As of this writing (September 12), Ukraine’s counter offensives appear to be succeeding. The widely telegraphed offensive in the south is making some progress. But it looks as if its primary role was deception, where it has already succeeded because Russia responded by drawing down its forces in eastern Ukraine, opening the door for the main Ukrainian counteroffensive. That is moving forward at Blitzkrieg pace, to the point where Russian units are disintegrating. All this is, of course, wonderful news for Ukraine and for anyone who wants to see David beat Goliath.
But interests must be matters of cold calculation, not warm emotions. Foreign policy is more than consulting Sant’s list of who is naughty or nice. Yes, the Russians have been beasts and their invasion of Ukraine has been criminal. But Ukraine’s victories are not good news for America’s most vital interest.
What is that most vital interest? Avoiding nuclear war.
Throughout the Cold War, everyone in Washington understood this. Party did not matter, liberal or conservative was of no consequence. The whole foreign and defense policy establishment knew we and the Soviets were walking on eggs. The slightest mis-step could mean nuclear catastrophe. We came close on occasion; the closest was probably during the Cuban missile crisis, when the skipper of a Soviet submarine was about to fire a nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer. His politruk stopped him. As the representative of the Party, he knew Moscow did not want nuclear war any more than Washington did.
But it seems all the adults in the room died and a bunch of drunk teenagers now have their fingers on the button. Russia has hinted from the outset of its invasion of Ukraine that the nuclear option is available. If the Russian army is beginning to disintegrate, I suspect that option is or soon will be on the table.
What would it mean? My guess is one or more nuclear strikes in western Ukraine, aimed at the supply lines bringing in American and European weapons. Initially, I don’t think they would attack NATO territory. But the winds blow east to west in Europe, and the fallout could be considered a weapon on its own.
This is, of course, madness in Moscow. President Putin regrets the break-up of the Soviet Union; some old Party hands should remind him that no Soviet leader would ever have started a nuclear war. Had one moved to do so, he would immediately have been recognized as a Trotskyite and toppled.
Unfortunately, the situation in Washington is as bad or worse. Some circles there are planning to respond with American nuclear strikes if Russia uses nukes in Ukraine. But what could our targets be? If we target Russian-held regions of Ukraine such as Donbas, we create the bizarre situation where Moscow and Washington are both nuking Ukraine. The latter will find out what it was like to be Germany during the Thirty Years War, the place where everyone from Swedes to Spaniards fought it out. Some German towns still have not recovered.
It does not stop there. These same circles (hint: there’s a “neo” in their name) know this, plan to hit targets on Russian territory and are calmly discussing the fact that we might lose some east coast cities. The U.S. military has reportedly been directed to develop contingency plans for such a situation.
Playing with nuclear war goes beyond folly. It is insanity, plain and simple, straight out of Dr. Strangelove.
If there are any adults left in Moscow or Washington, they need to kick the teenagers out of the room, consider their interests rationally and sit down and talk. Let us imagine the man we need, old Bismark, returns as the Ghost of Crises past (I think Turkish President Erdogan might serve as his avatar). Here’s a draft agreement:
Russia has a legitimate interest in Ukraine, namely that it does not constitute a threat to Russia. That means Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO, although it may join the EU. If Ukraine succeeds in retaking Donbas, it returns to Ukraine, but as a special autonomous region with some degree of self-government and a general amnesty. If Russia can hold it, it stays Russian.
Russia keeps Crimea, because it has historically been Russian. Like the Donbas, the Russian corridor connecting Russia proper to Crimea stays with whoever holds it when the fighting stops.
In return for Russia getting Crimea, Ukraine gets East Prussia (now called the “Kaliningrad Oblast”) and a new, broad-gauge, heavy-haul railway connecting Konigsberg to Ukraine, giving Ukraine two seas through which it can export its agricultural products.
Finally, Russia joins an international consortium to rebuild Ukraine, with Russia allowed to concentrate its efforts in towns and cities where the population is heavily Russian.
In all this, there is one point Washington must keep in mind above all others: the United States has no vital interests at stake in Ukraine. That is why it is insanity for us to be contemplating nuclear war. For what? How do we benefit?
The thought that, having avoided nuclear war with the Soviet Union for all those years, we are now planning for a nuclear war with a non-Communist Russia is beyond rational comprehension.