotence confirms their leader’s power, and in his power, they imagine their own power.
Western analysts ask whether Putin will ever stand trial, implying that the ICC arrest warrant is an empty gesture. Yes, it would be great for Ukraine and for humanity to see Vladimir Putin in the dock, and it is true that this might never happen. But the arrest warrant is a blow that draws blood. Someone out there had the temerity to issue an arrest warrant against Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of the Russian Federation and former Lieutenant-Colonel in the KGB, something that no Russian prosecutor has the gumption to even dream of. Wittingly or unwittingly, the ICC has, indeed, seized escalation dominance from Putin by striking at Russian supremacism and the core of its identity, namely, its strong leader, while at the same time, emphasising the powerlessness of any Russian who is not the leader. On this issue, Russia is unable to anticipate what happens next.
Putin’s threat of using nuclear weapons reduced some Western politicians to talking of an “off-ramp” so Putin will not be humiliated. Contrast this with Putin’s “allies” in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) who all understand totalitarianism: as soon as they sensed Putin’s Ukraine predicament, they began to humiliate him in proportionate measure. Watch this space…
Vladimir Putin is no longer unassailable, not because the Russian armed forces are showing themselves to be an ineffective fighting force, but because Putin’s stature in the eyes of the Russian elite has taken a beating. Taking him down is no longer unthinkable, even if still a long way from actionable. Putin is still too powerful for anyone to laugh at him to his face, but the more he puts on the glitz before his bussed-in crowds, the more tragic a figure he becomes. The expressionless faces of the high guests speak volumes. The dangerous man is doomed, cornered like a rat by none other than himself. As long as he can still command adulation, he remains the Tsar. Each razzmatazz performance he puts on, however, is more surreal than the one before. The piles of Russian flags littering the streets afterwards grow larger.
In Putin’s view of the world, the arrest warrant is a low blow. It is playing by unfair rules. This psychological effect is exactly what the West should have aimed for from the start, and administered relentlessly. Instead, the West has been playing catch-up to Putin’s escalations, always careful never to exceed them, as if by his actions, Putin has been giving the West permission to act, but on condition that it always keeps a safe distance. When Russian pilots shot down an American Reaper drone over the Black Sea in early March, the United States did everything to “not be provoked.” According to Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia, “Armed Reapers to Ukraine... should be the response to [the Russian attack on] the unarmed Reaper in international waters.” Again, failure to dominate escalation simply invites Russia to escalate.
Forcing Russia into foreign currency debt default in June 2022 had the potential to achieve something approaching the effect of the ICC arrest warrant, but then the West did not press its advantage, for example, by seizing and disposing of Russian foreign assets and using the proceeds to arm Ukraine, train its soldiers and provide its people with humanitarian relief. The Russians brush off the debt default as Western machination, which, in fact, it was, but to be forced to stand by and watch their money paying to reduce their “special military operation” to a farce while unable to do anything about it, would have been a massive psychological escalation that could well have established Western escalation dominance.
It is interesting that the countries that do take the escalatory initiative are all members of the former Soviet block, either ex-Soviet states, such as Estonia, or wider ex-Warsaw Pact states, such as Poland, all societies under no illusions when it comes to their former overlords. The closer they are to the Russian border, the bolder they are, despite the enormous resource disparity between themselves and their far-better equipped NATO partners further West, all cowering in fear of Russian escalation to nuclear war and indulging in an inverse game of chicken.
Paradoxically, the psychological advantage the former Soviet bloc countries have over Russia is precisely the Russian impulse to dismiss them as irrelevant. So while the Russian leadership worries about what the United States, in Russian understanding the hegemon of NATO, might do, the Slovaks, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and even Moldovans can—and do—do a great deal to support Ukraine and undermine the “special military operation.” It is beneath Russia to pay heed to NATO’s “underlings,” the UK, France and Germany. How much more so the Soviet Union’s own former lesser nations who are now putting on airs. Had the West understood this psychological interplay, its entire approach to the war might have been different.
NATO might, for example, very early on in the war, have encouraged Romania, as a sovereign state rather than as a NATO member, to militarily assist Moldova in neutralising the Russian garrison in Transnistria and restoring Moldovan territorial integrity. The moment Moldovan territorial integrity were to have been restored, the country would have qualified for NATO membership, and the bombing of Western Ukraine across Moldova avoided. Captured Russian soldiers would have established immediate Western escalation dominance and have been a great gift to Ukraine. Russian penetration west of Kherson would not have seemed like such a great idea.
Real escalation dominance over Vladimir Putin will be for the Ukrainians, when they come to blow apart the timid and deluded Western notion of “Russian forces withdrawing to their borders.” This war will not be over until Ukraine seizes such Russian territory as will deny the latter access to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Only thus can Ukraine secure its territory from future Russian invasion, and ensure its economic security. Such a loss of territory, natural resources, food, access to the world’s oceans, and prestige will permanently end Russia as we know it. It is the Russian-Ukrainian zero-sum. To talk of negotiations is to insult the Ukrainians.
The wider lessons
Consistent with the pattern throughout this war, Ukraine’s eventual ultimate escalation in effecting the break-up of Russia is certain to meet with Western unease at the proliferation of nuclear-powered states, a concern particularly incongruous given the US's and the EU's lacklustre, some would say enabling, response to Iran’s headlong charge to acquire nuclear weapons while repeatedly stating its intention to obliterate two other states: Israel and the United States.
So far, no nuclear state has been nihilistic, but the Iranian Islamic ideology is nihilist. Not only did its founding ideologue, Ayatollah Khomeini, welcome war as Allah's special gift to Muslims and the greatest purifier, he was quite clear that he has no problem at all obliterating Iran, provided Islam prevails. In contrast, while the Communist regime in China will happily send millions of Chinese to their deaths, they will do so in order to preserve themselves.
Unfortunately, the same Western fear of "provoking escalation" with Russia obtains towards Iran. The specific nature of the Iranian regime has no bearing whatsoever on the Western myopia that everyone in the world just wants to get on with their lives and do the best for their children, and that if we just sit down and talk, we will find a compromise that everyone can live with, even though Iran has a horrific, proven, track record of unashamed national infanticide during the Iran-Iraq War, and an uninterrupted history of circumventing restriction on its nuclear programme by any and all means.
How do you provoke someone to escalate when he is already out to kill you and welcomes being killed? The answer is that whatever you do, you cannot provoke him, since your very existence provokes him. He has escalation dominance built-in before he has even started. By the nature of the case, provoking escalation is as meaningless as preventing escalation.
Deluded pontifications such as, "We continue to believe that the best way forward is to bring Iran to the negotiating table," has been a depressing feature of Western diplomacy over recent decades. When Americans put "Iran" and "negotiating table" together in the same sentence, one has to wonder what they think the Iranian regime means when it chants, "Death to America!" You can only be wrong about something like this once. The same goes for those Israelis who wish to destroy their only leader who understands what "Death to Israel!" means.
The prospective victims of a nihilistic nuclear power, therefore, have only two options: prevent, by all means, the nihilist from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place; or wait and fight a nuclear war to annihilate the nihilist at the risk of the nihilist getting you first. To do anything less is to simply resign yourself to your own annihilation. Apparently, this is too much of a stretch for many.
The dogmatic insistence in Western culture that violence is never justified must account for at least some of the aversion to escalation. It is precisely this dogmatic self-incapacitation that everyone who wants to destroy the West takes advantage of. Deepening the problem of Russia’s escalation dominance is that the West fails to recognise that Putin is not constrained by loss of life on either side. No matter how many Ukrainian civilians he kills and how many Russian soldiers he sends to their deaths, the West is caught by surprise each and every time, always expressing outrage and disgust at the deaths of Ukrainian civilians and bafflement at the deaths of Russian soldiers, but never making the mental leap that we are dealing with a very different kind of human being here.
Early on in the war, during the nuclear weapons hysteria, Western journalists played a stupid game of guessing whether Putin is or is not sane, much encouraged by Putin himself, thereby making “not provoking crazy Putin” into launching a nuclear weapon imperative. Vladimir Putin is perfectly sane and perfectly rational. Being perfectly sane and perfectly rational does not mean having the same impulses, values or priorities as someone else who is perfectly sane and perfectly rational. Some Western economists, for example, would lecture Russia on how damaging to the their economy this, that or the other action is, as if Russian priorities are driven by concerns for economic prosperity and social stability. Everything we know about totalitarianism, full or quasi, tells us otherwise. Everything we know about our past responses to totalitarianism, full or quasi, we are ignoring.
- Operator Starsky, “Russians fell victim to their own propaganda,” Times Radio, YouTube, 23 February 2023 https://youtu.be/LMxFb-Eglp0?t=552
- This exactly parallels the Muslim relationship to Allah, whom they accept “can do anything he wants” to them, including send them to Hell for having been perfect Muslims. All they can do is beg for his mercy and hope that the All-forgiving is in a forgiving mood that day.
- The ICC's conduct vis-à-vis Israel is scandalous.
- Allahu-akbar, (my) God is greater (than your god), performs the same function in the Muslim psyche.
- This thinking has strong parallels in Muslim thinking. For example, to decline a Muslims "offer" of Islam is an unfair attack on him, calling for a violent response from him.
- “Putin will be ‘haunt(ed) for the rest of his life’ by warrant,” NBC News, YouTube, 18 Mar 2023 https://youtu.be/-90TQ6AxPKI
- This irony, of course, does not diminish the real dangers attended to a proliferation of nuclear-armed states. Most of the states that will result from the break-up of the Russian Federation will be too poor, too ill-equipped, or both, to maintain nuclear arsenals. The disposal of their nuclear arms, material and facilities can be managed, although, given current experience in the neighbourhood, such states are unlikely to fall for “security guarantees” from anyone.
- Despite the West having had a century of experience of Muslims on jihad this time round. It has been going on for fourteen hundred years.