We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Lend-Lease 2.0 explained

An interesting demystification by the excellent Perun…

What happens if Putin uses a nuclear device?

In the course of the Ukraine War, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s dictator, has from time to time hinted that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons. There is a tendency to downplay this. Many believe these are idle threats. When I hear this sort of talk I am reminded of the words of the late Helen Szamuely, “They mean it!” she would say. Having been partially educated in Moscow Szamuely knew what she was talking about. Not that we need her wise words. Just before the war, Mark Steyn interviewed his old boss, Conrad Black, on GB News. Black opined that Putin’s sabre rattling was “Kabuki theatre” or some such. As we now know, it wasn’t. He meant it.

But whether he means it or not we should at least be prepared.

What would he do first? Would he, for instance, use a tactical nuclear weapon to eliminate Ukrainian forces in front of him? Or we he indulge in nuclear blackmail: surrender or Kiev gets it? And what does the West – by which I suppose I mean the United States – do? If it’s a tactical nuke I suppose it could offer to supply Ukraine with tactical nukes of its own. But how keen would Ukrainians be to nuke their own territory? If it’s the blackmail option, does the West really threaten a nuclear response? Would such a threat be credible?

In the Cold War I was never particularly worried. I knew that if the Russians dropped the bomb on us we would drop the bomb on them. And I knew that the Russians knew that, so they wouldn’t. Now, things are not so clear.

Update 2/5/22

It’s very difficult to argue with Niall when he says, “The logic of deterrence is as valid as ever it was. The more the west radiates a will to react, the less likely Putin is to act. And the best way to radiate a will to react is to have the will to react.”

Also, thank you to Subotai Bahadur for his lengthy comment in which he points out that the nuclear club – both official and unofficial – is likely to get quite a bit bigger.

Perun on the war in Ukraine

Perun is a gaming YouTuber who started making PowerPoint presentations on the war in Ukraine and they are so good that his channel has since become extremely successful.

The two most recent presentations are particularly good. In Who is winning? – Mythbusting the Ukraine-Russia war, Perun looks at claims of kills of each side vs. inventory (Russia’s overstatement is reaching its limits), the idea that attacking Kiev was a feint (a bad idea if so), various claims that Russia could do better if it wanted to (it is trying its hardest) and discussion of how well Russia is doing towards Russia’s own claimed goals (not well). All of this is done without sensationalism, with well-explained reasoning, with evidence where available and descriptions of the limitations of the evidence. There is no cheerleading here: claims that Ukraine has more tanks than before the war started are examined critically, as are Ukraine’s claimed successes.

However, as reasonable as it sounds to me, I am not very well placed to judge Perun’s military analysis. I think I understand some economics, though, and he makes a lot of sense in The Price of War – Can Russia afford a long conflict? Certainly the inverse of Gell-Mann amnesia applies. He points out that the price of the Ruble and the Russian stock market are at this point propped up by market interventions. “The Russian stock market is doing ok. But only because nobody’s bloody allowed to sell their shares.” (Did I mention Perun is Australian?)

He points out just how “hilariously” bigger the economies of all the Nato countries combined are compared to the Russian economy, and how that means that the West can continue to support Ukraine indefinitely while still growing, and Russia can only get poorer as the war goes on. He downplays the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports to the West, because in the long term we can wean ourselves off them, and that leaves Russia selling them at a discount to India, and with a hefty bill to construct pipelines to China.

One aspect covered in both videos is the difficulty of Russia controlling the Donbass region in any useful way. Assuming Ukraine does not just give up and agree to hand it over, the Russians potentially have to defend it from attacks forever. That would make keeping it expensive and extracting any gas from beneath it difficult.

According to Perun, it does seem as if Western support for Ukraine and shunning of Russia, if kept up for long enough, will be very unpleasant for Russia. They would be better off giving up sooner rather than later, and even then Russia is in a bad way if the West pours aid and investment into Ukraine and does not return to investing in and trading with Russia. One possible problem with this is confidence:

The West needs to recognise its own strength. It’s always funny watching countries like Germany act really afraid of Russia, frankly, when economically Germany’s got about as much heft as the Russians do. Sure, Germany’s dependent on Russian gas but Russia is dependent on gas sales to Germany, too. The West seldom acts like it is the 40 trillion dollar gorilla that it is. It needs to acknowledge that is has muscle; it needs to be willing to use that economic muscle.

Will a dictator always shoot his bolt?

We don’t know what exactly was in Putin’s mind when he decided to invade Ukraine but despite some initial scepticism on my part it looks awfully like he did want some sort of swift victory in which he either conquered the whole country or perhaps just the eastern half plus Kiev. If that indeed was the aim, he’s failed. In doing so he has underestimated the West.

This week marks 40 years since something similar happened in the South Atlantic. When Argentina’s Junta decided to invade the Falklands they thought it would be a cakewalk. It had never occurred to them that Britain might fight. Ten weeks later the Falklands were back in British hands and the Junta were out of office. They too had underestimated the West. They’d also got the timing horribly wrong. If they had been a bit more patient, Britain would have gifted them the islands.

Any other examples? Hitler? Ach, let’s not do Hitler. Saddam Hussein certainly got it all wrong when he invaded Kuwait. Milosevic? From what I can work out he did nothing but underestimate his opponents.

Does it work historically? Off the top of my head, Cromwell would seem to be the first modern dictator. He had the good sense not to go to war against another state (or did he? What about the Dutch? We were always fighting the Dutch in those days weren’t we?) Whatever, probably not a disaster. And let’s face it, they didn’t have bolts to shoot in Cromwell’s day.

Napoleon famously got it wrong when he invaded Russia. But did he have a choice?

It occurs to me, while proposing this grand theory, that Putin may have done the precise opposite of shooting his bolt. Far from having too little patience he may have had too much. Would anyone have stopped him if he’d tried this in the wake of Maidan?

Update Turns out that Cromwell did indeed go to war with the Dutch.

Update 2/4/22 Lots of good comments mostly telling me how wrong I am which is a Good Thing, even if I have to say it through gritted teeth. I particularly liked this from Chester Draws, “In the west individuals have shorter attentions, because fortunately they stay in power less long, but parties can keep it up far longer than individuals. The Democrats in the US are playing a very long game, quite independent of who their leader is.”

 

Samizdata quote of the day

At this rate, they will need to open an officer’s club in hell.

– Yuriy Mysiahin, noting the remarkable number of senior Russian officers K.I.A. in Ukraine, specifically Anatoly Shterliz, the C/O of the 503rd Motorised Rifle Regiment of the 19th Motorised Rifle Division getting smoked yesterday.

False parallels debunked

An internet acquaintance called Tim Starr, who writes a lot about foreign policy from a “realist libertarian” point of view (ie, the opposite of the sort of “it’s all our fault” line that I see too much) has an interesting comment about the Russia/Ukraine drama on his Facebook page. I asked him if I could reprint it here, and he said go ahead. So here it is. It skewers the notion that there were parallels with Putin’s fears about Ukraine becoming pro-Western and JF Kennedy’s alarm at the Soviet Union’s stationing of nuclear weapons in Cuba in the early 1960s. And he makes an excellent point about the difference between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. These are obvious points, but a lot of those excusing Putin’s monstrous regime seem to be trying to confuse them.

A false analogy keeps being made between the Cuban Missile Crisis and Russia’s supposed fear of having offensive missiles in NATO countries bordering Russia. Supposedly, Russia has just as much right to object to NATO missiles in its neighboring countries as the USA had to object to them in Cuba.

One of the main problems with this analogy is that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened before there was such a thing as ICBMs – Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Thus, there were no Soviet missiles capable of hitting the continental USA, until they sent IRBMs to Cuba, thus threatening the USA with nuclear missiles for the first time ever. Russia has already been living under the threat of nuclear ICBM attack by the USA for decades, we have never launched one, we have signed multiple nuclear arms-control treaties with Russia, we have kept the terms of those treaties (unlike Russia), etc.

Another problem is that Russia already has nuclear-capable missiles stationed on NATO’s borders, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders both Lithuania and Poland, and is within IRBM range of many other EU and NATO countries. Do those countries have the right to invade Russia because of the IRBMs in Kaliningrad?

(Emphasis mine.)

Going back to the Cuba analogy, Castro was so unstable that he actually urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear first strike on the US from Cuba. Fortunately, the Soviets never put Cuba in command of their nuclear forces there, didn’t grant his request, and soon thought better of leaving their nukes where he might be able to get his hands on them.

Another disanalogy is that NATO membership is voluntary. No country is forced to join NATO against its will, the agreement of all existing NATO members is required for any new members to join, and any member can leave at any time. Cuba was taken over by Castro in a violent, Soviet-sponsored revolution, so Cuba had no choice about whether to become a Soviet ally. No Soviet ally was ever allowed to stop being a Soviet ally without Soviet permission, and none of the other Soviet allies ever had any say in the matter. Cuba was a Soviet puppet, completely dependent upon the Soviets. Cuba was ruled by its secret police, who were under the command of the Soviet secret police. It was subsidized by the Soviets with billions of dollars a year. Cuba remains a one-party state, more than 30 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, having only in desperation permitted a little bit of free enterprise and replacing its former Soviet subsidies with money from Venezuela’s oil exports, drug smuggling, etc. Cuba sponsored terrorism all over the Americas, and engaged in military adventurism in Africa. Nothing comparable to that has ever been the case with any NATO members.

To the final point Starr makes, it is worth noting that in the 1960s, France left the NATO command structure (de Gaulle was not happy about US foreign policy). No Warsaw Pact country was able to do so; any attempt at dissent was crushed (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968).

Or maybe not

The internet is awash with armchair generals (not that there’s anything wrong with being an armchair general – I am one myself) telling us that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not going according to plan. They point out that the frontlines have barely moved in the last week, that a lot of Russian vehicles have been knocked out or broken down, that the Russian air force seems to be absent and various other things (twenty-year old rations is one of my favourites.) Some are even suggesting that the Russians might get kicked out of Ukraine. 

I, and I am sure most Samizdatistas, would dearly like this to be true. But the facts don’t care about our beliefs. The truth may be very different. So, if you are looking for an antedote to the narrative I would suggest checking out Task & Purpose’s YouTube on the subject. He points out that the Russians have had victories and that during the Iraq War there was a similar narrative about the allies being bogged down when they were nothing of the sort. The thing I really like about it is that he – that would be presenter Chris Cappy, an Iraq War veteran – admits that he doesn’t know what’s going on. And that’s kind of the point.

 

Samizdata quote of the day

You can look at it the other way. Putin took the Crimea. Putin promoted the break-away republics. Without him, they would not have happened.

In all the similar cases, the common theme is Putin. He did the same to Georgia as he is to Ukraine. He did the same to Moldova, with Trans-Dniestr.

Were all those governments also reckless? Or were they just unfortunate enough to border Russia?

Putin has been consistently threatening to the Baltic states too. He even sponsored cyber attacks on Estonia. Now it is a long bow to draw that they have been reckless.

No. Putin is the common theme. Nothing Ukraine did, short of bowing to his every wish, would have stopped him. They have not been reckless. They have been desperately trying to deal with a homicidal maniac over the border.

Your argument reminds me of telling battered spouses that they should be more careful, rather than pointing the finger at the violent thug doing the violent things.

‘Chester Draws’ taking to task a commenter who accused the Ukrainian government of having brought this upon themselves with ‘reckless behaviour’.

Is nothing worth a war?

The more the war goes on, the starker the contrast between Western moral defeatism and Ukrainian resolve becomes. The buzzword in much of the Western discussion is ‘realism’. On both sides of the discussion – among both those who support Ukraine’s fightback and those who obsess to the point of sympathy with Russia’s ‘security concerns’ – there’s a belief that ‘realism’ must now prevail. Over everything. Even over Ukraine’s sovereignty. As a pro-Ukraine writer for the New Republic puts it, ‘God bless the Ukrainians’ but ‘Russia will probably overpower Ukraine’. No wonder Mr Scherba is flustered, when even Ukraine’s supposed allies are essentially saying ‘Get real’. It is clear now that ‘realism’ is a euphemism for conceding, for surrender even. Whether it’s the ‘realists’ who admire the resistance but think it is hopeless, or the ‘realists’ of international-relations theory who believe Russia’s security concerns must trump the Ukrainian longing for freedom, there’s a palpable defeatism in the discourse. Only it dare not speak its name. It calls itself ‘realism’ instead.

Brendan O’Neill

Samizdata quote of the day

Conflict with Russia seems suboptimal. But avoiding necessary conflicts is not avoiding but just delaying. Why would you do that? Putin’s miscalculation makes regime super fragile *for now*. Which means that’s the best time for escalation ever. Next time they’ll be more robust.

That’s important, because “deescalation” and defeating Putin are two different goals that require two different strategies. Deescalation means don’t threaten him in any way and give him as much as possible in a hope he won’t ask for more. Unfortunately that’s all wishful thinking

Kamil Galeev

Samizdata quote of the day

A no fly zone is actually pretty similar to zero covid.

A nice “feel good” solution & very easy to demonise anyone who disagrees with it. But as soon as you consider the practicalities, it becomes clear that both are entirely unrealistic without huge negative consequences.

Amy the Sceptical Zebra

Samizdata quote of the day

I have lost loads of followers over my comments on Ukraine.
GOOD. If you think Russia “has a point” in its barbarous war on Ukraine, then kindly fuck off and never return.

Victory to Ukraine!

Brendan O’Neill

A sentiment I strongly share.