The Road to Nuclear Escalation
And the road to negotiation.
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1. Cold Bringer
Here’s a lovely thought to start your day: What if Putin used a high-altitude nuclear detonation to create an EMP over a major city?
That’s one of the scenarios that Christopher Chivvisoutlines in this piece, which argues that the two most likely branches ahead of us are:
(1) Russia subjugates Ukraine, or
(2) Putin escalates.
Here’s the section that put a knot in my stomach:
Scores of war games carried out by the United States and its allies in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine make it clear that Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he concludes that his regime is threatened. . . .
The nuclear option that has been most frequently discussed in the past few days involves Russia using a small nuclear weapon (a “non-strategic nuclear weapon”) against a specific military target in Ukraine. Such a strike might have a military purpose, such as destroying an airfield or other military target, but it would mainly be aimed at demonstrating the will to use nuclear weapons, or “escalating to de-escalate”, and scaring the west into backing down.
Some analysts have questioned Russia’s ability to actually carry out such an operation, given its lack of practice. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only or even the most likely option available to the Kremlin. Based on war games I ran in the wake of Putin’s 2014 invasion, a more likely option would be a sudden nuclear test or a high-altitude nuclear detonation that damages the electrical grid over a major Ukrainian or even NATO city.
Just as an exercise, it’s worth gaming through both what NATO’s response should be to such an escalation and what the downstream effects for the world might be. Chivvis argues that in most of the “winning” simulations, NATO has to respond in kind—after which both sides are able to deescalate.
And after that: the deluge.
Even in the better case where both sides take their fingers off the triggers, the nuclear taboo has been broken, and we are in an entirely new era: two nuclear superpowers have used their nuclear weapons in a war. The proliferation consequences alone would be far-reaching, as other countries accelerate their nuclear weapons programs. The very fact that the nuclear taboo had been broken increases the odds that the nuclear threshold is crossed again in future conflicts, not just between Russia and America, but also with China, between India and Pakistan, in the Middle East, or elsewhere. Even this outcome in which the world is “saved”, the United States is far worse off than it was before the war in Ukraine broke out last month.
True. But then, that general idea—that the United States is worse off than it was pre-invasion—will be true in every scenario except for regime change in Russia.
Also: I suspect that a massive cyber attack is at least as likely a mode of escalation as a nuclear attack, for any number of reasons, including the fact that it’s deniable and the fact that the Russian economy is in such shambles that they have less to lose from retaliation.
Lawrence Freedman, on the other hand, discusses how a negotiated settlement might work and focuses on two possibilities: A keep-what-you-hold ceasefire and a negotiated peace.
If Russia is interested in a keep-what-you-hold ceasefire, they may pivot in the east:
One possible shift in Russian strategy (although something that was expected early in the campaign) might be to target the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine. Forces that have been close to Kharkiv could advance on Dnipro from the north while others could come up from the south . . . Mariupol, which despite everything has not yet surrendered, might then fall, giving Russia a notional hold over a continual strip of land from the Donbas round to Odesa. . . .
It would mean that Russia had territory with which to bargain in an eventual peace conference. . . .
Russia has the most interest in a keep what you hold ceasefire. For Ukraine this would give legitimacy to Russian forces continuing to occupy chunks of its territory and for this reason they will continue to oppose it for now even if they suffer some battlefield reverses. They will also think that over time, there are underlying factors that work in their favour. Valuable military supplies are continuing to enter the country, and strengthen Ukraine’s defences. The West will not let their economy collapse. Meanwhile the Russians are having to find reserves and their economy faces ruination.
And here are the opening positions of Ukraine and Russia on any road to a negotiated peace:
All that can be said on the Russian side is that they have edged away from regime change in Kyiv, or at least are prepared to see Zelensky stay as president, but they still insist on neutralising Ukraine, so it can join no international organisations, along with recognition of annexed Crimea and the independence of the enclaves in the Donbas.
On the evening of 8 March Zelensky’s office issued his proposals. These were carefully constructed so as to suggest forms of compromise. The first raised the possibility of ‘a collective security agreement with all its neighbours and with the participation of the world’s leading countries’, which will provide guarantees for Russia as well as Ukraine. In principle this has attractions for Putin, because it would render membership of NATO unnecessary and would preclude Ukraine acting as a base for long-range US weapons. On the other hand it would give Ukraine some sort of US-backed security guarantee. It would not however lead to Ukraine’s demilitarization. . . .
On Crimea he seems to be looking for a compromise that allows both sides to maintain their positions on where the territory truly belongs while in practice apparently accepting for the moment it stays with Russia. This is realistic. On Donetsk and Luhansk, the two enclaves in the Donbas, his language was more elliptical. ‘It is important to me how people who want to be part of Ukraine will live there. I am interested in the opinion of those who see themselves as citizens of the Russian Federation. However, we must discuss this issue.’ There is an obvious trap for Russia here. The leaders of these self-declared ‘Peoples’ Republics’ want independence or even to join with Russia but it is by no means clear that will be the popular view in these territories
So in addition to nuclear war, here is another thing NATO needs to prepare for: What is the response if Russia proposes some form of ceasefire, but with a precondition being that some (or all) Western sanctions are rolled back?
You could assume that such a request would not be genuine. But even so, there would have to be a coordinated response. Can NATO loosen sanctions in stages, while Russian troops still occupy Ukrainian territory? Would such loosening be in our interest? Would Ukraine even want us to?
3. Keystone XL
On a podcast last week I said that it might have been helpful to have the Keystone XL pipeline still viable at this point, at least as a mitigating factor in risk premiums with regard to gas.
A reader who works in the energy industry wrote in to explain why this view is wrong. He gave me permission to share his thoughts on Keystone XL with you:
Myth 1: Biden Canceled the Keystone Pipeline.
The Keystone Pipeline is alive, well, and pumping. What Biden canceled was outstanding permits related to the Keystone XL Pipeline expansion project, not the Keystone Pipeline itself, see this map from Keystone’s own website announcing their abandoning of the project.
The XL, short for Export Limited project was an expansion project, not an entire new pipeline. The primary Keystone Pipeline, all 2,600 miles of it, is moving roughly 700,000 barrels of oil a day. The XL expansion would raise that rate to 800,000.
Myth 2: Keystone Oil from Alberta would produce gas for American motorists.
The Export Limited part of the XL name is pretty crucial—the line in question was planned to bring tar sands oil to a Texas refinery. The reality of Gulf Coast refineries is that nearly two-thirds of their end result refinement gets sent to other countries. Little to no refined Canadian oil sands gasoline would end up in U.S. pumps.
Myth 3: Biden Canceled the Keystone XL due to pressure from the environmental lobby.
Keystone XL was proposed in 2008 when oil was flirting with $150/b and recovering tar sands oil was a reasonably profitable enterprise. Then the other entities in the market did market things and the price of oil plunged. There’s a whole saga of the Saudi’s going out of their way to flood the market and screw non-OPEC oil nations here, but I digress.
The reality is that it’s very likely no one was more pleased that Keystone XL’s permits were canceled than TC Energy (née Trans Canada). Oil sand extraction is expensive, to the point of only being profitable when the cost per barrel is above a certain point—about $70 a barrel.
At the time the administration acted to cancel the KXL permits only 8 percent of the XL expansion line was built, even though funding for the project had been secured. This means that TC Energy was able to walk away from a project that was becoming an albatross.
The proof? The Trump administration, celebrating jobs and another infrastructure week, approved the KXL line in 2017.
And after all that fanfare, nothing happened.
Myth 4. The Keystone XL pipeline would open a new untapped wilderness of cheap Canadian energy.
Keystone is not the first Canada to U.S. pipeline. It’s not the 5th. It’s not even the 20th.
We move a LOT of oil from Canada.
In fact more than half—51 percent—of the oil coming into the U.S. is from our great neighbor to the north.
So having Keystone XL still viable wouldn’t be helping us at all right now.
Fun fact: As an undergrad I rowed with Chivvis. Or rather, we rowed in the same program, but never on the same boat.
Points to whoever knows what “Coldbringer” is without resorting to Google.
JVL is not always right.