Friday, September 30, 2022

Toe To Toe, Back To Back, Gat For Gat - It's Like That....,

TAC  |  The same media sources who have been telling us that Putin is a madman now assure us, without any sense of contradiction, that he would never use tactical nuclear weapons to avoid total defeat in Ukraine. “Don’t let Putin bluff us” exhorted Max Boot, an exemplar of hawkish neocon wrongthink ever since he urged us into the Iraq War with lies about WMD and Saddam’s connection to 9/11. Having been wrong about so much over the past twenty years, one would expect more humility and less certainty from Boot as he confidently waves away Putin’s nuclear threat. But in Washington, neoconservatism means never having to say you’re sorry. 

Neocons aren’t the only voices in media and academic circles blithely assuring us that Putin is bluffing. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, now Stanford professor, Michael McFaul, giddy with the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, declared that this is the moment for the U.S. “to go all in” on Ukraine, with “more and better weapons and more and better sanctions.” Clearly, he too dismisses the nuclear threat. 

Charles Pierce mocked Putin in Esquire, saying “he has decided to butch it up quite seriously for the public” and “his speech reeks of a monumental bluff.” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin shrugged off the threat while calling for the West to escalate its support for Ukraine, writing that “Putin and his circle have made nuclear threats frequently in recent years – and they have always been a bluff.” Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at King’s College London, told NBC News that Putin “is doubling down politically because he is losing militarily… He says, ‘This is not a bluff,’ which shows that it is.”

Cloistered within the high walls of the media, academy, or government bureaucracy, most of these commentators have never held a job that required serious risk-taking. They have not conducted a cost-benefit analysis or even played a hand of high-stakes poker. Yet they claim to know exactly what cards Putin is holding and how he will play them. Smart poker players understand that they can’t precisely know their opponent’s hand, so they seek to put them on a range of possibilities and then evaluate whether their previous actions tell a story more consistent with a credible hand or a bluff. 

What story is Putin telling about Ukraine? Since 2008, Moscow has warned that the admission of Ukraine into NATO was an unacceptable red line for Russian security because it meant American troops, weapons, and bases directly on their most vulnerable border. Current CIA director Bill Burns, who was our emissary to Moscow at the time, conveyed these concerns back to Washington in his now-famous memo Nyet Means Nyet. Since then, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have warned repeatedly that Moscow regards NATO weapons inside Ukraine, most particularly American missile systems that could hit Moscow in minutes, as an existential threat. Putin repeatedly warned that he would invade Ukraine if his security concerns weren’t addressed, and indeed he did when they weren’t. This decision was immoral, criminal, and barbaric, but it was not the act of a bluffer.


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