When the lead is flying, the number-one priority is not to be a target. But sometimes there’s no way to avoid it.
I have a difficult topic to address today for two reasons. The first is the terror inherent in the subject: a potential nuclear war. The second is that the indicators suggest that everything I once believed about strategic analysis has been turned on its head. The combination makes for a great reluctance to go further. But if I can’t, who could?
Grit your teeth, Gentle Reader. From here forward, the going will be maximally rocky.
All strategic analysis begins with an assumption: that for each potential participant in a possible war, there is some maximum price he would be willing to pay at each stage prior to the actual clash of arms:
- Normal diplomatic intercourse;
- Amassing allies;
- Mobilization and positioning;
While it’s not always obvious, there are costs at each stage. Some of those costs are immediate and unavoidable; the others manifest as risks. A potential belligerent must decide what he’s willing to spend and willing to gamble.
While the conflict in Ukraine is a war in its own right, it’s also where the above progression toward a far deadlier conflict is testing the resolve and the “wallet” of the potential belligerents. The first three stages are over; the fourth is near to completion. Neither the U.S. / NATO combination nor the Russian Federation has backed off to date. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has entered the fifth stage, by mobilizing part of his nuclear submarine fleet and positioning nuclear-capable bombers at the edge of his western border with Ukraine. He’s waiting for us to raise, call, or fold.
This is the period of maximum danger. Should Team Blue also begin to mobilize, the pressure will be on both our and Team Red’s triggers. The questions thereafter would be:
- Who will strike first?
- What will he strike?
Neither Blue nor Red wants to strike first, for geopolitical reasons that hearken back to World War I. But neither side wants to back down, either: the American-led alliance, because it would cost the U.S. its dominance over European geopolitics; the Russian Federation, because it still feels the humiliation of having lost the Cold War. For a de-escalation to occur, there must be a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war to which both sides can agree without losing face. The likelihood of such a settlement has declined with each step the two sides have taken.
If the war does mushroom to embrace the U.S. and the larger Russian Federation, target selection becomes the question of the hour.
This morning, Divemedic mentions a critical consideration:
The second possibility is that we have backed Putin into a corner where he feels has is about to be tossed from power in the Russian way, meaning a bullet to the head. After all, we are shutting down the Russian economy. His own citizens are starting to riot and push back. All he needs to do in order to join the Romanovs in their retirement villa is maintain the status quo. Having little to lose, he is actually planning on using nukes. If that is what he is up to, and it is certainly possible, then there are a couple of ways that I see him doing this. He will either attack Ukraine under the assumption that the other NATO countries will do nothing (because our leaders are senile and/or cowardly pussies), or he will do it in conjunction with a decapitation strike.
In our time, an autocrat must be aware of the vindictiveness of his enemies – and Vladimir Putin is a classic autocrat. There is no power in Russia that does not answer to him. As I wrote in Shadow of a Sword:
Living in the public eye had always entailed increased risk. Historically, whenever some troublemaker had roused the rabble to a greater pitch than the Establishment of that time and place could tolerate, it had disposed of him with no compunction and extreme prejudice. There were parts of the world where that was still the inevitable price of rising to power—places where a dismissal from high office was always administered with high-velocity lead. Power seekers in such lands arrived in their palaces with their death warrants already signed and sealed; they merely awaited delivery.
An autocrat who senses that there’s a target on his back will be inclined to target whoever has caused it to settle on him: in this case, the Usurper Regime in these United States, figureheaded by Joseph Biden. He would strive to eliminate the Usurpers themselves, betting that with the elimination of the Regime the threat to him personally would fade away.
Historically, strategic analysts have predicted that the nation that launches a first nuclear strike would aim it at the other side’s nuclear forces: a counterforce targeting pattern, intended to deprive the enemy of his ability to inflict reciprocal damage. Today that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, wherein power was dispersed among the members of the Central Committee and the larger nomenklatura, and consensus sought in great matters. Vladimir Putin’s decisions require no ratification from the Duma, other than the purely cosmetic.
The detection of a Russian launch would almost automatically trigger a countervalue response – a launch against Russian cities and critical economic sites – from the U.S. The American deterrent system is almost incapable of anything else, owing to the “Single Integrated Operational Plan” (SIOP) that has dominated American strategic doctrine since the Sixties. Herman Kahn once commented on this: “Gentlemen, you don’t have a war plan. You have a war orgasm.”
A countervalue launch from the U.S. would be answered by a countervalue launch from Russia.
Threat analysis has long overlooked the emotional and psychological aspects of international dealing. It’s assumed greater rationality than many regimes have exhibited. More to the point of today’s situation, it’s assumed an abiding, compelling love of country among those who rule.
It would be comforting to assume that Vladimir Putin loves Russia enough to risk being toppled from power for his decisions. That might be the case, but it’s not possible to know it with high confidence. However – and most unfortunately – we cannot assume that the Usurpers love America enough to take that risk. They’ve struggled for supremacy for decades. They were willing to steal a national election blatantly, in full view of the nation, to get it.
Would they risk their destruction, and the destruction of much of our country, in preference to backing down?