Written by Andrey Yashlavsky

Translated by Elizaveta Ovchinnikova

16 July 2022. MK.RU



Yury Zhdanov: ‘They, like sadomasochists, just dream about it’


American experts are surprised to come to the conclusion that the United States, by supporting Ukraine, has itself come to a dangerous threshold, beyond which there might be nuclear war. They began to seriously discuss how they could avoid this conflict, and work out possible scenarios for the situation development. President of the All-Russian public organization ‘IPA Russian Section’, Doctor of Law, Professor, Honored Lawyer of Russia, Lieutenant-General Yury Zhdanov told how US analysts expect to act if a nuclear war breaks out tomorrow.


– Are Americans really talking about nuclear war? Not abstractly, since almost everyone is talking about it one way or another (and in general they are preparing for it), - but how about an inevitable event that is just about to happen?

– It seems that they just dream about it like sadomasochists. So, on 4 July, Foreign Affairs published an article called ‘Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine’ by Richard K. Betts, Professor at Columbia University, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By the way, let me remind you that under the code ‘Unthinkable’ back in 1945, Churchill proposed a plan for a nuclear war against the Soviet Union. At the same time, he offered to arm captured Germans with their own weapons, form new divisions and send them against us. And to drop American atomic bombs on our cities. Now they are thinking of the ‘unthinkable’ again.

– Does it mean that the current experts directly propose to launch a nuclear strike on Russia?

– Well, why so rude? They are like true gentlemen granting us the right to fire the first shot.

– So they take us for idiots?

– Rather, they put on a good face for a bad game. Betts writes: the he danger would be greatest if the war were to turn decisively in Ukraine’s favor’. ‘That, the American expert continues, is the only situation in which the Russians’ incentive to take that awesome risk would be plausible, in an attempt to prevent defeat by shocking Ukraine and its NATO supporters into standing down. The Russians might do this by setting off one or a few tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces or by triggering a symbolic explosion over an empty area.

That is, from the author’s point of view, it is just lucky that Russia’s military actions in Ukraine are so successful, otherwise these evil Russians, desperate, would have used special ammunition.

– Some kind of perverted logic. But if that didn’t happen, then what can we talk about?

– The desire to dream is so strong! So they dream. Betts names three general options within which American politicians would find a variation to respond to a hypothetical Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine.

  1. The United States could opt to rhetorically decry a nuclear detonation but do nothing militarily.
  2. The U.S. could unleash nuclear weapons of its own.
  3. It could refrain from a nuclear counterattack but enter the war directly with large-scale conventional airstrikes and the mobilization of ground forces.

But all those alternatives are bad, Betts writes, because no low-risk options exist for coping with the end of the nuclear taboo. At the same time, Betts thoughtfully believes that the third option of responding to Moscow’s nuclear strike is the least bad of the three because it avoids the higher risks of either the weaker or the stronger options.

– Somehow all this is abstruse and too sophisticated…

– For American analysts with the mess in their heads, this is normal. But here it is necessary to recall the history of the issue. And Richard Betts keeps it in mind. According to him, for the past three decades, US policymakers have paid scant attention to the potential dynamics of nuclear escalation.

Back then, it was NATO that relied in principle on the option of deliberate escalation – beginning with the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons – as a way to halt a ‘Soviet invasion’. This strategy was controversial, but it was adopted because the West believed its conventional forces to be inferior to the Warsaw Pact’s. Today, with the balance of forces reversed since the Cold War, the current Russian doctrine of ‘escalate to deescalate’ mimics NATO’s Cold War ‘flexible response’ concept.

NATO promoted the policy of flexible response rhetorically, but the idea was always shaky strategically. The actual contingency plans it generated never commanded consensus simply because initiating the use of nuclear weapons risked tit-for-tat exchanges that could culminate in an apocalyptic unlimited war. As J. Michael Legge, a former participant in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, noted in a 1983 study for the RAND Corporation, the group could not reach agreement on specific follow-on options beyond an initial symbolic ‘demonstration shot’ for psychological effect, for fear that Moscow could always match them or up the ante. Today, it is hoped that this old dilemma will deter Moscow from unleashing the nuclear genie in the first place. But, Betts believes, NATO politicians should not bank on Moscow’s restraint.  

– Is there any mention of ‘redlines’ that the Russian President did not recommend crossing?

– No, of course not! Only they set the ‘redlines’. Betts writes that as NATO confronts the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons, the first question it needs to answer is whether that eventuality should constitute a real redline for the West. In other words, would a Russian nuclear attack trigger NATO’s shift from merely supplying Ukraine to engaging directly in combat itself? A Russian rationale for tactical nuclear weapons use would be as much to frighten NATO away from crossing that line as to coerce Ukraine into surrender. If a few Russian nuclear weapons do not provoke the United States into direct combat, Moscow will have a green light to use even more such weapons and crush Ukraine quickly.

The American expert continues: If the challenge that is now only hypothetical actually arrives, entering a nuclearized war could easily strike Americans as an experiment they do not want to run. For that reason, there is a very real possibility that policymakers would wind up with the weakest option: rant about the unthinkable barbarity of the Russian action and implement whatever unused economic sanctions are still available but do nothing militarily. This would signal that Moscow has complete freedom of action militarily, including the further use of nuclear weapons to wipe out Ukrainian defenses, essentially conceding a Russian victory.

– That is, on the one hand, they really want to be provoked into a nuclear war, and on the other, they are insanely afraid of it?

– Almost like in Russian classic Saltykov-Shchedrin’s works: ‘Something was appreciated: either constitution or the stallate sturgeon with a horse-radish or someone to rob blind’...

However, Betts makes an unexpected conclusion: if the Kremlin’s victory really comes, it will have the strong appeal to Americans, because it would avoid the ultimate risk of national suicide: a nuclearized war could easily strike Americans as an experiment they do not want to run.

According to the American expert, that appeal has to be balanced by the longer-term risks that would balloon from setting the epochal precedent that initiating a nuclear attack pays off. If the West is not to back away – or, more important, if it wants to deter Putin from the nuclear gambit in the first place – governments need to indicate as credibly as possible that Russian nuclear use would provoke NATO, not cow it.

If NATO decides it would strike back on Ukraine’s behalf, then more questions arise: whether to also fire nuclear weapons and, if so, how. The most prevalent notion is an eye-for-an-eye nuclear counterattack destroying Russian targets comparable to the ones the original Russian attack had hit. This is the option that occurs intuitively, but it is unattractive because it invites slow-motion exchanges in which neither side gives up and both ultimately end up devastated.

Alternatively, Betts goes on to argue, Washington could respond with nuclear strikes on a larger scale than the Russian first use, threatening disproportionate losses to Moscow if it tries further limited nuclear attacks.

These rants seem like multiple personality disorder.

– Yury Nikolaevich, the Americans don’t seem to mind that the nuclear strikes exchange will take place mainly in Europe, do they?

– On the contrary, that’s what the calculation is based on! However, Betts regretfully states that there are several problems in this case.

Firstly, in his opinion, if used against Russian forces inside Ukraine, U.S. nuclear weapons would inflict collateral damage on its own clients. This is not a new problem. During the Cold War, strategists critical of relying on tactical nuclear weapons to counter invading Soviet forces quipped, ‘In Germany, the towns are only two kilotons apart’. Using nuclear weapons instead against targets inside Russia would intensify the danger of triggering unlimited war.

A second problem with back-and-forth tactical nuclear shots is that Russia would be at an advantage because it possesses more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States does. That asymmetry would require U.S. policymakers to resort sooner to so-called strategic forces (intercontinental missiles or bombers) to keep the upper hand. That, in turn, would risk unleashing the all-out mutual destruction of the major powers’ homelands. Thus, both the tit-for-tat and the disproportionate retaliatory options pose dauntingly high risks.

A less dangerous option would be to respond to a nuclear attack by launching an air campaign with conventional munitions alone against Russian military targets and mobilizing ground forces for potential deployment into the battle in Ukraine. This would be coupled, Betts believes, with two strong public declarations.

First, to dampen views of this low-level option as weak, NATO policymakers would emphasize that modern precision technology makes tactical nuclear weapons unnecessary for effectively striking targets that used to be considered vulnerable only to undiscriminating weapons of mass destruction.

That would frame Russia’s resort to nuclear strikes as further evidence not only of its barbarism but of its military backwardness, says the author of an article in Foreign Affairs.

Direct entry into the war at the conventional level would not neutralize panic in the West. But it would mean that Russia would be faced with the prospect of combat against a NATO that was substantially superior in nonnuclear forces, backed by a nuclear retaliatory capability, and less likely to remain restrained if Russia turned its nuclear strikes against U.S. rather than Ukrainian forces.

The second important message to emphasize would be that any subsequent Russian nuclear use would trigger American nuclear retaliation.

– So, anyway, it still comes down to a general nuclear war? But what does Russia’s military backwardness have to do with it?

– That’s what they want to think. It’s not by chance that they called the Capitol the place of their meetings: they say they are civilized Rome, and all around them are barbarians. However, at the same time, they vaguely remember how it all ended.

So Betts regrets that direct war between the major powers that starts at any level risks escalation to mass destruction. Such a strategy would appear weaker than retaliation in kind and would worsen the Russians’ desperation about losing rather than relieve it, thus leaving their original motive for escalation in place along with the possibility that they would double down and use even more nuclear weapons. That would make it imperative to couple the NATO military response with an offer of settlement terms that includes as many cosmetic concessions as possible to give Russia some pretense of peace with honor. The main virtue of the conventional option is simply that it would not be as risky as either the weaker do-nothing or the stronger nuclear options.

In general, such is the flawed logic: better a fowl in hand than a ‘duck’ underneath the bed.

– As for our ‘desperation about losing’ and the opportunity to ‘give Russia some pretense of peace with honor’, this is a big word... Are they afraid only of ‘desperate’ Russians or someone else?

– According to Betts, in the event of a Russian nuclear detonation, NATO will have two conflicting aims. On the one hand, the alliance will want to negate any strategic benefit Moscow could gain from the detonation; on the other, it will want to avoid further escalation.

To that end, NATO should not only pose credible threats of retaliation but also cultivate support from third parties that Putin wants to keep from joining the Western opposition. So far, Moscow has been buoyed by the refusal of China, India, and other countries to fully join the economic sanctions campaign imposed by the West. These fence sitters, however, have a stake in maintaining the nuclear taboo. They might be persuaded to declare that their continued economic collaboration with Russia is contingent on it refraining from the use of nuclear weapons. As a declaration about a still hypothetical eventuality, the neutral countries could see this as a low-cost gesture, a way to keep the West off their backs by addressing a situation they don’t expect to occur, Betts hopes.

- Somehow all this does not fit with serious military analytics aimed at preventing nuclear war.

– Frankly speaking, it doesn’t fit with anything at all, especially with common sense. Henry Kissinger, who is by no means a Russophile, called on Kiev to sacrifice part of the territory in order to organize at least some negotiations that could prevent a nuclear catastrophe. But – no, the current American curators of Ukraine continue to pump the APU with their weapons – which leads to the threat of a nuclear conflict. And they talk amateurishly about the art of war. I recommend rereading Leo Tolstoy’s novel ‘War and Peace’: What is the Art of war? It is the art of being stronger than the enemy at a given moment. That’s all... And we are stronger!