Tuesday, October 04, 2022

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newyorker  |  When we first spoke, in early September, Goemans predicted a protracted conflict. None of the three main variables of war-termination theory—information, credible commitment, and domestic politics—had been resolved. Both sides still believed that they could win, and their distrust for each other was deepening by the day. As for domestic politics, Putin was exactly the sort of leader that Goemans had warned about. Despite his significant repressive apparatus, he did not have total control of the country. He kept calling the war a “special military operation” and delaying a mass mobilization, so as not to have to face domestic unrest. If he started losing, Goemans predicted, he would simply escalate.

And then, in the weeks after Goemans and I first spoke, events accelerated rapidly. Ukraine launched a remarkably successful counter-offensive, retaking large swaths of territory in the Kharkiv region and threatening to retake the occupied city of Kherson. Putin, as predicted, struck back, declaring a “partial mobilization” of troops and staging hasty “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation in the occupied territories. The partial mobilization was carried out in a chaotic fashion, and, as at the beginning of the war, caused tens of thousands of people to flee Russia. There were sporadic protests across the nation, and these threatened to grow in size. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continued to advance in the east of their country.

In a terrifying blog post, Goemans’s former student Branislav Slantchev laid out a few potential scenarios. He believes that the Russian front in the Donbas is still in danger of imminent collapse. If this were to happen, Putin would need to escalate even further. This could take the form of more attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, but, if the goal is to stop Ukrainian advances, a likelier option would be a small tactical nuclear strike. Slantchev suggests that it would be under one kiloton—that is, about fifteen times smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It would nonetheless be devastating, and would almost certainly lead to an intense reaction from the West. Slantchev does not think that NATO would respond with nuclear strikes of its own, but it could, for example, destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This could lead to yet another round of escalation. In such a situation, the West may be tempted, finally, to retreat. Slantchev urged them not to. “This is it now,” he wrote. “This is for all the marbles.”

“Branislav is very worried,” Goemans told me, “and he is not a scaredy-cat.” Goemans was also worried, though his hypothetical time line was more extended. He believes that the new Russian reinforcements, however ill-trained and ill-equipped, and the onset of an early winter will pause the Ukrainian campaign and save the Russians, for the moment. “People think it’s going to be over quickly, but, unfortunately, war doesn’t work like that,” he said. But he also believes that Ukraine will resume its offensive in the spring, at which point the same dynamic and the same dangers will be back in play. “For a war to end,” Goemans said, “the minimum demands of at least one of the sides must change.” This is the first rule of war termination. And we have not yet reached a point where war aims have changed enough for a peace deal to be possible.

The theorists’ predictions for what would happen next depended, in part, on how they evaluated the variables. Would the Russian front in the Donbas really collapse, and, if so, how soon? If it did collapse, how much of the information about it would the Kremlin be able to control? These things were unpredictable, but one had to make predictions. Dan Reiter, for example, was slightly more sanguine than Goemans about Putin’s ability to sell a partial victory to the Russian people, because of his mastery of the Russian media. To Reiter, Putin was enough of a dictator that he would be able to back off.

Despite being the preĆ«minent theorist of credible commitment, Reiter believes that the war could end short of an absolute outcome, such as the destruction of the Russian Federation. “You really don’t like to leave in place a country that is going to offer some kind of lingering threat,” he said. “However, sometimes that’s just the world you have to live in, because it’s just too costly to actually remove the threat completely.” He saw a future in which Ukraine agreed to a ceasefire and then gradually turned itself into a “military hedgehog,” a prickly country that no one would want to invade. “Medium-sized states can protect themselves even from very dangerous adversaries,” Reiter said. “Ukraine can make itself more defensible into the future, but it will look a lot different as a country and as a society than it did before the invasion.” It would look more like Israel, with high taxes, military spending, and lengthy mandatory military service. “But Ukraine is defensible,” Reiter said. “They’ve proven that.”

Goemans was feeling more worried. Once again, his thoughts took him to the First World War. In 1917, Germany, faced with no hope of victory, decided to gamble for resurrection. It unleashed its secret weapon, the U-boat, to conduct unlimited operations on the high seas. The risk of the strategy was that it would bring the United States into the war; the hope was that it would choke off Great Britain and lead to victory. This was a “high variance” strategy, in Goemans’s words, meaning that it could lead to a great reward or a great calamity. In the event, it did lead to the U.S. entering the war, and the defeat of Germany, and the Kaiser’s removal from power.

In this situation, the secret weapon is nuclear. And its use carries with it the risk, again, of even greater involvement in the war by the U.S. But it could also, at least temporarily, halt the advance of the Ukrainian Army. If used effectively, it could even bring about a victory. “People get very excited about the front collapsing,” Goemans said. “But for me it’s, like, ‘Ah-h-h!’ ” At that point, Putin would really be trapped.

For the moment, Goemans still believes that the nuclear option is unlikely. And he believes that Ukraine will win the war. But that will also take a long time, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.


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