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Reviews | The United States made a coldly logical decision in Ukraine. So has Russia.


When the Ukrainian military made rapid progress in its fall campaign, fears of Russian nuclear retaliation were linked to a long-held American interpretation of Russian strategic theory: “escalate to defuse”, the idea of ​​using a limited nuclear strike to raise the stakes. of conflict so high that your enemies have no choice but to negotiate, regardless of their conventional advantages.

In the months that followed, a return to a war of attrition and various Russian denials somewhat assuaged nuclear concerns. But an “escalation to de-escalation” theory remains relevant to the situation in Ukraine, as it seems to inform both US and Russian strategies – conventional, not nuclear – for the spring campaign.

Note that I said American strategy and not Ukrainian. Ukraine’s desired strategy remains what it has been, understandably enough, throughout the war: escalating to win. Kyiv wants as many weapons as the West can send, it wants every inch of territory back, and it doesn’t want to agree to terms that would concede anything to the Russian invaders.

This attitude is shared by many warmongering voices in Europe and America, who continue to plan the triumph of Ukraine and the overthrow of Vladimir Putin. But it’s probably not shared by the Biden administration, or at least not by key decision-makers.

Yes, the official position of the White House is that Ukraine will have our support until victory. But the cautious approach President Biden and his team have taken to weaponry that could radically alter the balance of the war, the nudges encouraging Kyiv to be open to negotiation, the worry about investing too heavily at the expense of our Asian commitments, all of this indicates that the White House’s immediate objective is a favorable armistice, not a complete defeat of Russia.

To achieve this imaginary peace, however, you must persuade the Russians that a real armistice – as opposed to another “frozen conflict”, in which war dies down but peace is never formally established – is in their interest, that if they keep the war simmering, they will continue to lose men and material at a brutal and regime-destabilizing rate.

One of the hopes was that the Ukrainian counter-offensive last fall and Europe’s so far successful endurance through the winter months would be decisive in pushing Moscow to come to terms with this reality, and even to work out its own (probably initially unrealistic) proposals for a negotiated settlement. .

But instead, the Russians appear to be not only digging in, but preparing their own renewed offensive. Which, in turn, explains why the Biden White House and our European allies are cautiously – and with some Germanic hesitation – turning the escalation dial, allowing for an increase in tanks and heavy armor pouring into Ukraine. .

So far, this is not a policy to completely overwhelm a Russian mobilization or drive Russians out of Ukraine. It’s a policy apparently designed to blunt any new offensive, potentially cause the Russians to lose more ground, and show Moscow that it can’t win a bitter war any easier than it initially hoped to win one. short. It’s an escalation that assumes the Russians need to be a little more convinced and then they’ll be open to the de-escalation that we haven’t been able to achieve.

But a similar logic also seems to guide Russian strategy – insofar as we can see through the black glass between us and Russian intentions, that is.

From Russia’s supposed perspective, Ukrainian gains in the fall and European resilience in the winter have only made military success all the more urgent. There is no point in crafting peace proposals as long as the Ukrainians are convinced that they can achieve total victory, and they are more convinced of that than ever.

It is therefore only once this hope is shattered by force of arms that a settlement acceptable to Moscow can begin to emerge. This forces us to prove militarily that the deadlock is absolutely the best Kyiv can hope for, that American and European support can be enough to hold ground but not to regain it in a hurry. And such proof can only be provided by escalation, de-escalation hopefully waiting on the other side.

Hawks will argue against this analysis by noting that we have no evidence that Russia actually wants real de-escalation at any stage except conquest. (Hence the warmongering arguments for a more maximum, regime change-oriented American engagement.) military-industrial imperatives or the idyll of decadent liberalism with distant nationalism. (Hence the accommodating arguments for reducing or withholding further military aid to Kyiv.)

But the reason for seeing the situation in the terms I’ve described, with Washington and Moscow imagining themselves escalating toward a peace settlement, is that it’s a historically familiar situation. A war breaks out, it is expected to end quickly, but a stalemate ensues instead, and both sides become convinced that increasing their commitment to the conflict will bring it to a closer end. quickly on more favorable terms.

This mutual belief is not a matter of romance, fantasy or mere madness (although, of course, these forces come into play). Instead, escalation is seen as a coldly logical decision, as the only reasonable course.

And from such rationality, you get closer to the irrationality of fighting for years in a war that neither side can fully hope to win.

nytimes Gt

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