Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the security council
Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council on March 3 © SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

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Dear Rana,

I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about nuclear war over the past few days. And I know that people in the heart of the Swamp (Washington DC, as I understand it) — are also thinking hard about this question. We are back in cold war territory, where US governments had to find a way through nuclear crises.

The reason for this is Putin’s announcement on Sunday that he is raising the alert level of Russian nuclear weapons — an explicit threat to foreign powers who might be minded to intervene in Ukraine.

This was quite a moment. Sir David Manning, a former British ambassador to Washington, told me that: “As far as I can recall, this is the first time since the Cuba missile crisis [of 1962] that anyone has threatened the use of nuclear weapons as a war-fighting method” — as opposed to keeping nukes in the background, as a deterrent.

The White House is obviously taking the threat of nuclear escalation seriously. As the FT reported yesterday, the US has delayed a scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile test, apparently for fear that it would dangerously increase tensions with Russia. This highlights one of the main issues that is preoccupying those who need to think about this alarming topic: Putin’s state of mind.

Without wishing to sound too coolly analytical about Armageddon, the question of nuclear risks can be broken down into a few subsidiary questions. First, what kind of nuclear weapons are we talking about, and what could the targets be? Second, are we talking about a deliberate decision to go to war; an accident — or something in between, such as an escalation of tensions that gets out of control? Third, how much of this comes down to Putin’s state of mind? Fourth, are there any policies that the west can adopt to manage the risks? Fifth — and most important of all — how big is the risk?

On the type of nuclear threat that Putin was making, opinion is divided. Sir Lawrence Freedman, doyen of British strategic studies, told me in my podcast this week that he thought Putin’s implied threat was to use strategic weapons — that is, the intercontinental missiles that could be used to devastate foreign cities as far away as the US. Freedman thinks the idea of making this threat is to frighten the west off — in other words, this is much more likely to be about deterrence than any real plan.

By contrast, my friend Jeremy Shapiro, who used to work closely at the US state department with Jake Sullivan — now President Biden’s national security adviser — is more concerned about the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. Russia has a lot of these and, as he points out, Russian military doctrine foresees them being used as part of a war-fighting strategy. Jeremy does not think it likely that Russia would use these weapons on Ukrainian soil. The scenario he floats is that Russia might use them to attack a concentration of Nato troops in Poland or the Baltic states — believing that these forces might be about to attack Russia.

As Jeremy writes: “Nikolai Patrushev, a close adviser of Putin, said in 2009 that Russia might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike ‘to repel an aggression with the use of conventional weapons not only in a large-scale [war] but also in a regional and even local war.’”

This kind of scenario is closer to a deliberate decision to go nuclear than an accident. But it contains elements of the accidental scenario because it involves a Russian misperception: a belief that Nato might be about to attack Russia — making a pre-emptive strike by Moscow defensive, at least in the Kremlin’s view.

Most people in the west regard that as an obviously ridiculous scenario — since Nato is not about to attack Russia. But that’s where we get to Putin’s state of mind. What if he is paranoid enough to believe that might be about to happen? What if he actually believes some of the stuff he’s been saying, about Nato being bent on Russia’s destruction? Or what if he interprets some of our actions as crossing the line into “Nato aggression”? After all, Nato countries are pouring lethal aid into Ukraine — which will be used to kill Russians. And western volunteers are lining up to fight in Ukraine — sometimes with the explicit encouragement of western leaders, such as Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary.

So what policies can the west adopt to reduce the risks? Perhaps dial down the rhetoric? Suggestions that we want Putin dead — such as the one made by the foreign minister of Luxembourg, are probably not a good idea. Trying to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine is a particularly dangerous idea and has been shot down (no pun intended) by Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary.

So, finally, how big is the risk? Lawrie Freedman was quite reassuring on my podcast. He thinks nuclear deterrence worked throughout the cold war and will almost certainly work again. But he did accept that the one thing we can’t be sure about is Putin’s mentality and state of mind. The argument that, “he wouldn’t do that because it’s obviously crazy,” has not worked well for us, so far, during this crisis.

Over to you, Rana . . . 

Edward Luce is on book leave and will return in mid-March.

  • Here is the FT piece on the delayed missile test, which shows to my mind that, even if the White House isn’t talking much about the threat of nuclear escalation, it’s certainly thinking about it

  • In an interview with Politico, the great Fiona Hill takes a rather less sanguine line than Lawrie Freedman. As Fiona puts it: “Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,’” — which is more or less what I just wrote. (Maybe I stole the idea from her. She is a generous soul and I’m sure she won’t mind)

  • And finally, if, unlike me, you are relaxed enough to be able to concentrate on a book rather than doom-scrolling through Twitter and watching the TV news, I can recommend a book on one of the times that the world came closest to nuclear war. Serhii Plokhy wrote a much-acclaimed new history of the Cuba missile crisis that came out last year. Plokhy shows how much Russians and Americans misunderstood each other’s intentions during these dangerous days. I am sure that one day, historians will be poring over the events that are unfolding before our eyes, right now

Rana Foroohar responds

Gideon, you have put me in mind of a Swamp Note I wrote in 2019, which I feel is just as relative now. Below, an excerpt from it:

“As a journalist, I’m always looking for the language through which I should be reading the events of the day. Is it an economic one? A political one? A cultural one? These days, I’ve been thinking more and more that the only language through which we can understand our era is the psychological. Psychologists basically divide up the world between two types of people — paranoids and depressives.

Paranoids are zero-sum types, who at their most extreme see the world as a Hobbesian place where if someone is up, then another must be down. Life is red in tooth and claw, and only suckers think otherwise. Trump obviously fits into this category, as does Vladimir Putin and any number of other autocrats. But they are simply at the most extreme end of things. According to some professionals I’ve spoken to about this topic, many chief executives, urban elites and generally hard-charging, goal-oriented types fit somewhere along the paranoid spectrum. Empathy, guilt and time can be in short supply in the paranoid’s world, a phenomenon that hasn’t been helped along by social media and high speed, digital culture.

The depressive category, which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, includes not so much people who are depressed, but those who tend to see the world as a rich, novelistic tapestry, full of nuance, with no right or wrong answers. They value human connection and relationships above work, and are content to satisfy rather than maximise even amid all the temptations of late-stage capitalism. They know that nothing is perfect (even when you have concierge service), and there is sorrow at the heart of all things. Which is, I guess, why they are called depressive.

It seems to me that like individuals, societies and world views can be paranoid or depressive, too. Nazi Germany was clearly paranoid. Social democratic states in Scandinavia seem depressive (in both ways, actually). America today is, I fear, much more paranoid than depressive, and I’m speaking not just about Donald Trump’s base. Paranoid thinking is bifurcated, mirroring the red/blue divide. Conservative talk radio hosts sow hate, but progressives eye-roll about prayer circles. Nobody is curious. Everyone seems furious.

Geopolitics, history, economics and foreign affairs can all be split along similar lines. Trade wars are paranoid. Bretton Woods is depressive. Milton Friedman is paranoid. John Maynard Keynes is depressive. The Middle East is paranoid. The EU is (at its best) depressive. China could be either depressive or paranoid depending on your view of Beijing’s intentions. And so on . . .”

So Gideon, with all this in mind, let me answer the question of Putin and the possibility of nukes usage by thinking in psychological terms: how does one deal with a malignant, paranoid, narcissistic autocrat? I’d say we need to start by realising that people like this operate from a place of fundamental fear and shame. They must keep ego integrity at all costs, which is a difficult proposition since it takes so little to threaten it.

It’s a good thing that unlike in 2019, the leader on the other side of Putin (meaning Biden) is depressive, not paranoid. The question is where China falls in all this psychologically. I would say that the best chance of avoiding nuclear war is if the US can somehow work with China behind the scenes on a scenario that allows China to work with Russia on a face-saving way out of all this for Putin. I have no idea what that would be (recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea? Finlandisation of Ukraine?) but I know that outsmarting paranoids by playing to their emotional weakness and desire to be admired is usually the best way out.

When the wild animal approaches, avert your eyes, and walk backwards. Then, come back later with a shotgun if needed. Or at least tie your food up in a tree.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘Biden, Trump and the “who lost Ukraine” debate’:
“Gideon gives a good picture of many of the causes of the Russian attack. But there are others. Internal developments in the US and Europe, the inability or unwillingness after the Bosnian War to treat security policy seriously. In particular the George W Bush administration, which did in fact give the impression of being the messianic force that Putin seems to fear. Had Bush (and Cheney) not produced out of thin air, the invitation to Ukraine and Georgia to join Nato in 2008, much would probably have been different. And even Barack Obama, who cared little for geopolitics and famously insulted Putin by reducing Russia to a regional power.” — John Kornblum, Berlin, Germany

We'd love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Gideon on gideon.rachman@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @GideonRachman We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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