The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Rationality Is A Process, Not A Conclusion (Nuclear Weapons Edition)

A lot of mistakes come from assuming rationality means “thinks the same way I do” rather than “reasons from premises I might not share.”

Less than 1/1000 economists predicted the financial collapse, because they reasoned from assumptions like “the market is self-correcting” or “housing prices never go down.” (Sometimes both at the same time, which is rarely rational.)

Back in 2008 I wrote an article saying the next war w/Russia would be over Sevastopol/Crimea. I was told by Eurocrats that was impossible, because it would be irrational: the energy trade was too big to risk, Putin needed it. Rational. Putin didn’t see it that way, either then or now: Crimea and Sevastopol were Russian regions, strategically and emotionally important. When Ukraine seemed serious about cancelling the Sevastopol naval base lease, he acted.

Right now I hear a lot of people saying things like “never give into nuclear blackmail because then Russia will keep using it” or “Putin is rational, he would never use nuclear weapons.”

Now I don’t think he will, but I don’t think it’s impossible, even if one considers Putin rational. All he has to have is a scenario where he believes that he will get more than he will lose.

So, imagine that at some point Russia wants to end the war with Ukraine but doesn’t or can’t conquer enough to force a peace. Or imagine that there is a fake peace (no peace treaty) and Ukraine keeps dropping artillery shells into territory Russia says is theirs now.

Putin might, rationally, decide that the way to force a peace is to indicate that if war continues, he’ll go nuclear and if people don’t believe him, drop a tac-nuke or two to prove he’s not bluffing. (Remember, blackmailers who kidnap people often DO kill the victim. They aren’t bluffing.)

He thinks that the West is not really willing to risk a nuclear war and that if he is willing to risk one they will back down, especially if what he wants isn’t really that big. That’s a rational belief. It might be wrong, but it’s not irrational.

Or perhaps Putin gets into a scenario where he’s losing the war badly, and believes that if he does either he loses power and maybe his life; or that the Western maximalists will succeed in breaking up Russia. If the only way to stop that is to drop a nuke or two, why not? The US dropped nukes on Japan for less reason, although it’s true that no one else had nukes back then.

But what does the West do? If they tit-for-tat, and drop a tac-nuke or two, that means general war: Ukraine doesn’t have nukes, remember, so a NATO country has to attack and that will lead to nuclear war pretty fast if Putin thinks he can’t win a general war. (This is also true of a conventional war against Russia by NATO. Once he’s used tac-nukes, what makes you think he’ll stop when faced by a much more powerful enemy?)

The idea that Putin won’t use nukes is based on the idea that the risk of armageddon is always greater than whatever he expects to achieve. But what if he figures he can only die once or that Russia will cease to exist if he doesn’t use them, or that using them is the only way to stop a long drawn out fake peace? Also, remember that to some people dying by nukes and dying any other way is still just dying.

Now I have to say that  think Russia is very unlikely to use nukes , even tac-nukes, but I also feel uneasy ruling it entirely because it is quite easy to come up with scenarios where Russian leadership decides the gain is worth the risks. This is even true if Russia feels backed into a corner, or if they are in an Afghanistan or Spanish Ulcer situation (Napoleon constantly losing troops in Spain). An ongoing bleeding which can’t otherwise be stopped might be worth risking nuclear war. If you’re going to lose anyway without it, why not risk it?

This, by the way, is why fighting a nuclear superpower over what they consider a core interest (notice “they”, not what you think, but what they think) is so risky and why the USSR and the US danced around each other like ponderous elephants. “If we really fight, we both lose.”

If Russia wants to win in Ukraine more than we (and given our support for Ukraine, it is “we”) do, they may well use nukes. Pretending it’s impossible is stupid and very very dangerous.



Vaccine And Mask Effectiveness


Fifteen Points About the Future of the Ukraine War


  1. Willy

    Firstly, in that region the prevailing winds blow from west to east. Second, when I scan the comments sections of major western news outfits (and many from elsewhere), I’m not seeing anybody dissing Ukraine, let alone trying to explain the neoliberal-plutocratic ‘nuance’ behind that situation. Third, the consensus amongst our so-called military experts is that if Russia resorts to tactical nukes, that a unified NATO conventional force which they see as quite likely now being planned, would aim to take out anything Russian, land sea or air, anywhere inside Ukraine as well as in the Black Sea. I seriously doubt that Russia, with an economy about that of Italy (and then minus whatever the oligarchic looting has been), would have the means to counter a force that insanely large. And given the weak patriotic response seen from Russian conscripts, highly doubtful that many would be eager to go to war against such a force. So the ultimate question is: just how desperate and/or crazy is this Putin?

  2. Tallifer

    Reading this book as well as following the youtube channel The Great War with their explication of all the national struggles in the wake of the first world war helped explain to me why so very many Ukrainians nowadays say they are willing to fight to the death to be free from Russia. The war is not between the West and Russia; it is between Ukrainians (now even many of their Russian speakers) and Russians.

    Therefore what we reason or gamble or hope concerning nuclear war will not affect the Ukrainians determination to fight to the finish. I do not think the Vietnamese or Afghan leaders would have cared about American nuclear threats.

  3. Bazarov

    Because of the risks of nuclear war inherent in the use of even one small nuke, there’s a huge amount of conventional escalation that would occur before Russia would resort to nuclear weapons.

    For instance, Russia would, in my view, use its conventional missiles to take out all of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Russia would declare war and fully mobilize (we’re talking millions of troops). Etc.

    If these sorts of conventional measures don’t pan out for Russia–or if these conventional escalations are met with full war mobilization by NATO–then maybe we would be in a situation where the escalation latter reaches the nuclear pinnacle.

    At such a dangerous point, we would be remiss to leave the American/NATO agency out of our scenarios. If Russia declares war and fully mobilizes, if it looks as if Ukraine is going to surrender after a decisive battle or two, is it out of the question that the US might slip the desperate Ukrainian military a couple tactical nukes?

  4. Boris

    Perhaps desperate and/or crazy enough to use nukes, which was the point.

  5. Purple Library Guy

    I keep seeing that “economy about that of Italy” meme. It’s unrealistic–perhaps not flat wrong, if you look at GDP in US dollars when the ruble is low, but deeply misleading. If you use PPP, look at how much they are capable of producing, Russia’s economy is quite big. And yeah, sure, Russia’s economy is less efficient because corrupt oligarchs . . . but so is Italy’s and the US’.

    When it comes to the military, the US economy is probably quite a bit more corrupt than Russia’s, if only because there was such a long time where the US didn’t have to worry about serious existential threats in the conventional military sphere (and it still hasn’t really sunk in that that may have changed). Russia cannot afford to build turkey weapon systems; they really need shit to work, and they know it. So some contractors might feather their nests a tad, but they’ll be making real stuff that is genuinely useful in war or they will lose their heads . . . probably metaphorically.

  6. Willy

    Yes I do simplify, but I don’t understand the PPP comparison as it pertains to an effective international military. An awful lot of American GDP is devoted towards the military/tech sector, which the plutocrats and corporatists don’t need the common consumer to maintain. Just a big scary war every now and then.

    But then the USA does have something like 800 offshore military bases to maintain, while Russia has closer to 2% of that number. That’s gotta be expensive, even for a military better funded than the next dozen or so nations militaries.

    But then again there are videos purportedly done by Russian soldiers themselves, describing conditions. Deteriorated weaponry, confusion about goals, weak strategies and poor morale. CIA deep fakes? Chessmaster Putin deviously setting up a surprise checkmate? If so, then why all the fuss and bother of knowingly going at this thing for so long? Sorry. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer painful plausibility over hopeful skepticism.

  7. Ché Pasa

    Oh my. Here we are. Months ago, I asked how close we were to nuclear annihilation, and most seemed to think “not very,.” And we’re much closer now, on the brink, but of course we’re conditioned to think it’s not going to happen, so no one’s building bomb shelters like we did back in the ’50s and ’60s when we were constantly on the brink. But it didn’t happen, wiser heads prevailed, yada yada.

    But there are no wiser heads now, are there? And there are many in high places in the West who are fine with the idea of using nukes, some actually desire it. Not so many, I think, in Russia, but I’ve been wrong before about how the Kremlin will behave, and who knows what will happen as Russian troops apparently cede more and more territory to the Ukrainian “hordes.”

    Wait. Where are these “hordes” coming from? I’m so old I remember when Ukrainian troops were always being encircled in “cauldrons” over and over again, and their only choice was to surrender or die. And yet, and yet, still more Ukrainian soldiers and irregulars appeared from out of nowhere (poof!) and fought bravely with USandNato weapons and supplies and beat back the Russian “hordes.” Again and again.

    Of course so much of what we hear and ultimately believe about Ukraine and Russia and their war is utter propaganda and narrative, a scripted show that may have no relation to reality.

    Ultimately we don’t know. We aren’t meant to know. But the talk of nukes and the psychological and emotional preparation for their us (going on for months now), has a certain inevitability about it. I confess I’ve checked the likely target list, and the nearest one is about 50 miles west on the othe side of a mountain range (whew) so we’re safe enough if it comes…. for a while.

    What did we do to deserve this?

  8. GrimJim

    Everyone keeps talking “Regime Change” in Russia. Talk about irrational! As mentioned, anyone who has remotely the power to take over after a coup is arguably worse for the west, and more of a loose cannon, than Putin.

    And at this point you can be sure that anyone with any keys to the nukes is completely tied to Putin. Such that if Putin goes, they die, their families die, their friends die, etc.

    And they believe if Putin is overthrown, Russia either falls to worse native monsters or becomes a colony of the US… Either a horrible fate, to their ways of thinking.

    So for them, the only reasonable act at that point is to launch everything they can. Take everyone else out with them, leave any “victors” nothing but radioactive rubble.

    After all, there is no “good way out” for them. They die, their families die, their friends die, and their nation and people fall under the control of madmen or worse…

    And there is nothing the US can do to convince them that it would be otherwise. After all, look what happens to all our enemies, whether they are captured or foolishly surrender. We no longer even bother with a fake trial any more, we just outright murder them in the most vile ways possible.

    So the only “rational” thing left is to take them all out with you.

  9. Carborundum

    The critical question is whether Putin has escalation dominance in the context of Russian launch authority norms. I’d say no, but that it cuts both ways…

  10. Kris Kerr

    To the Soviet Union (and Putin’s Russia), not being able to totally control a neighbor country is unacceptable, it’s an existential threat. This is totally bullshit, but that’s how “they” think. Unless the West totally cedes western Europe to the Fulga Gap, Russia will not be happy. Are we to accept this paradigm?

  11. Kris Kerr

    As for nukes, I don’t think tactical nukes will do Russia any good. If they nuke cities, they will be a pariah forever. There are no large concentrations of the Ukrainian Army to nuke. As the West realized decades ago, tactical nuclear weapons just don’t have a useful role.

  12. Kris Kerr

    This is a strange situation, a nuclear power who is super-weak conventionally. But I think it’s wise to confront Russia in Ukraine, rather than in Poland. The sooner Russia is shut down conventionally, the less likely it will be to use nukes to save face.

  13. NL

    Elon Musk = Vlad Putin, one tells us dreamy B S about bases on Mars and self-driving cars, the other tells us geopolitical B S about multipolar world and nuclear response. Both are demagogues, one is talking his book and looking after his stocks, the other is distracting his population from economic robbery and holding his lazy and impudent oligarchy in power.

    Simple as that. No need for problematizing and intellectualizing it…

  14. JEREMY

    Watch soon before YouTube take it down

  15. Astrid

    If one starts with garbage facts and assumptions, no amount of logic will save the results. Add in a healthy dose of mirroring and I see that this comment section is now about as detached from reality as NYT and MSNBC. Are you people relying on sources that were already caught lying to the public about everything else that mattered?

    If Russia is now clearly losing badly and Putler is crazy and desperate, then how come India, China, Turkiye, Saudi Arabia, Brazil (both Lula and Bolsanaro), and even Israel is supporting it? How come they and African leaders all crowd around Lavrov while US and EU can’t secure LNG and piped gas alternatives to Russia? OPEC plus just agreed to cut production by 2 million barrels a day. Would they dare do this if they thought Russia was about to fall apart and running out of men and munition.

    BTW – Putin never said he’s considering nuclear war. Go to the Kremlin site to read his speech and see what he actually said is in response to what Russia sees as threats of nuclear attack coming from “strategically ambiguous” statements coming from the USA.

    Meanwhile today, we have an unambiguous statement from Zelensky calling on NATO to carry out “preventative nuclear strikes” against Moscow. We also have John Bolton, unhinged but well within the Western foreign affairs Overton window, calling for a military coup against the entire RF government. Do these sound like scrappy winners (of using thousands of lives and hundreds of tanks to invade empty villages for a time) against Russia?

  16. NL

    “If Russia is now clearly losing badly and Putler is crazy and desperate, then how come India, China, Turkiye, Saudi Arabia, Brazil (both Lula and Bolsanaro), and even Israel is supporting it? — Would they dare do this if they thought Russia was about to fall apart and running out of men and munition. ”

    You know — like they say — how the mighty have fallen. What this reflects is the loss of status on our part and the rise of China. Let’s be honest, we have – as any strong and mighty country would have – pissed off a lot of regimes out there. Normally, they would squeal and bear but now they seem to think that they can get away with crossing us — just the way things are now. They seem to think that there is a new top boss in town. And so they sneer at us and please the new boss.

    Have you checked recently who the Saudis sell their oil to? Right, Asia — China, Japan, S Korea, India and then the US, and we are buying less and less. The fastest growing customers are Egypt and Brunei. What can the Saudis buy from us — right — military equipment and the right to be left alone and not color revolutioned. Otherwise, they don’t need dollars. And – I guess – they don’t see us as a future.

    I mean, we don’t see us as a future. Look, Trump forced negotiations of those long term – 25 year – LNG supply contracts with China at prices that were high back then but are low now. Having too much gas, the Chinese now use cheap Russian gas for their needs and resell our gas to Europe at a large profit — LNG tankers go directly from the US to Europe but money flows to China. Normally, we would have cancelled the contracts, and sold directly to Europe, making more money, but we have not, why is that? Care to speculate…

    From the point of view of most of the world it is better that we spend our resources in Russia than in their backyards somewhere. Better Russia than Taiwan. Look how active N Korea become? As one article put it “N Korea’s latest missile salvo exposes US impotence”. The Putin’s regime has the same purpose, hence support for it…

    This does not change the fact that the Putin’s regime is not doing well on the battlefield, and the mobilization is not going well — the population is hesitant to fight for the lazy and indifferent oligarchy, there is lack of equipment and supplies, the miracle supersonic missiles and semi-robotic Armata tanks turned out to be for show than for real. The stated goal was to mobilize 300K but sounds like only 200K have been mobilized. The regime is plainly indifferent to the fate of their people – just look, first Putin conducts referendums on the Uke territories and then fails to provide reinforcements and withdraws from the areas where the locals supported joining Russia. Losses of the previously occupied territories are now a daily occurrence. The Uke nazi move in and execute and terrorize the locals. Here’s a Business Insider article title: “Ukrainian collaborators who sided with Russian occupation were given top jobs and fancy titles. Now they’re being hunted down.”

    Is this right?

    How did Putin’s Russia have managed to end in the position of the sacrificial lamb? The best that could happen to Russia is that the 30 years of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin/Putin regime end now…

  17. different clue

    @ Ché Pasa,

    ” What did we do to deserve this? ”

    It’s like Bill Munny said in the movie . . . ” Deserving ain’t got nothing to do with it. “

  18. different clue

    ” How come US and EU can’t secure LNG to replace the non-arriving Russian gas”?

    How come? First of all, America doesn’t need LNG for now, because of all the Frack Gas inside American borders. What the US establishment wants is to be able to sell it as LNG to EUrope. So . . . why can’t EUrope get Russia-loads of LNG right now from anywhere and why can’t the US establishment get Russia-loads of LNG to EUrope right now? Because it takes a long time to build natgas compression/chilling plants at the sending end, time to build the special LNG pressure-thermos ships to send it to EUrope, and time to build the LNG decompression-rewarming plants at the receiving end.

    Neither the DC FedRegimeGov nor the Lords of EUrope thought their sanctions through. They certainly didn’t think that the RussiaGov would have counter-responses ready to go.

  19. bruce wilder

    I agree with Astrid: wondering whether Putin is crazy is focusing on the wrong Idiot-in-Power.

    I have said from the beginning that invading Ukraine was a desperate move, but the first question to ask is, what made Putin’s Russia desperate? What made them despair?

    Sure, if your narrative leans in the direction of innocent, democratic Ukraine and a Russia so determined to frighten the West, they holed their own Nord Stream pipelines, Putin capo di tutti among the oligarchs and the personification of evil — Hitler of the Month, even, I guess your views follow from those “premises” as a technicality, but I would not concede that you have formed your views “rationally”. I think “rationality” requires methodological realism enough to avoid pummeling “facts” willy nilly to conform to a moralistic narrative.

    Russia’s economy realistically ranks with Germany and Japan. That Russia does not realize the same magnitude of financial income might have something to do with being systematically disadvantaged by the U.S. and its allies. Russia, though a major arms producer and exporter, has not spent much on its military in recent years, by any reasonable measure. This has not been a militaristic polity bent on aggression. Unlike the U.S.

    I honestly do not know what to make of the “narrative” filling Western media of a Russian military near collapse, logistically and morally. The force Putin assembled for his SMO was a motley crew and operated with a fair degree of self-restraint some of the time, facts rarely accounted for in Western reporting copied from the Kagan’s ISW or the Ukrainian propaganda operation. I see the Russophile take as an expectation that the superior power of the Russian war machine will appear real soon now.

    This is a war, not a football match between cross-town rivals. I am frightened not by Putin, per se, but by the absence in the West of leadership and opinion that counsels negotiation for peaceful settlement of conflicting interests. Ian keeps coming to a “rational” cost-benefit calculation in betting on violence, but violence is very costly to both sides in a conflict — the true rationalist is trying to get to a negotiated settlement. The irrationalist wants to fight for the sake of the fight, for glory or some intangible outside the scope of material costs of mutual destruction and waste. Where are the rationalists in the West?

    I saw that Elon Musk, ever the narcissistic clown, nevertheless outlined a perfectly sensible settlement and was immediately attacked in the most extreme terms.

    When Ian is speculating on what Putin would do in response to Western pressure that is unrelenting and disinterested in anything but “winning” everything, we should keep in mind that for more than 30 years those same savants have won only stupendous destruction.

  20. Trinity

    Bruce, I believe they are desperate for a win, but that’s just one of the motivations driving this Western insanity. They are shedding legitimacy like cat hair.

    They are marginalizing themselves and the US, but will it be enough to stop the train wreck called neoliberalism and it’s crippling of the Earth?

  21. Soredemos

    Welsh, you’re attracting some real CIA glowies of late in your comments section.

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